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.
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.