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How Time is a Social Construct

What time is it? Social Construction time. Sociologists are always trying to get people to see how everything in our world is a social construct. Okay, not everything’s a social construct, but almost everything. In this piece Nathan Palmer shows us how even something as basic as time is a social construct.

Sociologists are always pointing out how nearly everything is a social construct. It can be tricky to precisely define a social construction, but I’ll give it my best. A social construction is something that a group of people create and maintain. It may help if we take a step back and talk a little about symbolic interaction.

Symbolic interactionsts argue that we use symbols that have shared meaning to communicate with one another and create reality. That might sound complex, but it’s really not. For instance, think about language. The noises we make with our mouths are symbols that communicate ideas. The only reason language works is that you and I understand English (or put another way, language works because we know the shared meaning each word in the English language is trying to communicate). As a society we work very hard to document/maintain our language (the Oxford Dictionary says hi) and pass our language on to the next generation (all of your English teachers also say hi).

Okay, so it might be easy to see how language is a social construction, but what about time? Is time a social construction? Not too long ago I would have said no, but it looks like I’d have been wrong. But don’t take my word for it. Dr. Demetrios Matsakis, Chief Scientist for USNO’s Time Services, is the man who makes time. Dr. Matsakis maintains the atomic clocks at the U.S. Naval Observatory that broadcasts the time that you see on your cell phone. He is the official keeper of time for most of the world and in his own words, “I don’t know exactly what time is, but I can tell [people] exactly what a second is.” Wait, Mr. Time doesn’t know what time is? Let’s watch the video below and see more about how time is made.

Where Time Comes From from The Atlantic on Vimeo.

The Thomas Theorem states that situations defined as real are real in their consequences. Or in other words, if we all act as if a social construction is real, then for all intents and purposes it is real. We could say the same for time.

Right now my clock says it’s 5:28pm on Sunday 3/16, but 8 days ago it would have been 4:28pm. If you stop and think about it, daylight savings time makes it clear that time is a social construction. It’s only 5:28 because all the people around me say it is (and more importantly, my employer, the state of Georgia says it is). In Mexico daylight saving time doesn’t start until April 6th. Meaning that if you put one foot in Texas and one foot in Mexico each foot would be in the future and one in the past.

So then time is a lie? No. Time is very real, but it’s a real social construction. It’s not so important that we know what time it really is. It’s only important that we know what time everyone around us thinks it is. Once we know that, we can deliver packages on time, run our airports, and most importantly get in our seats before class starts.

Dig Deeper:

  1. In your own words try describing why time is a social construction. You might find this is harder than it seems, but do your best.
  2. What other social construction that you can think of? Think of 3 examples not mentioned in the article and then explain why each is a social construction.
  3. Are social constructions real? Does it matter? Make sure your answers are in your own words.
  4. Do a Google search for the word Horology. Discuss what it is and how it relates to the social construction of time.