Anthropology Of Time Research Paper

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Sociocultural constructions of time and time reckoning are now central topics of anthropological inquiry. Many cultures lack an explicit category ‘time.’ Still, time is everywhere present, in numerous local figurations that may or may not evidence a few universal forms, and thus the anthropological spectrum of research, theories, and contentions is vast (Gell 1992, Munn 1992). I offer here a representative, nonprogrammatic review of the topic that focuses on some of the important concepts, debates, and intriguing new areas of investigation.

1. Universal Time

Certain natural phenomena appear to be universally temporalized in terms of periodicity and, in some but not all cultures, progressive quantification: the human lifecycle and bodily processes (e.g., menstruation), seasonality, celestial patterns, day night, and so forth. The same is true for the reproduction of social order by generation and various social and kinship groups. All societies regularly coordinate labor, occasionally punctuate the tempo of everyday life with ritual, and envision some type of past, present, and future. Calendrical arrangements of days, weeks, months, and years are also universal—but, again, not everywhere counted. In anthropological theory, time is implicitly understood to be binary. For example, all cultures accommodate conceptual categories and linguistic terms for duration and sequence, which are often said to be the basic forms of time. Leach (1961) proposed that time is a social construction rooted in two basic human experiences: the repetitions of nature, and the irreversibility of life. Many anthropologists contend that all societies possess both incremental linear irreversible and episodic cyclical repetitive forms of time—which are not necessarily antithetical since time cycles can return to the ‘same logical, not temporal, point’ (Howe 1981). While Farriss (1987) claims that any one mode can incorporate the other, Leach proposes that all religions deny the finality of human mortality by subsuming linear time under a cyclical framework. Birth and death become two phases of an eternal sequence. Leach also claimed that time is everywhere a ‘sequence of oscillations between polar opposites.’ This temporal pendulum is related to basic sociological processes such as reciprocal gift-exchange and marriage. More recently, Gell (1992) argued that all culture-specific patterns of temporality are variations of two cognitive modes: an A-series which orders events according to relative notions of pastness, presentness, and futurity, and a B-series of absolute before after.

2. Social Time

Universal conjectures notwithstanding, most anthropologists focus on local notions of time and subscribe to the Durkheimian thesis that time categories and conventions are ‘social representations’ that mirror the organization of society. This sociological perspective is best exemplified by Evans-Pritchard’s (1939) elegant study of the East African Nuer, which is perhaps the most widely-known anthropological account of a distinctly non-Western style of time. Nuer ‘oecological time,’ which is cyclical or seasonal, reflects the environmental rhythms of cattle pastoralism. More importantly, Nuer indicate time but they lack an abstract chronological system that is numerical, cumulative, uniformly incremental, and measurable. Beyond the year, Nuer speak about temporal duration, intervals, and sequences with sole reference to ‘structural time’ or significant genealogical events in the social system—say, the division of a lineage, or the birth of an age set. Since Nuer genealogies are fixed at a depth of five generations, too, the passage of time is contained within a static framework. Similarly, there is considerable debate over whether or not the terminological groupings and repetitions in many kinship systems freeze, reverse, or emphasize the passage of time (Silverman 1997). Here, too, the opposition between cyclical and linear time is a leitmotif of anthropological analysis.

3. Cultural Time

The Durkheimian approach to time, enshrined in British social anthropology, anchors temporal conceptions to social organization. An alternative approach to time, represented by the ‘interpretivist’ tradition of American cultural anthropology, highlights the symbolic dimensions of time. Here, analysis seeks to discern the relationship between general temporal attitudes and the overall emotional emphases and focal symbols of a cultural worldview. Geertz (1973) suggested that the cyclical structure of Balinese kinship, naming, and calendrical systems ‘don’t tell you what time it is; they tell you what kind of time it is.’ In a celebrated passage, Geertz concluded that ‘Balinese social life takes place in a motionless present, a vectorless now’ in which ‘time lacks motion because Balinese social life lacks climax.’ Moreover, the Balinese ‘immobilization of time’ is linked to the ‘anonymization of persons.’ Ultimately, the formal complexity of Balinese calendars pertains not to social order but to the unique, somewhat aesthetic themes and tones of Balinese culture and personhood. Whereas Evans-Pritchard pioneered the study of how others think about temporality, Geertz has been an inspiration to anthropologists who seek to understand how others experience time.

4. Political Time

One key debate in the anthropology of time, then, concerns the locus of analysis—broadly speaking, society vs. culture—and the question of whether or not time configurations can be reduced to a more elemental, causal factor such as human ecology. Another quarrel arises from the materialist division between infrastructure and superstructure. Bloch (1977) criticized Geertz for failing to distinguish between ritual time, which does differ significantly cross-culturally, and universally cognized ‘normal’ time that organizes practical activities. Hierarchical societies, Bloch continued, tend to elaborate a ceremonial view of timeless time. Consequently, ritual concepts of time are ideologies that sustain everyday productive inequalities. But while Geertz, in this view, may be guilty of foregrounding difference or ‘radical temporal alterity,’ and thus neglects the politics of time, Bloch himself assumes that people everywhere subscribe to the same ‘practical reason,’ which remarkably resembles the economic concerns of Western Marxism. Many anthropologists emphasize the lability of time concepts and, more recently, the political manipulation of time. The Northern Thai calendar, which is oriented around a ‘fatal quality of time,’ enables post hoc explanations of misfortune that exonerate individuals from personal blame (Davis 1976). The Kodi of Indonesia, for whom calendrical knowledge is prestigious, manipulate temporal sequences and durations, question the timing of ceremonial feasts and other public events, and strategically stage disruptions (Hoskins 1993). The Kodi calendar is also a ‘debating ground’ as traditional forms of time now clash with exoteric calendars associated with the state, Christianity, and modernity. Multiple, or layered, forms of time which are not, moreover, necessarily integrated into a single unifying system are common. One temporal series may regulate markets, while another system organizes lunation. Time is often contextual— as well as competing and seemingly contradictory. Kabyle precapitalist peasants of Algeria submit to the present but exalt foresight within the temporal horizon of the ‘forthcoming.’ They also view the future—which capitalist hubris, in this view, seeks to predict—as a void known only to God (Bourdieu 1963). A final note on the politics of time: when competing groups anchor their prestige in a politico-ritual system to ancestral primacy, the mere assertion that a temporal series, or time itself, has a specific beginning point or location is inevitably political since it denies the validity of rival times. This is true for small-scale societies as well as the contemporary USA, which remains embroiled in debate between evolution and creationism.

