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Joshua Keating reports that not all territories have always been interested in adopting a standardised social time. The U.S. national time is provided as an example of this, in which the railroad network demanded a country-wide common clock, despite cities such as Cincinnati wanting to remain with a more natural time.

We measure time not simply in terms of minutes and seconds, but in terms of concepts such as “early,” “late” – or, for that matter, “fashionably late.” What is the length of a “work day”? In the United States, Europe and Japan you’ll get three different answers.

Those subjective views help explain why the standardization of time has often been met with reluctance, if not outright resistance. Historically, countries have not eagerly embraced the global clock—they’ve felt compelled to do so because of the demands of commerce.

The U.S. national time standard, for instance, didn’t emerge until 1883, when it was adopted by the railroads, which needed to maintain common timetables. Before that, cities largely kept their own local time, and many were not happy to have big government and big railroads force standardization on them. “Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars,” editorialized one newspaper when the changeover was going into effect (Keating 2013).

Keating, Joshua. 2013. “Why time is a social construct.” Smithsonian.com. January 2013. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-time-is-a-social-construct-16 4139110/

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Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield contest the characterisation of the week as being linked to celestial movements. Instead they note that the week is contingent upon social norms and contexts, which are distinct from the rhythms and revolutions of the planets.

The week does not have a basis in the motions of the heavens. As Michael Yong, Director of the Institute of Community Studies in London, put it: ‘The Sun has not been the only master. Humans can create their own cycles without having to rely on the ready-made ones. No other creature has demonstrated so much independence from astronomy. No other creatures has the week.’ The week probably arose from the practical need for societies to have a time unit smaller than a month but longer than a day. Communities run more smoothly when there are regular opportunities for laundry, worship and holidays. Ancient Colombia used to have a three-day week. The ancient Greeks favoured ten-day weeks while some primitive tribes today prefer a week of only four days. The seven-day week derived from the Babylonians who in turn influenced the Jews (though the former ended it with an ‘evil day’ rather than a Sabbath, when taboos were enforced to appease the gods – perhaps the origin of the restrictions on Sunday activities). Its popularity has defeated a number of attempts at change. The French tried to decimalise it after the Revolution but their ten-day week was scrapped by Napoleon. In 1929 the Soviets attempted to introduce a few-day week and in 1932 extended it to six, but by 1940 the seven-day week had returned. Just as the week ignores astronomy, so does the modern technology of timekeeping (Coveney and Highfield 1990, 43).

Coveney, Peter, and Highfield, Roger. 1990. The arrow of time: A voyage through science to solve time’s greatest mystery. London: Flamingo.

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Émile Durkheim characterises time exclusively by the divisions created by social symbols and rituals. Durkheim recognises that the framework for this symbolisation and ritualisation is seasonal, natural, and cosmic. However, that societies each regulate time differently, illustrates that natural forces are external to the social causes of time.

What if one tried to imagine what the notion of time would be in the absence of the methods we use to divide, measure, and express it with objective signs, a time that was not a succession of years, months, weeks, days, and hours? It would be nearly impossible to conceive of. We can conceive of time only if we differentiate between moments. Now, what is the origin of that differentiation? Undoubtedly, states of consciousness that we have already experienced can be reproduced in us in the same order in which they originally occurred; and, in this way, bits of our past become immediate again, even while spontaneously distinguishing themselves from the present. But however important this distinction might be for our private experience, it is far from sufficient to constitute the notion or category of time. The category of time is not simply a partial or complete commemoration of our lived life. It is an abstract and impersonal framework that contains not only our individual existence but also that of humanity. It is like an endless canvas on which all duration is spread out before the mind’s eye and on which all possible events are located in relation to points of reference that are fixed and specified. It is not my time that is organized in this way; it is time that is conceived of objectively by all men of the same civilization. This by itself is enough to make us begin to see that any such organization would have to be collective. And indeed, observation establishes that these indispensable points, in reference to which all things are arranged temporally, are taken from social life. The division into days, weeks, months, years, etc., corresponds to the recurrence of rites, festivals, and public ceremonies at regular intervals. A calendar expresses the rhythm of collective activity while ensuring that regularity…the course of natural phenomena, the rhythm of cosmic life set its mark upon the rhythm of ritual life. Hence, for a long time the feasts were seasonal…

But the seasons merely provided the external framework of this organization, not the principle on which it rests, for even the cults that have exclusively spiritual ends have remained periodic. The reason is that this periodicity has different causes. Because the seasonal changes are critical periods for nature, they are a natural occasion for gatherings and thus for religious ceremonies…Yet it must be acknowledged that this framework, although purely external, has shown remarkable endurance…The form of this cycle is apt to vary from one society to another. (Durkheim 1995 (1912), 9-10 & 353).

