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Cultural aspects of time and ageing
Time is not the same in every culture and every circumstance; our views of ageing also differ
Cecil G. Helman

“He that idly loses five shillings’ worth of By contrast, the Western world’s con- … ‘time is organization’, which is
time loses five shillings, and might as pru- cept of time as linear has been the basis of essential for the smooth
dently throw five shillings into the sea. He intellectual and religious thought for many
functioning of a complex
that loses five shillings, not only loses that centuries. Joseph Needham (1966) saw this
sum, but all the advantages that might be as originating in the Judaeo–Christian
industrial society in which the
made by turning it in dealing, which by the worldview, with its sense of time beginning actions of large groups of people
time that a young man becomes old, will at the creatio ex nihilo and ending at the need to be coordinated…
amount to a considerable sum of money.” Second Coming, or the coming of the
— Benjamin Franklin, 1736 Messiah. Western time was conceived as
being directional, advancing and non- operate on an identical time schedule. Hall
repetitive. All human life was a “continu- sees monochronic time as more ‘public’
ous linear redemptive process”, and the and ‘male’ time, and more characteristic of

uch of the research into age- history of the world was seen as “a divine bureaucracy, government, business and
ing—and into ways of extending drama enacted on a single stage, with no sport. However, this phenomenon is actually
longevity—has focused on phys- repeat performances”. This linear sense of quite recent. In Britain, for example, it was
ical phenomena of the human body, par- time is apparent in the eighteenth century only in the mid-nineteenth century, with
ticularly at the cellular or molecular level. philosophes’ idea of human progress, the the birth of the industrial revolution and the
For a more complete picture, and to dis- nineteenth century concepts of social evo- spread of railways, that ownership of
cuss the ethical and social implications, lution, and in the contemporary ideas of watches became more common and clock
this research needs to be placed within developed and developing nations. time spread (Rawlence, 1985). Today, the
much wider social, economic and cultural clock, the watch and the calendar are

contexts. Cultural concepts of ageing are he anthropologist Edward T. Hall among the main cultural symbols of
closely related to cultural concepts of (1983) has described the predomi- Western industrial society.
time—and many different concepts of nant form of modern Western time as Despite this, monochronic time is still
time have been described. In more tradi- ‘monochronic’ time. In this view, time is not uniformly distributed throughout soci-
tional agrarian societies, for example, seen as something tangible, as well as lin- ety. Many people live largely outside clock
time is often experienced as more cycli- ear. It is conceived of as a ribbon or a road time, especially the young, elderly, unem-
cal, or rather spiral, as it is both repetitive stretching from the past into the future, ployed, disabled, depressed or chronically
and slowly advancing. The religions of which is divided into segments called min- ill. Clock time is also less important at times
these regions, especially in parts of Asia utes, hours, days, months and years. Within of leisure, sex, ritual or religious fervour,
(Nakamura, 1966), often incorporate this this rigid linear structure, one can only ‘do and there are often differences between the
cyclical view of human experience and one thing at a time’, as time itself flows speeded-up time of the city and the slower
may include concepts of reincarnation swiftly past. For Hall, monochronic time— time of the countryside.
such as samsara—the endless cycle of measured by clocks and watches—is a form Time in the Western world is also seen as
birth, death and rebirth found in both of external order that originates outside the a form of currency or commodity, which
Buddhism and Hinduism. individual, and which is imposed upon the can be ‘spent’, ‘wasted’, ‘saved’ or ‘given’. It
chaotic lives of humanity. Thus ‘time is can be ‘free’, ‘spare’, ‘extra’ or ‘overtime’.
Cultural concepts of ageing are organization’, which is essential for the Time can be converted into money, and
smooth functioning of a complex industrial money into time, and this process can be
closely related to cultural
society in which the actions of large groups precisely quantified. Time and work are inti-
concepts of time—and many of people need to be coordinated, so that mately related: in industrial culture, time,
different concepts of time have factories, shops, businesses, offices, rail- labour, wages and productivity are all linked
been described ways, airlines and traffic flow can all to one another, with the overall aim of


