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Why Time is a Social Construct

January 9, 2013

Joshua Keating in Smithsonian Magazine:

Time-Warped-phenomenon-631“What time is it?” is not a question that usually provokes a lot of soul-searching. It’s generally taken for granted that even if we don’t know the correct time, a correct time does exist and that everyone on the planet—whatever time zone they happen to be in—follows the same clock.

University of Missouri management scholar Allen Bluedorn believes time itself is a social construction. “What any group of people think about time ends up being a result of them interacting with each other and socialization processes,” he says.

We measure time not simply in terms of minutes and seconds, but in terms of concepts such as “early,” “late”—or, for that matter, “fashionably late.” What is the length of a “work day”? In the United States, Europe and Japan you’ll get three different answers.

Those subjective views help explain why the standardization of time has often been met with reluctance, if not outright resistance. Historically, countries have not eagerly embraced the global clock—they’ve felt compelled to do so because of the demands of commerce.

The U.S. national time standard, for instance, didn’t emerge until 1883, when it was adopted by the railroads, which needed to maintain common timetables. Before that, cities largely kept their own local time, and many were not happy to have big government and big railroads force standardization on them. “Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars,” editorialized one newspaper when the changeover was going into effect.

The era of globalization may be finishing the job, as information technology and the international supply chain knit nations together more tightly than ever. [More]

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