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symposium on touch background


Thursday, September 22, DMC 5.208


Jay Bernhardt, Dean, Moody College of Communication, UT Austin
Alexa M. Stuifbergen, Dean, School of Nursing, UT Austin

The Art of Touch

The art of touch is a foundation of our social lives that is often overlooked but that has asserted itself with a vengeance by the prohibition placed upon it during the COVID pandemic. It is our first mode of connecting with others, of expressing our feelings for them and experiencing their support. At the opening session of the symposium, philosopher Richard Kearney’s plea for the reclaiming of the deepest of our senses is answered by a close analysis of comforting and controlling touch sequences in American working families.

The Art of Touch

Richard Kearney (Philosophy, Boston College, USA)

3:30  Break

Choreographing Trajectories of Affectionate Touch in Families

Asta Cekaite (Child Studies, Linköping U, Sweden) &
Marjorie Goodwin (Anthropology, UCLA, USA)

6:00     Reception

Friday, September 23, DMC 5.208

Feeling, Relating, Hurting

Philosophers have argued that when they touch one another, even in a fleeting handshake, two bodies temporarily become one. We can extend ourselves to others by touching them, but we can also violate the boundaries of their selves. Touch is an ambivalent medium by which we can enhance and destroy each other’s personhood. This panel addresses the emotional forces of touch in abusive and violent as well as in loving relationships.

Young Children and Physical Abuse: When Touch Becomes Hurt
Marion Forbes (Pediatrics, Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas)

Touch and Intimacy in Post-Migrant Families

Christian Meier zu Verl, Christian Meyer (Sociology, U. of Konstanz, Germany)

10:30  Break

Touching an Animal while Being Engaged in a Conversation

Chloé Mondémé (CNRS, Lyons, France)

Loving Touch: Affection, Sexuality, and Intimacy among Romantic Couples
Julia Katila (Social Psychology, Tampere U, Finland), Loving touch


Human societies have molded touch into customary sequences of symbolic interaction: hand-shakes, friendly slaps, blessings. By small variations in these behaviors, we can convey subtle, personal meanings. But touch is more than, and not in the first place, communication: rather, by touching another body, we manipulate it and produce physiological effects—feelings (tactile sensations). This panel explores when and how touch becomes sign and allows us to observe what happens to touch when it is transposed into visual, digital media: how young children learn to touch absent family members on smartphone screens.

Feelings and Forms: Phenomenology and Semiotics of Touch

Jürgen Streeck (Communication Studies, UT Austin, USA)

Seeing and Touching in Interaction: Doing “Inspecting” and Action Construction

Aug Nishizaka (Sociology, Chiba U, Japan)

3:00    Break

Customized Greetings at the Classroom Door

Sara Routarinne, Pilvi Heinonen &Liisa Tainio
(Teacher Education, U of Turku & U. of Helsinki, Finland)

How People Unconsciously Represent Unhelpful Thinking
and Distress Regarding Symptoms   through their Hands

David Ring (Dell Medical School, UT Austin, USA)

Sensory Practices in Digital Childhoods
Jutta Wiesemann (Education, U. of Siegen, Germany)

Saturday, September 24, DMC 5.102

Caring and Healing

Among the people who experienced the termination of touch during the pandemic most traumatically were nurses and their patients. One lesson from COVID that everyone seems to have taken away is how deeply dependent we are for our well-being on the touch of human hands. Researchers have recognized the centrality of touch in the work of diagnosis, healing, and care long before COVID, however. These presentations examine medical and other healing work with and without touch from practitioners’ and researchers’ perspectives.

A Nurses' Perspective on Diminished Touch in Patient Care during the COVID Pandemic

Linda Yoder (School of Nursing, UT Austin) & Jacqueline Gordon (St.David’s Round Rock Medical Center, USA)

Managing Unpleasant Sensory Experiences at Medical Consultations

Juhana Mustakallio & Johanna Ruusuvuori
(Social Psychology, Tampere U, Finland)

10:30  Break

From Controlling to Comforting the Patient:
On the Uses of Touch in Speech Therapy Sessions

Sara Merlino (Linguistics, U. degli Studi Roma Tre, Italy)

Touch as Indexical Gesture in Pediatric Dentistry

Enhua Guo & Xinhue Wang (Linguistics, Ocean U., China)

Caring Touch in High-Tech Medicine – How Do We Do without It?

Federica Raia & Mario Deng (Education & Cardiology, UCLA, USA)


The art of touch is also practiced with great subtlety in contexts in which one body guides and instructs another: in families, pre-schools and schools, sports, crafts, and so on. Touch is also of utmost importance in lives and interactions in which it must compensate for the unavailability of another sense, most often vision. Human hands are exquisitely skilled at translating meaning and information from one sense to another, to allow blind people to feel what they cannot see and deaf-blind people to feel what they can neither hear nor see.

Interpersonal Touch with Preschool Children:
Guided Walking in (Sub)urban Settings

Matthew Burdelski (Linguistics, Osaka U, Japan)

When Helpers Guide Visually Impaired People
by Touching, Taking, and Moving Their Hands

Brian Lustgaard Due (Linguistics, U. of Copenhagen, Denmark)

3:00    Break

Interpersonal Touch between Non-Speaking Autistic Children and Others

Rachel Chen (Special Education, UC Berkeley, USA)

Instructing Touch

Leelo Keevallik (Linguistics, Linköping U, Sweden)


Sunday, September 25, DMC 5.102

Touch during the Time of COVID

The concluding panel of the symposium will be a discussion of the impact that the COVID-19 epidemic had on the practices and experience of, the attitudes towards, and the cultural roles and significance of tactile experience, interaction, and communication. The discussion will be prepared by a lecture about documented changes in tactility during and after the pandemic.

Re-Shaping Touch:
How the Covid19 Pandemic Changed Haptic Practices

Lorenza Mondada (Linguistcs, U.of Basel, Switzerland)

10:45  Break

Concluding Discussion