“The Many Faces of Social Time: A Sociological Approach”, Time & Society, 22, 1st March 2013, pp. 5-30.

Roberto Cipriani

Roberto Cipriani, The Many Faces of Social Time: A Sociological Approach.


Do all clocks and calendars refer to the same time? E.E. Evans-Pritchard reported that the Nuer culture divided time into ‘ecological’ and structural temporal categories. Alheit made a distinction  between everyday, routinized, cyclical time and life-experience time.

Time is capable of devouring everything; it can reach beyond what has already been; it can sunder itself from the past, without turning back.

Social time has many facets: it may be very short, short, long or very long. Immobility within life space, as time passes, is tantamount to continuous change in space and time. Finally, a categorisation of time might be founded on four modalities: micro-timemeso-timemacro-timemega-time.

Biographical note: Full professor of Sociology and chairman of the Department of Sciences of Education (University of Rome 3), and president of the European Council of National Sociological Associations (ESA). He has also served as editor-in-chief of International Sociology. He has been president of the Italian Sociological Association. Publications: Sociology of Religion. An Historical Introduction (translated into Chinese, French, Portuguese, Spanish) and The Sociology of Legitimation.

Address: via Milazzo 11/b, 00185 Roma, Italy. E-mail: rciprian@uniroma3.it. Tel.: 0039-06-68803496. Fax: 0039-06-57339102.

Key words: social time, space, chrónos, kairós, eonic time

Disciplines: cultural anthropology, sociology

The concept of time is, perhaps, one of the most difficult to grasp. This applies not only to the study of time in sociology but also in other fields. The astronomer Anthony Aveni, for example, writes that “in Webster’s dictionary, the word is given more space than widely used nouns like ‘thing’ and ‘God’, occupies a greater space than basic adjectives such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, more space than ‘space’, its archetypal counterpart . . . it is difficult to find a word which has more descriptions or contrasting and contrary meanings than this apparently innocuous term. . . Time is, above all, an idea: the idea that an ordered sequence can be recognised and accepted by our cognition. The philosopher C. H. Broad posited: ‘all the events of world history fall into place in a single series of instants’ or as Ecclesiastes (3.1) holds  ‘there is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven’. But time is also a measure, a measure of intervals between events. As a measurable quantity, we consider time as being unlimited, continuous, homogeneous, unchangeable, indivisible and infinite” (Aveni 1993: 11-12). It is this tangle of definitions which justifies the use of expressions attesting to the “multiple and polysemic character of time” (Gasparini 1990: 11), or to multiple temporalities (Novotny 1989).

The question then arises: does ‘time’ really refer to an ‘ordered sequence’ within what we consider as being ‘our knowledge’? What  bestows order on a similar sequence (Gasparini 2001; Belloni 2007)? Is it a clock or a calendar perhaps? Do all clocks and calendars refer to the same time? Let us assume for a moment that this be the case (although we are aware that it is not) and we are obliged to answer the following query: what characterises this sequential dimension within the ambit of what we know as our knowledge? Is it linearity, an unbroken succession or reflexivity? Is it a pattern within an organic, homogeneous whole, endowed with continuity, devoid of splits and sunderings, and therefore unchangeable?

I will advance the opposite hypothesis: time can be seen as referring to a plurality of temporalities and to a multiplicity of forms of knowledge, whether consolidated or as yet to be acquired.

Typologies of time

Although we may consider the categories of past, present and future as self-evident, other forms of temporality are not.

Referring to the work of the African-studies expert John Mbiti, Bernardo Bernardi (1974:71), for example, pointed out  that in Swahili culture there are only two temporal parameters: the present and the past. The first is sasa which means ‘now’/’in the present’, the second zamani which means ‘in the past’/’formerly’. Both of these, that is micro-temporality and macro-temporality, unite to give rise to myths, dreams and heroes, located, obviously, at the origins.

Evans-Pritchard (1975) reports that for the Nuer people time is divided into an ‘ecological’ and a structural aspect. The Nuer divide their existence into two seasons, that of tot, the rainy season and that of mai, the dry season. This ecological distinction, however, structures their socio-economic life according to the activities determined by ecological time during which the Nuer follow a well-defined rhythmic cadence: from the cultivation of millet and maize to the burning of grassland, from gardening to fishing, from life in the fields to life in the village, with the former season spanning the period from May to October, the latter that from November to April.

In the Nuer culture, further temporal dimensions are applied to the succession of age-ranges related to the development of specific skills. The first phase occurs before initiation and lacks specific characteristics. Upon entry into adulthood, the second phase revolves around the activities of the warrior when the use of physical force is fundamental; the third phase is that of family responsibilities; the fourth grants access to positions of power; the fifth is that of old age and plays a sacred or mystical role.

Similar dichotic concepts of time are by no means exclusive to non-Western peoples (Moen 2003).

            Peter Alheit of the University of Bremen, with more ideological zeal than scientific acumen perhaps, investigated the meaning of the ‘discovery’ of time and addressed, in particular, the issue of its management by individuals who wish to control the time of others. Alheit divided time into two main types: everyday, routinized and cyclical time on the one hand; life-experience, that is, existential, linear, continuous, coherent time, on the other. Doubts arise concerning the validity of this dichotomy and above all regarding the specific features of the two time dimensions he hypothesised. Nonetheless, many aspects of his analysis seem convincing.

