Akhil Gupta notes that industrial, capitalist time, is often conceptually separated from the rhythm of natural time. It is added by Gupta that typically capitalist time is characterised as abstract, linear, and associated with Western development and progress, contradistinguished from the cyclical, less-distanced from nature, sense of the time of non-Western cultures.

Whereas time in industrial capitalism becomes abstract, homogeneous, empty, linear, and progressive, shorn of “nature’s rhythms,” and unconnected to the task at hand, historical and cultural Others construe time as concrete, cyclical, closely connected to nature, and experience it in the context of specific tasks…

It would, of course, be foolish to deny that the far-reaching changes that accompanied the industrial revolution permanently and irreversibly altered western notions of time. It is also true that dominant representations of time in the West emphasize its linear, continuous, unidirectional, and progressive character, its preciousness, and its interchangeability with money. What I wish to question is whether the changes that occurred in conceptions of time are best understood as the move from cyclicality to linearity, from task-orientation rooted in concrete activity to an abstract passage disconnected from the flow of everyday life, and from a close synchrony with the rhythms of nature to an alienated homogeneity imposed by work-discipline. Rather than accepting this narrative as a plausible reconstruction of the western past and a powerful prediction about the “Third World” today, rather than acquiescing to the dominant portrayals of the difference between Self and Other that circulate widely in the western world, we need to ask why discursively available representations of time in the West remain oblivious, despite easily observable evidence to the contrary, to features of cyclicality, concreteness, rhythms, and yes, even rebirth. The political importance of this silence lies in the fact that it allows the western narrative of progress to go unchallenged, and enables the continued management and surveillance of the “Third World” in the guise of “development”…

Another major contrast often drawn between industrial and nonindustrial societies is that in the former time is homogeneous, empty, and regular whereas in the latter it is rhythmic and irregular. The (often unstated) basis for this difference can be traced to their respective relationship to nature. Whereas agricultural, pastoral, and hunting-gathering societies are closely at- tuned to the “rhythms of nature,” in industrial societies these bonds are severed. For example, much has been made in pop sociology of the fact that electric lights, three work shifts, all-night radio and television broadcasting, and twenty-four-hour restaurants, grocery stores, and laundromats-what might be called the “Denny’s revolution”-are slowly blurring any meaningful distinction between night and day. Once again, as with the case of cyclical time, we find a troubling set of essentialist dichotomies being constructed in which agricultural (and more generally, nonindustrial) societies are identified with “nature” while industrial societies are identified with technology (Gupta 1992, 195-96, 199-200).

Gupta, Akhil. 1992. “The reincarnation of souls and the rebirth of commodities: Representations of time in “East” and “West.”” Cultural Critique 22: 187-211.


Johannes Fabian critiques the anthropological cultural relativisation of time, in part because it distances the anthropologist’s time from the time of the culture being studied. Fabian further notes that physical time is not referred to in its nakedness in anthropological work, but rather the foci are culturally distinguishable times.

Let us call the first one Physical Time. it serves as a sort of parameter or vector in describing sociocultural process. It appears in evolutionary, prehistorical reconstruction over vast spans but also in “objective” or “neutral” time scales used to measure demographic or ecological changes or the recurrence of various social events (economic, ritual, and so forth). The assumption is (and this is why we may call it physical) that this kind of Time, while it is a parameter of cultural process, is itself not subject to cultural variation…

Physical Time is seldom used in its naked, chronological form. More often than not, chronologies shade into Mundane or Typological Time. As distancing devices, categorizations of this kind are used, for instance, when we are told that certain elements in our culture are “neolithic” or “archaic”; or when certain living societies are said to practice “stone age economics”; or when certain styles of thought are identified as “savage” or “primitive.” Labels that connote temporal distancing need not have explicitly temporal references (such as cyclical or repetitive). Adjectives like mythicalritual, or even tribal, will serve the same function. They, too, connote temporal distancing as a way of creating the objects or referents of anthropological discourse. To use an extreme formulation: temporal distance is objectivity in the minds of many practitioners. This, by the way, is reflected with great accuracy and exasperating predictability in the popular image of our discipline. I am surely not the only anthropologist who, when he identifies himself as such to his neighbor, barber, or physician, conjures up visions of a distant past. When popular opinion identifies all anthropologists as handlers of bones and stones it is not in error. It grasps the essential role of anthropology as a provider of temporal distance (Fabian 1983, 22, 30).

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the other: How anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press.