Barbara Adam illustrates that in social science perspectives, natural time is positioned as distinct from its social conceptualisation. This assumption is bred from general impressions that social scientists have about the separation of natural and social phenomena.

In contradistinction to social science analyses this research shows that most of what social scientists preserve exclusively for the human realm is generalised throughout nature. It demonstrates that the characteristics identified with natural time are in fact an exclusively human creation. Past, present, and future, historical time, the qualitative experience of time, the structuring of ‘undifferentiated change’ into episodes, all are established as integral time aspects of the subject matter of the natural sciences and clock time, the invariant measure, the closed circle, the perfect symmetry, and reversible time as our creations. This investigation thus establishes natural time as very different from its social science conceptualisation. Furthermore, it shows that it matters what assumptions social scientists hold about natural time and the subject matter of the natural sciences in general as these not only affect the definition of social time but also the understanding of the nature of ‘the social’. Since our traditional understanding of natural time emerged as inadequate and faulty we have to recognise that the analysis of social time is flawed by implication. However, the difficulty extends beyond the need to achieve a more appropriate understanding of natural time since the assumptions associated with this understanding are embedded in the more general theories that social scientists hold about nature (Adam 1990, 150-51).

Adam, Barbara. 1990. Time and social theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.


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.


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.


Norbert Elias interrogates the conceptual separation of natural time and social time by noting that, contrary to the impression of an autonomous natural rhythm waiting to be discovered, a sense of natural time is shaped via devices that were originally developed for the measurement of human, social time. Natural, physical time, duly manifests, and diverges, from human time concepts.

[N]ever before had human-made time-pieces been used in this manner as a measuring rod for physical processes. The clepsydra, an elaborate version of which he used in his experiments, was traditionally a timepiece employed for timing human affairs. It was a social time-meter. Timing had been human centered. Galileo’s innovatory imagination led him to change the function of the ancient timing device by using it systematically as a gauge not for the flux of social but of natural events. In that way a new concept of ‘time’, that of physical time, began to branch off from the older, relatively more unitary human-centred concept. It was the corollary of a corresponding change in people’s concept of nature. Increasingly, ‘nature’ assumed in people’s eyes the character of an autonomous, mechanical nexus of events which was purposeless, but well ordered: it obeyed ‘laws’…

The significance of this emergence of the concept of ‘physical’ time from the matrix of ‘social time’ can hardly be overrated. It went hand in hand with the emergence of a new function for human-made timepieces; it implied the timing of ‘nature’ for its own sake. Hence it was one of the earliest steps in a process of concept-formation whose results today have become fossilized and are very much taken for granted – steps on the road towards the conceptual split of the universe which has come to dominate increasingly people’s modes of speaking and thinking and which appears as a consensual axiom that no one can doubt. As an autonomous nexus represented by eternal laws, ‘nature’ appears to stand on one side, people and their social world – artificial, arbitrary and structure-less – on the other. Endowed with regularities of its own, ‘nature’ as an object of people’s studies seems to be, in some way not clearly explained, divorced from the world of humans. One has not yet come to recognize that the illusion arises from the very fact that humans have learned to distance themselves, in their reflection and observation, from ‘nature’ in order to explore it – to distance themselves more from ‘nature’ than from themselves. In their imagination, the greater distancing and self-discipline required for the exploration of the inanimate nexus of events transformed itself into the notion of a really existing distance between themselves, the subjects, and ‘nature’, the nexus of objects…

In connection with this wider conceptual divide ‘time’, too, came to be divided into two different types: physical and social ‘time’. In the former sense, ‘time’  appeared as an aspect of ‘physical nature’, as one of the unchanging variables which physicists measure and which, as such, plays its part in the mathematical equations intended as symbolic representations of nature’s ‘laws’. In the latter sense, ‘time’ had the character of a social institution, a regulator of social events, a mode of human experience – and clocks had that of an integral part of a social order which could not work without them (Elias 1992, 114-16).

Elias, Norbert. 1992. Time: An Essay. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell.


Jonathan Martineau describes capitalism’s commodification of time according to measures of commercial value as having alienated humans from the concrete time  that is associated with bodies, emotions, and the ecosystem. In reducing time to calculations of market based exchange value, capitalist, abstract, clock-time, is said to be separate from what is naturally individual about time.

Although I have focused on capitalist abstract clock-time, throughout this study I have kept alive notions of concrete times. I have highlighted the temporal aspect of dynamics of domination and resistance between capitalism’s tendency to commodify – and therefore alienate – time, and the concrete times of human lives and socio-natural processes that resist it. Capitalism’s drive to commodify and alienate time is relentless, and it is expressed in processes occurring all across the social field. Indeed, the drive toward the privatisation of natural resources can be read as an attempt by capital to abstract the concrete times of socio-natural cycles in order to ‘valorise’ them, i.e. to integrate these times in the logic of capital accumulation. In such processes of commodification, the complex cluster of useful labour, socio-natural cycles, human bodies and concrete temporal relationships become means to an end: capital accumulation…Examples such as these with regards to the relationship between humans and a socially mediated nature, between humans and humans, and between humans and their own bodies, illustrate a struggle between capitalism and human lives, of which the temporal dimension deserves more attention from critical scholarship.

Perhaps we can now propose a solution to the modern paradox of time with which we started this enquiry. Why, in a context where time is measured and organised to such an unprecedented degree, is it experienced by us as the most uncontrollable and alien force? The measuring and organising of time is a social need; it is a fundamental component of the organisation of society and also of the reproduction of the human species. However, under the compulsion of class relations, and today of capitalism, social time relations have been serving the interests of dominant powers, often at the expense of the concrete times of exploited or oppressed groups. The power of capital in modern societies has relied heavily on the development and refinement of the measurement and organisation of time to an unprecedented degree. The first purpose of this measurement and organisation, however, is to reproduce the power of capital and to increase the power held by the law of value over social relations, not to enhance the potential of humans as world-making and time-making beings. As such, measured and organised time faces us as an alien structure, coordinating value relations instead of facilitating human relations and contributing to human development.

Measured and organised time therefore goes hand in hand with its alienation in our modern temporal order for the simple reason that time is measured and organised not by us, but by capital, not for us, but for capital. Our times are therefore subject to the imperatives of the law of value. Reclaiming human concrete times of emotions, work, social relationships, human bodies, friendships, love, parenting, childhood, laughter, sleep, childbirth, childrearing, food production, art, the concrete time of our ecosystems, and so on, thus forms an integral part of the reclaiming of our lives and our world. The struggle for ‘decommodification’, to employ a somewhat rebarbative term, also entails a struggle for the decommodification of human and socio-natural concrete times, the end of temporal alienation and of the subjection of human and social lives to the dictates of the capitalist market, capitalist abstract clocktime compulsions and capital accumulation (Martineau 2015, 167-68).

Martineau, Jonathan. 2015. Time, capitalism and alienation: A socio-historical inquiry into the making of modern time. Leiden and Boston: Brill.