The main question arising is whether ‘our time’ is really ‘our’ time (Alheit 1994:306). There is a genuine contradiction between availability of time and its annulment by external events in which the social actor has no say. This is the reason why the “battle for time is central to the class struggle in capitalist societies” (Alheit 1994:315; although this suggestion is, in actual fact, drawn from Negt 1984:36).

Time as chrónos and kairós

“All around us nature transmits its own rhythm, which is clearly cyclical. We do not know how the living world acquired its sense of rhythm; whether the beat of life stems from some exterior mechanism or is the outcome of an internal vibration. Nevertheless, we know that all those who belong to the sphere of living beings, from oysters to kings, emulate the movements and changes of the heavens and the seasons” (Aveni 1993:385). There is, therefore, a pre-established something which moulds our actions or, in any case, bestows a certain order on them. The alternation of light and darkness, the transition from one season to another, the phases of the moon, tides (it is interesting and instructive to note that ‘time’ and ‘tide’ , in English, have the same root, tid).

The reference made by Aveni to oysters is no coincidence. During a well-known scientific experiment, oysters were transported from New Haven, Connecticut to the Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. It was noticed that the oysters opened their shells in keeping with the pace of the local time of their new habitat. “It was as if they had adapted their life cadence to the full moon as observed in Evanston rather than to that observed in New Haven. Did this low life form actually perceive the presence of the moon through the impenetrable walls of the laboratory?” (Aveni 1993:25).

Whatever the answer to this question may be, it is, in any case, evident that times and rhythms exist which, to no small degree at global level, regulate a large part of the ebb and flow of life, of procreative and developmental periods, despite environmental diversity and the peculiar characteristics of different living species.

            For this reason, it is correct to say that “we never perceive time directly; there is no particular organ which controls time the way the eyes perceive light and the ears react to sound or the tongue to flavour. Nevertheless, all living organisms perceive time and react to changing phenomena” (Aveni 1993:37).

This way of relating to an external order, which marks and places a whole series of events in a linear and/or circular sequence,  provides an idea of what we mean when speaking of time as chrónos.

Theogony emphasizes the cyclical nature of events. Uranus did not want others to surpass him and threaten his power, so he forced them to return inside their mother’s womb. Chronos ate his children when they were born. Zeus, like Chronos, avenged his mother. Uranus was castrated; Chronos had to regurgitate the children he had eaten. In any case, within this succession of events, Chronos represents the element of transition or change generated by Uranus which leads to the  birth of Zeus.

            In classical Greek culture, there is another connotation of time, contained in the word kairós, which refers to a kind of time which is opportune, proper, right, in reference to an action to be accomplished, to a decision to be reached, or to an initiative to be undertaken.

            In classical Greek art, Kairos is portrayed in a manner similar to Hermes (the Roman Mercury). He is handsome, young, perpetually in motion, swift, constantly running; he has wings on his feet and on his back, he continually escapes the efforts of those who try to stop him. It is practically possible to catch him, and if one manages to grasp him, it is only for a fleeting instant and in that case only by a lock of the hair on his forehead (the nape of his neck is clean-shaven to prevent others from seizing him from behind).

It was by no chance that the sculptor Lysippus paid great attention to the theme of kairós and that this attention spread into the artistic culture of Greece and Rome. It should also be recalled that the Macedonian poet Posidippus wrote a fictional dialogue between an admirer of the bronze relief of Kairos and Kairos himself.

Here are the essential exchanges of the dialogue. Looking at the sculpture, the interlocutor asks from where the sculptor comes and who he is. The answer is ‘Lysippus of Sicyon’. Turning again to the figure represented, the interlocutor asks him to reveal his name.

It is Kairos, the one who overtakes all. Like time, the winged god, passes everything by, outruns everything, leaves all events behind him in the past.

The following part of the dialogue is extremely relevant and significant, concise and effective.

‘Why do you travel on tiptoe?’

‘I’m always on the run’.

‘Why have you got wings on your feet?’

‘To move more speedily than the wind’.

‘Why do you hold a knife in your right hand?’

‘To inform men that I can stab better than a dagger’.

‘Why have you got a lock of hair on your forehead?’

‘To be grasped by those who overtake me’.

‘Why is nape of your neck clean shaven?’

‘If I am the one who overtakes, no-one can grasp me from behind’.

‘Why has the artist sculpted you?’

‘To provide me as an example for men”.

Time can devour everything; time can overtake what has already been; time can sunder itself from the past for good, without turning back. It grinds event after event, returning each one to the bowels of the earth from which it was born, condemning each to oblivion, to the river Lethe, that is, to forgetfulness. But, above all, time is, by its very nature, un-stoppable. The very moment we try to outline it, it escapes our grasp and seems to elude all our clumsy efforts at blocking it. To be even more precise, the attitude of time seems to be one of total indifference towards what it leaves behind.

