June 7, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 18

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    Duncan, 71, pioneered videotape use in research on face-to-face interactions

    Starkey Duncan, Jr., a Professor in Psychology and the College, and a leading researcher in the study of nonverbal and verbal interactions, died Tuesday, May 16, at Bernard Mitchell Hospital at the University Medical Center. He was 71.

    “He loved his family and dedicated his entire career to the University of Chicago. He was an innovative educator and researcher who cared deeply about his students,” said his son, Arne Duncan, chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools.

    Duncan was a leader in developing the field of research to study the interaction between verbal and nonverbal communication.

    “Starkey was one of the pioneers in the field of nonverbal communication, though he preferred to think of his research as studying face-to-face interaction,” said David McNeill, Professor Emeritus in Psychology and the College. “He looked at gesture, gaze and other aspects of interaction as an integrated whole and through time.”

    Duncan’s research led to one of the seminal books in the field, Face to Face Interactions: Research, Methods, and Theory, published in 1977, which he wrote with the late Donald Fiske, also a former Professor in Psychology at the University.

    The book took the study of nonverbal communications beyond early work, which looked only at simple gestures with a single meaning, toward developing a “grammar” of nonverbal communication. The scholars looked at the relationship of gestures, gazes, pauses and smiles, and studied their relationship with verbal communication, such as intonation, content and voice quality.

    Duncan also was co-author of the book, Interaction Structure and Strategy, published in 1985, as well as numerous journal articles.

    “He would have considered one of his major contributions to the field to be methodological,” McNeill said. “He worked out a way to diagram the verbal and nonverbal communications that people have in such a way that he could chart how an interaction flows. His goal was to establish the rules that guide an interaction.”

    In recent years, Duncan became interested in expanding his work to include interactions between parents and children, looking at, for instance, what parents do to help a child learn how to use a spoon instead of hands for eating.

    His work with parents and children included videotaping and then studying the videotapes. “He was a pioneer in using videotape for research in the social sciences,” McNeill said.

    The videotapes became widely used by other researchers in different fields. “I remember there was one we studied quite a bit for linguistics that involved a conversation between a student from the School of Social Service Administration and one from the Law School. It was an example of how people can interact when they first meet. Because they were both students, they began by talking about their academic backgrounds, and when one student was not very forthcoming, the other student zeroed in and kept pressing him for more information.”

    Duncan is survived by three children: Arne Duncan, Sarah Duncan and Owen Duncan; his fiancée, Marilee Marchelya; a sister, Martha McHenry; two nephews; and seven grandchildren, Susan, Nicholas, Claire, Ryan, Katherine, Tiegan and Riona.

    In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Starkey Davis Duncan, Jr. Fellowship Fund at the University.