Time-Geography Research Paper

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The core of the discipline of human geography is often considered to be space. But, as the early navigators found, time is the inevitable correlate of space and it is therefore no surprise that geographers have made continuous contributions to thinking about time as well as space. In the social sciences, such contributions have been notable since at least the 1920s, with the rise of the school of human ecology which understood time and space as inseparable elements of human activity (Thrift 1977). But the major contributions to geographical thinking on time have been made since the 1960s and it is on this latter period that this research paper is focused.

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The study of time has been a notably interdisciplinary field and this means that both geographers and others have worked on the spatial aspects of times, timing, temporal structures, and time consciousness. This research paper reflects that porosity in that it starts with specifically geographical contributions but then widens the discussion out from narrowly disciplinary considerations to more general geographical contributions.

1. Specifically Geographical Contributions

Geographers have made four main contributions to the study of time since the 1960s.

1.1 Chronogeography

Chronogeography was an attempt by Parkes and Thrift (1980) to extend the human ecological paradigm. In line with that paradigm, it was stimulated by essentially biological analogies. In particular, a heavy emphasis was put on rhythm. Rhythms were seen as operating at a number of different time–space scales, thereby providing the time–space backbone to different societies. In turn, these rhythms were produced by ‘zeitgeber’ of various kinds, sociotemporal ‘lighthouses’ ranging from the heartbeat and other chronobiological phenomena at one end of the scale to various kinds of economic cycle at the other end, which produced different kinds of timed spaces and different ways of spacing time. Chronogeography was a phenomenon of the 1970s and early 1980s.

1.2 Time-Geography

In marked contrast, so-called time-geography has made a sustained and lasting contribution to the geographical literature, notwithstanding considerable debates within geography as to the efficacy of certain of its features. Time-geography emerged as a prominent area of geographical work in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Sweden as a result of the work of the remarkably original thinker Torsten Hagerstrand (1982, Carlstein et al. 1978, Pred 1981). It approached the analysis of social interactions by focusing on the time–space paths of their participants, within temporal and spatial structures of interaction, movement, and communications. Time and space are conceived as resources in short supply on which individuals draw to provide ‘room’ in which they can realize projects. Time and space are facilitating resources in which collateral processes can occur. The use of time and space is constrained in three ways: by the power, wealth, skills, and knowledge of individual participants (capability constraints); by the conditions or circumstances in which people can interact with one another (coupling constraints); and by the power relations that mould people’s access to particular spaces and shape the roles in which they do have access (authority constraints). The stress on constraints to the completion of projects provides a series of ways in which the power relations of a society operate by shaping the time–space patterns of human activities. Put another way, social institutions are structures of repetition through which the time–space coherence of societies can be maintained. They do this either by imposing particular projects or time–space routines within a society, or through internalizing certain projects and routines as ‘natural’ within people’s everyday perceptions.

One of the most distinctive elements of timegeography was the unique graphic language that Hagerstrand deployed in order to describe the time– space structures of society. Often likened to a musical score, time–geographic diagrams have clearly been one of the most distinctive contributions made by geographers to the social sciences, since they are both analytic and evocative. Increasingly, as well, it has been realized that Hagerstrand was well ahead of his time in his attention to the nontextual elements of human life which time–geographic diagrams are so well able to conjure up.

Time-geography has been an enormously productive means of showing the time–space structure of situations because of its ability to be both general and concrete. It has been applied widely, both to consider particular problems of the allocation of time and space (most especially in planning) but also more generally, for example to look at problems of technological change or environmental degradation (Carlstein 1982). It has also become the basis of many important social theoretical ruminations.

Yet, like any approach, it is not without its problems. First, even with the benefit of greater computer power, many of its insights are still difficult to operationalize at the scale of a city or region, as opposed to the smaller communities that time-geography seems to fit so well. It is no surprise then that Hagerstrand developed another level of analysis that worked at this larger scale. Second, time-geography is often reticent in discussing struggle within societies, although researchers like Pred (1986) have very successfully addressed this issue using time–geographic approaches. Third, time-geography has been accused of neglecting the symbolic dimension. If this is true it is, in a sense, a philosophical neglect. Hagerstrand has been concerned to show, rather like actor–network theory, that a good deal of what is regarded as symbolic might be more profitably addressed in different ways (see Gren 1994).

