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TIME DISCIPLINE various authors

In sociologyand anthropology, time discipline is the general name given to socialand economicrules, conventions, customs, and expectations governing the measurement of time, the social currency and awareness of time measurements, and people's expectations concerning the observance of these customs by others.

The concept of "time discipline" as a field of special attention in sociology and anthropology was pioneered by E. P. Thompson in Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism, published in 1967. Coming from a Marxistviewpoint, Thompson argued that observance of clock-time is a consequence of the Europeanindustrial revolution, and that neither industrial capitalism nor the creation of the modern state would have been possible without the imposition of synchronic forms of time and work discipline. The new clock time imposed by government and capitalist interests replaced earlier, collective perceptions of time that Thompson believed flowed from the collective wisdom of human societies. While, in fact, it appears likely that earlier views of time were imposed instead by religious and other social authorities prior to the industrial revolution, Thompson's work identified time discipline as an important concept for study within the social sciences.


  • 1 Time discipline and the natural world
  • 2 Time discipline in Western societies
    • 2.1 Religious influences on Western time discipline
    • 2.2 The invention of the clock
    • 2.3 Improvements of the clock
    • 2.4 Religious consequences of improved clocks
    • 2.5 Economic consequences of improved clocks
    • 2.6 Standard, synchronous, public time


Time discipline and the natural world

In societies based around agriculture, hunting, and other pursuits that involve human interaction with a natural world, time discipline is a matter governed by astronomicaland biologicalfactors. Specific times of day or seasonsof the yearare defined by reference to these factors, and measured, to the extent that they need measuring, by observation. Different peoples' needs with respect to these things mean sharply differing cultural perceptions of time. For example, it surprises many non-Muslims that the Islamic calendaris entirely lunarand makes no reference at all to the seasons; the desert-dwelling Arabswho devised it were nomadsrather than agriculturalists, and a calendar that made no reference to the seasons was no inconvenience for most of them.

Time discipline in Western societies

In more urban societies, some of these natural phenomena were no longer at hand, and most were of much less consequence to the inhabitants. Artificial means of dividing and measuring time were needed. Plautuscomplained of the social effect of the invention of such divisions in his lines complaining of the sundial:

The gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish hours! Confound him, too,
Who in this place set up a sun-dial,
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small portions. When I was a boy
My belly was my sun-dial; one more sure,
Truer, and more exact than any of them.
This dial told me when 'twas proper time
To go to dinner, when I had aught to eat.
But now-a-days, why, even when I have,
I can't fall-to, unless the sun give leave.
The town's so full of these confounded dials,
The greatest part of its inhabitants,
Shrunk up with hunger, creep along the streets.


Plautus's protagonist here complains about the social discipline and expectations that arose when these measurements of time were introduced. The invention of artificial units of time measurement made the introduction of time managementpossible, and time management was not universally appreciated by those whose time was managed.

Religious influences on Western time discipline

In western Europe, the practice of Christianmonasticismintroduced new factors into the time discipline observed by members of religious communities. The rule of Saint Benedictintroduced canonical hours; these were religious observances that were held on a daily basis, and based on factors again mostly unrelated to natural phenomena. It is no surprise, then, that religious communities were likely the inventors, and certainly the major consumers, of early clocks. The invention of the mechanical clock in western Europe, and its subsequent technical developments, enabled a public time discipline even less related to natural phenomena. (Highly sophisticated clepsydrasexisted in China, where they were used by astrologersconnected with the imperial court; these water clocks were quite large, and their use limited to those who were professionally interested in precise timekeeping.)

The invention of the clock

The English word clock comes from an Old Frenchword for " bell"; for the strikingfeature of early clocks was a greater concern than their dials. Shakespeare's Sonnet XIIbegins, "When I do count the clock that tells the time." Even after the introduction of the clock face, clocks were costly, and found mostly in the homes of aristocrats. The vast majority of urban dwellers had to rely on clock towers, and outside the sight of their dials or the sound of their bells, clock time held no sway. Clock towers, at least, defined the time of day for those who could hear and see them. As the saying goes, "a person with a clock always knows what time it is; a person with two clocks is never sure."

Improvements of the clock

The discipline imposed by these public clocks still remained lax by contemporary standards. A clock that only strikes the hours can only record the nearest hour that has passed; most early clocks had only hour hands in any case. Minute hands did not come into widespread use until the pendulummade a large leap in the accuracy of clocks; for watches, a similar leap in accuracy was not made possible before the invention of the balance spring. Before these improvements, the equation of time, the difference between apparent and mean solar time, was not even noticed.

During the seventeenthand eighteenth centuries, private ownership of clocks and watches became more common, as their improved manufacture made them available for purchase by at least the bourgeoisieof the cities. Their proliferation had many social and even religious consequences for those who could afford and use them.

Religious consequences of improved clocks

Religious texts of the period make many more references to the irreversible passage of time, and artistic themes appeared at this time such as Vanitas, a reminder of deathin the form of a still life, which always included a watch, clock, or some other timepiece. The relentless ticking of a clock or watch, and the slow but certain movement of its hands, functioned as a visible and audible memento mori. Clocks and sundials would be decorated with mottos such as ultima forsan ("perhaps the last" [hour]) or vulnerant omnes, ultima necat ("they all wound, and the last kills"). Even today, clocks often carry the motto tempus fugit, "time flies." Mary, Queen of Scotswas said to have owned a large watch made in the shape of a silver skull.

Economic consequences of improved clocks

Economically, their impact was even greater; an awareness that time is money, a limited commodity not to be wasted, also appears during this period. Because Protestantismwas at this time chiefly a religion of literatecity dwellers, the so-called "Protestant work ethic" came to be associated with this newly fashion time discipline; production of clocks and watches during this period shifted from Italyand Bavariato Protestant areas such as Geneva, the Netherlands, and England; the names of Frenchclockmakers during this time disclose a large number of Huguenot-fashion names from the Old Testament.

Standard, synchronous, public time

In the nineteenth century, the introduction of standard timeand time zonesdivorced the "time of day" from local mean solar timeand any links to astronomy. Time signals, like the bells and dials of public clocks, once were relatively local affairs; the ball that is dropped in Times Squareon New Year's Evein New York Cityonce served as a time signal whose original purpose was for navigatorsto set their chronometersto. However, when the railroadsbegan running trains on complex schedules, keeping a schedule that could be followed over hundreds of miles away required synchronizationon a scale not attempted before. Telegraphy, and later, shortwave radiowere used to broadcast time signals from the most accurate clocks available. Radioand televisionbroadcastingschedules created a further impetus to regiment everyone's clock so that they all told the same time within a very small tolerance; the broadcasting of time announcements over radio and television enabled all the households in their audience to get in synch with the clocks at the network.

The mass productionof clocks and watches further tightened time discipline in the Western world; before these machines were made, and made to be more accurate, it would be idle to complain about someone's being fifteen, or five, minutes late. For many employees, the time clockwas the clock that told the time that mattered: it was the clock that recorded their hours of work. By the time that time clocks became commonplace, public, synchronized clock time was considered a fact of life. Uniform, synchronized, public clock time did not exist until the nineteenth century.