Things We Wish We Knew: Temporality

Studies of temporality consider experiences of time, and how experiences of time are mediated. This mediation could be variously through objects, materials, institutions, interactions and categories. With this list alone, you already start to sense how most anything can be studied in temporal terms. This is why temporality is an crucial concept: it pervades the social world.

I’ll start sketching temporality with a concrete example. The example comes from design anthropology, an area often foregrounding temporality. But keep in mind you can attend to temporality in almost every anthropological analysis.

Making Time

Contrasting a product design studio with eco-home builders, Anusas and Harkness (2016) show how ways of making things ‘invoke or at least encourage’ different temporalities (p. 55).

The design studio was in a large UK city, with many projects running at once (Ibid. p. 57). Due to pressure from clients, faster design methods were favoured (Ibid., 61). Getting projects ‘off the books’ quickly also meant sustaining the business (Ibid.). Designers focused on what was about to occur or would soon occur. Rarely did they think in time frames greater than weeks (Ibid. p. 58). Coping with projects this way, the designers’ experience of the present can be called ‘close-present’ (Ibid.).

Close-present temporality could be seen in ‘much of the verbal, bodily and material sociality’ of the studio (Ibid. p. 59). For example, the designers often said ‘time is in short supply’, gesticulating to convey this shortage, and leading them to favour speedy design tools such as 3D printing (Ibid. p. 61). Note that a preference for certain tools also means a certain relationship with those tools.

Harkness’ fieldwork was with Earthship builders in Scotland and New Mexico. For these builders, temporality wasn’t sensed as either close-present, nor in short supply (Ibid. p. 61). Earthship builders seek to create sustainable new dwellings, taking a preference for ‘natural’ and recycled materials, along with renewable energy. In turn, these builders make new ways of living, with ‘impulses towards creating alternative futures’, ‘to bring change to the world, to shift the ground, to alter the rules’ (Ibid. p. 62).

An Earthship in construction.

Anusas and Harkness call the temporality made by Earthship building a ‘far reaching present’. Sustainable materials and a shared awareness of environmental issues gave a means to make this temporality ‘real or manifest’ (Ibid. p. 65). In other words, the action of building also made experiences of the present. This included relationships with humans, nonhumans and materials. Though the studio designers had similar environmental and ethical concerns, commercial restraints hindered an experience of the present as far-reaching (Ibid. p. 66).

Let’s look to the history of temporality in anthropology, to contextualise Anusas and Harkness’ approach. In the early 1990s, Nancy Munn (1992) gauged anthropological research on temporality. She found a neglect for one factor. Anthropologists had written too little about temporality as being constantly mediated through everyday life (Munn 1992, p. 116). For instance, Evans-Pritchard (1940) argued the Neur perceive time through local seasonal categories, the main two being tot and mai (p. 96). But this focus on abstract concepts led Evans-Pritchard to neglect how temporal experiences are mediated everyday through mundane social life (Ibid p. 96).

The design studio/Earthships contrast shows how temporal experiences are mediated through mundane practices like making and labouring, as well as through materials and things. Temporality does involve high-level abstraction. But it cannot be grasped only at an abstract level. Nor can it be grasped solely through obvious materials and things like clocks and calendars (Bear 2016 p. 48) or lunar cycles (Munn 1992 p.96).

Temporality pervades social life. Nurturing a sensitivity to the temporal will add nuance to your anthropological literacy, so start thinking temporally!


Anusas, M and Harkness, R 2016 ‘Different Presents in the Making’, in R Charlotte Smith, K Tang Vangkilde, M Gislev Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse and T Binder (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 55-70.

Bear, L 2016, ‘Time as Technique’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 45, pp. 487-502.

Evans-Prichard, EE 1940, The Neur: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Munn, N 1992, ‘The Cultural Anthropology of Time: A Critical Essay’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 21, pp. 93-123.

Rabinow, P and Marcus, G 2008, Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Duke University Press, Durham.

See also:

Can we think about the design studio/Earthships example in relation to the art/science debate? Is the art/science distinction helpful here? Can anthropologists study experience in a scientific way?

Rob mentions categories in his post on ontology. Is temporality a category?

Next time your ice-cream is melting, think about temporality!

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