Rowman and Littlefield International

Is It Ever Natural to Be Late?

Published on Tuesday 25 Jun 2019 by Will Johncock

Are the timings used by some cultures more natural than those used by other cultures? Would a population which monitors its tempos directly via the positions of the sun in the sky, animal and ecological activity, changes in shadows, the stars, and the moon, be closer to natural rhythms than a population whose activity is regulated according to numbers and other abstract symbols? A “5” on a digital clock seems less natural than a rising sun, but what is time’s real nature?


Many societies’ time structures that have used the above kinds of rhythms, and not twelve-hour clocks, have disappeared. Not all of them, but many. This does not mean though, that the interpretation that certain cultural forms of time are more natural than others has also vanished.


We can question whether there are more natural, and less natural, forms of time. This goes beyond the rudimentary insight that the possibly “less natural” twelve-hour clock is actually closely linked to features of the above-listed natural rhythms. Instead, when we interrogate whether a culture’s version of time is closer to natural rhythms, we possibly destabilize the associated view that people of such cultural heritages are less able to synchronize with a world of twelve-hour clock time.


Growing up in a culture “Y”, where time consciousness is ubiquitously governed by a twelve-hour clock down to seconds (perhaps think of life in Manhattan or Tokyo), synchronization can be a tightly regulated affair. Arrangements are made down to a precise tick of the clock. This precision might not always be fulfilled, but there is a familiarity with the exactness that is requested. If you break such a contract - if you are late - you can likely experience some kind of adverse reaction.


Whilst the flexibility of this contract varies between regions and countries, if another culture, “Z”, does not have such clocked arrangements, or does have them but has not traditionally adhered to them, that culture might be viewed as following a more natural form of time. This becomes problematically apparent, and a study of it matters, when people from culture “Z” are compared to those from culture “Y”. They may be portrayed as being naturally less able to successfully participate in/with culture “Y” as a result of their culture’s perception of time.


Natural Time Precedes Socialized Times


To examine whether certain cultures live, or have lived, according to degrees of natural time, we can firstly consider the following statement on the human relationship with time:


  1. Before humans existed, time already existed.


Agreeing to this sequence requires that the regularity of planetary movements (and the associated transitions such as between light (day) and shade (night)) is interpreted as a form of time. Even without grandly defining these revolutions as Time itself, we see in many everyday contexts that humans generally define recurrent patterns of movement as “timings.” From a human perspective, the notion that a form of time therefore “naturally” existed in the universe’s movements, before human existence, emerges in the correlation of time with regularized celestial motion.


Following this, a second stage in the human relationship with time can be proposed:


  1. As humans arrived in the world, so humans made various, culturally informed, representations of this already existing time and timing.


Suppositions of this sequence contribute to common, and theoretical, conceptions of the human relationship with time. First, there is the temporality of the universe, the aforementioned naturally physical, planetary cycles. Then there are the various, human, cultural representations of that tempo. These representations, comprised by different units of measurement and timekeeping devices, vary throughout history and around the world.


This conception informs the feeling that time is an ever-present force, an objectively separate rhythm that is inherently of the universe, existed before any of us existed, and rolls on relentlessly, regardless of individual desires. It is not just the time or timing of the natural realm - the universe - that seems to have a source that is external to us, though. Socially or culturally produced representations of this timing are also beyond our individual control. We are born into structures in which time’s clocked and calendared symbols and rhythms are already socially institutionalized.


The impression, therefore, is that one cannot affect the rate of time to suit their own needs. This applies whether that time is of the planetary movements, or of the socialized representations of those movements. Time will flow at the rate it does, no matter what we need to do with it.


Sure, you might be bored at work and try to make time go quicker by busying yourself. What is actually attempted though is to alter your subjective experience of time. The impression here is that wanting the day of work to end and the night to arrive does not change the real speed of planetary revolutions, which seem to dictate daily timings for humans generally. It just affects your impression of that speed! The really occurring, circulating time, duly takes on the characteristics of an uncompromising opponent. Such is the sense we might also have when dealing with the socialized representations of time, which on clocks dictate whether we need to race to an appointment, or continue with an already exhausting workout.


Indeed we usually live immersed in these socially convened representations that we refer to as time. The question of how time has been conceived, constructed, or arranged around an already existing celestial rhythm is not typically our concern. Instead, we are born into a socialized time structure, which we take to be time itself, and we get on with living in accordance with it.


