The nature of time is a topic of commanding interest to scholars in many different academic disciplines. Anthropology has been concerned with time in two major ways. The first is how human beings create and express time, including the generic, universal, homogenous time of science that many people take for granted. The second concern is the issue of representations of temporality, particularly in the anthropologist’s ethnography, and how such representations “freeze” cultures in an effectively timeless or eternal state.
The legacy of modernism in the anthropological study of time is the challenge to the singular nature of time. By the late 1800s, a centuries-old opinion had begun to settle in as received wisdom; namely, that time was a uniform and universal yardstick of human existence and experience. Newtonian time was assumed to hold everywhere; Kantian time, while individually experienced, was a unitary phenomenon. Time tended to be conceived as a public, universal phenomenon.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the universalist tendency came under closer scrutiny. Newly formed social science disciplines, such as psychology and sociology/anthropology, undertook studies of time. The result was a growing sense that far from being public and universal, time and the experience of it was private and somewhat idiosyncratic. By the 1910s, a growing number of scholars came to believe that time was far from universal.
Several scholars figured prominently in the reformulation of time as privately held. Henri Bergson’s writings on duration helped ground time conceptually in the perception of the temporal subject. Bergson’s notion of durée was an expression of the flow of consciousness. And William James’s now famous neologism “stream of consciousness” was itself an attack on those who would divide temporal consciousness into discrete units—as he said, like describing a river in terms of bucketfuls of water.
Émile Durkheim and his followers investigated temporality from an analytic and theoretical stance midway between public and private, shared and idiosyncratic. Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, and Henri Hubert conceived of time as variable across social groups—variably perceived, variably expressed. But they also considered time a shared phenomenon in its cultural expression. Hence a midpoint between the public and the private—time may be individually expressed and experienced, but it is at heart a social construction, a product of the social group, and must therefore be public and shared but variable across different social groups.
Most of the early work of these scholars involved sketching this position theoretically. The empirical investigations tended to center on calendars and the rhythmicization of time. That is, what are public expressions of time, and what social work do they accomplish? Calendars are an obvious answer, and Hubert’s now-famous work on the representation of time examines how time is constructed calendrically. Part of the thrust of Hubert’s argument is that time is a necessary component of magical and religious representations. The work of the calendar is not to measure time in the sense of giving magical or religious acts a fixed date, but to give tempo or rhythm to time, to regulate the intervals of the sacred and the profane.
E. Evans-Pritchard, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Edmund Leach are all intellectually descended from Durkheim’s structural position. Leach takes Durkheim and Hubert’s argument to its logical conclusion in suggesting that time is nothing more than the alternation between the sacred and the profane. Leach’s argument is succinct and well stated, if somewhat extreme. Leach seems to confuse the discursive, symbolic manipulation of time and the reality of time. That is, in a fit of Durkheimian exuberance he mistakes oscillations in temporality for oscillations in time. Thus ritual action does not actually, as Leach might claim, cause time to run backward, although it can cause a symbolic, temporal reversal that is as powerful as reality.
Evans-Pritchard specifically interrogates time and space in his monograph The Nuer. He argues that both are products of social groups and structural principles. In so doing, he suggests there are two types of times, ecological and structural. Ecological time is physical and pertains to the environment. Structural time refers to kinship and other social structures, and hence the social distance between elements of social structure. Evans-Pritchard makes the point that both are structured by activities. So, despite the seeming tangibility of a calendar, it is really religious, social acts that constitute time. Where Evans-Pritchard’s argument is the weakest is his discussion of what Nuer must feel about time, even though they have no word that overlaps with our word “time.” He argues that time must therefore be felt in a different, perhaps less hurried, way. It is altogether unclear where his evidence for this lies, since he offers no further explanation, although the thrust of the argument is similar to that of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis.
Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes in their monograph African Political Systems, and Fortes alone in his Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups, interrogate the relationship between descent reckoning and social time. The concepts of age sets and especially of age grades elaborated by descent theorists paint a picture of the social time of the group mediated by socially defined age categories. Time is literally based on the (aging) trajectory of the social body. This view of lived social time is often overlooked but is deeply relevant to any study of the anthropology of time because of its cross-cultural pervasiveness.
The structuralism of Lévi-Strauss rarely addresses time explicitly, as one might expect from such a static theory. The essential temporal criterion in classifying societies is group awareness of their history. “Hot” societies were aware of their history, whereas “cold” societies tended to view historical pressures as coming from outside the society. This understanding perpetuates the idea of timeless, primitive groups, which has not been an accurate model. Even diachrony for Lévi-Strauss is merely a different kind of structure, a multiplication of synchrony. Lévi-Strauss represents the other side of Durkheimian thinking from Leach. Whereas Leach had argued explicitly for a theory of time, Lévi-Strauss addressed himself primarily to issues of synchronic structure.
Clifford Geertz has argued that Balinese culture attempts to detemporalize time. In “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali,” Geertz explains his model of Balinese lived social time, based on groups of predecessors, contemporaries, consociates, and successors. His argument, that Balinese prefer to make fellowmen from contemporaries as much as possible, is reinforced by his interpretation of Balinese time. However, there is some slipperiness to Geertz’s definition of time, for it is both the experience of time that he addresses and, elsewhere, it is the conception of temporal order. Geertz does not make explicitly clear what he thinks time is, or rather, what he thinks he is analyzing when he refers to time.
There has been some scholarly attention to the problem of conceptions of time, that is, what people think time is, as opposed to what they say time is. At the root of analysis of categories of thought is the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, also know as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (so named after its originators, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf). The argument that because of grammatical facts about the Hopi language, Hopi individuals experience time not in quantifiable units (as speakers of English do) but in terms of general cycles has been provocative in fields within and outside of anthropology. The problems of Hopi conceptions of time, and the argument that one’s reality is indeed affected by language structure and use, directs one to concentrate on how time is perceived—a problematic but worthy endeavor for the anthropologist, who typically studies what is said and done, not thought. Gathering nonlinguistic time data is certainly a challenge and tends to fall outside the purview of anthropology as well.
Currently one sees in anthropology increased attention given to dynamic tensions between individuals and structures, between patterned and novel activity. In this regard, practice theory holds important implications for the study of time. The theorists of structure and practice, of which Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens are exemplary, are interested in temporality to the extent that individual actors create their worlds with it. Thus, for Bourdieu, the time of prestation to counterprestation helps expose a wealth of cultural knowledge to the anthropologist. The tactical gift giver uses the tempo of gifting to make his prestation seem neither formulaic nor tardy. Time, in this model, is to be manipulated, or put more precisely, is the outcome of intentional, timed, acts.
In The Fame of Gawa, Nancy Munn argues persuasively for an ethnographically grounded, symbolic, and practice-centered approach to understanding the creation of symbolic value in a Massim society. The aspect of Munn’s approach of particular relevance to the study of time is her investigation of the structuring of lived time, of the tempo of different kinds of prestation, from the reciprocal giving of food to the asymmetrical (nonreciprocal) pokala exchange. Elsewhere Munn has further developed these ideas of emergent spacetime (space and time are fundamentally, complementarily linked for Munn, and not oppositional categories) and has called for more research into how time is made local and valuable. The implications of this approach, and they seem quite reasonable, are that time is constantly (re)produced in everyday practice according to larger sociocultural structures.
Time is produced in ethnographic writing as well. Johannes Fabian suggests that temporality is smuggled in by certain ways of knowing and writing. Thus classic anthropological accounts tend to ignore time in favor of spatial analyses, with a timeless, “ethnographic present” the result. Fabian’s is a reflexive approach that understands temporal operations to be at the heart of anthropology making its Other.
It is also true, following Fabian and others, that removal in space also indexes removal in time, of placement backward in time. In other words, tribal groups living far away from the metropole are assumed to live not just at a remove in space but in time as well. Hence the diorama view of culture, of the eternal present of primitive communities as depicted by so many anthropologists. Fabian, George Marcus, Michael Fisher, and others draw critical attention to the concept of time in (writing) anthropology.
The anthropology of time must work to resolve three major issues in the future. Certainly one issue is to find a meta-language for time. And as philosophers at least since Immanuel Kant have observed, time inheres in all categories, making it exceptionally hard to distill for analysis. So isolating the problems and creating the vocabulary to talk about the problems will be the first set of issues.
The second set of issues will revolve around modeling time in a way that is simpler than reality but still does justice to reality. This may not be as difficult as it sounds. We know time is an aspect of all categories of knowledge. Part of this must be to do with language, or at least those languages which require a temporal argument to be made at each utterance. Thus far, insufficient attention has been paid to temporal coding in language, to what must be said about event order relations and what effect, if any, this would have on cultural concepts of temporality. But not just language—the temporal effects of other basic cultural regimes must be understood before the larger workings of time in culture can be clear. To this end, we must take to heart the critique of the time of anthropology. Indeed most disciplines have a particular time frame which guides analysis, and it must be made explicit at the outset of any study of the cultural temporality.
We also know that temporal regimes, like cultural ones, are shared. In fact, they must be shared in order to accomplish their main task of synchronizing the otherwise idiosyncratic behavior of individuals. The issue of synchronizing then leads us to the final set of issues. How do these beliefs become shared, and to what extent are they shared? How and why do some people choose to ignore common temporal regimes, such as Daylight Saving Time? These processes of selection and synchronization all engage temporality as part of the exercise of power.
- Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940). The Nuer. New York:
- Oxford University Press. Gell, A. (1992). The anthropology of time: Cultural constructions of temporal maps and images. Oxford: Berg.
- Munn, N. D. (1992). The cultural anthropology of time: A critical essay. Annual Review Of Anthropology, 21, 93-123.