The Sociology of Time

In a history seminar this week, I had the pleasure of reading Franz Boas’ Anthropology and Modern Life, a popular text he wrote in 1928. Boas was the founder of American Anthropology, and hugely influential in 20th century social science. Anthropology and Modern Life was incredibly accessible, and in many ways the best introductory social science text I’ve ever read (in spite of its age). Boas’ discussion and dismissal of biological arguments for race is classic, and he weaves them together with a critique of both eugenics (prominent at the time) and nationalism (a hugely important topic often ignored or underplayed in intro texts, which focus more race/class/gender within a “society”, often coterminous with the nation). Though Boas does not use the term social construction, his book is an excellent introduction to social construction with a nice humanist bent, and a deep engagement with biology and the material.

Reading Boas’ popularization got me thinking about how I would introduce sociology and its key insights. If I ever teach an introductory sociology class, or write an intro sociology textbook*, I think I would start with the sociology of time. Why time? Because time is naturalized and yet socially constructed in just the way sociologists have great tools for talking about, and lacks the immediate big P Political overtones of race, class** and gender, while still being intimately tied to our daily experiences.

To be a bit more concrete, I would talk about three things (I think): Daylight Savings Time (and time zones more generally), the calendar, and E.P. Thompson’s famous article “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” I’d start with a broad question like, “What time is it?” And then proceed to talk about how we know that – the sociotechnological accomplishment that is the time zone. I’d talk about the history of railroads and the need to standardize when things were happening across geographically distant locales to make possible a railroad schedule. “Noon” actually becomes less meaningful – instead of being when the sun is overhead in your particular town, it becomes when the sun is overhead at some standard location (Greenwich, New York, whatever), and your time becomes their time. Then I’d talk about Daylight Savings Time and maybe some of the religious politics surrounding it in Israel (see here, basically it’s about being convenient for fasting schedules near Yom Kippur).

From Daylight Savings, you can move to the calendar (maybe citing Zerubavel on Passover and Easter) and how we encode religions and politics into the calendar, but that also we need to standardize it somehow for all sorts of efficiency reasons. I’d talk about leap years, and leap seconds (and the alternatives, like the Jewish calendar’s second Adar).

Last, I’d go to timepieces themselves and E.P. Thompson’s awesome article on the history of time and work-discipline under industrial capitalism. Hours used to change with the seasons, and corresponded to tasks. With the advent of industrial wage labor, and work compensated by time, employers and employees had to learn how to see the world in standardized chunks. Employers learned first, and the employees suffered for it until they too learned to fight over clocks… and hence labor’s call in the 19th century for the 8-Hour Day.

A choice quote from a 19th century worker’s diary in Thompson (1967: 86):

The clocks at the factories were often put forward in the morning and back at night, and instead of being instruments for the measurement of time, they were used as cloaks for cheatery and oppression. Though this was known among the hands, all were afraid to speak, and a workman then was afraid to carry a watch, as it was no uncommon event to dismiss any one who presumed to know too much about the science of horology.

And here’s Thompson’s (ibid) summary:

The first generation of factory workers were taught by their masters the importance of time; the second generation formed their short-time committees in the ten-hour movement; the third generation struck for overtime or time-and-a-half. They had accepted the categories of their employers and learned to fight back within them. They had learned their lesson, that time is money, only too well.

Thompson goes on to argue that we might find in the past some inspiration for new models of how to think about time, models that transcend the industrial disciplinary model of work vs. life, and that see all time spent not at work as “unproductive” or “wasted”. In an “automated future” of increased productivity brought about by technological change, we must reframe the problem of time:

If we are to have enlarged leisure, in an automated future, the problem is not ‘how are men going to be able to consume all these additional time-units of leisure’? but ‘what will be the capacity for experience of the men who have this undirected time to live?’
If men are to meet both the demands of a highly-synchronized automated industry, and of greatly enlarged areas of ‘free time’, they must somehow combine in a new synthesis elements of the old and of the new, finding an imagery based neither upon the seasons nor upon the market but upon human occasions. Punctuality in working hours would express respect for one’s fellow workmen. And unpurposive passing of time would be behaviour which the culture approved. (Thompson 1967: 95-96)

In other words, Thompson argues for a society that praised both efficiency, punctuality and timeliness alongside slack, leisure, and aimlessness. Undergrads could get into that, right?

I think that would be a nice way to introduce the principles of sociology without being either totally trivial and depoliticized, and without jumping straight into what people already think sociology is about – contemporary politics surrounding race, class and gender. You could also hint at some of the fun science studies work on metrology and standardization. And at the end of the day, at least your students would know a few fun tidbits to share at parties. Although they might not go to the same kind of parties as I do…

* Bad Idea, Right? I’m woefully unqualified anyway, if the textbook was going to focus on the big topics of mainstream sociology.
** But I’d get to class real quick.



  1. Weverthon

     /  November 2, 2010

    I’m an undergrad Social Science student from Brazil and I’d have love to have had this introductory sociology class…
    I’ve been reading your posts for the last few weeks and I have a complaint: you make me spend too much time on the internet, specially with your links to older posts!

  2. Elizabeth

     /  November 3, 2010

    Bill Roy’s slim (and very good) sociology textbook, Making Societies, deals extensively with the sociology of time. I can’t remember whether it starts with it.

    It’s not a textbook in the normal sense — no pictures! no sidebars! — but it’s an introduction to sociology.

    • Thanks! Roy’s book looks fantastic. And I think we’d probably agree that a good textbook doesn’t need to have silly pictures and sidebars…

  3. You could, potentially, pair your discussion of EPT with noting how our concepts of work and productivity time have changed in the 90s. The rise of computers, the ability to work for home, and the excuse of “paying for the job and not for the hours” (leading to many more hours at the office and fewer vacation days used) all factor into this, and some of the students might be able to identify with that.

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