GAZE is the direction of space orientation that people display through positioning of their head, notably their eyes, in relation to the environment. Gaze is a key term used across visual and multimodal research in a range of disciplines, including art history, visual studies, cultural studies, psychology, and sociology. However, its meaning may vary due to the plurality of ways of looking [Coulter and Parsons 1990]. For instance, a study on image-acts subdivides gaze into two contrasting categories depending on how the imagined viewer is positioned in relation to the gaze of a person or animal depicted in an Image as either a ‘demand’ (the gaze is directed at and demands something from the viewer) or an ‘offer’ (where such a look is not present) [Kress, van Leeuwen, 2006].

In visual, media landscape and cultural studies the viewer, looking and gaze are crucial notions in examining visual representation. The focus is shifted from image/text to the viewer’s social identity, their experience and the environment of the action. Scholars underline multimodality of gaze, putting into the spotlight cultural and representational factors [Sturken and Cartwright, 2009]. 

Cognitive psychology uses gaze as a way to explore perception and cognitive activity. For example, in the eye-tracking method a person’s eye movement is tracked as they engage with text or images and the features of their engagement are inferred, such as allocation of attention, fixation, and direction of reading [Rayner, 2009: 1457-1506].

Gaze is widely considered to index social understanding: the so-called Theory of Mind proposes that we understand each other’s behaviour through having innate ability to “read” mental states of others [Baron-Cohen, 1995; Scholl, Leslie, 2001].


Further reading

Coulter, J. and Parsons ED, ‘The praxeology of perception: visual orientations and practical action’, Inquiry, – 1990.

Goodwin, C., Conversational Organization: Interaction between speakers and hearers, New York: Academic Press, – 1981.

Kidwell, M., Gaze as social control: How very young children differentiate “The Look” from a “Mere Look” by their adult caregivers, Research on Language & Social Interaction, 38, 417-449, – 2005.

Kress, G., and T. van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd ed. New York : Routledge , 2006.


Vlad Baychikov