Time: Traditional and Utilitarian

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Time: Traditional and Utilitarian

A primary distinction separates sequential (or utilitarian) time, which has to do with the relations of before and after, from traditional time, which has to do with the relation of the present to both the past and the future. For Émile Durkheim (18581917), traditional societies were based on solidarities in traditional time, and they relegated to the margins of social life practical concerns emanating from sequential time, such as whether to do A before doing B. These latter (utilitarian) concerns typify, in Durkheim's view, magic on the peripheries of traditional societies and utilitarian thinking about means and ends, or causes and effects, central to the ordering of modern societies. For Max Weber (18641920), charismatic leaders introduced radical disruptions in social orders based on traditional times, but in order to survive, these movements had to become preoccupied with sequential or utilitarian time, with lines of success, and with logical or practical forms of thinking and action. Thus for Weber, charismatic authority, which is initially disdainful of practical concerns, defeats itself by its own successes, which dictate concern with means and ends, and causes and effects. Durkheim remains critical of such utilitarian concerns, even when they dominate the social order, because they are inadequate as bases for authority and social control. Thus in the disagreements between Weber and Durkheim one can find the roots of contemporary conflict in the field over whether utilitarian time is derived from, a side effect of, or opposed to traditional time and whether utilitarianism in various forms is typical of all social orders or primarily of modernity alone.

The Origins of Utilitarian Modernity

Various attempts have been made to explain how the sense of time in modern societies has come to be dominated by the concerns of rationality, which relegates to the peripheries of social life such other sources of social order and allegiance as loyalty to kinship and ethnic groups, or commitment to mythical versions of the past and of the future. The move toward utilitarian time in Europe may be due to the marginalization of traditional time, in which the present is both embedded in the past and mortgaged to the future, from the social life of the nation. The causes of this development have been variously attributed to a number of sources, notably: the legacy of the church as a source of rational social control; the tendency of the Protestant Reformation to displace traditional time, in which the departed were still intimately linked with the ongoing life of the community and were a source of authority for kinship and ethnic groups; and the early dissolution of the feudal system and the resultant ordering of production and of relationships between employers and employees, even in late medieval agricultural communities, along rational lines.

Some scholars have focused on the monastic, highly rational ordering of temporal sequences as the source and model for the increasing regulation of the temporal sequences of public life in the Western city from the twelfth century onward. Others, following this line of argument, have traced the concern for the rational ordering of everyday life and the self-perfection of the individual to the attempt to turn Purgatory into a this-worldly state of mind, in which individuals have to take on a rational self-discipline in their use of time for the purpose of spiritual perfection. Max Weber credited the church in the Western city with breaking open the communities based on familial or ethnic ties and replacing them with the more inclusive ties among coreligionists. It is also widely understood that utilitarian time was advanced by the administrative rationality and control of the Christian Church in Europe as it took on a wide range of functions after the collapse of the Roman Empire from the fifth century onward.

When Latin was replaced, the newer vernaculars took on the function of providing the extended present for nations and a sense of sharing in a common time as well as space. They provided a common language that was exclusive of the dialects and other traditional sources of loyalty and solidarity. The vernacular, carried by the media and especially by the broadsheets, established a present and defined "the times" in which people were living, while relegating Latin to the past, to an old world that was passing away.

This strategy for relativizing and marginalizing is easily seen as utilitarian when it occurs under the auspices of the modern nation-state, as in the case of England under Henry VIII and Elizabeth, who replaced traditional religion with a more abstract or generalized form of ascetic belief and practice: from Scholasticism and systematic theology to science and public affairs. Here again, the broadsheet became the sacrament of a secular society.

If utilitarianism relegates traditional sources of solidarity, which rely on traditional time and its mediation of the past and the future to the present, utilitarian time construes an extended present, in which the various pasts of ethnic and kinship, racial or national groups are irrelevant to a discourse on precedents, conditions, and consequences of effective and legitimate action. Social processes are thus ordered in terms of sequences that link means to ends, causes to effects, and precedents to procedures: not in terms of priorities based on a wide range of collective memories and aspirations for the future. A major gulf thus opens up between discussions of social policy and the unsatisfied longings of minority or subordinate groups and communities, along with their aspirations for a redress of grievances in the future.

Modern Societies

In modern societies, however, those who control public discourse have arrogated to themselves the kind of time that Durkheim regards as merely utilitarian, "temporal," and thus lacking in the bases of traditional solidarity that would have been available in more primitive societies, where temporal sequence was a matter of peripheral concern for individuals and those practicing magic: not for those on whom the duration of the society itself depended.

Thus, for Durkheim, modern societies represent an inversion of the traditional: a change in which type of time dominates public discourse, and a change in the sort of elites that control public discourse. Because of his antipathy to utilitarianism, Durkheim took as his preferred model traditional social systems that considered themselves to be part of time that runs from the past through the present into the future; thus the sort of time that is concerned with the logical and practical relation of means to ends and of causes to effects was relegated, in his view, to the social periphery. In modern societies, however, these oppositions were reversed, with the utilitarian engagement with time preoccupying the political and cultural center, and communities with their own traditional bases of solidarity (and their views of the present as being linked with the past and the future) being relegated to the periphery.

Sociologists and historians remain divided as to whether the new elites and their utilitarian view of time can provide the bases for solidarity and for personal identity, which had been mediated by powerful myths and rituals linking the self to the duration of the society from the past into the present and the future. Some regard this conflict as a contest for the "soul" of a nation such as America, while others regard the contest in more comparative terms as a problem faced by a wide variety of nations coping with indigenous and external sources of both threats and opportunities. Whether or not Durkheim is right about the inversion of time-sense between modern and traditional societies, a question remains as to whether any society, by its very formation, divides the flow of time into two separate streams, the one sequential or utilitarian, temporal and temporary, the other concerned with the long duration of peoples over many generations, and with the impact of both the past and the future upon the social present.

The question also remains whether, as Talal Asad argues, what is needed is an alternative to utilitarianism: a view of the world that "is not divided into significant binary features" (p. 15). In modern societies, of course, those opposites have been, at least since the Enlightenment, the modern and the premodern, and sometimes these oppositions have been arrayed in ideological discourse along lines separating the West from the East, or within the West between Europe and the United States. Other forms of binary opposition have arrayed the relatively educated, who have adapted well to living in a complex, highly differentiated society, in opposition to those who are looking for simpler formulations and more primitive forms of solidarity. For modern commentators working from within Weberian assumptions, utilitarianism has been accompanied by the emergence of a self with political rights and the freedom to make a variety of choices in the economy and the political system, as well as in the more intimate spheres of the family and local community. This freedom comes from the individuating consequences of complex societies, which keep individuals from being embedded in particular and highly limiting social contexts.


It may well be that, as Durkheim argued, the division of the world into binary opposites begins with the formation of any social system, which pits its own times against those of other forms of social solidarity. Thus the tendency to divide time between the utilitarian and the traditional, between concern with means-ends or cause-effect relationships and the long extension of the present into the past and the future is typical of any social system. Pierre Bourdieu argues in this vein, and separates the two kinds of time into "field" and "habitus," their differences providing a potential source of tension within any social system.

Others, however, like Niklas Luhmann, argue that a binary opposition is typical of any social system. Luhmann uses the cybernetic model as an analogy for understanding the fluidity and complexity of relationships and practices in modern societies. On this view, the utilitarian tendency to divide time into two separate streams is not restricted to modern societies but is endemic to the formation of any social system.

See also Enlightenment ; Globalization ; Modernity ; Secularization and Secularism .


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Richard K. Fenn

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Time: Traditional and Utilitarian

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