Gaze is the direction of orientation that people display through the positioning of their head, notably their eyes, in relation to their environment. Gaze is a key term used across visual and multimodal research in a range of disciplines, including art history, visual studies, cultural studies, psychology, and sociology. However, gaze is a contentious issue. Coulter and Parsons (1990) critique work on gaze, suggesting how gaze is a gloss for many ways of ‘looking’ that is attended to in quite different ways. Multimodality has connected with the ideas from each of these approaches in different ways:

Within visual studies and media and cultural studies the viewer, looking and gaze are central themes in theorizing and understanding visual representation. Understanding the agency of the viewer as articulated via their gaze demands a shift of analytical emphasis away from the image/text to the social identities and experiences of the viewer. This necessarily connects with the context of viewing as part of the production of meaning.

Psychoanalysis, feminist and queer ideas of the gendered gaze, hetero-normativity, visual power (e.g. Sturken & Cartwright, 2009), have been influential in multimodal analysis of images, e.g. Kress and van Leeuwen developed the notion of the Image-act which concerns how the imagined viewer is positioned in relation to the gaze of a person or animal depicted in an Image as either a ‘demand’ (the gaze looks directly at and demands something of the viewer) or an ‘offer’ (where such a look is not present).

Within psychology gaze is one way to ‘get at’ processes of perception and cognitive activity. One particular outcome is the development of eye-tracking methods, where a person’s eye movement is tracked as they engage with text or images and the features of their engagement inferred, such as allocation of attention, fixation, direction of reading.

Gaze is widely considered to index social understanding: the so called Theory of Mind proposes that we understand each other’s behaviour through having innate ability to “read” mental states of others (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 1995; Scholl & Leslie, 2001). Autism spectrum disorders illustrate how psychological research has attempted to reveal a person’s ability to theorise about minds and whether they possess social insight and understanding, through their gaze, one of the markers of autism being avoidance of mutual gaze with others.

In Conversational Analysis, gaze has been studied through detailed analysis of multimodal interaction. This work examines where and when sequentially gaze is produced in relation to ongoing activities such as talk, bodily conduct, and co-participant(s) actions.

Key references

Goodwin, C. (1981)
Conversational Organization: Interaction between speakers and hearers.
New York: Academic Press

Coulter, J. and Parsons ED, (1990)
‘The praxeology of perception: visual orientations and practical action’

Kidwell, M. (2005)
Gaze as social control: How very young children differentiate “The Look” from a “Mere Look” by their adult caregivers.
Research on Language & Social Interaction, 38, 417-449.