Social time is the ritual regulation of a cosmic framework – Durkheim.


Émile Durkheim characterises time exclusively by the divisions created by social symbols and rituals. Durkheim recognises that the framework for this symbolisation and ritualisation is seasonal, natural, and cosmic. However, that societies each regulate time differently, illustrates that natural forces are external to the social causes of time.

What if one tried to imagine what the notion of time would be in the absence of the methods we use to divide, measure, and express it with objective signs, a time that was not a succession of years, months, weeks, days, and hours? It would be nearly impossible to conceive of. We can conceive of time only if we differentiate between moments. Now, what is the origin of that differentiation? Undoubtedly, states of consciousness that we have already experienced can be reproduced in us in the same order in which they originally occurred; and, in this way, bits of our past become immediate again, even while spontaneously distinguishing themselves from the present. But however important this distinction might be for our private experience, it is far from sufficient to constitute the notion or category of time. The category of time is not simply a partial or complete commemoration of our lived life. It is an abstract and impersonal framework that contains not only our individual existence but also that of humanity. It is like an endless canvas on which all duration is spread out before the mind’s eye and on which all possible events are located in relation to points of reference that are fixed and specified. It is not my time that is organized in this way; it is time that is conceived of objectively by all men of the same civilization. This by itself is enough to make us begin to see that any such organization would have to be collective. And indeed, observation establishes that these indispensable points, in reference to which all things are arranged temporally, are taken from social life. The division into days, weeks, months, years, etc., corresponds to the recurrence of rites, festivals, and public ceremonies at regular intervals. A calendar expresses the rhythm of collective activity while ensuring that regularity…the course of natural phenomena, the rhythm of cosmic life set its mark upon the rhythm of ritual life. Hence, for a long time the feasts were seasonal…

But the seasons merely provided the external framework of this organization, not the principle on which it rests, for even the cults that have exclusively spiritual ends have remained periodic. The reason is that this periodicity has different causes. Because the seasonal changes are critical periods for nature, they are a natural occasion for gatherings and thus for religious ceremonies…Yet it must be acknowledged that this framework, although purely external, has shown remarkable endurance…The form of this cycle is apt to vary from one society to another. (Durkheim 1995 (1912), 9-10 & 353).

Durkheim, Émile. 1995 (1912). The elementary forms of religious life. Translated by Karen Fields. New York: The Free Press.

Categories: Social Science

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