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The notion of Time in Anthropology: Theoretical Framework of my Research

Article · February 2017


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Rafael Fuentes
SOAS, University of London


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The notion of Time in Anthropology: Theoretical
Framework of my Research

This article presents the debate between Philosophy and Science which
triggered analysis of time within Anthropology as a discipline. In addition, it
contains my positioning within this debate and presents the theoretical
frameworks on which my epistemology of time and ethnographic research are
based. To commence with, the arguments and strong disagreements generated
by Darwin and Einstein’s theories remain the source of epistemological
enquiries regarding time in Anthropology. Science has provided a new realm in
academia from which to challenge philosophy’s authority to comprehend and
resolve temporal issues. Nothing reifies this dispute to a greater extent that the
public debates between Bergson and Einstein at the ‘French Society of
Philosophy’ in Paris and also at the ‘Commission for Intellectual Co-operation’
of the League of Nations from 1922 to 1929 (Bear 2014: 9). Thus, the
anthropological analysis of time emanated as an outcome of these debates
borrowing from the newly-founded authority of science to address philosophical
issues which arose from distinguishing between human and scientific time.
Durkheim (1915) commenced to discuss in favour of social categories of time
from the point of view of someone who has surpassed these very own categories
via scientific knowledge. According to Durkheim (1915: 9), it is impossible to
represent the idea of time if we do not take into account the processes by which
we ‘divide it, measure it, or express it’. Furthermore, for Durkheim (1915: 11)
what best defines the category of time is, in fact, the time which is common to
any given group, ‘a social time”.
Durkheim’s position (1915) is best exemplified within anthropology by
Evans-Pritchard’s (1940) account of the Nuer, the Nilotic people from Southern
Sudan. Evans-Pritchard (1940:94-138) discusses a clear distinction between
‘oecological time’ and ‘structural time’ present amongst these Nuer populations.
By ‘oecological time’ Evans-Pritchard (1940: 94-104) understands a set of
‘time-conceptualizations’ that originated from environmental circumstances and
the particular ways in which Nuer individuals, as a society, had adapted to them.
In fact, Nuer society was organized around productive tasks, such as cattle
herding, which temporally speaking is ecologically determined. Thus, at this
‘microcosmic’ level the Nuer experienced time in a process-linked manner.
Nuer individuals identified the different parts of the day by the pastoral tasks
that took place during these periods (e.g. evening: milking), something
denominated by Evans-Pritchard (1940: 101) as “cattle clock”. They also
referred to the multiple stages of an annual cycle not as months but rather as the
seasonal activities which characterize these phases (e.g. August: harvest maize).
On the other hand, Evans-Pritchard (1940: 105-108) also underlines how Nuer
time-reckoning changed drastically at the ‘macrocosmic’ level. For Nuer
individuals, periods of time longer than a single ecological cycle were
subsequently embedded in ‘structural time’. Whereas ‘oecological time’ was
concrete and derived from ecological imperatives, ‘structural time’ was instead
abstract and determined by the social structure of Nuer populations. Evans-
Pritchard (1940: 105) accounts how Nuer ‘structural time’ divided long periods
of time in accordance with intervals between generations. Therefore, the Nuer
located in time past events according to relevant moments in the life of their
ancestors such as births or initiation rituals. Nevertheless, the Nuer system of
lineages was static and it always depicted six generational steps between the
founder of the clan and living individuals. Nuer individuals moved constantly
through this fixed lineage structure but, since this one never grew in depth, the
temporal distance between the origin of the world and the present day remained
unchanged (Evans-Pritchard 1940: 108). As a result, the apparent fluidity of
microcosmic/ ‘oecological time’ is engulfed by a motionless ‘structural time’ in
which the passing of time is a mere illusion.
Gell (1992) also developed his position from scientific notions of time
and subsequent philosophical reactions to them. Nonetheless, in his work The
Anthropology of Time (1992) Gell is really sceptical of ‘Durkheimian’
approaches regarding socially produced categories. Instead, Gell’s hypotheses
(1992) intend to eradicate the halo of mystery that, according to him, has always
surrounded the idea of time within anthropological literature. Despite ‘exotic’
ethnographies about time conducted in non-Western societies, Gell (1992: 157)
argues how temporal experience is governed by a single logic. Therefore,
anthropologists must not transcend this logic with their ‘speculations’ but
appreciate instead their ‘familiar world’. In fact, Gell (1992: 315) emphasizes
how human beings experience time in the same way throughout different
cultures. Thus, multiple and diverse clocks merely mark the same happy or
frustrating moments of human monotony since there is nothing that could
possibly affect our logical possibilities. Furthermore, the reason why time can
be studied in many ethnographical contexts and understood through many
different anthropological frameworks is that time is in itself“... one and the
