Tag Archives: social order

Controlling our thoughts and actions

In 1972, a book was published titled Body Language and Social Order: Communication as Behavioral Control. I read it a year or two later and was so impressed that I wrote to the authors, saying I especially liked what they had written about social order.

            Recently I was going through my old files of printed material and came across the notes I had taken on the book and my correspondence. I wondered what the book would say to me today, fifty years after it was published. So I ordered a copy and read it again. It was just as interesting as before, and I think there is still much to learn from it.

            Kinesics is the study of people’s physical behaviour: postures, gestures, facial expressions and movements. Some motions are obvious, even striking, as when a child jumps up and down in excitement or anger. Other motions are subtle, such as when you enter someone’s office and they indicate where to sit with a hand gesture, a glance or the positioning of their body. A posture or a shrug can communicate without the conscious awareness of either the sender or the receiver. These subtle motions and what they communicate are what interested the authors.

            Albert Scheflen was a psychiatrist. I say “was” because he died long ago, in 1980. In the book, he is described as “Professor of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Researcher in Human Communication at the Bronx State Hospital and Jewish Family Service.” He began researching kinesics in 1957. Among his colleagues were the prominent figures Gregory Bateson and Ray Birdwhistell.

            The biographical blurb in the book about Alice Scheflen says she “has been a feature writer and editor in medicine and the sciences and Research Assistant in Human Communication.” I couldn’t find any other information about her.

            The first part of the book describes various messages conveyed through body position, gesture and facial expression, and how they relate to spoken language.

An expression suggesting anxiety, in the US context. From the book, page 8

            The authors begin by pointing out that humans share many behaviours with other primates. Chimps stake out territories and can counter intruders aggressively. Examples of human territoriality include fences around houses and boundaries between countries. These sorts of boundaries keep outsiders out and insiders in. When leaving or entering territories, there are bonding rituals, for example waving goodbye or going through immigration control. The Scheflens write that communication, normally thought of as spoken or written words, also includes behaviours that regulate the social order, including the organisation of a group and its dominance and submission patterns. That includes rituals associated with territories.

As a couple steps back from an embrace, the woman grooms her husband by adjusting his collar, an example of bond-servicing. From the book, page 20

            Arriving at a social function, I see people standing around, mostly in groups of two, three or four. Spying someone I know in one of the groups, I approach. If a friend sees me approach, they might open a space for me to join the group, by a small movement. If others recognise the move, they will open a space for me, but sometimes they form a tighter circle, making it harder to join, an elementary example of the “cold shoulder,” so familiar to those who are shunned. It can be an unconscious manoeuvre.

If two people do not want to be interrupted, they may stand closer or put their arms up as a barrier. From the book, page 29

            At the gym, I approach a weight machine just as another exerciser does, coming from another direction. He looks at me and then looks at an adjacent piece of equipment, signalling that he will defer to me and use the other equipment. When I finish my repetitions, he is still at the other piece of equipment. I catch his attention and gesture towards the machine I just left. He smiles. Not a word is exchanged as we negotiate access and priority.

This woman may be saying “On the one hand” and will then open her left fist when saying “On the other.” From the book, page 43

            The first part of the Scheflens’ book is devoted to these sorts of kinesic messages, systematically explaining how people communicate through their bodies. Many different sorts of messages are described, illustrated with photos on nearly every page. The photos are literally snapshots of extended sequences of moves, so the Sheflens provide descriptions of the events displayed.

A kinesic signal of dominance. From the book, page 52

            One message they describe is the “monitor,” designed to control someone else’s behaviour. Observing two of his patients, Albert Scheflen observed a mother making a subtle move, sliding a finger across her lip, whenever her son said something she didn’t like, and her son picked up the message immediately, although neither mother nor son consciously realised what was happening. Different sorts of gestures can serve as monitors, for example a frown or hunched shoulders.

            In some situations, a body-language monitor can be more effective than explicit verbal instructions. A spoken command can trigger resistance in some people, whereas subtle gestures can work better because the message is subliminal. When children are acting up and then realise that others are looking at them in a certain way, this may be enough to get them to stop.

