The sociology of time: cultural variations of social time

Temporal time is the passing of time as measured by clocks and calendars. Social time refers to the cultural meaning that societies place on time and the social norms that shape how people imagine their relationship to time. Social time also determines how societies organise the past, present and future. (Read more.)

Werner Bergmann discusses several sociological studies that demonstrate the historical and cultural variation of social time. In the past, societies were organised around the rhythms of sun rise and sun set. Industrialisation led to a stronger emphasis on ‘the clock’ as a primary way of organising society. Cultures reformulate the demands of modern life against cultural ideas of social time.


Bergmann discusses how Australian Aboriginal family and community relationships (kinship systems) are not simply a way of classifying social responsibilities. Rather, family relations also reflect a perspective that life is timeless. Indigenous Australians do not mention the names of the dead. The term for grandparent and grandchild relationship is the same. Such aspects of Aboriginal cultures denote a relationship between the ancestral past and the present. While some people might interpret from this that Indigenous Australians are past orientated, this is untrue. Instead, Aboriginal Australians are firmly present-orientated, but with a view that the present is timeless. I would also argue that Indigenous spirituality, stories of ancestral beings and creation (the ‘Dreamtime’), as well as cultural rituals similarly reflect the timelessness of the here and now. Aboriginal cultures reflect that nature, ancestors, and the present are interconnected.


Berman further shows that studies of American society emphasise how different sub-groups are motivated by different conceptions of time. Some sub-groups that are close-knit are more driven to work together to improve the material and wellbeing of group members in the present. The immediate need to take care of family and kin take precedence over individual achievements. Other sub-groups that are highly individualist are driven by ideas of the future. In this case people are taught to delay immediate leisure, invest in education, and work towards long-term goals that will pay off many years down the track.

Class, ethnicity, religion, gender and other social markers will influence how different groups understand social time.


Institutional forces will also shape this process. When an economy is prosperous, future-orientated perspectives are easier to maintain, but this can manifest in different ways. A current example I would offer is that in a strong economy, people might save all their resources towards future goals, or people might alternatively get into a habit of lending and rely on credit cards because the future seems a long way away. When there is economic stagnation or downturn, delayed gratification becomes a necessity. People’s ideas about the present and future therefore shift in relation to changing material realities and social norms.

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