Chapter 4

Building Order: Culture and History

Micro-Macro Connection


Time as a Social Construction

Most of us think of time as uniform and unchangeable. A minute is a minute no matter who you are or where you live. Time, though, is a human construction.

Some units of timeólike days, months, and yearsóparallel natural events, such as the movement of the earth and moon. Others, however, are clearly arbitrary. Seconds, minutes, and hours do not exist in nature. The 7-day week has been traced to holy numbers, planets, and astrology.1

Although time is measured in absolute units, it is not perceived the same way in all situations. Think of how time flies when you're on an enjoyable date but drags when you're in a boring class. The extra 5 minutes of sleep we desire after the alarm goes off in the morning is infinitely more valuable to us than 5 minutes stuck in traffic.

In some situations, time is structurally irrelevant. Las Vegas casinos, for example, have no windows and no clocks, and they operate 24 hours a day.

It would be a mistake to assume that all members of a large, complex society like ours share the same conceptions of time. Different regions have their own time rules. In some areas people are described as "laid back"; in others they're "fast-paced" or "always in a hurry."

Conceptions of time are also tied to occupation. Work life is often synonymous with the amount of time you spend on the job as well as the time you spend preparing for work, getting there, and getting back. Workdays are punctuated by time demands or deadlines.

In addition, in most jobs people are paid by the hour. Time has thus become an economic commodity, something that can be exchanged for money, wasted, shared, or saved.2

Norms concerning the definition and use of time vary from culture to culture. For instance, cultures differ in their orientations toward the future and the past. Phrases like "time heals all wounds" or "that's ancient history" are meaningful only within a culture that makes significant distinctions between the past and the future. To some people, such phrases would make neither linguistic nor cultural sense. In many Arab societies there are only three sets of time: no time at all, now (which varies in duration), and forever (too long).3

The Hopi of the American Southwest have no tenses in their language indicating past, present, or future.4 For them time does not proceed in a linear fashion and is not perceived as a series of discrete instances. Life is cyclical, and events such as meals or ceremonies are not unique but are accumulated over time.

The idea of living by a clock is still foreign to much of the world today. In Burundi, for example, appointments are regulated not by clocks but by natural cycles:

People who grew up in rural areas…might make an early appointment by saying, "I'll see you tomorrow morning when the cows are going out for grazing." If they want to meet in the middle of the day they set their appointment time for "when the cows are going to drink in the stream."5

Contrast this sort of scheduling to the clock time that prevails in the United States. Our watches tell us when it is time to work and when it is time to play. We even let our clocks dictate biological events.6 We say things like "It's too early to go to sleep" or "It's not dinner time yet" to override signals we're receiving from our bodies that we're tired or hungry. Every parent knows that part of training an infant is getting him or her to eat and sleep on a "regular schedule," which more often than not conforms to the parents' sense of time.

Americans are acutely sensitive to time and timing. Our days often consist of a series of precisely scheduled episodes. Your classes meet at specific times of the day. Perhaps you live in a dormitory where meals are served only at certain times. If you work, you have "hours" that you must keep or risk losing your job.

An American ideal is to be punctual or "on time." So valued are the rules of punctuality that, if you violate them, you are required to provide an apology and an explanation. Although individual differences do exist, like the friend who is "always late," and situational differences arise, like arriving at a party "fashionably late," most of us subscribe to the notion that one should be on time if at all possible.

Other cultures place a very different value on punctuality. Terms like late, early, or on time are not universal. Psychologist Robert Levine studied time norms in Brazil. He noted that Brazilians have much more flexible conceptions of time and punctuality than Americans do.7 He wrote of an experience he had while he was a visiting professor at a university outside Rio de Janeiro:

My class was scheduled from 10 until noon. Many students came late, some very late. Several arrived after 10:30. A few showed up closer to 11. Two came after that. All of the latecomers wore relaxed smiles. . . . Each one said hello, and although a few apologized briefly, none seemed terribly concerned about lateness. They assumed that I understood.

Back home in California, I never need to look at a clock to know when the class hour is ending. The shuffling of books is accompanied by strained expressions that say plaintively, "I'm starving. . . . I've got to go to the bathroom. . . . I'm going to suffocate if you keep us one more second." When noon arrived in my first Brazilian class, only a few students left immediately. Others slowly drifted out during the next 15 minutes. . . . When several remaining students kicked off their shoes at 12:30, I went into my own "starving/bathroom/suffocation" routine. Apparently for many of my students, staying late was simply of no more importance than arriving late in the first place.8

Such cultural differences in time are not merely amusing or trivial. They tell us a great deal about the nature and values of a particular society. Brazilians tend to believe that a person who is consistently late is probably more successful than one who is consistently on time. Lack of punctuality is a badge of success.

People tend to build ideas of national character around the pace of a particular culture's way of life. We Americans admire the Germans and the Swiss because of their ability to "make the trains run on time." We may characterize some Arab and South American cultures as "lazy" or "apathetic" because of their apparent disregard for timeliness. We see the Japanese as aggressive, partly because their pace of life is quicker than ours and because they are "ahead of us" in other measurable ways.9

Appreciating such cultural differences in time sense becomes increasingly important as modern methods of communication put greater numbers of people in daily contact.

1Zerubavel, E. 1985. The seven day circle: The history and meaning of the week. New York: Free Press.

2Kearl, M. C., & Gordon, C. 1992. Social psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

3Hall, E. T. 1969. The hidden dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

4Whorf, B. 1956. Language, thought and reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

5Levine, R. 1997. A geography of time. New York: Basic Books.

6Levine, R. 1997. A geography of time. New York: Basic Books.

7Levine, R., & Wolff, E. 1988. "Social time: The heartbeat of culture." In E. Angeloni (Ed.), Annual editions in anthropology 88/89. Guilford, CT: Dushkin.

8Levine, R. 1997. A geography of time. New York: Basic Books, pp. 78-79.

9Levine, R., & Wolff, E. 1988. "Social time: The heartbeat of culture." In E. Angeloni (Ed.), Annual editions in anthropology 88/89. Guilford, CT: Dushkin.

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