same, a familiar dimensional property of our experienced surroundings” (Gell
1992: 315). At this point, Gell (1992) also clarifies the distinction between time
and the processes which happen in time. He profoundly disagrees with scholars
who, attempting to establish boundaries between various kinds of time, are
actually basing their arguments on different processes which happen ‘in time’.
Gell (1992) underlines how there are no distinctions between ‘physical’,
‘social’, ‘biological’ or even ‘psychological’ time but rather ‘physical’, ‘social’,
‘biological’ and ‘psychological’ processes. The main explanation for an abstract
category such as time, which is essentially unitary and unifying, is that permits
us to combine these otherwise separated sort of processes. Therefore, time co-
ordinates natural processes with social ones, subjective processes with clock-
regulated ones and so forth. According to Gell (1992:316), the fact that different
actions generate different subjective estimations of elapsed time is a mere
illusive phenomenon since this is only known by those who experience them.
Instead, individuals express their temporal subjectivity by contrasting their
actions with “real-world processes” which are fundamentally periodic. Thus,
scholars who differentiate between ‘psychological’ time and ‘physical’ time in
their hypotheses are denying this possibility and simply allowing the
multiplication of time dimensions.
Contrary to post-Einsteinian approaches (Durkheim 1915; Evans-
Pritchard’s 1940; Gell 1992), I place my epistemology of time and subsequent
anthropological research on the philosophical side of the debate. Thus, I
highlight the relevance of analysing human understanding of time and its inter-
subjective qualities. According to Munn (1992: 116), the notion of time must be
understood as a symbolic process ‘constantly produced in everyday practices’.
Thus, individuals construct their own time through the specific relations they
generate among themselves and determinate temporal reference points such as
celestial bodies or almanacs (Munn 1992: 104). Furthermore, a change of socio-
economic circumstances is able to modify these relationships and ultimately the
temporal reference points themselves. A clear example of this phenomenon is
how the Sikh separatist movement and capitalist imperatives might have
recently contributed to the introduction of a new solar calendar named
Nanakshahi for the global Sikh community. Despite Gell’s (1992: 315)
hypotheses, time is not experienced in the same way by every single human
being but rather it is ‘performed’ in a similar manner throughout different
cultures. This explains why as anthropologists we are able to study the notion of
time in many ethnographical contexts, not because time is in itself ‘one and the
same’ as Gell (1992: 315) argues, but rather because we can analyze the
intrinsic relationship between members of a particular society and their
temporal ‘tokens’.
The performative character of time highlights the relevance of
denominated temporal reference points. Calendars, clocks or schedules are not
devoid of any relevant meaning as Gell (1992: 315) argues. He depicts
almanacs as mere short-term, pragmatic tools used by individuals (Bear 2014:
16). Instead, I argue that Calendars and other chronotopes represent individuals’
comportment towards time and present numerous socio-cultural elements. They
fuse with ‘bodies’ through periodic repetitions and as part of individuals’
everyday projects. This explains how the introduction of new solar Nanakshahi
calendar in detriment of the previous lunar Bikrami has arisen so many
controversies and social issues for Sikhs around the world. I agree with Bear
(2014) on how despite postmodernists disputes and enquires about the term
‘modern’ in itself (Latour 1993), the expression ‘modern time’ describes
magnificently our contemporary temporal landscape. Contrary to what
accounted in previous periods of human history, modern time is determined by
the abstract time-reckoning of capitalism which implements the foundations to
measure value ‘... in labour, debt, and exchange relationships’ (Bear 2014: 7),
and always generates disputes with previous individual and collective temporal
experiences. Furthermore, I also support Bear’s (2014: 13) arguments which
underline how Philosophy alone is not capable of capturing the numerous
intricacies of modern social time. Therefore, I intend to further develop my
philosophical epistemology of time, which consists on prioritizing human
experience and inter-subjectivity over scientific arguments, by relying a great
emphasis on the ‘performative character’ of time (Munn 1992) and conducting
long-term ethnographic fieldwork amongst Sikh communities in Amritsar
(India), London (UK) and Vancouver (Canada) which are currently
experiencing Nanakshahi’s introduction.

Bear, L. (2014) Introduction, Doubt, Conflict Mediation: The Anthropology of Modern Time,
Oxford: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
Durkheim, E. (1915). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Surrey: Biddles Ltd.

Evans-Pritchard, E. (1940). The Nuer. A description of the modes of livelihood and political
institutions of a Nilotic people. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gell, A. (1992). The Anthropology of Time: cultural constructions of temporal maps and
images. Oxford: Berg.

Latour, B. (1993) We have never been modern, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.
Munn, N. (1992) The Cultural Anthropology of Time: A Critical Essay, Annual Review of
Anthropology, Vol. 21, 93-123.

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