Gesture studies: a show of force and maturity

The 4th conference of the International Society for Gesture Studies (ISGS: ) was held this year in Frankfurt / Oder (Germany) at the European Viadrina University, July 25-30.  It attracted over 400 participants representing an impressive array of disciplines among which the most prominent were cognitive and developmental psychology, neuroscience, physiology, evolutionary biology, primatology, linguistics, sign language study, information theory, sociology, and anthropology. The themes of the panels and sessions ranged from pedagogy to man-machine interaction, from dance and art history to iconicity and multimodality, and from story telling to facial expression. The papers were clustered in the form of panels or thematic sessions. Eight keynote speakers were given a full hour to expound their ideas and current research at the beginning of each day. After Adam Kendon who read a spirited paper on the evolutionary approach to gesture following the opening ceremony, each subsequent morning featured one or two keynotes speakers including, in the order of appearance, Jurgen Streeck (Gesture Craft: A Practice Perspective), Susan Goldin-Meadow (How our Hands Help us Think), Sherman Wilcox (Language in Motion), Josep Call (Iconicity, Reference, and Motives in the Gestural Communication of the Great Apes), Georg Goldenberg (Apraxia and the Neural Basis of Gesturing), Alan Cienki (Language as a Variable Multimodal Phenomenon), and Roland Posner (The Intentionality of Body Behavior).

The diversity of approaches expressed in these presentations was aptly captured by the title of the conference, Gesture: Evolution, Brain, and Linguistic Structures.

But the actual contents of the some 250 papers which were delivered in the panels and sessions offered a much richer picture of the variety of issues and methods which are presently addressed under the general heading of gesture studies.

The panels included: 1. “Function and form in bilingual gesture”; 2. “More than the sum of its parts? The coding and interpretation of temporally connected gesture sequences”; 3. “Gesture, culture, language, and age: The development of links between speech and gesture in children narratives”; 4. “Gesture and other non-verbal expressions of self-conscious emotions”; 5. “Gestures with and without speech”; 6. “Pointing practices”; 7. “Gesture neuroscience”; 8. “The conventionality of talking about space with space”; 9. “The shared roots of gesture and sign: evidence from children’s co-speech gestures”; 10. “Elucidating the issues in the debate between the lab and the field on the development of non-human primate communicative and joint attentional skills”; 11. “Gesture in plurilingual interactions”; 12. Gesture, object, development of communication and thought”; 13. “Toward a grammar of gesture: evolution, brain, and linguistic structures”. Many of the papers presented in these panels were reporting the results of experiments and observations conducted in labs or in the field, and were co-authored by several researchers, a sure sign that the study of gesture has reached the scientific maturity of an empirical paradigm since it takes more than one competent person to implement serious empirical investigations of topics as complex as gesture development or multimodal communication. This presupposes that protocols and methods have been elaborated, hypotheses can be tested and falsified, results can be replicated and eventually become the object of a scientific consensus.

The numerous papers which had been independently submitted were grouped in thematic sessions by the organizers. Still more aspects of gestural studies were revealed by the titles of the sessions: “Insights from computer science”; “Reasoning and orientation”; “Gaze”; “Body behaviour”; “Drawing and pointing”; “Historical perspectives on facial expressions and gestures”; “Gesture and modality”; “Gestures and objects”; “Sign language”; “Arts and culture”; “Gesture and aphasia”; “Non-human primates”; “Gesture and pragmatics”; “Arts and films”; ‘Linguistic structures”; “Metaphor”; “Cross-linguistic perspectives”; “Emotion”; “Gesture and cognition”; “Gesture in clinical context”. The sheer abundance of valuable submissions made it unavoidable that some papers were somewhat at odds with the themes of the sessions to which they had been assigned, but on the whole the program was coherent and of the highest scientific standards.

In spite of the absence of a general theory of gesture, the numerous kinds of focused research which map this domain of inquiry demonstrate a great deal of epistemological maturity. This is probably because the whole movement of gesture studies is supported by several prominent research centers which have established over the years local hubs of empirical investigations following the standard protocols of the disciplines in which they are embedded. These centers form the backbone of the gesture studies movement which was institutionalized by the creation of the ISGS in the wake of the founding meeting in Oporto (Portugal) in 2000. Representatives of most of these centers participated in various proportions in the 2010 Frankfurt meeting through delegating their doctoral students and postdocs if the leaders themselves could not be there in person. Some 50 poster papers were presented, some in the form of “Best poster paper talks”, and the three winners were given time to make a full fledged presentation of their research as part of the official program.

The congress was graced by the presence of the pioneer of gesture studies, Professor Adam Kendon, who attentively listened to, and actively engaged all the papers he could possibly attend. This was not purely in his capacity as editor in chief of the journal Gesture but, above all, because he is more than anybody alive to the problems which remain to be solved in gesture studies. Younger scholars rightly consider him to be an inspiration for their own endeavour and he could be seen during this week-long meeting constantly surrounded by budding researchers eager to get his advice.

A brief overview of the research centers which are the current pillars of gesture studies will certainly includes the Berlin Center which was initiated by Roland Posner and is now efficiently developed by Cornelia Mueller, Ellen Fricke and their associates and students. During the last decade, the Berlin Gesture Kolloquium has been a point of convergence for students and faculty from neighboring German universities and, in particular, the Max-Plank-Institute in Leipzig.

Another important pole is at the University of Chicago in which David McNeil has created over several decades of research a gesture studies paradigm at the interface of linguistics and psychology with a series of landmark publications in these fields. This pole was represented at the congress by Susan Goldin-Meadow and a host of exemplary students and postdocs, now ready to enter the profession.

The third influential pole is the Max-Plank-Institute in Nijmegen (The Netherlands) where important empirical research in pragmatics and multimodal interaction is conducted under the leadership of Stephen Levinson and Nick Enfield.

Other centers of lesser historical importance but not lesser relevance which were represented in Frankfurt included The University of Lund (Sweden) with its Centre for Cognitive Semiotics , Bielefeld University with its  CoR-Lab at the Applied Informatics Department in the Faculty of Technology, and the Natural Media & Engineering Human Technology Centre (HumTec) in Aachen . In fact there were delegations from at least 25 countries whose universities foster research on gestures. It should be added that an important contingent of specialists of sign languages for the deaf added a crucial practical as well as theoretical dimension to the congress.

Two innovative additions were noteworthy parts of this ISGS conference. First, a week-long seminar offered courses in theory and method in gesture studies before the conference started. Secondly, a special seminar on the state of the art in primate gesture studies was held on September 24. Both were well attended and contributed to create the momentum and enthusiasm which characterized the 4th ISGS conference.

The booklet of abstracts is accessible online: (note: this is a 10MB download).

Aline Christine Russ was one of the many helpful students who ensured that the ISGS conference would unfold as smoothly as possible. She studies Cultural Sciences, Linguistics, and Social Sciences at the European Viadrina University (Frankfurt am Oder).

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