The Social Construction of Time
Did you remember to turn your clocks back a few weeks ago? If you forget (or the devices that you use to track time didn’t automatically reset to the time) you might have found yourself out of sync with others around you.
Time is one of the most basic examples of something that is socially constructed. We collectively create the meaning of time—it has no predetermined meaning until we give it meaning. To say that something, like time, is a social construction is not to say that it doesn’t exist or it is merely an illusion, but instead that humans have created systems of meaning that creates the concept of time.
Yes, the earth’s rotation around the sun has helped shape this meaning, but people didn’t always agree that the earth rotated around the sun. In fact, people were so committed to the idea of the sun rotating around the earth that when Nicolaus Copernicus postulated his theory of heliocentrism in the sixteenth century it was considered blasphemous, as the earth was thought to be the center of the universe, in accordance with Biblical teachings.
Likewise, while much of the world is on the same calendar today, this hasn’t always been the case. Even today, different cultures mark the beginning of a new year at different times and are thus in different years. According to the Buddhist calendar it is 2560, while in the Hebrew calendar it is 5777. Cultures often mark time based on important events relative to their belief system or major political events.
Steven Johnson, author of How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World, discusses time as one of the most important innovations. In the clip below, Johnson describes how the invention of the transcontinental railroad required a standardized way of measuring time, a shift from when time was defined at the local level:
On November 18, 1883, the first time zones were created. Trains required individual towns to have a standard way of keeping time to be able to know when to be at the platform ready to board a train, and to then know what time it would be at the place where one arrived. Time becomes a meaningful measure due to the growth of technology and also once people begin to travel more regularly.
In preindustrial times, when people didn’t leave their villages or towns very often, and they weren’t likely interact with people from other communities, time could be defined based on the local sun dial reading. But with industrialization in the nineteenth century and globalization in the twentieth and twenty-first, we need to have a standard way of identifying time.
Imagine the chaos that would ensue if we didn’t have a standard definition of time. We need to have agreed upon metrics of time to convene classes, businesses, sporting events, and of course our expanding means of travel. The advent of television required very clear measures of time for scheduling and for selling ad time during commercial breaks.
There are still misunderstandings about the meaning of time. For instance, I start all of my classes promptly at the time at which appears on the schedule of classes. I bring a large clock to class that sits near my notes so that I begin and end each class on time every day. Some instructors are less conscientious of the time, and may start or end late. Students then learn to arrive late, and may get used to doing this for several classes if they don’t start on time.
Time takes on a different meaning at an airport as well. Passengers need to arrive well before the time of a flight’s scheduled departure, but exactly how much more can be unclear. Sometimes the recommended 90 or 120 minutes is far too early, but other times it is barely enough. This lack of clarity about the use of time can be stressful.
Feeling that our time is not respected or used well can be stressful too. I once had a class where the instructor would spend the first 10-15 minutes eating her lunch and class wouldn’t really start until she was done. Many of us felt resentful that she wasted our time. When friends repeatedly arrive very late for agreed upon meetings, it can feel like they don’t value our friendship.
Time, thus, has value—we are typically paid for our time or pay for services based on time. Having a clear metric of time is central to our economy. How much our time is worth is also negotiated with others.
Time is such a ubiquitous measure that it is easy to ignore, but it is one of the central building blocks of social life. What other social interactions depend on a stable measure of time?