Through the use of time, the social subject takes possession of the world and moulds it to meet his or her expectations. He/she must, nevertheless, also take the limitations imposed by time itself into due account. Mongardini is perfectly right when he paraphrases Guyau’s splendid image of time as “the distance between cup and lip” (Mongardini 1994:9). But it is, perhaps, useful to refer once more to the Greek myth of Kairos which allows us to consider time, from a spatial point of view, as the brief distance between the hand of a person who succeeds in outdistancing time, and the lock of Kairos’ hair which he/she may now grasp.

The real drama, however, occurs during the clash between chrónos and kairós, that is, between social exigencies and individual needs. The latter are certainly disregarded and devoured by the pace imposed by chrónos. But one must not imagine that physical or numerical time is the only key to the interpretation of social facts.

The debate about social time (Nugin 2010) has many ramifications. For this reason – as Guyau saw it – we have to take a complex, interdisciplinary approach to it. This approach should not be based on one discipline alone. Jean-Marie Guyau (1854-1888) was the advocate of a sort of secular religion. He argued, in contrast to the position of Spencer which held that the distinctive feature of time was length. According to Guyau, “it runs, therefore, against the laws of evolution, to construct space by means of time when it is, to the contrary, through space that we arrive at the representation of time” (Guyau 1994:44). Finally, “for us, eternity is either nothing or chaos; time begins with the introduction of order into feeling and thought” (Guyau 1994:92).

This way, it is the social subject who, through his or her emotions, passions, and reflections generates time which is always a blend of and a toing and froing between chrónos and kairós (Cipriani 1997).

In the context of non-logical action and, thus, with reference to the concept of non-economic time, Pareto has something useful to say. In the words of Busino “it can be said that the descending phase causes the ascending phase which follows it and vice versa. But this only in the sense that the ascending phase is indissolubly tied to the descending one which precedes it and vice versa. This suggests, therefore, in more general terms, that the different phases are simple manifestations of a single state of things and that it is observation which makes them appear to succeed each other in such a way that the sequence is experimentally uniform. There are various types of oscillation, depending on the time they take. This oscillatory time may be very short, short, long or very long.

            As we have already seen, the shortest oscillations are usually accidental in that they manifest fleeting forces; those which occur over a particularly long time usually manifest enduring forces. The very long ones, because of our lack of knowledge of the distant past, and because it is impossible to foresee the future, can fail to reveal their oscillatory properties and appear to manifest a movement proceeding constantly in one direction” (Busino 1988:xxiv). It would seem that time is a succession of waves, of oscillations, a feature typical also of social phenomena.

This kind of motion, a to-and-fro-like process, characterises the course of history, in particular the sequence of access to power by different elites; first the lions, then the wolves.  According to the theory of elite group circulation, power-shifts between elite group are pending when a given phenomenon reaches its peak: “when a phenomenon reaches its greatest degree of intensity, the opposite oscillation is imminent” (Busino 1988:xxiv). But the duration of the power of these elite groups is destined to be short lived. To paraphrase Pareto, time is the cemetery of elite groups.

Time as synthesis

Norbert Elias’ reflections on time (Tabboni 2001) provide a fine example of the sociology of knowledge, in the sense that the nucleus of his approach focuses on the symbolic features of the use of time. Elias argues that “we cannot see time or hear it, neither can we taste it or touch it; it is a problem which still awaits solution. How can we measure something which we are unable to perceive with our senses? Is an hour invisible?” (Elias 1986:7). The very object of study seems, therefore, to escape our grasp. Like an ideology, a utopia or a symbol which cannot be tested empirically and factually, time cannot be measured.  “But”, someone might object, “there are clocks”. To this Elias answers: “clocks certainly help us to measure something; nevertheless this something is not exactly time, which is invisible, but something which is very tangible like the length of a working day or the eclipse of the moon, or the speed of an athlete who runs the 100 meters” (Elias 1986:7).

The question of time is centred on a series of relations, that is, on the way two or more events are placed in relation to each other producing a series. Time, then, becomes a social institution which clocks represent without themselves being ‘time’. It might be observed to this regard, that no sociologist will study time simply by referring to the instruments which conventionally measure it. This would lead, at most, to a study of the relationship between the material object, its form, its content, its mechanism and the culture of the era in which it has been made and used. This would be sociology of material culture and not strictly speaking sociology of time.

            Watches and calendars, therefore, cannot be considered as phenomena to be studied except insofar as “they are also something different from a physical series of events. In fact, a physical sequence acquires the characteristic of a temporal device only when, beside its physical aspects, it has the characteristic of a mobile social symbol and as such only if it is placed within the communicative circuit of human society either as a means of information or regulation” (Elias 1986:21). More to the point, “time at the present stage of development is a high-level symbolic synthesis, thanks to which it is possible to relate positions of physical or natural becoming, of social becoming and the course of an individual life” (Elias 1986:23). In other words, time functions as a universal parameter for the natural world or for the individual and society.

There is, however, a drawback to this. “When in the course of their development, symbols reach a very high level of conformity with reality, it becomes very difficult for human beings to distinguish symbols from reality” (Elias 1986:31). This because of a tendency to reify time, as if time were a reality rather than a symbol and, as such, “an apprehended social synthesis”, also arises (Elias 1986:37).

