Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Gaze as social control

Kidwell, M. (2005). Gaze as social control: How very young children differentiate "the look" from a "mere look" by adult caregivers. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 38, 417-449.

Abstract: In this article, I examine very young children's differentiations of the gazing actions of their adult caregivers for how they do or do not implicate an intervention in their sanctionable activities. Such features of a gaze as (a) its duration, (b) whether or not it "fixes" on a target, and (c) its production relative to other activities of the caregiver constitute some gazes as mere shifts of visual attention to check children's activities and others as portending an intervention. I hence demonstrate two practices of looking, termed here a mere look and the look, to project in different ways for children what another will do next. At issue is how children manage their conduct by reference to their assessments of caregivers' gazes and how caregivers' deployment of the look provides for children's systematic self-inspection of and self-action toward the aspects of their conduct they take to have drawn a caregiver's gaze.


In this article, Kidwell investigates how young children interpret their adult caregivers’ looks. Kidwell makes a distinction between “a mere look” and “the look”. For Kidwell, the main difference between the two looks is what they implicate. While a mere look does not implicate a sanction for the children, the look projects an intervention by the caregiver. Kidwell’s study investigates how the young children participate in the study differentiate the two looks. Kidwell’s study shows that a mere look is shorter in duration, it focuses on the target for a short time, and it happens while the caregiver is occupied with other activities. The look, on the other hand, takes longer, it focuses on the target(s), and the caregiver stops what she is doing while giving this look.
I found the literature review on gaze very interesting. I have not thought about the centrality of gaze in our daily interactions. Especially the variety of purposes gazes are used amazes me. The focus of this study is on one of these purposes, that is, disciplining. The first case illustrates the three differences listed above between a mere look and the look. In the second case, the author complicates the distinction by adding a new factor to the picture. She shows that what happens immediately before a mere look or the look makes a difference. The third case is quite interesting in that there seems to be a difference between how the caregiver and Ethan evaluate Derrick’s behavior. It seems like Derrick can distinguish whose evaluation counts and one can even speculate that Derrick’s escalating his behavior is a message to Eathan. It is possible that Derrick is teaching Eathan a lesson, the lesson he learned from the caregiver and was enforcing the norm he had learned. The fourth case shows two things, the first one is how timing helps children to understand which part of their behavior is attended to by the caregiver and how children or the caregivers mark their behavior. In this case, Carlo marks his message that he is not going to continue his sanctionable conduct. Timing, in addition to bodily orientation and gesture (as in case one where the caregiver marks her behavior by her lips), helps people mark their interpretation. Case 5 demonstrates the importance of timing again. It seems like the look does not work until it is carried out until the child submits to the authority of the caregiver and when the look is cut short the child can resist by treating the look as a mere look. The last case reminded me of hypothesis testing argument in second language acquisition. According to this approach people learn language by forming and then testing their hypotheses. Eathan too seems to learn by testing his hypothesis about when the caregiver intervenes. In fact, it looks like he is fine-tuning his hypothesis as he stops his conduct several times just before the caregiver intervenes until she finally intervenes.
Even though it is not too explicit in the article, the study suggests a close relationship between gaze and conversation in terms of (1) organization (for example, duration, overlap, etc), (2) context sensitivity, (3) anticipation and opportune times to intervene (pretty similar to TPR), (4) marking or foregrounding some items to be attended, (5) negotiation and repair, and (6) indeterminacy. Because of these similarities between gaze and conversation, the study also suggests that there might be a more fundamental underlying mechanism at work both for conversation and gaze, some form of responsiveness that makes human beings so programmed for cooperation.
What is amazing to me is how non-linguistic features of interaction, such as gaze, mark word and syntactic boundaries, hence make these boundaries   visible and learnable for the children. It was a very good read.

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