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Ray Birdwhistell (1918 – October 19, 1994) was an American anthropologist who founded kinesics as a field of inquiry and research.[1] The term kinesics was originally coined by Birdwhistell, and he also proposed the term kineme.[2]

Dr. Birdwhistell was born in 1918 and died October 19, 1994. He was raised and went to school in Ohio.[3] He graduated from Fostoria High School in 1936, and was very involved by being part of the history club, debate team, journalism, and school plays.[3] Birdwhistell attended the Miami University of Ohio, BA,(sociology) Ohio State University, MA (Anthropology) and University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. in Anthropology. Afterwards he taught at the University of Toronto (Ontario), University of Louisville (Kentucky), and the University at Buffalo (New York) and Temple University [Philadelphia, (ref. daughter, Jill).[3] From 1944 to 1948 he worked with G. Gordon Brown and Edmund S. Carpenter, who were in the same department as him at the University of Toronto.[4] For some years he was affiliated with the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute and Temple University in Philadelphia, where he worked with Gregory Bateson,PhD, Adam Kendon, Albert Scheflen, MD, and others to develop an interactive approach to the study of mental illness.[5] From 1969 until he retired in 1988, Birdwhistell taught at The Annenberg School for Communication, at the University of Pennsylvania.[6]

He was influenced by his mentor's views, Margaret Mead (1901–1978) an anthropologist, and the work of David Efron in the early 1940s.[1] Birdwhistell became interested in kinesics by analyzing the way people interacted in films.[1] He observed how people unconsciously transmitted information through facial expressions, postures, and eye movements.[1]

Birdwhistell pointed out that “human gestures differ from those of other animals in that they are polysemic, that they can be interpreted to have many different meanings depending on the communicative context in which they are produced”. And, he “resisted the idea that “body language” could be deciphered in some absolute fashion”. He also indicated that “every body movement must be interpreted broadly and in conjunction with every other element in communication”[7]

The film, TDR- 009, was a result from his productive collaboration with film maker Jacques D. van Vlack.[5] TDR-009 is an eighty minute, 16 mm, black and white sound film of an English pub scene in a middle class London hotel.[3] Birdwhistell and van Vlack observed behavior of listeners in relationship to speakers during the film.[3] Birdwhistell wrote Introduction to Kinesics, Kinesics and Context, and encyclopedia entries and essays.[1] His first book Introduction to Kinesics was published in 1952, but he is more known for his second book Kinesics and Context.[3]



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Danesi, M (2006). Kinesics. Encyclopedia of language & linguistics. 207-213.
  2. Ottenheimer, H.J. (2007). The anthropology of language: an introduction to linguistic anthropology. Kansas : Thomson Wadsworth. p129.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Kirby, E (2006). Ray Lee. Birdwhistell. Retrieved October 16, 2007, from Biography Web: Minnesota State University Web site:
  4. Banning, T (2001). Department of Anthropology: University of Toronto. Retrieved October 15, 2007, from A Brief History of Anthropology Web site:
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lee, L (2006). University of Pennsylvania: Folklore & folklife. Retrieved October 16, 2007, from Graduate Handbook Web site:
  7. Barfield, T (1997). The dictionary of anthropology. Illinois: Blackwell Publishing.

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