Given these premises, it is easy to understand how Elias’ analysis finds a place within a broader approach to social phenomenology. Beginning with his work on civilizations, that is, on the connection between ‘auto-constriction’ and ‘hetero-constriction’ as well as on the themes of involvement and detachment; the whole analysis is conducted within the framework of a sociology of science or knowledge. In this perspective, time appears as “a means of orientation which is socially institutionalized” (Elias 1986:43). Time does not exist in itself but is constructed by society through individuals.

Elias speaks of the tri-polar function of a temporal relation. There are, first of all, social subjects who create and put the relation into place. Secondly, there are the individuals themselves as a ‘continuum of changes’ from birth to death. Finally, there are other events which are put into relation with the course of life. One has to specify, in any case, that the ‘continuum of changes’ “connects an early stage to a later stage” (Elias 1986:60 n.3).

Norbert Elias does not renounce the use of the category of space and, following Einstein and Minkowski, holds that a change in time is a change in space and vice versa. To remain motionless in the space in which one lives while time passes, is tantamount to continuous change (Rosa, Scheuerman 2008) in space and time (Urry 2000). In fact, human subjects change as members of a changeable society in a world which also changes. Both society and the world occupy a space; change takes place therefore also within space (Elias 1986:121).

The work of Elias also addresses specific questions regarding the concept of time applying a multi-disciplinary approach to a broad-ranging historical time-line from Galileo to Einstein. Elias also notes that mathematics provides more glory than literature and endures longer in time (Elias 1986: 154-155).

Time in a sociological perspective

Among the first sociologists to study time systematically, Sorokin and Merton tried, as early as 1937, to delineate the concept of social time; in particular, they drew attention to the fact that “periods of time which are quantitatively the same can be made socially unequal and periods of unequal time can be rendered socially equal . . . We can say that our studies have foregrounded the fact that social time, as distinct from astronomical time, is qualitative and not purely quantitative; and that these qualities derive from beliefs and customs which are common to groups, and that they serve, moreover, to denote the rhythm, pulse, the throb of society” (Sorokin and Merton 1985:39).

The theme of social time which Sorokin and Merton merely outlined, was addressed later and defined more accurately by Sorokin who spoke of plurality of time types (from physical to psychological time) conditioned by socio-cultural contexts and accompanied by other kinds of social and cultural time. A given context is reflected by the various forms of time it expresses; therefore the social sciences require an adequate concept of socio-cultural time. Thus, time in an ideational culture, will be of an ideational type while time in a sensorial culture will have sensorial features.

One of the most original contributions to the sociology of time was that made by Robert Merton (1985) who analysed the social expectations of duration, by no means a totally novel concept but one which he defined in original terms (Barbano 1986:15-19). “The social aspects of duration – SAD for short – envisage temporal durations which have been collectively elaborated or socially prescribed and have become an inherent part of social structures of various types: for example, the length of time during which an individual is expected to fulfil certain institutional roles (such as his/her position in an organisation or membership of a group); the foreseeable duration of different types of social rapports such as friendship or a professional-client relationship); the duration of particular tasks performed by individuals, because they have been previously defined are expected” (Merton 1985:175).

The analysis of time provided by Niklas Luhmann provides quite a different formulation. Its impeccable systematic character, however, reveals, in the longrun, a substantial adherence to the mechanisms of the complexity of a capitalist society, and to its pervasive rationalisation. For Luhmann, contemporary Western society’s peculiar characteristic of ‘not having time’, is simultaneously an inexorable fact and a privileged point of view through which to distinguish the various temporal limits and bonds which constellate the social life of individuals.

Within this perspective, it is the time of the individual which must adapt to social time and not vice versa. In fact “it becomes evident that the individual dimensions and vicissitudes of the world remain dependent upon each other, despite their elements of mutual invariance, because the complexity of every individual dimension becomes significant only in reference to other dimensions”  (Luhmann 1985:121).

Hence the need to make split-second decisions, without having all the necessary information, and without being able to weigh up alternative solutions. The only possible information-communication choice available is of an imperative nature because it is part of a global planning mode (Castells 2001) predefined by others on the basis of declared rational requirements. One of the imperative systems which has the greatest impact is that of deadlines which “give rise to further deadlines and so, temporal pressure generates itself” (Luhmann 1985:124).

Zerubavel speaks of rigid structures of succession (i.e. the order of happening), fixed durations, standard temporal placement (which refer to the ‘when’ of the happening), uniform frequencies of recurrence (which refer to ‘how’ frequent). All these cases refer to normative orders of succession. Zerubavel examined Benedictine monasticism which he held to be one of the most eloquent examples of temporal regularity. Furthermore, he discussed the development of various calendars and their symbolic functions. Then he went on to discuss “how time functions as the context linking the meaning of actions and social situations to the particular field of religion” (Zerubavel 1985:17). Finally, he analysed the differentiating function of  time which distinguishes the public sphere from the private.

As to the issue of the uniformity of temporal placement, Zerubavel underlined the importance of ‘right time choices’ which to some extent recalls the Greek concept of kairós. He wrote that “in general terms, we possess rather well-defined notions of what constitutes the ‘right time’. It is almost inconceivable that a ballet, for example, be scheduled in the morning (even on non-work days). It must be acknowledged, therefore, that to place, or refrain from placing, certain activities and events within certain time slots is very often a matter of pure convention” (Zerubavel 1985:30). In other words, there is a difference between the need to sow crops at a certain time and that of going to the synagogue on Saturday, to the Mosque on Friday and to church on Sunday. Some activities have to take into account a natural order, others an order which is socially defined.

