This is a term that describes the use of the hands and other parts of the body for communicative purposes. The study of gesture has a long interdisciplinary history, drawing on socio-cultural theory, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, behavioural science, neuroscience, communication, performance studies and dance, and computer science. It is commonly subsumed under the larger umbrella term of kinesics that encompasses gestures, movement, posture, stillness, head movement, gaze, facial expressions and so on.

Much work has focused on the relationship of gesture and speech, gesture and thought, and the classifying of gestures. While there is much debate there are some settled classifications of gesture, including deictic gestures, motor gestures, symbolic gestures (emblems), iconic gestures and metaphoric gestures. Deictic gestures are generally understood as ‘pointing gestures’ that indicate real, implied or imaginary persons, objects, directions, etc., and are strongly related to their environment or ‘gesture space’, including their point of origin (origo) and occur with or without talk. Motor gestures, that is batons and beats, are commonly associated with coherence through rhythm, for example, marking initiation of new discourse or introduction of new sub-topics. Symbolic or emblematic gestures are highly conventional and ‘lexicalized’, such as the ‘thumbs up’ gesture meaning ‘good’ or ‘well done’. Iconic gestures are visual representations of referential meaning, e.g. rapid hand movement up and down may indicates the action of chopping ginger. Metaphorical gestures are visual representation of abstract ideas and categories, e.g. displaying an empty palm hand may indicate ‘presenting a problem’.

According to Charles Goodwin (2003a: 229–330), the distinction between pointing and iconic gestures is fuzzy as the former can trace the outline of what is being pointed at, and in this way mimic the shape of a deictic point and create an iconic display. Rather than considering different classes of gestures as separate, it is proposed then to use the iconic vs. deictic distinction to orient to each of these components either or both of which may contribute to the organization of a particular gesture.

Furthermore, Goodwin (2003b: 20) treats gestures alongside other communicative modes (e.g. body posture, gaze, talk, environmental structure, and so on) as part of embodied action within situated human interaction. In order to make some of their gestures meaningful or communicative, participants may need contextualise them in special ways, for example, by placing them explicitly in the field of vision of other participants. Thus, Goodwin proposes the following continuum: iconic gestures: as illustrative of the action but performed outside of the environment of the action (e.g. rotating finger indicating the movement of a propeller); symbiotic gestures: performed and made meaningful in relation to a particular environmental structure (e.g. rotating a paint brush over an area of a wall to be painted), and; transformative gestures: acting upon what they are representing (e.g. performing the act of painting with a brush).

Gesture can be understood as a mode; that is a set of semiotic resources, which draws on both temporal and spatial resources, the use of which is socially and culturally regulated in relationship to the context of communication.

Goodwin has examined the significance of gesture for communicative work particularly in complex work environments (1994). Adam Kendon (2004 Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance), David McNeill (1992, Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal About Thought) have been highly influential in the development of theories of gesture and communication both of whom are founders of the International Society for Gesture Studies (ISGS). Working within a social semiotic multimodal perspective, Jaworski and Thurlow (2009) have applied the meta-functions to deictic and representational gestures in a study of tourists’ situated use of gesture to show how these gestures realize versions of representational meanings, interpersonal or identificational meaning, and interactional meanings.

Editor: Sara Price
Other contributor: Adam Jaworski


Goodwin, C. (2003a)
“‘Pointing as situated practice.” In S. Kita (ed.), Pointing: Where Language, Culture, and Cognition Meet, 217–241
Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum

Goodwin, C. (2003b)
‘The body in action.” In J. Coupland and R. Gwyn (eds.) Discourse, the Body and Identity, 19–42
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

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