Maurice Bloch, when commentating on Clifford Geertz’s characterisation of the dual calendars by which the Balinese population live, presents the point that an unconditional sense of time’s cultural relativity is overly reductive. Nevertheless, Bloch posits that a culture’s everyday, social concepts of time, are not true concepts of time.

[T]he Balinese evidence does not support the view that notions of time vary from culture to culture, it only shows that, in ritual contexts, the Balinese use a different notion of time from that in more mundane contexts and that in these mundane contexts categories and classification are, it may be assumed from Berlin and Kay’s findings, based on cognitive universals. Furthermore, the nature of the contexts where we find these cognitive universals itself suggests an explanation of their presence. Durkheim, like others after him, rejected the notion that cognition was constrained by nature, by pointing to the variability of concepts, especially of concepts of time; but if he is wrong in this, his objection cannot hold. What is more, since it is in contexts where man is in most direct contact with nature that we find universal concepts, the hypothesis that it is something in the world beyond society which constrains at least some of our cognitive categories is strengthened, though this need not be nature as an independent entity to man, but, as I believe is suggested by Berlin and Kay’s data and foreshadowed by Marx, nature as the subject of human activity (see also Rosch 1975)…

I am not making the empiricist mistake of thinking that concepts as concepts are given in nature, I am only talking of the constraints of nature on thought given the human condition. In this I am following Piaget (1968). It would be nonsense to say that our everyday concepts are true concepts of time. The notions of time held by physicists are not remotely like folk notions of time. On the other hand my position is totally opposed to that of Levi-Strauss who argues that nature in this respect is an unordered phenomenon only ordered by culture in whatever way the logic of thought takes it (Bloch 1977, 285, 290-91).

Block, Maurice. 1977. “The past and the present in the present.” Man 12(2): 278-92.


Rita Felski notes that rather than women being restricted to the natural temporality exemplified by maternal cycles, they are actually more preoccupied with a non-natural, cultural time, than men are. This is said to be identifiable in the onus put on women to juggle child-care and work responsibilities.

For example, those who believe that linear time is masculine and cyclical time feminine usually point to the dramatic contrast between the grand narratives of male historical time and the repetitive everyday time of women. This difference then serves as evidence of a vast gendered gulf in temporal experience. Here is an instance of the problem noted by Maurice Bloch: one facet of cultural experience is taken to be exemplary and representative of an entire (gendered) way of life. The part is taken for the whole.

If, however, the daily lives of women are compared to the daily lives of men, the contrast is much more muted. The realm of everyday life simply is repetitive, being largely defined by monotony, routine, and habit. It is the realm of the eternal daily round, of what the French call “métro, boulot, dodo” (metro, work, sleep). The grey-suited commuter waiting for the 6:30 train or the male sports fan glued to the television every Saturday is as much a creature of routine as is any woman. As I argue in chapter 3, the perception that cyclical time is a uniquely female province is highly misleading.

Such a perception arises from the fact that cyclical time is often seen as natural time, and hence the sphere of women. Yet there is nothing particularly natural about the routines through which most people in the West organize their lives: Burger King at 6 p.m., Friends at 8, a weekly trip to Walmart, the church, or the mall. Of course, the idea that cyclical time is natural does contain an important grain of truth. We know that human bodies are programmed to eat, sleep, and get rid of waste at regular intervals and do not cope well with major alterations to these rhythms (think, for example, of the well-documented disorientation of workers required to work irregular shifts). There are clear limits to the adaptability of human bodily rhythms. Yet the organization of such physical needs within everyday life is always an affair of culture, not nature.

Rather than being elemental creatures attuned to natural rhythms, many women nowadays are, if anything, even more preoccupied with time measurement than men. Caught between the conflicting demands of home and work, often juggling child care and frantic about their lack of time, it is women who are clock watchers, who obsess about appointments and deadlines, who view time as a precious commodity to hoard or to spend. Because women’s work at home is unpaid and hence is not translatable into exchange value, scholars have sometimes assumed that it remains outside the modern time economy. Yet the regulation of time pervades all aspects of everyday life and is no longer limited to those engaged in paid work. The housewife who places her cake in the oven for exactly thirty-five minutes, writes down her appointments in her daily planner, and makes sure that she gives her children several hours of quality time each day is as much a creature of modern time measurement as is any male worker (Felski 2000, 20-21).

Felski, Rita. 2000. Doing time: Feminist theory and postmodern culture. New York and London: New York University Press.