1.3 Time–Space Compression

The third distinctive geographical contribution to the study of time and geography has been the concept now known as ‘time–space compression,’ which is based on the notion of progressive shrinkage in the resources of time and space. From the 1920s onwards, geographers became concerned with what Marx called the ‘annihilation of space by time,’ as travel times between locations diminished because of new transport and telecommunications technologies. Until the 1980s, this was usually seen as an interesting empirical phenomenon. Then David Harvey (1989) linked ‘time–space convergence’ to wider processes of spatial extension and intensification within capitalism: the history of capitalism has been characterized by speed-up in the pace of life, while so overcoming barriers that the world seems to collapse in upon us. In other words, ever more intense time–space compression dislocates everyday practices and understandings. Harvey identified postmodernism as the latest form of dislocation and, in line with a political economy approach, was particularly keen to associate it with new post-Fordist production paradigms.

1.4 Nonrepresentational Theory

The last distinctive contribution to the study of time and geography has been nonrepresentational theory (Thrift 1996, 2000). Nonrepresentational theory is concerned with the flow of practices in time, with the ‘presentations’ produced by acting in the now rather than the post hoc reconstructions of the event which are the stuff of much of the social sciences. It draws inspiration from all the approaches so far considered— chronogeography for its interest in the different rhythmical structures of time and space, timegeography for its attention to detail as not just detail, and time–space compression for its attempt to understand certain characteristics of the modern world as integrally bound up with the construction of particular times and spaces—as well as numerous other elements of the social sciences, and especially various theories of practice. Nonrepresentational theory attempts to do two related things: first, to provide an ontology which takes ‘mundane’ practices seriously and, second, to provide various means of amplifying the creativity of these practices through various performative methods.

2. Geographical Themes In Work On Time

A key area for early work on time was provided by the simple fact of spatial variations in the time-patterns of life, the institutions and practices that were central to different societies’ handling of times, and how different societies thought of time. Much of this material was derived from the anthropological literature. One key geographical concern was the identification of environmental or social factors underlying spatial patterns in times. Another was how these spatial patterns were changing as dominant Western patterns of timing diffused around the world. This last concern clearly derived from the ‘modernization thesis’ of economic and cultural change that dominated the social sciences from the mid-twentieth century (Thompson 1967).

But standard depictions of people of great temporal innocence have not survived close scrutiny, especially once time is conceived more broadly than as the clock time taken for granted in the twentieth-century West. The complexity and variety of traditional and non-Western views of time is now virtually axiomatic. In general, traditional cultures were not caught up in unchanging, nature-based and cyclical ideas of time. They subscribed to complex and sophisticated calendrical arrangements; were able to conceive of a linear time; did not lack a sense of their own past; and were not imprisoned by tenseless languages and a reliance on oral cultural transmission. Rather, the temporal values present in different traditional cultures display an incorrigible diversity (Gell 1992). This diversity is now recognized to be a crucial feature of contemporary societies as well, as can be demonstrated through four main themes.

2.1 Multiple Times And Spaces

Geographers have been among writers highlighting the coexistence of differing time-senses among social or ethnic subgroups within populations, linked to work on similar differences in senses of space and place.

Everyday experiences of time are structured by many influences besides the determinants of religion, trade, and industrialization so often emphasized (Thompson 1967). General or specific notions of timing and coordination also arise within households; from structures of preindustrialized work; from communications; from civic administration and law; from recreation and consumption; from disciplinary regimes such as prisons, workhouses, and hospitals; from cartography and navigation; and from the military.

Although most of these arise among relatively specialized temporal communities, it is essential to acknowledge that they coexisted in places, especially in towns, where the institutions of government, church, trade, and industry were most likely to come together, increasingly acting to impose artificial schedules on a population which then began to talk about these schedules as a natural occurrence (Thrift 1996). A geographical focus on time in places, rather than time in particular occupations, can hardly avoid drawing attention to the ‘spillovers’ of temporal practices within urban populations. In other words, temporal frameworks are only rarely the preserve of a single community of expertise, and everyday temporal orderings are commonly hybrids of several ordering frameworks, each arising from particular subgroups.

The point that any given place or space can take on multiple temporal forms for different social subgroups is rarely more clearly evident than for women. For a long time, women’s times were not taken seriously by geographers, who drew on implicitly male social features. Though recent work has begun to remedy the neglect of everyday time practices relating to women, the general area of women’s times and spaces cannot be said to be over-researched.