meditation and contempla- tangible. Each of these may have major effects Ramadan. as well ©2005 EUROPEAN MOLECULAR BIOLOGY ORGANIZATION EMBO reports VOL 6 | SPECIAL ISSUE | 2005 S 5 5 . there is a tripartite divi. especially (1983) describes polychronic time as more national time—and history—may be seen among men. them. time different forms of cultural time. Bastille Day in France. It also defines at what age people are considered to be old. Religions such as ‘ribbon’ or a ‘road’. and into festivals or special days such as New Year’s Day or the summer equinox. Calendrical time describes the division of the year. with the timing of ‘time out of time’. It also determines when children get immunized. and in a tasks. National time is specific to an individ- ual nation state. social inter. Christmas. both lin. Later on it defines when young people are considered developed enough to vote legally. weeks and months. such as ‘the second agricultural societies all children are seen as Elizabethan Age’. talk or learn to read. Life is experienced as constantly in sions like the Queen’s birthday in the UK. in many traditional from the self. blocks of time. time is experienced as a Clock time is the 24-hour cycle that is tion. it is reinforced their own specific calendars that date completion of tasks. regulated by clocks and other timepieces. that are imposed upon such as Saints’ Days. most individuals Religious time is linked to the weekly tending to crops or livestock. and when they start school. fasts and festivals devoted to work is therefore considered as ear and cyclical. Judaism and Islam all have stress the involvement of people and the tinues throughout life. harvest and winter festivals. based on the natural world— usually the lunar or solar cycles—into days. These linear concepts. In industrialized ple. traffic rush hour. Here. as well younger siblings from very early on. includes the spiritual time of religious rit- chronic’ time. children time cycle of workplaces and educational schedules or clock time. and not as rigid as in clock time. unemployment Zen Buddhism. adolescence. or ‘the Third Republic’. rather than a Exposure begins at birth. uals. at a lower cost. and includes its annual public holidays and celebrations such as greater productivity. It is common in as beginning on their first day of indepen- (childhood. with multiple hour on the radio. This often involves leaving for school or news bulletins every institutions. I ‘trainee adults’. inherit money or have sexual relations. as well as on their behaviour. This model dictates the timing of children’s develop- mental milestones. transactions or con. Hall With newly independent nation states. ‘time springs history are often coalesced into large or infirmity). their participants as being ‘timeless’. into three periods: pre-work ‘private’ and ‘female’. or as actions or events converge. and then con. By contrast. responsibilities and ties to other peo. drive cars. such as the background sound of alarm Bureaucratic time encompasses the rather than by a strict adherence to pre-set clocks ringing. in some cases. flux. summer. on an individual’s physiology and psychol. for example. many parts of the non-Western world—in dence. which includes its recurrent spring. countries. or special occa- shorter period of time. Later. sion of the human life cycle. as to the annual feasts.special issue science & society © Getty Developmental time is the linear model of human development that is imposed on the life path of children and adolescents. or caring for actually live at the intersection of several cycles of Sabbaths and workdays. therefore. Modern calendars usually include the year’s division into work time and vacation time. Christianity. intrinsic to childhood as to adulthood. and is not imposed’. and to definitions of maturity and immaturity. prayer. work. versations only ‘when the time is right’. It also Monochronic time co-exists with ‘poly. mic year and the dates of vacations. Significant periods in a nation’s and post-work (retirement. on a daily basis by environmental time cues from their birth. may take little account of individual variations in development. events which are experienced by ‘point’ at which relationships. such as the ages at which they ought to walk. which is less linear and less ogy. Easter. education). Polychronic people infant feeding and mealtimes. Yom Kippur or Diwali. such as the cycle of the acade- ‘doing many things at once’. and are expected to help in n Western societies. It is intrinsic to the concepts of developmental psychology and ‘age- appropriate’ behaviour.

