Time And Culture Essay

In The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time
Anthropologist Edward T. Hall entitles his first chapter “Time as
Culture.” An extreme stance perhaps, especially given the potency of
nature’s rhythms, but it is instructive of the extent to which experiences and
conceptualizations of time and space are culturally determined. Unlike the rest
of nature’s animals, our environment is primarily man-made and symbolic in
quality. As Bronowski observed in The Ascent of Man, instead of being figures of
the landscape, like antelopes upon the African savanna, we humans are the
shapers of it. Geographical space and natural time are transformed into social
space and social time, around whose definitions human beings orient their
behaviors. For instance, instead of being governed by the natural rhythms of the
sun and seasons, our behaviors are governed by such cultural temporalities as
work schedules, age norms, and by the “open” hours of shopping malls.

Culture is a shared system of ideas about the nature of the world and how (and
when) people should behave in it. Cultural theorists argue that culture creates
minds, selves and emotions in a society as reliably as DNA creates the various
tissues of a living body. Culture also creates the rhythms of a society that
echo within the very biology of its members. Observes Irving Hallowell
(“Temporal Orientation in Western Civilization and in a Pre-Literate
Society, American Anthropologist 36, 1955), “It is impossible to assume
that man is born with any innate `temporal sense.’ His temporal concepts are
always culturally constituted” (pp. 216-7). A 1974 study by William Condon
and Louis Sander showed that within a few days, infants flex their limbs and
move their heads in rhythms matching the human speech around them. By the time a
child is three months old he has already been temporally enculturated, having
internalized the external rhythms (called Zeitgeber, meaning “time
giver” in German) of his culture. These rhythms underlie a people’s
language, music, religious ritual (the Buddhist mantra, for instance, is not
only one’s personal prayer but one’s personal rhythm), beliefs about post-mortem
fate, and their poetry and dance. These rhythms also serve as a basis of
solidarity: humans are universally attracted to rhythm and to those who share
their cadences of talk, movement, music, and sport. Thus socio-cultural systems
can be likened to massive musical scores: change the rhythm– such as putting a
funeral dirge to a calypso beat–and you change the meaning of the piece.

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Cultures differ temporally, for example, in the temporal precision with which
they program everyday events (ask any American businessman trying to schedule a
meeting in the Middle East) and in the ways various social rhythms are allowed
to mesh.


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