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Zoos, the Academy, and Captivity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020

Extract

In a 1966 lecture to the american anthropological association, Ray L. Birdwhistell presented a silent film showing families visiting elephant exhibits at zoos around the world. This film, along with the audio of Birdwhistell's lecture and an epilogue, was then released in 1969 by the East Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute with the title Microcultural Incidents in Ten Zoos. Using his theory of kinesics (roughly, the study of “body language”), a “context control method,” and “purposive” filming of families viewing elephant exhibits, Birdwhistell hoped to demonstrate that physical gestures are not universal but are rather culturally specific and only comprehensible in carefully described contexts (fig. 1). Microcultural Incidents positions the ethnographer as a detached observer dissecting scenes for his audience, translating the language of gestures with the use of a slow-motion projector he calls a “perceptiscope.” Even with his many hours of raw footage and the subsequent analysis with the perceptiscope, however, Birdwhistell's conclusions are remarkably small. Among the gems we learn, for example, are that on trips to the zoo English fathers are the keepers of food and knowledge and unselfconsciously teach their children to speak to elephants and that when the French stick their kids' hands into elephant trunks, the children look at their hands with a mixture of surprise and horror before wiping them off on their clothes. Still, for Birdwhistell kinesics held the promise of revealing hidden truths about people and cultures.

Type
Theories and Methodologies
Copyright
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2009

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References

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