Gesture beyond conversations


Gesture has received ample scholarly attention, some of it dating back to Classical Antiquity. Most of this work is focused on the use of gesture as an accompaniment of speech in conversations. For instance, some of the most widely cited contemporary scholars of gesture, including Adam Kendon and David McNeill, have looked extensively at gestures produced in story telling in informal settings. In the research I carry out as part of MODE, I look at the use of gesture in the professional activities of health care professionals in operating theatres. While this may seem a somewhat atypical context for studying gesture, and indeed in some ways it is, I describe surgical activity as an exemplar of all kinds of ‘operations’ in everyday and professional life, such as: playing football, assembling IKEA furniture, repairing a car, et cetera. These activities have at least one communicative feature in common: in Goffman’s terms, “talk, when it figures at all, does so either as a desultory, muted side-involvement or as an irregular, intermittent adjunct to the coordination of the doings in progress.” (1982: 7). Thus I explore gesture in an environment where speech is the occasional accompaniment of gesture, rather than focusing on an environment in which gesture is the occasional accompaniment of speech, as scholars of gesture –not including those studying sign language– have often done.

Author:  Jeff Bezemer

In my account of gesture I move beyond the common separation often made between actions performed “for the purposes of expression” and those made “in the service of some practical aim” (Kendon 2004:15). I propose that these functions can go hand-in-hand: as people collaborate, for instance to cut a thread, they attach meaning to the manual actions they perform. In such contexts of concerted action bodily movements, such as hand movements, are never ‘merely’ movements; they are always also made for others, in the anticipation that they are read by others; they are meaningful actions; they are gestures. Building on that notion I show that gesture

  • is a mode that is central to much of what people do in their everyday lives;
  • has vast and distinctly different affordances, for instance to draw attention to objects;
  • can operate independent of other modes such as speech or be reciprocally related to them;
  • can take on a wide range of different forms.
  • is often unequally distributed among participants in an activity;
  • is embedded in sequences of action that unfold in time;
  • can be re-made in different contexts using different gestural resources.

In so doing I highlight the need to investigate multimodality across different types of settings, social activity and interactional configurations.

To read more about this topic please visit the NCRM repository.


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