Durkheim, Émile. 1995 (1912). The elementary forms of religious life. Translated by Karen Fields. New York: The Free Press.

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Robert Coolman traces the historical division of time into minutes and seconds to ancient forms of calculation, as well as to later improvements in the measurement of activity in the sky. The distinction is raised between the constancy of visible celestial movements, versus the technological contingencies underpinning the developing representations of such movements.

For millennia, ancient civilizations looked to the sky to measure the big units of time. There’s the year, which is the time it takes Earth to complete one orbit around the sun; the month, which is approximately how long it takes the moon to orbit our planet; the week, which is approximately the time between the four phases of the moon; and the day, which is the duration of one rotation of the Earth’s on its axis. Dividing the day was not so straightforward, though hours and minutes have their origins in traditions tracing back thousands of years…The use of 60 began with the Sumerians who used different number systems. While you and I write numbers using base 10, or “decimal” this civilization used base 12 (“duodecimal”) and base 60 (“sexigesimal”)…Medieval astronomers were first to apply sexigesimal values to time. The 11th-century Persian scholar Al-Bīrūnī tabulated times of new moons on specific dates in hours, 60ths (minutes), 60ths of 60ths (seconds)…Minutes and seconds, however, were not used for everyday timekeeping for several centuries. Mechanical clocks first appeared in Europe during the late 14th century, but with only one hand, following the design of sundials and water clocks…astronomers of the 16th century began physically realizing minutes and seconds with the construction of improved clocks with minute and second hands in order to improve measurements of the sky (Coolman 2014).

Coolman, Robert. 2014. “Keeping time: Why 60 minutes.” Live science. April 19 2014.  https://www.livescience.com/44964-why-60-minutes-in-an-hour.html

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Jay Griffiths characterises Western, hegemonic time, as inherently anti-natural, and as that which is imposed on cultures. A challenge to this dominant form of time is said to manifest through the various time structures of indigenous populations, which are portrayed as being more natural than the time which has developed from the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution created time-owners; the capitalist factory bosses, erecting clock-bound fences of work-time and the sense that employers owned the time of their employees, enslaving their time, enclosing it. Stealthily, nastily, one type of time has grown horribly dominant: Western, Christian, linear, abstract, clock-dominated, work-oriented, coercive, capitalist, masculine and anti-natural: Hegemonic Time. This time, and all the time-values which go with it, have been imposed on numerous cultures across the world. (When missionaries arrived the Algonquin people of North America called clock-time ‘Captain Clock’ because it seemed to command every act for the Christians.)

There is revolt. The challenge to Hegemonic Time has come from the radiant variety of times understood by indigenous peoples; from self-conscious political protest; from children’s dogged insistence on living in a stretchy eternity; from women’s blood and from carnival.

Subversive and mischievous, carnival reverses the norms, overturns the usual hierarchies. Unlike Hegemonic Time, carnival is usually tied to nature’s time; it is ahistoric, linked to cyclic, frequently seasonal events. Carnival transforms work-time to playtime, reverses the status quo. It is frequently earthy and sexual (Griffiths 2002).

Griffiths, Jay. 2002, ‘Boo to captain clock.’ New Internationalist 343(March): 14-17.

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John Urry reviews how social science in general, and sociology in particular, regularly positions social time in opposition to natural time. For Urry, a key parameter in this distinction is the portrayal of social time as contingently pluralistic, given its differing constructions between societies.

Most social scientific accounts have presumed that time is in some sense social, and hence separate from, and opposed to, the time of nature. Durkheim (1968) argued in Elementary forms that only humans have a concept of time, and that time in human societies is abstract and impersonal and not simply individual. Moreover, this impersonality is socially organized; it is what Durkheim refers to as “social time.” Hence, time is a “social institution” and the category of time is not natural but social. Time is an objectively given social category of thought produced within societies and which therefore varies between societies. Social time is different from, and opposed to, the time(s) of nature (Urry 2000, 417).

