Thursday, November 24, 2011

Edward T. Hall and the Influence of Time and Space on Communication

As a Catholic I have always had a fascination with how and where the faithful sit when they go to church.  Since I was a little boy, I would ask my parents why my family, and other families, for that matter, sought the back row of the pews when ample space near the front of the church existed. In response, my father would say, “That’s just the way Catholics are.” My father’s response was not exactly based on sound theory. Thank goodness communication theorists such as Edward T. Hall (1914-2009) emerged to shed more light on the issue than my father could provide.  Hall, an anthropologist and communication theorist, shared my same fascination with cultural differences in perceptions of space. His fascination led to his proxemic theory, indicating how culture molds peoples’ perceptions of space (Brown, 2001). This paper highlights key influences on Hall’s development as a communication theorist including influences from his early life, and from his academic life and career, all of which led to the development of Hall’s intercultural communication theory--his major contribution to the field of communication--which is also highlighted in this paper.
Hall was born in Webster Groves, Missouri (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p.3) in 1914 (Brown, 2001); however, he spent the bulk of his youth living in and absorbing the culture of the American Southwest (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p.3).  The cultural diversity to which Hall was exposed left an impression that would later spawn a fascination with intercultural relations that would, in turn, lead to fieldwork among the Hopi and Navajo tribes from 1933-1937, a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Denver in 1936, an M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona in 1938, and a Ph.D. in Anthropology specializing in archaeology from Columbia University in 1942 (Edward T. Hall Associates website, 2011). At the time, Columbia University was considered one of the most influential centers for anthropological studies in the world (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p. 3.); consequently, Hall appeared poised for a career in archaeology.
            World War II, however, interfered with Hall’s career plans. During the war, Hall served in the Philippines and in Europe. This service, along with his subsequent stint as the director of the Foreign Service training program for technicians assigned to overseas duty exposed Hall to myriad complications in intercultural communications (Brown, 2001).  These experiences of participating in and witnessing breakdowns in communication fostered the belief that divergent worldviews and perceptions of reality lead to miscommunication (Brown, 2001).
It was this newfound belief that sparked Hall’s interest to pursue post-doctoral studies in cultural anthropology, once again, at Columbia University (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p.3).  During his post-doctoral studies, Hall participated with Abram Kardiner, Clyde Kluckhohn, and Ruth Benedict in a seminar focusing on the relationship between psychiatry and anthropology (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p. 4). This seminar continued Hall’s fascination with intercultural relations, and proved to be a springboard into the rest of Hall’s career. Details of Hall’s career are provided in Table 1, which is an exact reproduction of a table in Rogers, Hart & Miike (2002, p.4).

Table 1
Details of Hall’s Career
Born in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis
Grew up in New Mexico
Worked on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in the U.S. Southwest
Earned B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Denver
Earned M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona
Earned Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University
Served in WWII, commanding an African American regiment in Europe and
the Philippines
Post-doctoral study in Sociology/Cultural Anthropology at Columbia University;
conducted research on the U.S. military government administration of Truk
Chairman, Department of Anthropology, University of Denver; studied race
relations in Denver
Taught at Bennington College in Vermont, with Erich Fromm
Director of the Point IV Training Program at the Foreign Service Institute,
Washington, D.C.
Affiliated with the Washington School of Psychiatry, Washington, D.C.
Publication of "The Anthropology of Manners" in the Scientific American
Publication of The Silent Language
Affiliated (again) with the Washington School of Psychiatry
Professor of Anthropology, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago; conducted
NIMH- funded research on proxemics and interethnic encounters
Publication of The Hidden Dimension
Professor of Anthropology, Northwestern University, until his retirement in 1977;
conducted further NIMH funded research on proxemics and interethnic encounters
Participated in the Conference on Intercultural Communication, International
Christian University, Tokyo
Publication of Beyond Culture
Presented a paper at the International Communication Association Conference,
Berlin (Hall, 1978)
Living in retirement in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Occasional lectures at SIETAR
conferences and the Summer Institute of Intercultural Communication; teaching
at the University of New Mexico (1997 and 1999).