Socially Constructed “Reality”


Sociology since its inception has been receptive to the possibility that everything about our lives is socially produced. By identifying statistically regular patterns of behavior within population groups over generations, Émile Durkheim argues that what we believe to be individually motivated acts can actually be linked to already socially generated sources.[i] We learn how to be ourselves through our environment, personally perpetuating already installed, impersonally collective, ways of being.


Durkheim describes these ways of being as “social facts.” Time, and our experience around it, is one such social fact. For Durkheim, each person’s sense of time only manifests through the periods that have been constructed around recurring socialized rituals and practices. This is said to make time an exclusively human reality, a “category” of life that is “a true social institution.”[ii]


Durkheim does not recognize a time/timing of a natural world that is then represented socially to varying degrees. Change in a universe of moving planets can exist for Durkheim, without that being time. Nevertheless, in considering our question of whether there are more natural, and less natural, forms of time, Durkheim’s view that time only has socialized forms is useful in prompting us to discuss a different set of perspectives called “social constructionist.”


One form of social constructionism in which I am interested here demands that we must break from taken-for-granted impressions that the socialized arrangement of time in which we live is time’s only reality. Instead it is argued that we must appreciate that all socialized structures approximate what actually, naturally or really, occurs in the world.


In this mode, social constructionism separates the natural or real world, from institutionalized human representations of that world. This gap between representation and reality could mean that a culture’s formulation of scientific physics does not actually grasp the natural laws of the physical environment, or that gender is more complicated than the binary mode often culturally adopted.


In The Social Construction of What? (1999), Ian Hacking notes that from this version of social constructionism comes the impression that humans are unable to directly experience a world outside our socialization. We instead live via the representations of that world that we construct, we see the world through an “inhabited filter.”[iii] Given that these filtering social structures could have developed in numerous different ways, the way we view the world is not naturally inevitable.


This leads us to a supposed distinction between “social facts” and “natural facts.” In terms of the former, think of socio-economic classes. A population’s recognition of a working class, a middle class, etc., will produce, it is argued, the social facts or truths of these identities. These facts, though, are dependent upon context - that being the constitution of the society. This is said to differ from the natural fact of gravity, which is not reliant on socially contingent arrangements for its truth.


John Searle refines this position, by maintaining that every social fact depends on a prior, natural, physical reality, or what he describes as a “brute fact.”[iv] Searle argues that when we socially construct money, property, and language, each is actually underpinned by the “raw materials of bits of metal, paper, land, sounds, and marks.”[v] What seems to be entirely socially or culturally originated, “refer[s] to a reality beyond themselves…a reality independent of all representation.”[vi]


Searle’s terminology applies to our opening thoughts about time. There the view was presented that a brute phenomenon, independent of all representations, is the rhythm of physical, planetary bodies. This acts as an externally preceding base of subsequent social versions and ideas of time.


Plural Cultural Versions of Time and Lateness


Indeed, if according to the social constructionist, our entire reality is lived through socially contingent representations of an actually inaccessibly separate, natural world, then our experience of time must also be like this. Helga Nowotny observes a tradition in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology, in which the formation of time concepts are exclusively about the variety or plurality of social constructions of time, because “knowledge about time is not knowledge about an invariant part or objects of nature.”[vii]


Social science indeed urges us to look beyond the time structure in which we locally live, to appreciate the culturally various ways that other societies structure time. There is an egalitarian impetus to such studies, in that they encourage us to recognize that no culture’s time structure is “better” than any other culture’s; each is just constructed relatively or differently.


In targeting our question of whether there are more natural, and less natural, forms of time, I believe we can – (1) recognize the plurality of socialized time structures around the world’s cultures, and (2) then interrogate the supposed proximity to, or distance from, time’s natural state of each socialized structure – by reviewing the different ways that cultures/societies regulate synchronization and lateness. A first step here involves discussing the distinctions that are made between cultures in terms of how chronologically mechanized the time structures of each are.


Lateness, for people in regions of the Philippines for example, is regularly argued to be less of a concern than for citizens of other cultures where the twelve-hour clock is omnipresent. We must complement this observation, though, with a reminder such as that provided by Darren Gustafson, that “‘Filipino time’ was never chronological to begin with.”[viii] Whilst being “on time” could appear to be more flexible in regions of the Philippines than in other countries, it is here posited that this might only be because non-Filipinos are applying chronological expectations onto cultures in which such expectations are not embedded.


