Is Time a Human Construct?

When we ask “What time is it?” we’re not trying to pose a deep question. There is a universal assumption that a correct time exists, even though we might not know what it is at the moment. Most of us also believe that time is both unchangeable and uniform. An hour is an hour, whether you live in the United States or the United Kingdom.

It’s not true, however. Time is, and always has been, a human construct shaped by social interactions and customs.

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Clocking Out

Life regulated by a clock is a foreign concept in certain countries. For example, in Burundi, meetings and obligations are scheduled according to certain events. If a person wants to arrange a morning appointment, they might specify “when the cows are out for grazing.”

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The language of the Hopi tribe in northeastern Arizona has no past, present, or future; for them, time is not a series of distinct instances. Similarly, nomadic tribes in Afghanistan and Iran use the seasons to measure time, making it a cyclical event.

Allen Bluedorn, a University of Missouri management scholar, wrote, “What any group of people think about time ends up being a result of them interacting with each other and socialization processes.” In other words, time is a manifestation of social mores, just like fashion and technology.

When Time Began?

The U.S. national time standard didn’t come into effect until 1883, when the railroads adopted it to maintain shared timetables. Rather than a formal acceptance of an existing element, the adoption of national time struck Americans as revolutionary. The Washington Post likened it to the reformation of the calendar by Julius Caesar and later Pope Gregory XIII.

time zones

Prior to that event, cities and even smaller communities tended to observe their own local time. Many of them were firmly against the change, with the Boston Evening Transcript protesting, “Let us keep our own noon.” One Cincinnati newspaper editor huffing, “Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars.”1

The paper was reminding its readers—and the railroads—that seconds, minutes, and hours were not a natural phenomenon. Certain units of time, like days, months, and years were in sync with natural events, such as the earth’s movements. Anything else was too arbitrary and, in the case of the U.S. national time standard, too open to manipulation to be real.

Time as a Cultural Phenomenon

Even in societies that do live by the clock, not everyone shares the same concept of time. Americans are ultra-sensitive to timing, with their days consisting of one precisely scheduled event after another. Failure to be punctual is a sign of personal and professional weakness. For other cultures, notions of being early, late, or on time are not as rigid. In Brazil, people who are consistently late are regarded as being more successful than those who are always on time.

The presence of these subjective views and the historic resistance to the standardization of time indicates that time itself is not an independent and natural concept. It has been defined and developed to meet the needs and expectation of any given society. There are suggestions that the current era of globalization is bringing nations more closely together and may one day result in a global time standard, but it’s not likely. At least not without a lot more controversy than the U.S. railroad barons encountered in 1883.

1 Levine, Robert. A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differently. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. p.73

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