This table obviously omits the last seven years of Hall’s life. If it were accurate, it would note that Hall passed away July 20, 2009 (Edward T. Hall Associates website, 2011). The significance of the table is that it illustrates Hall’s dedication to anthropological and communication scholarship, as well as to the advancement of his intercultural theory. The table omits some of the scholarly influences on Hall’s thinking and work, the subject of which is taken up next.
Rogers, Hart & Miike (2002) identify several scholarly influences that led Hall to a fascination with intercultural studies (p.5).  Among these influences were cultural anthropology, lingusitics, ethology (the study of animal behavior), and Freudian psychoanalytic theory (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p. 4).  In terms of cultural anthropology, Hall was most heavily influenced by the cultural relativism of Franz Boaz and Ruth Benedict, as well as by Raymond L. Birdwhistle’s work in kinesics (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p.4). In terms of linguistics, Hall was most influenced by George L. Trager, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Trager and Whorf shared interests in the Native American languages of the Southwest (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p.5).  Through Trager and Whorf, Hall was exposed to language relativity, the process of language’s effect on human thought (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p.5). In terms of ethology, Hall was most influenced by the reptilian, limbic, and neo-cortex brain theory of Paul MacLean (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p.6). Finally, in terms of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Hall was most influenced by Harry Stack Sullivan, and his friend Erich Fromm (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p.6). All of these scholarly influences fed an already keen intellect bringing Hall to some groundbreaking insights.  These insights provide the next focus of this paper.
While teaching trainees at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, D.C., Hall and Trager discussed how they could revitalize their rather bland anthropological curriculum.  The result was an FSI training manual, The Analysis of Culture (1959), which Hall and Trager co-authored (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p.9).  In this manual, Hall and Trager revealed a 10 by 10 matrix for mapping a culture along certain dimensions. This matrix would become the basis for The Silent Language (1959), in which Hall developed his theory of intercultural communication, and which became a best-seller (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p.11). This book laid out Hall’s argument that cultures have differing ways of perceiving time and space, laying the groundwork for what would become his theories of proxemics (how space affects communication) and chronemics (how time effects communication) (Rogers, Hart & Miike, 2002, p.12) that he would later elucidate in The Hidden Dimension (1966).
            Hall’s theory of proxemics has become his most famous communication theory.  Proxemics theory builds on his original argument found in The Silent Language, namely, that differing cultures have differing ways of perceiving time and space; however, he goes one step further, arguing  that although humans perceive time and space through their senses, culture mediates the meaning of time and space on a subconscious level. In Hall’s view, this subconscious mediation of meaning leads to intercultural communication breakdown (Brown, 2001).  In The Hidden Dimension Hall argues that cultures mold expectations of personal spaces around each person that he called intimate space, social and consultative space, and public space (Brown, 2001). He further argued that these cultural differences lead to intercultural communication breakdown.
A question might arise as to the modern relevance of Hall’s theories that were developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  For that determination, we need first to consult Griffin (2009) to determine if the theory qualifies, in the Griffinesque frame of reference, as good theory. Intercultural communication theory appears to be good theory (Griffin, 2009, pp. 34-39) because it helps us to come to an understanding of people (understanding culture’s role in molding how people subconsciously perceive time and space), it helps to clarify values (understanding our reaction to cultural differences with respect to time and space), it has aesthetic appeal, (easy to understand in a modern context), it generates a community of agreement (accepted as one of the most often quoted theories in the field of communication), and, most importantly for the critical theorists, it attempts to reform society (critiquing intercultural norms of behavior with respect to nonverbal communication.)  Critical theorists might conclude that proxemics does not go far enough to include a critique of governments and corporate bodies that marginalize people; however, proxemics provides a foundation for the critical theorists to do their work. Until we first know how intercultural differences in nonverbal communication impact intercultural relations, we can neither extrapolate theories of how nonverbal communication serves to marginalize people, nor extrapolate methods to expose those unethical practices.
A future exists for the proxemic theory, particularly in the realm of architecture. In the digital age architecture is challenged to design interior spaces that ease the use of digital devices while enhancing feelings of security, comfort, and mobility. This is the stuff of proxemics.
This paper has highlighted key influences from Edward T. Hall’s early life, academic life and career, and has highlighted Hall’s major contribution to communication theory—his intercultural communication theory. No single theorist has had a more profound impact on intercultural nonverbal studies than Hall. Thanks to Hall, in the future when I take my grandchildren to church, and one of them asks why we sit in the last pew, I will be able to offer an answer based on solid theory.

Brown, N. (2001). Edward T. Hall: Proxemic theory, 1966 . Retrieved September
15, 2011, from Center for Spacially Integrated Social Science website:
Edward T. Hall. (2011). Retrieved September 15, 2011, from Edward T. Hall
            Associates website:
Griffin, E. (2009). Communication: A First Look at Communication (7th ed.).
            Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. (Original work published 1991).
Rogers, E. M., Hart, W. B., & Miike, Y. (2002). Edward T. Hall and the history
     of intercultural communication: The United States and Japan. Keio
     Communication Review, 24, 3-26.

Hall’s Books in Reverse Chronological Order  
Russek, J., Scheinbaum, D., & Hall, E. T. (1997). Ghost Ranch: Land of light:
     the photographs of Janet Russek and David Scheinbaum. Los Angeles, CA:
     Balcony Press.
Hall, E. T. (1995). West of the thirties: Discoveries among Navajo and Hopi. New
     York, NY: Anchor Books.
Hall, E. T. (1993). An anthropology of everyday life: An autobiography. New
     York, NY: Anchor Books.
Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding cultural differences. Yarmouth,
     ME: Intercultural Press.
Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1987). Hidden differences: Doing business with the
     Japanese. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday
Hall, E. T. (1983). The dance of life: The other dimension of time. Garden City,
     NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
Hall, E. T. (1983). Hidden differences: How to communicate with Germans.
     Hamburg, West Germany: Stern.
Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.
Hall, M. R., & Hall, E. T. (1975). The fourth dimension in architecture: The
     impact of building on behavior: Eero Saarinen's administrative center for
     Deere & Company, Moline, Illinois. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press.
Hall, E. T. (1974). Handbook for proxemic research. Washington, DC: Society for
     the Anthropology of Visual Communication.
Hall, E. T. (1967). The manpower potential in our ethnic groups. Washington, DC:
     Department of Labor, Manpower Administration.
Hall, E. T. (1966). The hidden dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Hall, E. T. (1959). The silent language. Garden

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