Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The clock: a true measurement of time?

The ticking of a clock marks the precise passage of seconds, minutes and hours. But what other measurements exist – and are they truer indicators of time for some? Dr Jane Pilcher looks at time from a social science perspective.

What time is it? On the surface, a simple question. According to my computer clock and the watch on my wrist it is 1:25pm. In industrialized societies, time is accurately and precisely measured, even to the level of nano-seconds. Clock time is important. We need to know it to wake at the right time, catch a train, get to work or meet up with our friends.

For sociologists, though, precise clock time is a measurement of only one of several kinds of time. Numerical time –seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, decades, centuries – is a social construction or invention. In some cultural contexts the passing of clock time is unknown or at least, irrelevant. Instead, natural time may be more important, and reference made to seasons, the ‘time of the great flood’, or to maturational events in a person’s life, like the birth of a first child.

The origins of an agreed on and widely shared clock time lay in the Industrial Revolution that transformed European society in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before industrialization, natural time was more dominant; the cycles of the seasons mattered more, as did the rising and setting of the sun. With industrialization came the need for greater time synchronization and greater punctuality and daily life began to take on very different rhythms.

Even in complex, technologically advanced societies though, natural time continues to be significant to people’s lives. Sociologists point out that our bodies are a kind of ‘natural clock’: our heart beats, we digest food and our daily patterns of life are linked to the light-dark cycle of the sun and moon. Our whole life span follows the natural, everywhere occurring cycle of birth, growth, eventual decay and death.

Sociologists also suggest that groups of people can experience time differently, with consequences for social relationships and social change. The ‘layering’ of the population into different generations means that people may experience the same key events differently (say, Obama becoming US president). For those older people who experienced racial segregation in the US, having a black President likely means something quite different to those younger people who have only known legalized racial equality.

Time differences between people of different age groups have also been used to explain the often marginal status of older people in many industrialized societies. Old people may appear to be so out of touch with contemporary society that they are considered to be ‘immigrants in time’ and may themselves feel like ‘strangers in their own land’. In other words, the values, standards of behaviour or fashions they favour seem to be ‘out of sync’.

For children in technologically advanced societies, learning to tell the time using a clock is an important skill. But for social scientists, time is so much more than something measured by big hands, little hands, or the incremental increasing of numbers.

Dr Jane Pilcher



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