“A common monitoring signal is the act of wiping the index finger laterally across the nostrils. This kinesic act can be seen anywhere in America when some group member violates the local proprieties of that group.” From the book, page 108

            The monitor is just one example of how kinesics can provide insight into social interactions. Many people, in their jobs and outside, experience disapproval, but it can be hard to point to what’s going on because the message is partly or completely nonverbal, conveyed by gestures, postures and facial expressions. It’s almost impossible to collect evidence about this. The same applies to ostracism. People seldom say, “I’m not going to socialise with you.” Instead, they don’t look you in the face, walk by without saying hello or providing a glance of recognition, and avoid sitting near you. These are kinesic and territorial behaviours. Most of these behaviours operate outside of consciousness by either the sender or receiver of the kinesic messages.

Control over the way we think

One of the Scheflens’ chapters is titled “The control of ideation,” which means the control of thinking. They point out that kinesic-territorial behaviours learned at home and school, without formal instruction — a sort of indoctrination — prepare a child for the adult world, usually by acquiescing to dominant ways of thinking and behaving.

“An American child learns at an early age the fundamentals of his culture. He learns to speak and he learns the pointed myths of the culture in the form of fairy tales and the like. He learns to believe doctrines, and he also learns the rudiments of ethnocentrism. If he comes from a middle-class family or a family that aspires to the middle class, he will also learn about upward mobility and develop the motivation to learn and get ahead. He is now ready for schooling.” (page 147)

            The Scheflens say an organisation member can become intellectually and emotionally bound up with the organisation’s official belief system, so when hearing about alternatives or not conforming, ideas and feelings tied to the organisation are evoked. This is “institution-think,” which means thinking and feeling from the perspective of the organisation. You can see how this would be a danger for someone who questions what is going on, who points to shady activities that contravene the official belief system. Those bound by institution-think will respond negatively, based on gut reactions and automatic thoughts.

            In a society like Australia, most people are inculcated with a belief in individual autonomy, a belief that most behaviour is instigated by individuals making conscious choices to achieve their goals. If you think this is completely obvious, you’ve subscribed to what the Scheflens call the myth of individualism. An alternative perspective is that most behaviour is conditioned by the environment, which refers to everything external to the individual, including family expectations, job structures, roads, buildings and other people’s behaviour. In this alternative perspective, which is common in collectivist societies, the focus is on the whole picture, on society, on social life as a dynamic process in which individuals are components that adapt to their environment.

            How, in a place like Australia, do people maintain a belief in individualism? The Scheflens say the myth of individualism is maintained when those who conform to institutional rules make slight deviations that do not challenge the dominant ways of thinking. You can wear your own style of clothes to work but continue to accept and maintain the work hierarchy. You can adorn your room with personal pictures while continuing to be a conventional consumer. You can put your phone in a distinctive case and choose your own ring tone. The Scheflens note that people focus on individual choices and individual differences but do not notice wider-scale regularities and conformities.


Every social arrangement — families, clubs, businesses and nations — has problems. What should be done about them? Why not blame someone?

            Blaming is a convenient mechanism for exercising control, gaining power and eliminating those who might cause friction. The target of significant blaming rituals is called a scapegoat, someone or some group that is treated as responsible for problems, and attacked and/or expelled. The scapegoat serves as a magnet for others’ psychological projections: all their own unrecognised bad elements are attributed to the scapegoat, magically cleansing the attackers.

            Even the threat of being blamed can keep members subservient. Although the Scheflens never mention whistleblowers — the term was hardly known at the time — their analysis of scapegoating remains relevant today.

            They say two structural factors lead to blaming. One is organisational problems, which are inevitable. The second factor is people believing in blaming and crediting, which is deep-seated in societies like the US and Australia. This can be seen in the deification of some public figures — think of Queen Elizabeth II — and the discrediting of others, such as disliked politicians.

            In the process of scapegoating, the accused is often guilty of something, but no more so than others. This is a double standard, something familiar to whistleblowers.

            When evaluating a worker’s performance, what can be done to downgrade the scapegoat? It’s not so hard. One method is to use a single attribute, for example sloppiness, tardiness, fondness for alcohol or attention to detail, to characterise the whole person. A highly creative and inspiring worker can be downgraded by being labelled sloppy, tardy, alcoholic or obsessive.

            Another method used to downgrade a scapegoat is to apply local standards and ignore other values. In the organisation, it might be routine for corners to be cut, friends rewarded and monies siphoned. These are the local standards, and anyone who doesn’t conform is cast loose. Meanwhile, other values, such as the merit principle and proper accounting, are disregarded.

