The sociological concept of time

As the founding fathers of sociology had already understood, the study of time is an especially efficacious analytical tool in exploring social forms. Through it, in fact, the connections between individual and society, structure and action, the worlds of nature and culture are clearly revealed. And the specific „fecundity“ of temporal categories has led to an intense flowering of sociological studies on time over the past two decades. With the intent of offering some basic conceptual equipment with which to understand the sociological approach to the temporal dimension, this paper proposes three different, and complementary, directions for research. The first is offered by one of the classics of sociological thought, Emile Durkheim. As early as the Start of our Century, in the context of his study of the social origins of categories of knowledge, he stressed the close relationship that exists between temporal concepts and the character of social life. In his view, however, individual time has no analytical autonomy and the subjective temporal experience is expelled from the strictly sociological field of interest. The second, more recent, mode of thinking is that of the eminent German sociologist and historian, Norbert Elias. Elias takes a clear stand against making time an external dimension, „objective“ in relation to human existence, emphasizing instead its symbolic character, the combined result of human experience and the civilizing process. At the same time the author offers important analytical elements with which to go beyond the viewpoint tending to counterpose individual, natural and social time. The third research direction, taken from the social phenomenology school and here described in relation to Thomas Luckmann’s thinking, deals with the processes that relate the dimension of inner time to intersubjective time on the one hand and, on the other, to the broader social temporal categories. In this case, too, important analytical departure-points are offered to supersede dichotomous approaches to the study of time.

Erschienen in: traverse 1997/3, S. 11