The influential work on American-Philippine relations by Joseph McCallus notes that perspectives on Filipino temporalities typically ignore this condition, and question why tardiness is so normal in a country like the Philippines which actually does have clocks, and wishes to progress into the “developed world.” These kinds of inquiries, McCallus notes, often reductively ask “are Filipinos always late by tradition or because of laziness.”[ix]


As the respective or relative timings of cultures are compared, so the global differentiation of socialized times emerges. In the Filipino context, McCallus observes the belief that “if ever there was an unsuccessful case of imposing Western…culture standards on Filipino culture, it is the stubborn refusal to follow ‘objective’ time.”[x] This perceived abundance of tardiness is elsewhere said to indicate Filipinos’ lack of appreciation for anything beyond the presently occurring now.[xi]


Larry Purnell and Betty Paulanka address correlative characterizations of timeliness being of greater importance for North Americans than for “present-focused” Central and Southern Americans. This is attributed to the assumption that Central and Southern Americans share what is described as an “African-American” trait of being more “present- than past- or future- oriented.” The claim is that a present-oriented perspective places greater importance on the “here and now,” than on what “may occur in the future.”[xii] The implication is that if someone is less concerned with the future, they are less likely to be “on time” to a future appointment.


Regarding this equation of African temporalities with “present-centrism,” one of the world’s most distinguished scholars of African culture, K.K. Bunseki Fu-Kiau, equally notes that for a society such as the Bantu-Kongo, lateness is actually not prevalent, it is irrelevant.[xiii] Lateness is said to be irrelevant because of their present-orientation, where current events are prioritized over the abstraction of a point in time that lies beyond what is immediately occurring. Influential social theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu perpetuate these appraisals of present-centrism, in arguing that the concept of the future is not intrinsic to an “African experience” of shared time.[xiv]


Terms like “Caribbean time,” “Filipino time,” and “African time,” abound in these and other studies. Such terms, I must clarify, are not my inventions, nor collective characterizations that I endorse. In encountering them, we might even be uncomfortable with how they appear to gloss over the probable variations in the time structures of the cultures and countries of a region. Rather than adopting these terms, the reason for reviewing the studies which use them to argue that time is differently socialized globally, is to attend to how that differentiation is articulated.


Naturally Present-Centric Time Structures


Such studies inform us that cultures construct time differently. This is consistent with the earlier social constructionist view. From this, we are instructed that socialized time has plural forms, each with a localized relevance.


Whilst this final assertion is supportable, I believe we should be concerned with a condition of this assertion; that the less-chronological, less-lateness-punishing, protocols of a region’s time structures are linked to a present-centrism. With this claim, egalitarian intentions designed to relativize, rather than to hierarchize, all cultural forms of time are compromised.


This is because of how present-centric time structures are conceived to be restricted to a state that has not developed from organically natural, primitive conditions. As just one example, present-focused “Filipino time” is said to be intimately connected with natural events, when Katrin de Guia observes that what is experienced in the Philippines is an “organic time” that is “cyclical, oscillating…alive,” in contradistinction to the abstract mechanics of Western clock-time.[xv]


When certain cultures’ time structures are defined as more organically natural, they are conceptually subordinated in comparison to time structures which conversely are believed to rely heavily on elements beyond the natural present. The present-centric, flexible-lateness, protocols embedded in Filipino time are dismissed as inefficient from a global viewpoint in which, as McCallus notes, the “Western attitude of promptness is deemed superior and the Filipinos are culturally inferior because they view time rather differently.”[xvi]


What eventuates is that a culture’s relative lack of lateness protocols is not portrayed from outside that culture as an indication of its internal or localized preference – despite what the cultural relativist perspectives that we have reviewed might argue. Rather, such a culture is characterized as stuck in a perpetually present mode, less able to develop the temporal politics required of participation in an homogenized global structure of time zones, commercial transactions planned and abstracted to the future millisecond, and so on. 


An antidote, you might be thinking, to this issue with relativist conceptions of cultural arrangements of time, is simply to appreciate that all cultures are relative without deferring to degrees of natural present-centrism.


A problem with this possibly emerges though, if cultural relativist perspectives are considered to cohere with the social constructionist perspective raised above regarding what is not knowable. For that social constructionist position, we never directly access or truly know a natural reality outside our own socially/culturally filtered view. Comparably, for the cultural relativist, all cultures have a localized truth, so other cultures’ social arrangements might not be knowable if we are always defining them against our knowledge of our own culture. For social constructionism and cultural relativism, our knowledge of what is outside our own social structure is compromised.


How This Affects You


As it stands then, human populations are commonly positioned as living according to more natural, or less natural, forms of time. We have noted what what this means for populations of conceptually subordinated, organically present-centric, time structures. For people of cultures in which time is conversely highly abstracted and regulated, there are also ramifications.


