This is a complex term that has a long history within philosophy, psychology and sociology, its specific meaning being contingent on the particular discipline. The term continues to be contested, particularly within psychology and philosophy, where notions of the mind-body split are still debated. Perhaps of most value to multimodality theory is the conception of the embodied self in phenomenology, especially in the work of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Here the body is seen as the centre of identity, inseparable from sensory experience and perception.

Embodiment usually refers to how the body and its interactive processes, such as perception or cultural acquisition through the senses, aid, enhance or interfere with the development of the human functioning. Within the context of multimodality the emphasis is on the relationship between physical experience, and multimodal resources, media practices and social spaces. This relationship is an interdependent one where meaning making is grounded in physical experience, through bodily form, gaze, gesture, body posture, facial expression, movement, which shapes the kind of interaction with the environment. Equally, media spaces and social practices are produced through the human body in its material form, the nature of the practices being, in large part, contingent on the forms, practices, and plasticity of the human body. A person can also embody an identity (as the phenomenological approach proposes), or a particular set of identities, by the way one moves, interacts, communicates and perceives.

Embodiment, both in terms of the expressive resources of the body and in terms of embodied identity, can also be conceived of in represented bodies, like avatars, which offer a form of ‘virtual’ embodiment.  Such environments offer new ways to ‘embody’ a set of identities outside one’s own physical being, where the virtual avatar acts a tool through which identity can be shaped.

Multimodality offers an approach to analysing meaning making that embraces these different modes of interaction that inherently form notions of embodiment: gaze, gesture, posture, movement. While some areas of multimodal research conduct analysis of text-like objects and media forms, embodiment signifies the importance of the human body and its communicative and expressive functions, whether these be banal and everyday, or those through which performance-based art forms such as dance, music and drama are accomplished.

Finnegan (2012) has explored the modes of the body in communication as well as in oral poetry and narrative over many years. There is a longstanding field of work concerned with the semiotics of gesture (eg Kendon, 2004). More recent work has analysed children’s play in terms of the embodied modes at work (Bishop & Burn, 2013)

Key references

Finnegan, R (2002)
Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Interconnection.
London: Routledge.

Kendon, A (2004)
Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bishop, J & Burn, A (2013)
‘Reasons for Rhythm: Multimodal Perspectives on Musical Play’. In Willett et al, Children, Media And Playground Cultures: Ethnographic studies of school playtimes. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.