In sensory hair cells of the cochlea, deflection of the stereociliary bundle results in direct mechanical gating of mechanoelectrical transduction channels, a function generally attributed to the tip link running between the tips of short stereocilia and the sides of adjacent taller ones. However, immunocytochemical experiments indicate that the channels may not be associated with the tip link but occur just below it in a region of contact between the stereocilia. To determine whether transduction channels in this location could be operated during physiologically appropriate deflections as effectively by shear displacement as if they were associated with the tip link, a two–dimensional kinematic analysis of relative motion between stereocilia has been performed assuming contact between stereocilia is maintained during deflection. Bundle geometry and dimensions were determined from transmission electron micrographs of hair cells from several frequency locations between 0.27 and 13.00 kHz in the guinea–pig cochlea. The analysis indicates that for a 10 nm deflection of the tallest stereocilia of both inner and outer hair cells, i.e. within the range of the maximum sensitivity of mammalian hair bundles, the average shear displacement in the contact region would be 1.6 nm, but that it increases systematically towards higher frequency regions for outer hair cells. This displacement is comparable in magnitude to tip–link elongation for individual stereociliary pairs.