What Rudolf Otto (1917) called the ‘numinous’ and described as a mysterium tremendum is found in every experience of the sacred from religion to magic.  The relation with the sacred can lead to a loss of the perception of time, to ecstasy, to spatial and temporal disorientation, to mystical contemplation, that is, to the non-rational limits of religion, including orgiastic experiences. Mysticism, power and energy are essential connotations of the numinous but the element of the fascinans which harmonizes the contrast with the tremendum should not be overlooked. These regard endeavours made by human beings to dominate the mystery of reality.Attempts can be made to identify with the numinous through magical practices or practices aimed at bringing the numen to reside within the human subject through possession or divinization. These are short-cuts used to annul time, its differences and its limits. This concept is expressed in hymn 1727 by Ernst Lange, quoted by Otto, where the majesty of God is defined as follows: ‘all that you are has no end or beginning, all my thoughts lose themselves’.

The socio-religious perspective

            The essay published in Mélanges d’histoire des religions (1909) by Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert, Étude sommaire de la représentation du temps dans la magie et la religion, is, without doubt, a turning point in the socio-religious analysis of time. This essay, although short, is finely posited and was assumed as a touchstone for later studies. Hubert and Mauss started from a  position they had already forwarded in the Année Sociologique (1900-1901,5:248): “We assume that the actions and representations of religion – and we now wish to add – of magic, imply notions of time and space which are quite distinct from ordinary notions of time and space. Given the fact that rituals and mythical events take place in space and time, we argued that it was necessary to ask how, in the case of myths and rituals, the theoretical fragmentation of time and space might be reconciled with the infinity and immutability of the sacred within which both myths and events occur. To simplify our vocabulary, we attribute to the term ‘sacred’ all its possible connotations, using it therefore, to refer to the religious sacred and, at the same time, the magical sacred, to the sacred in the strict sense, and to mana, in spite of the fact that in a previous work [Hubert and Mauss 1975] we distinguished between these two sets of meanings” (Hubert and Mauss 1972:95).

Given that religions are at the origin of calendars, Hubert and Mauss continue by stating that “time is a condition necessary to magical and religious actions and representations” (Hubert and Mauss 1972:96) and establish the historical construction of specific calendars for the celebration of rituals, of magical deeds and for the performance of religious actions. Hubert and Mauss do not underline the quantitative notion of time (i.e. chrónos) but sustain, to the contrary,  the view that “in the case of both religion and magic, the successive segments of time are not homogeneous and the parts which appear to be equal in size are not necessarily equal nor are they equivalent: what is homogeneous and equivalent are those segments which are considered similar by virtue of their position in the calendar” (Hubert and Mauss 1972:101).

            Mircea Eliade made frequent reference to an ‘eternal return’, to a ‘return to the origins’, a regressus ad uterum, to a ‘turning back’, to an ‘annual rebirth of the world’ and to a ‘new beginning’. Specifically, in eschatological myths, “the knowledge of what happened ‘in the beginning’, that is, of  cosmogony, provides us with knowledge of what will happen in the future . . . Because of its duration, the world decays, and consumes itself; thus it must be symbolically re-created each year. The idea of the apocalyptic destruction of the world was accepted because backed by a known cosmogony, that is, the ‘secret’ of the origin of the world” (Eliade 1985:104).

This approach holds that the present belongs to a set which also includes the past and the future, though the pathway leading to liberation from time, and therefore to spiritual salvation, as contemplated by Yoga or Buddhism, is open. The roots of this process of liberation are archaic. Referring to this process, Eliade remarked that “the different Hindu philosophies, and techniques of asceticism and meditation, all pursue the same end: to cure human beings of the pain provoked by existence in time. In Hindu thinking, suffering is caused and prolonged indefinitely in the world by karma, by temporality: the law of karma imposes innumerable transmigrations, the eternal return to existence and, therefore, to suffering” (Eliade 1985:113).

To free oneself from the law of karma, it is necessary to ‘burn’ all the karmic residues of the future. This is achieved by ‘turning back’, by detaching the Self from the present in order to return to the origins, that is, to the moment in which time began. This way the one discovers and understands the errors of the past, of past lives, but one also reaches the limit of non-time, that is, the point before time broke into the world with the first manifestation of existence. This limit outside of time coincides with eternity understood as the end of time and of the human condition. This pathway provides an exit from time and an entrance into immortality. Time ends and loses its meaning when the subject overcomes it through memory, by means of an anamnesis which has to be carried out with the utmost attention, seeking every detail of past life.

The distinction which Eliade goes on to make discerns between historical time and liturgical time which has less affinity with psychoanalytic procedures. He speaks of the incarnation of Christ, which occurred in historical time, but which cannot be reduced to its mere historical dimension, because this incarnation, followed by resurrection and ascension, has a mythical character. Salvation, then, occurred in a historical context, but to attain it, human beings must live out the drama of Christ in a ritual or liturgical form which is “the periodical repetition of the illud tempus, of  ‘the beginnings'” (Eliade 1985:203). This liturgical time which is cyclical in nature, becomes linear following the Judaic model. There will be, therefore, only one incarnation and only one final judgment.

