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!

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Liminality

I have found some way to write about liminality at least once for every semester I’ve taken anthropology – I’m not planning on stopping now.

To my credit, it’s an attractive theory. There’s something rather magical about a space, a moment, or break before change, even when the reality is much more mundane.

Liminality is being at the threshold, where space and moments collide into something new altogether and reality feels altered; the ultimate result being some kind of change.

But for now, here’s a crash course.

Weddings, significant birthdays, graduations, wars, funerals, travel – these are all temporal (potentially) liminal experiences. These moments can also be grounded in places – seasides, airports, doorways, borders between nations, and prisons (Thomassen 2012). All points of transition, of change.

Theories surrounding the liminal state are attributed to two main writers: Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner.

Van Gennep published The Rites of Passage in 1908, theorising the titular rituals as all the ceremonial patterns which accompany a passage from one situation to another or form one cosmic or social world to another (Van Gennep 1908). It is a marker of change in being, whether that be in status, time, or age, and signified in all sorts of ways, gifts, parties, eating special things, or making wishes. Van Gennep (1908) isolated three distinct rites: those of Separation, Transition, and Incorporation.

Separation takes the person (or people) from their “Known World” by breaking things apart, entering the liminal space/transitional period, until things are joined together once more through Incorporation (Van Gennep 1908). Take the example of a Western, heterosexual wedding: the bride is separated from her current state when her father walks her down the aisle, existing in an in-between state of being neither married nor unmarried until the proper rituals (putting a ring on, reciting vows) are complete. Thus everything is restored to how it was before, but with one key difference – the bride and groom are now married.

Rites of Passage was largely ignored until Victor Turner revisited it some 50 years later in The Forest of Symbols (1967), where he brought these ideas to the forefront of anthropology, emphasising the symbolic importance of the Liminal state and its necessity for social unity (see: Communitas). Described as being “betwixt and between”, it is anti-structure (see: Communitas – another important theme of liminality), and focused around experience and connections with other people outside of everyday life. This state thus provides people with freedom from their normal social confines and customs allowing them to express their creativity and be their true self (Turner 1967). It allows people to find out new things about themselves which otherwise would have remained unknown within the familiarity and routine of everyday life, and return to their Known World armed with this new knowledge (Harrison 2012).

However, due to its anti-structure nature, liminality is and should not be a desirable state of being, nor should it be celebrated. Spend too long in this space, creativity and freedom sour into boredom, imprisonment and a sense of exile and homelessness (Thomassen 2012). Thus everyone must inevitably reincorporate themselves back into their own society, and return to the concreteness and belonging of a lived space that has been refreshed because of experiences within the liminal state.

It’s at least a little bit magical right?

And to see it as anything but, well, where’s the fun in that?


My Article on Communitas

Harrison, J 2006, ‘A Personalized Journey: Tourism and Individuality’, in V. Amit and N. Dyck (eds.), The Cultural Politics of Distinction, Pluto Press, London, pp. 110-130.

Thomassen, B 2012, ‘Revisiting Liminality’, in H. Andrews & L. Roberts (eds.) Liminal landscapes : travel, experience and spaces in-between, Routledge, London, pp. 21-35.

Turner, V 1967, The Forest of Symbols, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Van Gennep, A 1960, The Rites of Passage, trans. M. B. Vizedom & G. L. Kaffee, Psychology Press, Chicago.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Communitas

The late Yale graduate Marina Keegan captured the world’s attention in 2012. First, when she died in a tragic car crash at 22, just five days after her graduation, and next, when her last essay for the Yale Daily News, The Opposite of Lonelinesswent viral. It writes, hopeful and glittering bright with youth:

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life…. It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you.” (Keegan 2012)

What she didn’t know was, at least in anthropology, we do.

It’s called Communitas.

A word tied to Victor Turner and his work on liminality, it is described as a mystical solidarity, or an egalitarian, non-rational bond that forms between people during the liminal state betwixt and between worlds that may not necessarily have been possible or conceivable outside that space. In fact, the state is often characterised by experiences of communitas.

So how does this happen?

Such is the anti-structure nature of liminality that status ‘dissolves’. The boundaries that previously held people apart socially in society, age, status/class, gender, kinship position are all gone and people are instead equal in terms of a shared humanity. It is a sharp contrast to the hierarchy of everyday life, yet it is the place where people can be one and create connections that would not have existed within the social structure of an everyday reality. “… Every normal action is involved in the rights and obligations that defines status and establishes ’social distance’ between men” (Turner 1967, p. 110), but in the liminal space, people are free to “be themselves” as they are released from their normal social confines and customs and no longer feel as if they have to “act” their role. 

However liminality cannot be maintained forever without some sort of social structure or order to stabilise it, thus, moments and periods such as these end, and things inevitably return to the categories to which they belong, but, thanks to communitas and the unlikely bonds that people have made in the process, they are not necessarily in the same form in which they left… Thus Turner emphasises the liminal state for social unity due to its capacity to bring people together, inducing solidarity and social order (Turner 1967). It is a way of renewal, and a vehicle for transition, social cohesion, and restabilising order in society.

Although Marina Keegan never discovered this word, I think she encapsulated its feeling rather beautifully – like human-made magic that brings us closer together in this messy, complicated world.

Image Source: Amazon


My article on Liminality

Keegan, M 2012, ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, Article, 27 May, Yale News, viewed 7 June, <;.

Turner, V 1967, The Forest of Symbols, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

See Also:

Lani’s article on Collective Effervescence – a similar, but slightly different experience

Olaveson, T 2001, “Collective Effervescence and Communitas: Processual Models of Ritual and Society in Emile Durkheim and Victor Turner”, Dialectical Anthropology, vol. 26, pp. 89-124.