Anthropologists seldom use naked, physical time, but distancing relativisations of time – Fabian.


Johannes Fabian critiques the anthropological cultural relativisation of time, in part because it distances the anthropologist’s time from the time of the culture being studied. Fabian further notes that physical time is not referred to in its nakedness in anthropological work, but rather the foci are culturally distinguishable times.

Let us call the first one Physical Time. it serves as a sort of parameter or vector in describing sociocultural process. It appears in evolutionary, prehistorical reconstruction over vast spans but also in “objective” or “neutral” time scales used to measure demographic or ecological changes or the recurrence of various social events (economic, ritual, and so forth). The assumption is (and this is why we may call it physical) that this kind of Time, while it is a parameter of cultural process, is itself not subject to cultural variation…

Physical Time is seldom used in its naked, chronological form. More often than not, chronologies shade into Mundane or Typological Time. As distancing devices, categorizations of this kind are used, for instance, when we are told that certain elements in our culture are “neolithic” or “archaic”; or when certain living societies are said to practice “stone age economics”; or when certain styles of thought are identified as “savage” or “primitive.” Labels that connote temporal distancing need not have explicitly temporal references (such as cyclical or repetitive). Adjectives like mythicalritual, or even tribal, will serve the same function. They, too, connote temporal distancing as a way of creating the objects or referents of anthropological discourse. To use an extreme formulation: temporal distance is objectivity in the minds of many practitioners. This, by the way, is reflected with great accuracy and exasperating predictability in the popular image of our discipline. I am surely not the only anthropologist who, when he identifies himself as such to his neighbor, barber, or physician, conjures up visions of a distant past. When popular opinion identifies all anthropologists as handlers of bones and stones it is not in error. It grasps the essential role of anthropology as a provider of temporal distance (Fabian 1983, 22, 30).

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the other: How anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Categories: Social Science

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