5. Ritual Time

Not only is the differentiation of ritual from mundane time important to many anthropologists, but so is the construction of time within ritual itself. Humans tend, wrote Leach (1961), to conceptualize time as a repeating series of different intervals. Each year is distinctive but they all begin and end with an identical festival. Significant calendric events are everywhere marked by ceremonial antics and attire that are censored from everyday life. These periodic ritual inversions or ‘rites of passage’ actually create time by introducing intervals in social life. Yet Barnes (1974, pp. 128–9) offered the opposite view for the Kedang of Indonesia: ritual insures precisely that time is not cyclical—that the dead, for example, are irreversibly dead, and that calendric cyclicity is unable to prevail over linear temporality. From a different perspective, Gell (1992, pp. 37–53) recently evoked Levi-Strauss and argued that the ritual reversal or regression of normal time among the Umeda of Papua New Guinea resolves problems that arise from the imposition of ‘cultural’ conventions such as temporal classifications onto the ‘real’ or ‘natural’ world.

6. Language Of Time

Unlike spatial deixis, the linguistic study of time remains sparse in anthropology. Yet the famous Sapir– Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity was initially popularized through the alleged absence of Hopi verb tenses (now disproved). Still, language shapes our experience of the world, including time. Hence, the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea are unable to discuss and conceptualize linear, chronological sequences of events (Lee 1950). They have no time line but only temporal points organized as noncausal patterns with ‘at most a swelling in value.’ Devoid of linguistic temporal connections, Trobriand events are self-contained: ‘a series of beings but not becoming.’ Related studies of language and time include past vs. future-oriented locutions (e.g., Dundes 1969), orality vs. literacy (Goody 1991), and cognitive ‘maps’ of spatiotemporal passage (Frake 1985).

7. Spatial And Bodily Time

The spatialization of time and the temporality of space are topics of growing anthropological interest (see Munn 1992). Many cultures—e.g., Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia (Silverman 1997)—understand the primordial creation of the universe through a series of ancestral migrations, radiating outwards from an origin place, that simultaneously generated space and time. But other cultures possessing a temporal topology, such as the Iraqw of Tanzania, lack an origin: ‘there is no zero point against which to set a regularized chronology’ (Thornton 1980, p. 184). Spatiotemporal mythologies occur across lowland South America, where time and space are also embodied. The passage of time in the external world—the flow of a river, the movement of the sun—represents the human lifecycle. Conversely, the temporal unfolding of physiological processes such as sexuality and alimentation are projected onto the local topography (e.g., Hugh-Jones 1979, Chap. 7). The experience of time is thus understood through a bodily schema, specifically, the circulation of substances into and out of the body, and wider cycles of birth and death.

8. Gendered Time

The relationship between gender and time is another promising area of anthropological study. The riverine Eastern Iatmul of Papua New Guinea associate water with uterine fertility, death, and the inexorable erosion of land and trees that threatens to regress the cosmos back to the timeless and feminine era that preceded male creation (Silverman 1997). Like the river, female time flows to uncertainty. Male time, often conceptualized as the planting of trees and the establishment of villages, progresses forward against the flow of female temporality. But the arboreal ascendance of masculine structure is illusory. The river and rainy season floods ultimately prevail. All men can do to stem the feminine tide of regressive time is plant trees, build houses, and enact rituals. Weiner (1991) also discusses the gender of time in a Melanesian society, and links temporality to linguistic iconicity and motions through the landscape and body.

9. The Future And End Of Time

Anthropologists are no longer content merely to bemoan the end of the ‘time of the primitive.’ Nor do we continue to define non-Western ‘Otherness’ as an essentially temporal construct, communities who are removed from us in both space and time (Fabian 1983). Instead, anthropologists are increasingly interested in historical conjunctions and contemporary practices that blur the distinctions between local and global times. Through temporal ambiguities, local people exercise creativity and resistance. While all societies allocate time between different activities (Gross 1984), the spread of global capitalism and wage-labor has imposed on people everywhere computational, monetary, and aggressive notions of temporality such as saving, wasting, and fighting against time. But the future of time, to invoke a common idiom, is not confined to ‘time is money.’ The millennial turn encouraged many communities to confront the historical dissonances of culture contact by rethinking conventional notions of past, present, and future, cyclical and linear time, tradition and modernity, and the relationship between the biblical apocalypse and ancestral spirits. The millennium was a time to ponder the end of time (Scaglion 2000)—as well as, in the context of Y2K, the opposition between ‘virtual time’ and ‘real time.’ Thus the opening decades of this millennium, including its end-of-time scenarios, will doubtless prove to be a propitious era for the anthropological study of time both globally, locally, and in the newest temporal zone: cybertime.


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