Is Time All in Your Head?




Time is a man-made construct. The way we conceptualize time is socially constructed. I’m not claiming that time doesn’t exist, but instead I am commenting on the methods humans use to make sense of the passage of time. We are socialized to wake up at certain times. We are also taught to eat at certain times. We learn to go to bed at certain times. A good illustration of this is the labels we give to time.

 normal clock

Civilians use a clock divided into two equivalent 12-hour segments (“am” and “pm”). This manner of time is taken-for-granted and guides most of our social action. However, some people weren’t socialized to think of time in the normal manner. For example, when my siblings and I were young kids, our mother would sometimes serve us pancakes for dinner. Or we would sometimes eat hamburgers for breakfast. To us kids, food was food. We didn’t eat particular food groups according to the clock as did most kids in the neighborhood.

military clock

Military members cannot afford to mix up “am” with “pm” and so instead of using the “am” and “pm” designations, they use a 24-hour clock (sometimes called zulu time). New recruits often have trouble understanding this time construct and inadvertently use “civilian” time references until they get used to operating according to zulu time.  

I am a dedicated night owl, so I don’t see time in the “normal” way. It’s probably not surprising that people who operate on “normal” time can’t relate to my social schedule.

One semester while I was home visiting from graduate school, I took an inordinate amount of homework with me to my parent’s house. All week I stayed up all night studying and writing. When I managed to crawl out of bed around noon, I went to the kitchen to eat “breakfast.” My mom was in the kitchen when she spotted me. She immediately commented, “Wow, it must be nice to sleep half your life away. You just saunter up at noon and half of your day is gone.”

“Mom, I went to sleep at 4 am,” I quipped back.

In order to further make her point, she responded with a snooty, “Well, I was in bed by nine, and up by six.”

Despite the fact that I had taken public school math, that added up to nine hours of sleep. I just couldn’t resist what I said next!

“Mom, that adds up to nine hours of sleep. So who is sleeping half their life away?”

My mom wasn’t used to her children answering back to her. My response threw her for a loop, and I could see her mind at work thinking up yet another response. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I knew something clever was going to come out of her mouth at any second.

“Don’t get smart with me mister. I brought you into this world, I can also take you out of it!” 

To many people who do operate according to conventional time parameters, a person who sleeps in is considered lazy. I do more throughout the night than most people do during normal “business hours!”

Children learn the appropriate time do engage in social activities through their textbooks.

time as social structure


TIME IS ETHNOMETHODOLOGICAL.  And think about it, we even need an extra day every four years to “make up the time.” We call this leap year. 

My best friend and his wife work in the club industry (that’s a polite way of saying they are bartenders). They start work at about 6:00 pm and get off work at about 2:00 am. Whenever, I hang out with them, we go to their house after work; which means we get there at about 2:30 am. So their 2:30 am is like most people’s 6:00 pm. We would usually eat and then either play cards, or watch a recorded sporting event on their DVR. DVRs have now rendered viewing time irrelevant. A person no longer has to watch a television program at the same hour that it’s broadcasted. 

My friends and I would normally go to bed as the sun was coming up, and sleep until around noon. These friends are okay with this type of schedule, and thus, we get along perfectly. However, they too get grief from their friends and family who tend to operate on what I refer to as the the 9-5 logic. Most people take time for granted and operate according to these 9-5 time parameters. How many people get hungry because it’s noon or 5 pm? I’ve had people tell me that they were hungry because of the time of day; even though they had just recently eaten. Their brains were conditioned to eat according to the 9-5 logic. 

What are your time parameters? Do you operate according to the 9-5 logic, or does your social life deviate from this norm? 



pete padilla  sociology

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