The ritual dimension of symbolic time

Victor Turner’s Ritual Process (1969) has become another touchstone for the sociology of time and has influenced sociological analyses greatly. Turner made diachrony the focus of the study of the structural form of society. The key to understanding social dynamics is the “processual model, that is, the diachronic profile of social processes, even when regular and rhythmic events can be measured in statistical form and have a synchronic structure” (Zadra, 1972:8; Giesen 2004).

A significant part of Turner’s discussion consequently centres on two main points: first, on the relation existing in society between structure and anti-structure and, secondly, on ‘liminality’, the transitional stage from the former to the latter. The structural element appears to be stable and somewhat slow to change at action and interaction level. Anti-structure, on the contrary, is more dynamic, more complex and devoid of spatial or temporal support: “anti-structure is both ‘communitas’ and ‘liminality’. Communitas, from a social-structural point of view, is a situation of undifferentiated, egalitarian, and direct social relations, close to the spontaneity and immediacy of the dialogic relation described by Martin Buber. It gives rise, nevertheless, to a different kind of structuring, which is of a symbolic kind” (Zadra 1972:9; 1985).

Zadra extended the analysis of diachrony and social dynamics by relating the ritualization of specific symbolic actions to the dynamics of the intersubjective communication involved in the formation of a social bond (Zadra 1987:193). The analysis provides, therefore, a significant theoretical basis for the definition of the way that communitas and its anti-structural symbolic features constitute an effective process in social life.

In particular, symbolic actions create different relational paradigms (Zadra 1987; 1989). The study of the calendar distribution of symbols allows one to distinguish between a plurality of dominant symbols which coordinate the processual aspects of a symbolic system. Symbolic periodicity is not, therefore, a uniform quantitative time distributed over an extended calendar period. Instead ‘symbolic time’ is highly discontinuous, centred as it is on a specific point with which every other point of calendar time is correlated. Dominant symbols are ritual actions performed within a given social group. They express the mythos of the group and an interpretation of its history; they carry an idiosyncratic interpretation of what that group considers as the principles of reality and the legitimate order of society, more specifically, they define the passage from disaggregation and conflict to social relationship. Symbolic periodicity, therefore, provides the paradigmatic form capable of bestowing sense and meaning on a social bond or, in theological terms, a covenant. Variations which occur within the processual resolutions brought about within symbolic periodicity reveal divergent concepts of society, action, freedom and power (Zadra 1985:30; 1987; 1989).

            ‘Symbolic time’ thus refers to the configurations of temporality present within a religious system: (1) the periodical distribution of the symbols over an extended unit of time; (2) the performative relationship between the symbolic and social systems; (3) the link between temporality, action and normativity stated within a given religious tradition (Zadra 1987: 193).

Symbolic time thus refers to the point of intersection between a plurality of ‘times’. The rise of different, often conflicting, calendar forms is related to changes in the way history and individual action are interpreted within a religious tradition, and also to conflicts which occur between the power-form enacted in the structural order of society and that enacted within the symbolic order (Zadra 1989:312).

Is time indefinable?

In the physical sciences, a series of problems related to time urgently require solutions (McTaggart 1908). The stalemate reached when trying to understand time is common to both the social and the physical sciences. As far as understanding the latter is concerned, recourse is made more frequently to abduction as an intermediate step in temporal analysis, than to deduction and induction. Even non-monotonic logic seems unable to provide definitive results. In short, Prigogine’s (1980) ‘forgotten dimension’ of time makes a tentative return to the scientific world after the abandonment of Newton’s idea of absolute time and mathematical time and after Einstein went beyond the concept of simultaneity. Further innovative suggestions were made by Minkowski, with his idea of the four dimensional space-time continua, and by Einstein who assimilated space and time within the three dimensions of space.

Even Henri Bergson’s (1926) well known ideas of durée and élan vital are inadequate, and so have lost their appeal. Time is no longer only a question of sentiment (Vicario 2005) but of knowledge, as Elias put it so effectively (1986). At the moment, confronted by dissipative structures which shatter the homogeneity of space and time, we need to find new ways of understanding time which are not linked to classical mechanics or to claims of predicting the future without taking the entire previous situation into account.

A striking example of this is the so-called ‘Yale Shooting Problem’ which revolves about a specifically temporal kind of question: initial conditions are defined once and for all, and they are not described in a complete way; this therefore is an impediment to long-range forecasting. The emphasis is placed on the initial condition about which, however, little information is provided; little information is made available concerning other factors subject to change. Prediction errors are therefore numerous. Here is the temporal question posed in the ‘Yale Shooting Problem’ (Shanahan 1990; Magnani 1995, 1996):

Fred is alive.

A gun is loaded.

There is a pause.

The trigger is pulled.

Is Fred alive?

