Time perceptions

Time and society

Sociologists and anthropologists have often studied and conceptualised social attitudes toward time (for recent overviews see Adam 1990; Munn 1992; Hughes and Trautmann 1995). Following Durkheim, time has often been taken as a social construct rather than a natural condition:

"Although all societies have some system of time reckoning, some idea of sequence and duration, the mode of reckoning clearly varies with the economy, ecology, and technical equipment; with the ritual system; and with the political organization." (Goody 1991: 31)

The main elements of time occur in all human societies, yet with different emphases: sequence and duration, cyclical and linear patterns, and systems of time reckoning (Goody 1991: 31). In a famous study about different social times and time scales, Georges Gurvitch distinguished between eight types of social time:

Gurvitch considers 'ecological time' as that form of social time which corresponds to the external environment (1964: 40).

Maurice Bloch argued, however, that while 'ritual time' is ideologically motivated and indeed socially constructed, 'mundane time' is based on cognitive universals and the observation of natural processes, thus not depending on social contexts (Bloch 1977; see also Gell 1992: chapter 9). His paper caused some controversy among anthropologists and sociologists who partly rejected his data and argument (e.g. Howe 1981), partly called for a more sophisticated analysis and interpretation (e.g. Bourdillon 1978), and partly refuted his central claim about a universal mundane time with other evidence (e.g. Gell 1992: chapters 10+11).

Time in archaeology

Richard Bradley (1987: 3) adopted Bloch's notion of 'ritual time' in its original form for an archaeological discussion of social time. He argued that since ritual time, unlike mundane time, manifests itself in material culture associated with rituals, it can be studied by archaeologists. In a case-study, Bradley (1991) demonstrated how a study of the history of Stonehenge allows inferences not only about the social construction of ritual time in subsequent prehistoric societies but possibly also about various underlying ideological motivations.

Traditionally, studies of time in archaeology have focussed almost exclusively on 'objective' time and dating methods. Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley (1987: 136) observed about archaeology's obsession with linear chronologies that

"the ideology of contemporary archaeology's temporality is that it is imposing a Western valuation of measured abstract time on a multitude of pasts which cannot answer for themselves—even the dead aren't safe."

As an alternative, they proposed that more emphasis should be put on 'substantial time', i.e. a time which relates to social practice both in the past to be interpreted and in the present of the archaeologist (Shanks and Tilley 1987: chapter 5). More recently, time has been discussed in archaeology by Chris Gosden in a book entitled Social Being and Time (1994). Gosden presented a selection of classic studies and approaches to time and explores their relevance to archaeology. Since then, Julian Thomas has written a more specific account of the temporal character of the existence of human subjects and of the temporality of material things and places, with reference to the work of Martin Heidegger (Thomas 1996). In my own recent work, I have focussed on the life-histories of prehistoric monuments and argued for a proper chronology of megaliths, which takes into account how times are constructed and invented, and how concepts of time affect material culture (Holtorf 1996). Other recent studies too, have explored new angles of discussing time in archaeology (e.g. Bernbeck 1996; Karlsson 2000).

Earlier I had studied the meanings of ancient monuments in the present, some of which also reveal particular attitudes toward time. Nostalgia is a perception of (past) time as a desirable life-world, which might be recreated in our present by using past material culture and reversing some of the adverse conditions of the modern world. Progress, on the other hand, reflects a view of time as linear advancement, which refers to the future for solutions of problems in the present: Things get better over time. In both nostalgia and progress, but also for the ideological and political legitimation of the socio-political status-quo and for the affirmation of collective identities, the distant past, which is associated with ancient monuments, proves to be socially especially significant.

The history of time

The history of time perception has usually been studied as a history of time measurement and historiography. Prehistoric astronomy is then considered to be the start of a long tradition at the end of which historians and others use exact calendars and worry about absolute dates of events in the past. In this view, the modern linear perception of time gradually developed from (sometimes cyclical) perceptions of time in the ancient civilisations including those of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and, most importantly, in Greece and Rome. Early science leads to 'the discovery of time' and takes over from myth in order to run complex societies and let civilisation advance (see the accounts of Toulmin and Goodfield 1965; Butterfield 1981; Wendorff 1985; Clark 1992: chapters 3, 5, 6; cf. Jonker 1995: 57-9).

Characteristic for this perspective is the assumption that prehistoric societies lacked what later societies had: a proper sense of linear time and an interest in modern-style time reckoning and historiography. History is therefore said to begin when and where these conditions are fulfilled. This is to judge concepts of other cultures against the arbitrary yardstick of modern Western values. But measured linear time was not slowly 'discovered' in human societies as history progressed. In particular, it is wrong to assume that prehistoric and other illiterate societies had an exclusively 'cyclical' perception of time, while later civilisations developed an exclusively 'linear' one. Both perceptions have probably always been present next to each other and fulfilled separate functions in different cultural and social contexts (Adam 1990: 134-5; Munn 1992: 101-2; Müller 1997: 230; Riese 1997: 247-9; Mittag 1997).

Time is understood differently in different cultures (Adam 1990: 134-8; Rappaport 1990: 11-17; Hughes and Trautmann 1995). The 'origins of history' can be studied as part of a broader history of perceptions of the past. This is the view which I take in this work; it allows us to discuss the perceptions of the past and of time in all societies, prehistoric or modern, on a par—as elements of cultural memories and history cultures:

"Both history and myth are modes of social consciousness through which people construct shared interpretive frameworks." (Hill 1988: 5)

The modern Western views of the past and of time, although clearly different, are in no way superior to those of ancient or non-Western societies (Hastrup 1987; Turner 1988; Friedman 1992). It can be argued that history and myth function in society in the same way (Assmann 1996: 22).


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 28 May 2003