Urry, John. 2000. ‘Sociology of time and space.’ In The Blackwell companion to social theory: Second edition, 416-44. Edited by Bryan Turner. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

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Kevin Birth argues that the human knowledge of time is not associated with celestial movements. Instead, the knowledge that humans have of time is embedded within culturally diversified objects and tools, which distantly represent celestial movements.

The study of objects of time is the study of cognition and culture, but not of the sort limited to the mind or to a simpleminded notion of cultural boundaries. For most clock users, the logics used to determine the time are outside of their knowledge but within the objects. These logics have an artifactual existence that mediates between consciousness and the world—part of what Cole describes as the “special characteristics of human mental life” as “the characteristics of an organism that can inhabit, transform, and recreate an artifact-mediated world” (1995, 32). When one wants to know what time it is, one does not calculate it, but simply refers to a clock or watch. When one wants to know the date, one consults a calendar rather than observes the Sun, Moon, and stars. This placement of temporal logics in artifacts clearly forms a feature of humans that is quite different from anything shared with any other animal—not only do humans make tools, and not only do humans have knowledge far beyond what animals exhibit, but humans place this knowledge in tools. The cultural diversity of concepts of time is closely related to the fusion of diverse ideas and artifacts used to think. Whereas my examples so far are the clock and the calendar, the use of objects to mediate time is not new. Objects related to time are among some of the most famous in the archaeological record, for example, Stonehenge, the Aztec calendar, and the Antikythera Mechanism (Birth 2012, 9).

Birth, Kevin. 2012. Objects of time: How things shape temporality. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

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David Hoy distinguishes between questions concerned with the nature of time itself, and inquiries into the phenomenology of human temporality. Time in this perspective is said to inform human lives, as a universal or objective source, that is then constructed with a human particularity.

These questions should indicate that this book is not primarily about the nature of time in general. The focus is instead on the history of the phenomenology of time as time shows up in human lives. To write about the nature of time in and of itself would require an exploration of a complex array of issues about the status of what could be called “scientific” or “objective” or “universal” time, that is to say, the “time of the universe.” Restricting the book to the phenomenology of human temporality—to “the time of our lives”—raises an equally formidable but different set of questions. In this book some of the questions raised by our authors are the following. Is the time of our lives a function of a life as a whole, a lifetime, or can it be condensed into a single moment of vision? Does a life have a unity that runs through it, or is the unity of time, and of a life, a narrative, a story, a fiction, or even an illusion? Can time be perceived? What is the time like that we encounter in our experience of our world and ourselves? Is the time of our lives the same as the time of nature or of history? (Hoy 1989, xii).

Hoy, David. 2009. The time of our lives: A critical history of temporality. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.

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Daniel Boorstin posits that by marking time according to distinct parts, humans were freed from the cyclical nature of the world. Humanity’s liberation from a repetitive natural condition, via the various conceptions of time, is further claimed to have conditioned the first communities of shared human knowledge.

The first grand discovery was time, the landscape of experience. Only by marking off months, weeks, and years, days and hours, minutes and seconds, would mankind be liberated from the cyclical monotony of nature. The flow of shadows, sand, and water, and time itself, translated into the clock’s staccato, became a useful measure of man’s movements across the planet. The discoveries of time and of space would become one continuous dimension. Communities of time would bring the first communities of knowledge, ways to share discovery, a common frontier on the unknown (Boorstin 1985, 1).

Boorstin, Daniel. 1985. The discoverers. New York: Random House Inc.

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Douwe Tiemersma reviews how African literature describes time in Africa as being more closely associated with organic events than time is in Western societies. Tiemersma expands on this definition by noting how African time is perceived to be more natural, present-centric, and less abstract, than the mechanics of Western time.

Mbiti’s description of human life also shows organic time. Birth is a slow process which is finalized long after the person has been physically born…Growth of time is the growth of the child, of growing old with special indicators for the various periods. There is an ordered sequence and duration of periods, and that is time intrinsic to the events of human life. Personal events are also connected to environmental events as the flooding of a river and the enthronement of a king…

Time in Africa seems not so abstract and mechanized as it is in Western societies. It is closer to natural phenomena and everyday life, which are more organic. Time seems to be connected with the important idea of life-force (Tiemersma 1998, 269).

Tiemersma, Douwe. 1998. ‘A model of organic time and development in Africa.’ In Temps et developpement dans la pensee de I’Afrique subsharienne/Time and development in the thought of subsaharan Africa, 267-86. Edited by Souleymane Bachir Diagne et Heinz Kimmerle. Amsterdam: Rodopi.