The most obvious answer is that Fred is dead. According to classical logic, one could argue either that Fred is dead or that the gun was unloaded in the pause, and that Fred is still alive. In reality Fred is not dead; it is therefore necessary to change the forecast of death made previously and to forward a new one based on the explanation of what actually happened. Starting from the fact that Fred is alive, non-monotonic logic permits us to suppose that a specific datum is missing from our cognitive approach: something has happened whereby something or someone has unloaded the gun, or some other circumstance has arisen whereby Fred is allowed to live. After ascertaining this, various hypotheses and other explanations can be abducted from which further time typologies and forecasts may be deduced.

Time as αỉών

The Italian language, for instance, flattens the multi-dimensionality of time (tempo) considerably, as it does not make distinctions between the term indicating duration, chronometric extension, measurable period (tempo), and that indicating climate, seasons, meteorological conditions (tempo).

The English language, on the contrary, provides this type of distinction by using the term time to indicate the temporal phenomena, and weather, for atmospheric phenomena.

The ancient Greek language is even more precise in that it not only separates χρόνος [chrónos] from καιρός [kairós] but adds an aeonic aspect, that of multi-dimensional time as expressed through the concept of αỉών [aión], which includes the notions both of temporal duration extendable to include entire life spans, and of timeless duration, that is, eternity, absolute uninterrupted continuity. In the latter sense, time is never-ending, incessant, continuously flowing; it has neither a beginning or an end.

There is another term which completes the picture: αỉών a term which conveys both the present time, the current century, and those who live in it. As a consequence, time and humanity converge until they merge completely. In fact, there is an uninterrupted continuous link between humanity and its era.

Αỉών as a wordis akin to a series of closely related classical Greek lemmas, which form an intricate web of meaning capable of helping us to obtain a better grasp of time without limits. Αỉών  recallsthe concept of age, the Latin aevum, where the “v” of aevum is a survival from the older Aeolian form αỉFών [aiuón] from which aevum derived, and which then contained the Aeolic digamma (F) later dropped in Greek. Αỉών may also be associated with the Greek adverb αỉεί [aiéi] meaning continuously. The connection becomes even more evident when the last syllable is shortened to become αỉέν [aién]It appears in the much-used expression ảεί χρόνος [aéi chrónos], which, when translated, means time as a whole, eternity. Indeed, in many cases ảεί (or αỉεί) is used as a pleonasm accompanying other terms denoting time.

It might be affirmed that αỉών refers to time as it is, to time that flows, or to “forever” that is a duration that has the incessant character of eternity. To αỉών, Homer often adds ψυχή [psuké], to indicate life, its duration. However, it must be pointed out that Homer’s ψυχή must not be intended as soul but something that is not well defined, located in the body, but separate from it. It descends under the ground after physical death and remains a shadow, an appearance, unaware of itself although it continues to exist.

It is no coincidence that the expressions εỉς αỉνα [eis aióna] and πρòς αỉνα [pròs aióna] both mean forever, eternally. In the XXII book of Homer’s Iliad (where the mortal combat between Hector and Achilles takes place) in verse 58, αỉών is referred to as time-length. In Euripides’ tragedy “The Phoenician Women” (in the translation by F. Diano) in verses 1482-1488 there is still a sense of time as duration in the words of Teiresias, who, old and blind, with a golden crown on his head states that “and the sons of Oedipus made a gross mistake in wishing to throw over it the veil of time, as if forsooth they could outrun the gods’ decree; for by robbing their father of his due honour and allowing him no freedom, they enraged their luckless sire” (translation by E. P. Coleridge).

In Aeschylus’s Choephoroi (The Libation Bearers) -translation by E. D. A. Morshead –  in verse 346 the reference is not to time-length but to mankind, to the world. And ảπò αỉνos [apò aiónos] and ẻξ αỉνos [ex aiónos] must be translated with ab aeterno, that is since the world was the world. It remains that the meaning of time without duration or, in any case extremely long time, and the time of a human life span, of those living in an epoch, in an age, in a era, is expressed in the same terms. The latter is ambivalent, both because of the number of years that have already been lived, and also because of the far broader time period implied.

Appropriately provided with adjectives or accompanied by some kind of qualifier, an adverb maybe, αỉών expands to include not only the past but the present and future as well. It thus becomes μέλλων αỉών [méllon aión], the future age, posterity, and νύν αỉών [nún aión], the present age, the people of today. This way, it poses itself asαỉνoς [aiónos], through the ages. And it is within the dimensions of time that the divine entity itself, the eternal – that is the αỉών par excellence, which lives secula seculorum,  εỉς τος αỉνας τν αỉνων [eis toùs aiónas tón aiónon] – that is forever and ever, places itself.

As in the case of χρόνος and καιρόςαỉών too has itsown mythological significance and its own divine nature, as Aỉών is Eon, the son of Chronos (now seated as the personification of time in many places: for instance on the left side of the medieval clock of Lund cathedral). We can, therefore, deduce that the term has an evidently sacred character, that Aristotle too believed that it derived from ảεί, with which shares the same lexical root. Moreover, confirmation of its religious character derives also from the fact that the term eons in neo-Platonic and Gnostic philosophies is used to indicate a host of intermediate deities abiding between the supreme Godhead and the world of empirical reality. In the Gnostic conception the closer the eons draw to matter the less they are influenced by the divine dimension, the less they are the emanation of God, who constitutes them in couples (called Sygyzy) to form the Pleroma, from which both the Demiurges, the creators of the world and of man, and Christ, the saviour of man and revealer of the knowledge of God, originate.

