In The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time,” anthropologist Edward T. Hall titles his first chapter “Time as Culture.” This may seem like an extreme stance, given the potency of nature’s rhythms, but it is instructive of the extent to which experiences and conceptualizations of time and space are culturally determined. Unlike the rest of nature’s animals, our environment is primarily man-made and symbolic in quality.
As Bronowski observed in The Ascent of Man,” humans are not just figures in the landscape like antelopes on the African savanna. Instead, we shape the landscape. Geographical space and natural time are transformed into social space and social time, around which human beings orient their behaviors. For example, instead of being governed by the natural rhythms of the sun and seasons, our behaviors are governed by cultural temporalities such as work schedules, age norms, and the “open” hours of shopping malls. Culture is a shared system of ideas about the nature of the world and how and when people should behave in it. Cultural theorists argue that culture creates minds, selves, and emotions in a society as reliably as DNA creates the various tissues of a living body.
Culture creates the rhythms of a society that echo within the biology of its members. Irving Hallowell observed in his article Temporal Orientation in Western Civilization and in a Pre-Literate Society” (American Anthropologist, 1955) that “It is impossible to assume that man is born with any innate ‘temporal sense.’ His temporal concepts are always culturally constituted” (pp. 216-7). A 1974 study by William Condon and Louis Sander showed that infants flex their limbs and move their heads in rhythms matching the human speech around them within a few days. By the time a child is three months old, they have already been temporally enculturated, having internalized the external rhythms (called Zeitgeber, meaning “timegiver” in German) of their culture.
These rhythms underlie a people’s language, music, religious ritual, beliefs about post-mortem fate, poetry, and dance. They also serve as a basis of solidarity. Humans are universally attracted to rhythm and to those who share their cadences of talk, movement, music, and sport. Thus, socio-cultural systems can be likened to massive musical scores. Change the rhythm, such as putting a funeral dirge to a calypso beat, and you change the meaning of the piece. Cultures differ temporally, for example, in the temporal precision with which they program everyday events and in the ways various social rhythms are allowed to mesh.