The first of these ramifications concerns our personal experiences of socialized time. The very real investments we have in such experiences contradict the impression that socially produced time is merely a contingent approximation or representation of what time actually, really, or naturally is. Are we ready to relinquish the reality of such investments to the social constructionist?


This in fact is part of Durkheim’s earlier point. Time does not represent a separate reality, because the category of time, the consciousness of time, only occurs via socialized phenomena. When you are late, you do not think of your lateness as conditioned by the contingent construction of what is actually, celestially, naturally separate about time. Rather, it is through socialization that you conceive of time, and if you breach accepted protocols, expect to face the socialized punishment.


The interpretation of a division between natural, and less-natural-or-overly-socialized, forms of time, has further ramifications for our lives beyond experiences with synchronization and lateness protocols. Just as social/cultural time structures are interpreted in the constructionist perspective to deviate from time’s natural form, body modifications are often presented as social productions that divert human bodies from natural pulses.


The ways that bodies are judged in being modified, beautified, or operated on, is intimately linked to impressions that socialized processes artificially distance us from natural tempos and rhythms. Think of critiques of procedures that “unnaturally interfere” with bodily signs of ageing. What emerges are supposed distinctions between more natural, and less natural, bodily timings.


Likewise, climate change discourses suppose a natural environmental rhythm that industrialized cultures have disrupted. In distinguishing between eras in which humans caused more, or less, harm to a natural ecology, what is installed is a division of time according to degrees of naturalness.


Rather than joining the cultural relativist in detailing how differently time is socialized/cultured around the world, or agreeing with the social constructionist about how distanced a socialized time might be from time’s natural or real conditions, in Naturally Late: Synchronization in Socially Constructed Times I explore how philosophical methods destabilize divisions of time. The discussions that develop with Derrida’s deconstruction, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, object-oriented ontology, and Bergson’s time-theory, interrogate the supposition of straightforward before-and-after states or modes of temporality.


Such a supposition is evident not only in terms of the separation of natural phenomena from socialized phenomena, but also in the perceived disjunction between reality and representation. In these philosophical methods we can engage a curiosity regarding how a representation (socialized time) of a preceding real (natural time) could manifest that is alienated from its real conditions. We are here encouraged to interrogate the presumption that there is a state of nature that is antecedent to representation, or that was not already itself a kind of representing.


[i] Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, trans. Sarah Solovay and John Mueller, ed. George Catlin (New York: The Free Press, 1938 (1895)), 1.

[ii] Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Swain (London: Allen and Unwin, 1915), 11.

[iii] Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 6.

[iv] John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: Free Press, 1995), 190.

[v] The Construction of Social Reality, 190.

[vi] The Construction of Social Reality, 190.

[vii] Helga Nowotny, “Time and Social Theory: Towards a Social Theory of Time,” Time & Society 1.3 (1992): 421-54 (436).

[viii] Darren Gustafson, “Jeepney Spirituality,” Thesis Eleven 112.1 (2012): 87-97 (90).

[ix] Joseph McCallus, “Discourse Characteristics of a Filipino Electronic Discussion Group,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 22.1 (1994): 46-63 (51).

[x] “Discourse Characteristics of a Filipino Electronic Discussion Group,” 51.

[xi] Jan Selmer and Corinna de Leon, Management and Culture in the Philippines (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Baptist University, 2002), 12.

[xii] Larry Purnell and Betty Paulanka, “The Purnell Model for Cultural Competence,” in

Transcultural Health Care: A Culturally Competent Approach (Second Edition), ed. Larry Purnell and Betty Paulanka (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company, 2003), 8-39: 17.

[xiii] Fu-Kiau, K.K. Bunseki, “Ntangu-Tandu-Kolo: The Bantu-Kongo Concept of Time,” in Time in the Black Experience, ed. Joseph Adjaye (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994), 17-34: 31.

[xiv] Pierre Bourdieu, “The Attitude of the Algerian Peasant toward Time,” in Mediterranean Countrymen: Essays in the Social Anthropology of the Mediterranean, ed. Julian Pitt-Rivers (Paris and the Hague: Mouton & Co, 1965), 55-72: 55.

[xv] Katrin de Guia, “Indigenous Values for Sustainable Nation Building,” Prajna Vihara 14.1-2 (2000): 175-92 (187).

[xvi] “Discourse Characteristics of a Filipino Electronic Discussion Group,” 51-52.



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This discussion is adapted from Will Johncock’s book, Naturally Late: Synchronization in Socially Constructed Times. Via three philosophical methods, this book destabilizes the divisions between natural and non-natural times that are conceived by aspects of social science, philosophy, and everyday language.