Book Review:
“A Geography of Time”

Posted by John McSweeny on March 08, 1998 at 8:31:03:

Recently I referred to a book concerning the psychological and cultural aspects of time in one of my posts. The book is entitled A Geography of Time” and is authored by a professor of social psychology at California State University-Fresno, Robert Levine. As Levine writes in the preface, he became interested in the topic when he had served as a visiting professor in Brazil and found that the country operated very differently than the United States in regards to time. Students would typically show up late for his class causing him to initially think they were rude or not interested in his lecture. However, he found they would not leave at the scheduled time either but stayed in their seats to ask questions and discuss the topics in the lecture until he would plead hunger, thirst or a call of nature. As Levine says “Time talks with an accent.”

“A Geography of Time” is 258 page book composed of three sections. The first, entitled “Social Time: The Heartbeat of Culture” introduces time as psychological and social construct. Levin reviews some of the factors that alter the perception of time such as pleasantness, urgency, activity level and variety. Time as social instrument, such as indicating status, is discussed as well as the effects of environmental factors on time. He also provides a brief history of time keeping. He introduces key concepts concerning time and culture: especially “nature time,” “event time” and “clock time.” Nature time is the that time used by all forms of life and is set by the sun and the seasons. Of the two types of time unique to mankind, event time is clearly the older. It is basically the time needed to perform the tasks of daily life. As Levine points out, when people in Burundi say they will meet you when the cows come home, they are not speaking metaphorically or attempting to put you off. Rather, they are simply using event time which is the accepted form of time in their culture. Clock time is a more recent invention and is primarily a product of industrialization and commerce. Thus, it is used in more “developed” countries. Many countries, including Brazil, are in transition and use a blend of event and clock time that may be bewildering to visitors although making perfect sense to the people who live there. Other countries which are “recently developed”, such as those in Asia, may strictly adhere to clock time for business transactions but move to event time for personal and non-business social transactions. The American or European who makes a business trip to Japan may leave with a very incomplete picture of the attitude of its people to time.

The second section “Fast, slow and the Quality of Life,” presents the findings from several of the cross-cultural studies Levine has carried out with the help of his graduate students. The first study is a comparison of 31 countries using a composite index composed of the accuracy of public clocks, walking speed and the time required to complete a simple business transaction: buying a stamp. The top five countries using this index of pace of life or time consciousness are in order (from fastest to slowest), Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Japan and Italy. The five slowest or least time conscious countries are Syria, El Salvador, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico. The USA and Canada are in 16th and 17th place respectively, whereas England is in sixth place and Hong Kong is in tenth place. If we only look at clock accuracy the top five (more accurate to less accurate) are Switzerland, Italy, Austria, USA, and Romania and the bottom five are Syria, Brazil, Greece, Indonesia and El Salvador. What we can see is that the pace of life and time consciousness are more intense in the Northern industrialized countries and less intense in the Southern countries where event time is more commonly used.

Levine also demonstrates that within the USA we can see geographic variation in relation to time. This appears to be related to the size of the city as well as to latitude and longitude. For this study Levine used a four-factor index to study 36 U.S. cities. The top five cities were, in order, Boston, Buffalo (New York), New York City, Salt Lake City and Columbus (Ohio); the bottom five were Memphis, San Jose (California), Shreveport (Louisiana), Sacramento (California) and Los Angeles. Clearly the Northeast is a much more time-conscious region than the sunny South or laid-back California. Mormon Salt Lake City may also demonstrate the relation of religion to time. TimeZoners might be interested to know that Levine used a measure of the percentage of people observed wearing watches in this study. On this measure New York City was tops followed by Boston, Detroit, Buffalo and San Francisco (probably Richard’s influence given that SF was 24th on the composite index). The bottom five: Kansas City (Missouri), Nashville, East Lansing (Michigan), Memphis and Atlanta.

The final study of interest concerns the relationship of altruism to geography and time-consciousness. Specifically, are people in faster-paced cities less likely to
help a stranger than those in slower-paced cities? Levine constructed a six-factor index of behavior related to helping a stranger in need to study the 36 U.S. cities noted above. As it turns out, pace of life and geography are imperfectly related to helpfulness. The five most helpful cities were (in order from most helpful to less helpful) