August 29, 2014

The Sociology of Time

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

I just finished reading a book called Einstein’s Dreams. Author Alan Lightman, a theoretical physicist, muses over what Einstein’s dreams might have been when pondering different conceptions of time. The stories are informed by theoretical physics and creativity, art and science.

Each chapter is a different "dream" in which time is experienced differently than how we experience time. The setting is the same— the historical period and place where Einstein worked as a patent clerk—but the time differences affect what happens in each dream.

Reading this book made me think about our relationship to time in personal subjective terms, in cultural terms, and in structural terms.

Personally (and subjectively) speaking, have you noticed that time seems to speeds up as you get older? Have you heard people say that time moves so slowly when we’re kids but as we age, time speeds up, and just keeps speeding up, faster and faster? Summer may go by so slowly when we’re kids but as adults, it zips by and, all of a sudden, it’s autumn. And then the holiday season.

If you travel , you may notice that different cultures experience time differently. For example, Hawaiian time is very different than New York time. Polar opposites.

In Hawaii, there’s always more time, you can wait before you go somewhere, just relax and take it as it comes.  Due to being so close to the equator, the sun rises and sets at roughly the same time every day. There is a regularity and little sense of urgency.

By contrast, a New York minute is just an instant. Not even 60 seconds! Things happen fast; the pace is quick of both legs and language.

Alaska is an odd mix of both urgency and laid-back slowness of time. In the winter, it may be somewhat busy indoors but the cold and dark seem to make people move more slowly. In the summer, with so much light and freedom to be out of doors, there is an urgency to daily life. Plants grow ridiculously fast and people are outdoors, buzzing through their communities and wilderness, trying to get everything done before the cold and dark come again.

Have you ever walked around in a new city or town? Walking on the sidewalk, you can get a sense of that location’s relationship to time.  In most urban downtown areas, people walk fast and do not wait for the signals to tell them to walk. In the suburbs and exurbs, if you can find people out walking, the pace is typically slower.

Einstein’s Dreams depicts fascinating time scenarios and, sociologically speaking, elements of those places would be wholly different if time really moved in those ways. Time is related to social structures.

Our culture is one in which we experience linear time, we’re born, we live, we die. Life has a sense of trajectory, progress, and purpose. The structure of our society reflects this.

Max Weber talked about the elective affinity between capitalism (economic forms) and Protestantism (religious forms) that fueled so many societies in so many ways. Hard work equaled success both economically and religiously. People strove to compete and win in the marketplace to prove their faith.

His book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism examines how both are built into our societal structure, as they have become a secular ethic of competition and monetary success. This is taught in school and emphasized in the workplace..

Some of Einstein’s Dreams depicts a world in which time affects the structure of society as well as the experience of time for individuals. However, there are some in which the time issue and outcomes are a bit too confusing to understand.

In one dream, cause and effect are erratic. Thus people may be unhappy without knowing why. The society enacts strict laws and policies about weapons and crime. This type of time would destroy the practice of science since we assume cause precedes effect. The dream continues with artists enjoying this unpredictability and most people learning to live in the moment. People still do what they do but the past is less important than what is happening in the present.

Another dream is about a world without memory. Time may pass but people do not remember. Each person keeps a Book of Life and maps to remind them who they are, what they do and like, and where things are. Some keep reading the book throughout their lives, while some abandon it. This made me think of the movie, 50 First Dates, although Drew Barrymore’s character does remember what happens throughout the day, she just forgets things when she sleeps. (I wonder if those who wrote the movie had read Einstein’s Dreams?)

Many sociologists and theorists have entertained the concept of time. Durkheim (“social time), Mead and Schütz, Sorokin, and Merton, all had something to say about time. (Nicely outlined in Wener Bergmann’s  article “The Problem of Time in Sociology".)

There are some questions to consider about these time-related dreams. In the first dream, how would people run for office? How would relationships change? In the second, how would people get anything done if they would have to keep reading books and maps? What would their government look like? Family structures?

Yet another of the dreams depicts a place in which there is no time, only images. Images of lives lived and objects existing. This was not a satisfying chapter for me since I kept wondering, how does a society in which there is no time actually exist? Who makes those objects and how if there is no time? How do people live their lives and have images from them if no time exists? I think I don’t get it because I’m well socialized into this sense of linear time.


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