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From the perspective of the natural sciences, time in and of itself causes nothing. Being but the interval between the motions of material objects, it is a gauge of change with no natural divisions. Such is not the case for most social times, where time has a causative role in shaping action and its perception. Humans mark its passage with ceremony, hope, and anxiety. The approach of a bureaucratic deadline or belief in an impending apocalypse can generate a flurry of culminating behaviors. Time is used as a reward, such as being given “time off” or promoted “ahead of time,” or as punishment, when one “does time” or is placed in “time out” for moral violations. Time, in addition to space, constructs the very boundaries of social reality by ordering social life and shaping individuals’ awareness of its passing.
Born without any temporal instinct or sense, human existence is largely orchestrated by external pacemakers, or Zeitgebers. Upon entry into the world, infants’ first lessons are largely temporal as they come to internalize the rhythms of their families’ language and activity schedules. With maturation, their lives become controlled by the metronomes of school, work, leisure, and community.
The most all-encompassing of these external times come from one’s culture, whose tempos underlie its music, poetry, language, sports, and religion. Cultural systems can be likened to massive musical scores whose rhythms, argues anthropologist Edward T. Hall, “may yet prove to be the most binding of all the forces that hold human beings together” (1983, p. 156). Thus state-of-the-art technologies have historically been applied to time’s measurement: Just as modern peoples measure time by the vibration of atoms, so prehistoric peoples constructed huge monoliths to coordinate social time with cosmological calendars.
The broadest of cultural time conceptions involve orientations toward the future and past. The “Golden Years,” for example, can be collectively understood to exist either in the future (hence, time is seen as progressive and evolutionary) or in some idyllic past (as Paradise lost). The future can be in the past if the flow of time is culturally understood to be recurrent and reversible. A near universal myth holds that the world goes through cycles of destruction and regeneration (Eliade 1949), evident in beliefs about the cyclical nature of both natural and social phenomena. Where time’s flow is understood to be linear and irreversible, the future can be either progressive (i.e., the outlook engendered by the Enlightenment and industrialization) or degenerative (i.e., theologians’ belief in humanity’s growing cultural depravity since the Fall or cosmologists’ predictions of a universe increasingly filled with black holes). These two broad orientations underlie distinction between traditional and modern cultures.
Cultural times are interwoven with social needs, the predominant personality types of social members, social complexity, and technology. The smaller and more homogeneous the group, the less the need for temporal precision. Hopi-speaking Pueblo Indians have no tenses for past, present, or future events, and they think of time not as a series of unique distinct instants but rather as cumulative events. Where identities are collectivist and individuals focus on the welfare of their groups as opposed to themselves, often they think in terms of long-term goals. An Iroquois chief describes how his people’s decision-making “relates to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come” (Rifkin 1987, p. 65). Such cultures feature people-oriented polychronic time, which stresses human engagements and the completion of transactions rather than rigid schedules. The activities of individualistic selves, such as those in the United States, tend to be governed by monochronic time, doing things one at a time in observance of task-oriented schedules and procedures. Oriented toward immediate rewards, these people are obsessed with punctuality and deadlines (Hall 1983)—and are demeaned when higher status others make them wait (Schwartz 1975).
As the primary form of work historically shifted from the land to the machine, the rhythms of social life were decreasingly dictated by natural times (e.g., cycles of day and night and the seasons) and increasingly by artificial times, such as the sixty-minute hour or the seven-day week, which have no bases in nature. With social differentiation and specialization evolved separate institutional realms, each with its own time schedules, rules, orientation toward the future and past, and patterns of change (e.g., cycles of growth and decay and oscillations between political liberalism and conservatism, bear and bull markets, and religious revivalism and secularism).
Given the growing importance of time, social institutions invariably sought its control through their creations of duration, succession, temporal location, and uniform rates of occurrence (Zerubavel 1981). Religions created prayer times and holy days (to distinguish themselves in time as well as space, Muslims claimed Fridays, Jews Saturdays, and Christians Sundays). One of the early acts of the First Republic of France was to alter time to create a more rational secular society. In 1793 the French Revolutionary calendar was adopted, with ten-day weeks, ten-hour days, and 100-minute hours. In Britain and the United States, national railroad schedules required uniform time because each town could no longer have its own noon when the sun was directly overhead. In 1883, Standard Railroad Time went into effect, creating five time zones to replace fifty regional times. A year later it was made the national legal time. Finally, with the increased rationalities of bureaucratic organizations, time became increasingly regularized and scheduled owing to greater needs for coordination and deadline-dictated precision.
Institutional differentiation was accompanied by the proliferation of social roles, which have become increasingly age graded over the past six decades (Chudacoff 1989). Single-room schools, for instance, became age-segregated classrooms. Each of these roles, in turn, came with its own “social clock” and associated age norms. To be thirteen and still in the third grade is to be “behind schedule” and a source of shame; to be a thirteen-year-old college junior is to be “ahead of time” and a source of esteem. Sequences of these age-graded roles provide biographical pathways and timetables. In the case of the family, there exist normative “best times” for the length of courtships and when to first marry and begin parenting. In addition, there are normative patterns for how individuals’ various roles are to be synchronized, such as not getting married before completing junior high school.
Finally, substantial social science research has been devoted to individuals’ subjective experiences of time. Temporal orientations are, for instance, shaped by positions within the class structure, with the future-oriented middle-class being more likely than the present-oriented lower class to stress delayed gratification and thriftiness in their children’s socialization. The passage of time seems to accelerate with increasing age, density of experiences, and approaching conclusions. Multiple and conflicting role demands produce the stresses of temporal scarcity. Excessive rates of social change, according to Toffler (1970), can produce “future shock.” Not surprisingly, mystical significance is attributed to senses of timeless-ness, such as athletes being “in the zone” and in religious depictions of deathless eternities.
- Chudacoff, Howard P. 1989. How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Eliade, Mircea.  1959. The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
- Hall, Edward T. 1983. The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
- Rifkin, Jeremy. 1987. Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
- Schwartz, Barry. 1975. Queuing and Waiting: Studies in the Social Organization of Access and Delay. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Toffler, Alvin. 1970. Future Shock. New York: Random House.
- Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1981. Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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