Grey Room

Scrutinizing: Film and the Microanalysis of Behavior

Seth Barry Watter

Sample kinegraphs of the face area. From Ray L. Birdwhistell, Introduction to Kinesics (1952).


Interdisciplinary endeavor, new theories of interaction, the utilization of sound film and its attendant devices: these are the features of microanalysis of behavior as developed in the United States after the Second World War. Microanalysis denotes the mechanically aided, fine-grained inspection of recorded material, while behavior implies the social interaction of two or more persons in a typical setting. Theoretical interest in the study of interaction can be seen to develop in various fields throughout the first decades of the twentieth century—in the philosophical pragmatism of George Herbert Mead, in the psychoanalytic psychiatry of Harry Stack Sullivan, in the general impetus of cultural anthropology after Franz Boas. But to muse on such behavior and to analyze it formally, microscopically, are quite different things. The latter necessitates agreed-upon procedures that will order and regulate the production of knowledge; it requires, that is, a cultural technique, which Bernhard Siegert defines as “a more or less complex actor network that comprises technological objects as well as the operative chains … that configure or constitute them.” Methods of analysis are useless unless one has records to repeatedly analyze; the production of records is equally useless if one does not know just how to use them. The cultural technique is what binds them together, thus changing the shape of each, until method is geared toward a certain form of record and the record is optimized for the method preferred.

That is why the microanalysis of behavior did not really crystallize until the arrival of Ray Birdwhistell (1918–1994) on the American scene in 1952, the year he published the Introduction to Kinesics: An Annotation System for Analysis of Body Motion and Gesture. In him were united the most fashionable theories of social behavior, the most advanced means of analyzing behavior, the utilization of cinema to record this behavior, and the institutional sponsorship that made such work possible.