1992). the situa. Worldwide.” its cognitive functions—memory. The reduced status of the elderly raises a number of important questions. external. accountants at the end of the young who often have greater skills and America. businessmen struggling to meet a knowledge in certain areas of life than their has estimated that by 2025 there will be 1. standardized time frames generation to the next. As Loustaunau & Sobo (1997) put days. they express a sense of ductive. many more outside sources of knowledge group among the older population. death of a prominent elder in that society here are already an increasing num- These models also suggest that sometimes may well be equivalent to a library or a ber of elderly worldwide. it includes the age at Americans. current research on extending longevity is ences of time during childbirth versus books. tion is rather different. According this conflict may negatively affect both university burning down in our own. and scribed length of the working day. dates of annual reports. 1995). to the World Mental Health report the physical and emotional health of the In modern society. kairos by the ancient Greeks. the pre. and they also have access to more. individuals may have the ing human longevity? Although of society. 1995). differ widely between Africa and China. beauty. If the 1992). or to the ally imply a potential conflict wisdom and a mastery of the local technology fact that loss of cognitive skills is not con- between subjective and objec. relative and absolute increase in the elderly groups of individuals: students at exami. and found that many of them “do not speak of The reduced status of the elderly is also the age at which one is expected to retire. and the over individual lives. integrated and socially acceptable member In each case. or migration to another country. Normal cogni- H transitions. major social calculation (Helman. beauty.2 deadline. Symbolic rebirths can occur after major her that “Whenever I’m walking down. 1987. the T imposed on them by society (chronos). and the experience passed down orally from one and thus treated with greater tolerance. life. This may be due either to a M ost models of cultural time usu. this acterized by an obsession with deadlines. and at a much Furthermore. In modern medicine this conflict has technological innovations. Sharon Kaufman which one can legally begin to work. 1988). and women’s subjective experi. in the population? Will it lead to increased sures may contribute to the development autonomy and self-control. non-literate et al. Societies that have sonal contact. it is now the population in Africa. They are more billion people over the age of 60. and small-scale societies. or getting ow do these cultural concepts of tive function is seen as the sign of a fully divorced. such research aims to extend life expectan. such as giving birth. with sharper conflicts of coronary heart disease (Helman. By contrast. motorists trapped in a traffic parents or grandparents. At chronological age. however. successful. major public health issue. skills. Asia and Latin nation time. Given the variability In a person with ‘Type A’ behaviour—char. tax returns and office parties. increased fertility individual. the ‘oldest old’. In many traditional. may therefore be experienced as ‘time given to the elderly. about themselves. 1986). 2001). being old as meaningful in itself. are the most rapidly increasing age patients’ perceptions of time (Pritchard. 72% of jam during the morning rush hour. specific events of an individual’s personal chronological age. in graphy’ within their lifespan. such as religious conversions— window. all tend to accumulate in the later years of sidered a pathology and labelled in the tive time (Fraser. annual general identity are not necessarily linked to differ widely between societies… meetings. One woman of 92 told entered the information age of computers. importance on the brain. science & society special issue as ‘clocking-in’ times at work. the United Nations tax year. the meaning of old age. and especially on when one is ‘born again’—major illnesses I never think of myself that way. logic and or traumatic experiences. then this proportion may well those of their obstetrician (Pizzini. I’m shocked by how old it is. and the elderly tend and life expectancy have resulted in both a endar. social changes that come with old age” industrialized countries. time stress may affect different to have a much lower status. increase even further. personality traits with external time pres. senile dementia appears before’ and ‘time after’ that major event. and is also due to the contemporary What will be the cultural and social competitiveness—a combination of these effects of an increasing number of ‘elders’ emphasis on youth. for example. tains continuity despite the physical and States. able to absorb and understand the latest whom will live in developing countries. the media and the internet. lower prevalence of this condition. societies—and this needs to be taken into to be less common or less severe (Desjarlais account.” but the same is true of most other ships must be reinforced by gifts and per. Despite the power of monochronic time … the meaning of old age. but is seen vidual’s own sense of time passing. In an inver. artificial intelligence and global communi- points of transition or crises in the life town. and thus dementia has become a sense of a ‘second life’ or a ‘second bio. weddings. such as the dates of birth. and time cy. and social conservatism. reproductive people be regarded by their families and S 5 6 EMBO reports VOL 6 | SPECIAL ISSUE | 2005 ©2005 EUROPEAN MOLECULAR BIOLOGY ORGANIZATION . and often due to the contemporary emphasis on Social relationship time is linked to the don’t relate their inner feelings to their youth. (Kaufman. autonomy and self-control. it: “Ageing is unpopular in the United days—times when these social relation. self-perception and the status given to the elderly. time relate to research into increas. (Desjarlais et al. sion of the traditional pattern. a tendency to speed up all activities. in cultural notions of time and ageing. and the status non-Western societies such as in India. 1966): between an indi. anniversaries or memorial self that is ageless—an identity that main. the ability to be productive—or between generations? Will these elderly Williams et al. knowledge. In her study of elderly the individual level. than their forebears—via education. The elders are especially respected as same way as it is in the West. For that reason. aged 85 or been described in cases of doctors’ versus quicker rate. When old people talk and the ability to be productive—or repro- social network. called the repositories of inherited wisdom and instead as ‘normal’ for certain age-groups. At different points in the cal. and I see my reflection in a store cations tend to place an increased cultural cycle.

special issue science & society communities as respected elders. therapeutic failure? Will artificially extended grafted onto the first? What effect will a productive parasites? Can human longevity longevity lead to greater inequality—both marked extension of the average lifespan be increased without a proportional increase within and between countries—between have on religion? Will it undermine it by in chronic diseases and dementia. the answers to these old age continue to be viewed by the med. and those who can afford to benefit from such providing a secular form of ‘eternal life’ in without leading to an unaffordable drain on research (the ‘time rich’). or as a ‘symbolic rebirth’ different academic disciplines. and death as with a new identity and a new sense of time from molecular biology. Aerial view of Stonehenge. or as non. not only chronic and incurable disease. longevity beyond the normal lifespan be questions will have to come from many ical profession as ‘unnatural’ and as a seen as natural. © Adam Woolfitt/CORBIS ©2005 EUROPEAN MOLECULAR BIOLOGY ORGANIZATION EMBO reports VOL 6 | SPECIAL ISSUE | 2005 S 5 7 . and those who this world rather than in the next? In the economic and medical resources? Will cannot (the ‘time poor’)? Will increased years to come.

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