Monday, August 10, 2009

Hall of Fame

Edward T. Hall passed away on July 20th, and this is most certainly an occasion to note his importance as a scholar. The first notice appeared online courtesy of the Santa Fe New Mexican on July 24th, and then there was the New York Times obituary that appeared on August 4th.

Hall was an anthropologist whose work is foundational for media ecology, and of great importance in the field of communication. In his classic work, The Silent Language, he famously stated that "culture is communication," and also that "communication is culture." He viewed cultures as languages in their own right, and like languages made up of three parts, sets (meaningful units, like words), isolates (the elements that make up the sets, like sounds), and patterns (the ways in which the sets are organized, like grammar and syntax). He also identified three distinct modes of culture/communication, the formal, the informal, and the technical.

While his fellow anthropologist Edmund Carpenter stretched the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that the language we speak affects or determines how we view the world, to apply to media as "the new languages," Hall extended the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to all human cultures as communication systems, each one characterized by its own distinct worldview.

Hall was a pioneer in the study of nonverbal communication, the phrase "the silent language" applying equally well to culture and nonverbal behavior. He is best known for introducing the concept of proxemics, the human use of space, which posits that human beings, like animals, have four different distances, lines that, when crossed, change the way we behave and interact. These distances give us intimate space (reserved for close friends and family and special activities such as loving or fighting); personal space (the space we use for informal conversation); social space (for more formal interactions like an interview or classroom); public space (for public speaking and similar types of performance. His observation that the distances for these different spaces vary from one culture to another served as a representative anecdote for both intercultural and nonverbal communication.

It became a cliché some time ago to say, hey man you're invading my space, but of course it was Hall that was the source of that popular notion. Hall also distinguished between different types of space associated with different sense modalities, i.e., visual space, auditory space, olfactory space, tactile and kinetic space. And he further applied proxemics to interior design, architecture, and city planning. Proxemics was discussed at length in his book The Hidden Dimension.

Hall also introduced what came to be known as chronemics, the human use
of time, in his book, The Dance of Life. In particular, he distinguished between cultures that are monochronic (one thing at a time, a uniform sense of time, as established by clocks and calendars), and polychronic (multitasking, different senses of time, as in Mircea Eliade's concepts of sacred and profane time).

Hall was also a pioneer in the study of intercultural communication, and his categories of high-context and low-context cultures, emphasized in Beyond Culture, are extraordinarily useful. In high context cultures, relatively little information is communicated, the expectation being that you already know what you need to know. Asking questions is considered shameful, explaining things is patronizing. In low context cultures, the norm is to spell things out, not expect people to already know everything, in fact to take almost nothing for granted. Germans are very low context, the French are high context, no wonder they fought so many wars against each other! Hall pointed out that Native Americans, being high context, had tremendous problems when forced into the schoolrooms based on low context U.S. culture. We Americans encounter similar problems in dealing with the high context culture of Japan.

High and low context relate quite nicely to McLuhan's concepts of hot and cool media, high context being cool, low context being hot. Moreover, Hall had a great influence on McLuhan, McLuhan attributed the idea of media as extensions to Hall (although Hall was by no means the first to use it). It is also worth noting that Hall's books were required reading in Neil Postman's media ecology curriculum, which was when I first read him, although I had encountered his ideas in my freshman Introduction to Communication Theory class.

Edward T. Hall was associated with another anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, who introduced the concept of kinesics (aka body language), and more broadly with Gregory Bateson, Erving Goffman, and Paul Watzlawick, as part of what some have referred to as the Palo Alto Group.

Hall's work was in the North American intellectual tradition of pragmatics, and had many practical applications. In fact, he worked for the U.S. State Department for a time, directing a program for the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC. Hall's influence waned along with the whole North American intellectual tradition over the 70s, and his concern with practice as well as theory was replaced for many scholars by the more highly theoretical, cultural studies-compatible work of Clifford Geertz, among others. The influence of Noam Chomsky in linguistics had much to do with a shift in emphasis away from the pragmatics of studying other cultures, which is why our government has been such a dismal failure in our diplomacy and foreign affairs, e.g., the Iranian revolution in the late 70s and its aftermath, and our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Me, I'll take Hall's down-to-earth clarity and insights any day. We have lost a major figure in the media ecology intellectual tradition, and he will be missed.


Anonymous said...

Your blogs are always worth reading, Lance. Thank you for taking the time to write for us.

Mike Plugh said...

Thanks for that wonderful piece. It's a tragedy if we forget the body of work that Hall leaves behind.

(aside - I like that you tagged this piece with 'smell'.)

Bruce I. Kodish said...

Excellent post on one of the most important pioneering figures yet in the developing science of humanity.

Robert K. Blechman said...

You rightly point out that in the early years of the NYU Media Ecology program Hall was a key source. Perhaps his contributions have been so internalized by we MEAers that we forget how much the Media Ecology approach to communications study is in debt to him.

If media are "environmental" as we often assert, there must be multiple "silent" influences that shape our culture and direct our unconscious assumptions and attitudes. The media numbness that McLuhan suggested is the result of exposure to a new medium assumes that we are "receiving" multiple silent messages as the new medium massages our perceptions.

RIP Edward Hall.

sirvan said...

Very well said Lance. It's nice to say that you're worth blog writer. A good blog today.