2.2 The Continuing Heterogeneity Of Timed Spaces

Historians of time began with ideas of a linear progression from timeless to highly coordinated cultures, through a series of intermediate stages, with ‘industrial time consciousness’ diffusing through society and across space (Thompson 1967). But it is now clear that spatial differences in sense of time were not being obliterated. Notwithstanding considerable homogenization of industrial production techniques and of temporal frameworks (such as the geographical spread of Greenwich Mean Time) (Thrift 1981, Pawson 1992), there is clear evidence of international and inter-regional differences in temporal frameworks and their interpretations.

In turn, this realization made it possible to revalue time derived from ‘natural’ cues and to understand that senses of time derived from nature were often associated with impulses to disciplined and unstinting work, and hence attention to saving time. Again, it also became clear that industrial time consciousness was itself a heterogeneous creature, with very different practices instituted in different places.

2.3 Timing In Relation To Travel And Communications

The mobility of people, objects, finance, and information has many effects on time measurement and temporal practices, usually involving not only practical questions of coordination (such as the implementation of regular timetables and calendars for specific purposes), but also new techniques of time-calculation (interest, risk costs, and so on) and new conventions of everyday life. Five topics have been closely researched.

First, new temporal practices are often associated with long-distance trade, including various means for deferred payments and futures trading. Second, temporal precision has been central to knowledge of spatial positions at sea and on land, especially in calculating longitude. Third, the close dependence of administration, as well as business, on efficient handling of information over time and (relatively) rapid communication across space has formed an important theme in historical geographies of European world dominance. The emergence of standard times and time zones and the impact of electronic communications have also received particular attention (Kern 1982). A fourth focus has been on how temporal cues flow from one timed space to others. The obvious instance here is clock time, although even this is taken note of and reacted to differently in different timed spaces. Fifth, time has been studied in relation to tourism, where both the coordinated movement of people and the specific character of the ‘tourist experience’ itself rest on particular ways of handling, and of representing, time(s).

2.4 Temporal Symbolism As Constitutive Of Time-Senses

The inherently cultural character of any time-keeping system has become a commonplace observation. Since geography underwent a cultural turn in the 1980s, it is no surprise that the variegated cultural character of time-keeping systems has become a focus of research. This research has followed three main avenues of investigation. First, what counts as a ‘task’ is very much a matter of cultural values. Industrial geographers have shown how a task varies from place to place in how it is constructed and valued (Stein 1995). Second, there has been work on disputed interpretations of time, demonstrating its heavily symbolic character. Such work includes contemporary and historical studies of strikes during restructurings of industries. Parallel work has considered timings linked to national identities, especially involving disputes over calendars. Third, work considering language as language-in-use necessarily incorporates a temporal perspective.

3. Future Directions Of Theory And Research

We end by suggesting some of the themes that might constitute a research agenda for future geographical work on times.

The first of these consists of work on time consciousness as the mediated imposition of a particular set of practices upon a population, which in turn affects the way a population makes accounts of practice. Much here echoes Thompson’s (1967) approach, but it is pursued rather differently, with shifts in ideologies of everyday time practice and the consciousness of time indexed through three dimensions: discourses and texts; devices and instruments; and disciplines and routines. Each of these dimensions is strongly geographical. The effectiveness of temporal discourses is limited by the spatially uneven availability of texts and devices and by variations among temporal communities, which in turn shape systems of discipline and meaning that reinforce or undermine particular temporal conceptions and practices.

The second area of work is on instantaneity. Writers like Harvey and Virilio have discussed the supposed effects of the increasing swiftness of many social practices, but none of this writing stems from any detailed ethnographic research. It all consists of assumptions—usually based in technological determinisms—masquerading as theory. Thus, we know remarkably little about the practices that have sprung up which have refigured the world as ‘fast’ and which are to be acted out as such. These practices are very diverse, and range all the way from different forms of visualization through different forms of economic practice, including those to do with international finance which have involved the evolving use of different forms of telecommunication stretching over the last 150 years, to different forms of warfare, including Virilio’s ‘chronopolitics’.

The third area of work consists of temporal policy. Since Kevin Lynch’s (1972) What Time is this Place? geographers have been interested in practices of temporal planning that they might lay alongside those of spatial planning. Now various experiments in countries like Italy and Germany are starting to give these practices real expression. For example, six Italian cities have passed statutes providing temporal planning in matters such as the staggering of work and school hours so as to smooth traffic peaks. These may be minor interventions, but they begin to show what might be possible.

In conclusion, for a discipline raised on space, geography has had a remarkable amount to say about time. Indeed, recent writings on the importance of time–space as the focus of the discipline (e.g., Massey 1992, May and Thrift 2001) rather than simply space can only reinforce this tendency.


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