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An investigation of early forms of index finger extension and joint engagement in the development of pointing

Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
Human infants begin to point to objects around their first birthday, typically before they learn their first words. Pointing in infancy is associated with later social and communicative development and involves a level of complexity not found in other gestures, which is evident in the many functions it serves. Despite extensive research on pointing, there is a lack of consensus regarding the ontogenetic origins of this gesture. I argue that one reason for this is that the currently dominant cognitivist theoretical approach is grounded in problematic metatheoretical assumptions that constrain research in this area. For example, this approach has resulted in a focus on what communicative intentions infants are trying to express when they point, which I argue overlooks the process through which these intentions develop. An alternative is an activity-based approach, grounded in the process-relational worldview, which avoids pre-supposing communicative intentions in infants' emerging gestures and instead aims to investigate how this form of understanding develops within shared activities. Accordingly, the present dissertation is based on the activity-based theory that pointing emerges through infants learning to anticipate others' responses to their initially non-communicative index finger use, within joint engagement with others. Through analyses of 33 caregiver-infant dyads' interactions within three routine activities at two time points, I found that index finger extensions not yet coordinated with the infant's gaze, and tactile exploration with the index finger at 9 months were significantly positively correlated with pointing at 12 months. Infants engaged in tactile exploration with all fingers before using the index finger to do this, which emerged and became more established through transitional phases. This was associated with time spent in infant-led joint engagement with caregivers, which was also significantly positively correlated with pointing three months later, whereas time spent in parent-led joint engagement was not. Finally, longitudinal qualitative observations of three dyads' joint engagement episodes suggest that alternating between responding to and re-directing the infant's attention might be more strongly associated with the emergence of pointing when compared to frequency of parental responses. The relevance of these findings for theories of communicative development and associated metatheoretical assumptions is discussed.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Carpendale, Jeremy
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