            When someone is undermined and abused, sometimes they lash out in frustration. This provides a pretext for scapegoating. This applies not just to whistleblowers but also to groups such as drug users and ethnic minorities. When any of them react to their demeaning treatment, they are blamed and repressed, while their life conditions are forgotten or absolved.

            Defending scapegoats from attack is necessary but comes with a downside. The focus remains on the scapegoat and on their treatment. Sometimes the focus is on corrupt operators. But seldom is attention directed at social arrangements, for example the market economy or hierarchy within organisations, that condition people’s behaviour and lead to dysfunctions. Scapegoating is toxic, to be sure, but it may be better to understand it as a symptom of deeper problems, ones linked to the way families, workplaces, neighbourhoods and countries are structured.

Communication and deviancy

The Scheflens describe the process of “binding,” which refers to close attachments, for example of a child to a parent or a patriot to a country. Binding often starts in the family and then continues through life, reinforced by culture, for example through the idea of romantic love.

            Some people are bound to their employers; as already mentioned, they are subject to “institution-think.” Managers do not address how the organisation fosters alienation among workers, but instead blame individuals. You can see how binding can lead to blaming those who don’t conform. A family’s “black sheep” member may be shunned or abused. In an organisation, they may be exploited or bullied. When they resist, they may be treated as insane.

            Then there is the process called “double-binding.” The Scheflens say there are three dimensions of double-binds: (1) contradictory demands on a person; (2) the paradoxical aspects are not recognised, for example one demand being verbal, the other being kinesic; (3) the person is in a social niche with no escape. A girl is told to be independent but whenever she takes initiative, a parent sends a non-verbal message to stop: this is a double-bind.

            This same idea applies to workers who are expected to behave according to the high-minded ideals of the organisation but to live with contrary behaviours. The organisation might have an anti-bullying policy but bullying is rampant. Workers who cannot afford to leave are caught in a double-bind. If they lash out in desperation, they are blamed in the usual scapegoating ritual.

            One of the Scheflens’ final points is that in Western countries, it is assumed that individual behaviour causes wider social processes, for example that politicians and corporate executives are responsible for what happens, good or bad. The Scheflens prefer systems thinking, in which the drivers of behaviour are social structures, communication systems and ways of thinking.

            In the half century since Body Language and Social Order was published, there have been many changes in society and interpersonal behaviour. With the rise of the gig economy, binding to organisations may be less common; perhaps binding occurs through economic insecurity. Social media have changed the way people interact. Still, the Scheflens’ analysis offers many insights that remain relevant today. If anything, society is even more individualistic than before, and so is blaming people — the unemployed, criminals, corrupt operators or foreign enemies — while ignoring the role of social structures like the family, organisations and the system of nation-states.

            After reading the book, in 1974 I wrote to the authors:

I would like to let you know how much I enjoyed your book Body Language and Social Order, especially the part “Communication in institutional and political control.” It seems to me to present an important radical perspective of the world in an easily understandable form, by appealing to an individual’s personal experience of the world rather than to abstract philosophical arguments.

After telling about my own interest in the topics, I continued:

It is obvious that educational institutions, like other institutions, communicate through their structures as a means for effectively obtaining and maintaining control over members. The authoritative space and time structure of the lecture situation, the design of syllabi by “experts,” the creation of a scarcity of knowledge and the monopolisation of certification illustrate the divergence between “Do what I say” and “Do what I don’t need to say.” However, I am not familiar with any formal studies of educational institutions which investigate in detail the use of structure and paracommunicative behaviour in maintaining institutional control. I would appreciate any references you could give me along these lines.

In response, I received a letter from the Bronx State Hospital in New York:

Many thanks for your comments on our book on Body Language and Social Order. Many people have commented on the early part of the book, but it is as though the last part on politics of communication was never written. It is simply ignored by students and reviewers as well. Some people have said I should never have written it. But I disagree. I would like to have written it better but it is high time we stop this nonsense that science is value free and speak out about the abuses of concepts and researches. So many thanks for making it worthwhile. I have no references to send you. The stuff you read is my own and my wife’s. We did not do formal research on the matter and do not know anyone who has.

            Signed “Al Sheflen.”

            After my recent rereading of the book, I returned to my notes about it taken in the early 1970s. They were entirely on three of the fourteen chapters, the ones about control of mobility, control of ideation and control by scapegoating. How good to be reminded of these ideas again. If only the Scheflens were still around to discuss them.

Brian Martin

Body Language and Social Order (download entire book)

A version of this post appeared in the October 2022 issue of The Whistle.