Gestures and posture

Ways of exploring and analysing the largely unconscious world of communication through gestures and postures.

Why? Perhaps the most fundamental form of visual communication - indeed of all communication - is body language. This is a language which we have all learnt to speak and understand and yet it is so fundamental that we are often not conscious of it. The way we carry ourselves, the gestures we use and our facial expressions all communicate much more than we realise. No analysis of communication practices and power can be complete without giving some space for reflection on this.

When? Facilitators should be aware of the basic signals from participants gestures and postures from the start - as this will help them to identify ways of making people more comfortable or involved when their body language shows detachment. It is something that might be explored with all participants at any stage.

How? There are many dangers in exploring gestures and postures in a Reflect process. The last thing we need is for people to be taught how to comport themselves properly as if this was some kind of social finishing school which teaches people how to behave.  However, at the same time it is clear that this should be a legitimate area for analysis and reflection - and that it can give people new insights into both themselves and others that might be helpful for addressing power relationships.

Mapping postures: An easy place to start with this discussion is to ask the group to identify different postures that communicate clear meanings to them. People can be asked to exaggerate at first to make their point clear. Participants could take it in turns to adopt a posture with others guessing the intention or describing how they interpret it. This can be done with different basic positions -for example getting people to show different ways of sitting that send different messages to others -and then later different ways of standing. This can be extended by ask participants to adopt different postures in a simulated situation - such as at a community assembly or at a party. It is particularly interesting to overlay a power analysis on each posture identified - what does this posture say about this person's status and power in this situation.

Mapping gestures: A similar process can be used to map out gestures - identifying as many different ways of using hands to communicate meaning - and again exploring the power dimensions of different gestures. As people practice doing this, more subtle gestures will be identified.

Mapping facial expressions: a similar process again can be done with facial expressions - trying to identify smaller and smaller changes. This process can involve a struggle to find the right language to distinguish differences.

Power pairing of gestures or postures: The power (or lack of power) of some postures or gestures is difficult to read alone. So, asking people in pairs to create a power tableau, conscious of gesture, posture and facial expression can add a new dimension to this analysis. Pair work can also explore how gesture and posture affect others eg in pairs asking one person to talk and the other to gaze around the room avoiding eye contact? How does that affect the talker?

Body sculptures: These can be done in various ways. One option is to have one or two scuptors who shape everyone else to build a composite image. This was done by ODEC in Oxford to explore racism within its own organisation. One person was asked to silently (or as silently as possible) sculpt the bodies of each person - including their facial expressions - to capture a specific dimension of racism.  An alternative is for everyone to participate in constructing a composite image of something. For example in a Reflect workshop in Pakistan groups were asked to build sculptures of different social issues - capturing, for example, the feudal order in rural areas.

Silence is in many respects the ultimate in communication. It can be used actively and subversively. It can scream louder than the loudest voice. It can be a complete inversion of the "culture of silence" as in the case of Susan, a Reflect participant in Uganda:

"Susan would fall silent when she wanted to hint at something without saying  it. If, when asked about corruption or abuse of power by officials, she had actually spoken she would have been left open to counter-attack or revenge from officials. Silence in such contexts can actually add to the credibility of her unspoken accusation. In other situations Susan's silences were openly disrespectful, aggressive silences which often succeeded in stopping a shouting adversary in his tracks."

Marc Fiedrich 2001

Role-playing internalised oppression: Freire wrote much about people internalising their oppression. This is not just an abstract intellectual process but often a fundamentally physical process. Our social status and the oppressions we have internalised are embedded in our bodies - in the way we walk and move and sit - the way we assert ourselves physically or cower and submit. It is expressed not just individually but also socially - with women's social status so often evident by their sheer physical presence (or, in a sense, relative absence), sitting behind men, walking behind men - their silence physicalised sometimes over many generations. Once an awareness of (or sensitivity to) gesture and posture has been generated, participants can be asked to identify examples of "internalised oppression" and to dramatise these in role plays were they also speak  but where the body language speaks louder than the words. After initially running a role play participants can be encouraged to re-enact the same situation with the aim of inverting the physical dynamics - asserting themselves and trying to challenge the physical dominance of the authority figure (eg finding ways of getting a  bureaucrat to move from behind their big desk). This is likely to generate humour - and may also generate some powerful insights. The power of silence!

If you have an interesting or innovative experience of working with this tool please add your comments here.