In conclusion, eonic time contains within itself a broader range of possible ways of conceiving time in its multi-dimensionality.

Conclusion: from micro-time to mega-time

Time is never homogeneous, it is multi-facetted and its aspects are distributed over its various contexts.

The perception of time itself differs according to variations in sociological environments. It is not so much a question of the chronometric duration or of the perception that time flows slowly or rapidly. There are, instead, limits that are not easily definable, durations which cannot be foretold, potential extensions that cannot be programmed. In other words, every definition, however minimal, of the concept of time implies numerous adjustments, specifications, clarifications, that cannot always define the essence of the discourse in one or more of its phrases.

The key-point lies probably in asking where time “resides” (and therefore where it does not “reside”). Taking for granted that it is de facto an experience of the subject as a social actor, it is necessary to qualify a similar experience in phenomenological terms, paying attention to the different connotations that time assumes or seems to assume on different occasions.

A superficial categorization might be founded on four modalities that an empirical analysis can help to identify as the existential path followed by every social individual: micro-timemeso-timemacro-timemega-time.

Micro-time concerns the direct experience of a reduced, minimal, easily controllable time-space, as it is literally associated with the instant, the fleeting moment that flows rapidly. Tertullian, a Christian author who lived between the II and III century after Christ, writing in Latin uses the expression in atomo when referring to a similar small, indivisible part, with a view to describing something that happens in an instant, fugaciously. Life, when all comes to all, is a series of micro-times that follow each other in an uninterrupted sequence and end with the last breath or with the empirical verification of a flat encephalogram.

It is, then, a series of micro-times that produces meso-time, an entire existence, studded with experiences, whether cognisant or incognisant, with phases of wakefulness and sleep (and dreams), during which the possibility to wander is considerable, especially if one takes into account that the social actors are unable resort to memory to return to the past or to fantasy to envisage the future. Indeed, re-proposing a poetic formulation from the past, one expressed by the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo, it is possible to anticipate “the wings of time” and connect “the fugitive present moment” to the entire “space of centuries and centuries”. But all this is possible only if existential meso-time is in operation, if the meso-time of the person who thus exercises his/her faculties is in function. In explicit terms, it must be said that the unborn, the still-born, and the dead do not enjoy a similar possibility. It must, however, be taken into consideration that the pre-natal life of the foetus can be surprising, as recent scientific acquisition shows; the intrauterine unborn entertain initial forms of thought and therefore are probably able to entertain some notion of time. The micro-time itself which concludes meso-time with the passage from life to death, if one is aware of it, if present to oneself, permits one to roam freely, to return mentally to a very long chain of events, and also to imagine, to foreshadow, the future of one’s own body and/or soul (in the case of those who believe in life after death or in other means by which to make one’s existence continue for example through reincarnation). Beyond the extreme moment, the mental anticipation of what will happen afterwards can also lead to a peculiar situation, that of “remembering the future”, creating contents within the memory store related to certain images conjured up at a given moment and related to one’s own or someone else’s future.

Macro-time spans not only individual and social micro-times and meso-times, but also other regions which reach beyond the usual limits of the micro and meso dimensions. In particular, those realities that are experienced once minor thresholds have been passed. These thresholds delimit, respectively, moments and existences, that is micro-times and meso-times. Similar transitions are possible thanks to the enormous quantity of historical and technical notions available to be learnt and experienced – it is appropriate to remark – over time, centuries, millennia. Practically speaking, macro-time is constituted by that sum total of periods, events, people, and things that precede contemporaneousness and/or follow it, eventually. On macro-time there is considerable detailed information available, as an anamnestic key to the past and as anticipatory access to the future. For example, a centuries-old document or piece of cinema footage, dating back to the end of last century, broadens, in terms of the historical access, the extension of individual mini-times. On the other hand, futurological studies, with their more and more refined methodologies and techniques, design highly probabilistic scenarios which delineate the demographic, technological, economic (Rizzello 2004; Lawson 2005) and social characters of the future. What Leonardo da Vinci or, later, Jules Verne, anticipators par excellence of future inventions and discoveries, experienced exceptionally, is now a daily possibility available to avant-garde scientists, who outline innovations as yet to be created. In conclusion, macro-time dilates both backwards, towards what has already happened, and forward, towards what has yet to be.

As to mega-time, this term may be used to define the entire arc extending from the supposed origins of the universe to its hypothetical dissolution. But it is probably more opportune to talk here about a kind of “time without time”, incommensurable, limitless, without any effective interruption or beginning; a temporal (or a-temporal) infinite, capable, therefore, of overcoming, annihilating all and every space-time dimension. In this sense it may be placed within all kinds of metaphysical hypotheses, sustained by the various religious confessions which see in a meta-temporal shrine the point of arrival of the human existential parabola and the place (or rather non-place) where the conjunction between the earthly and divine dimensions takes place, as remuneration for having lived a just life.

If one wished to use a geometrical metaphor one might say that micro-time corresponds to a point, meso-time to a section, macro-time to a large segment of a straight line, mega-time to a straight line whose points of origin and conclusion are unknown.


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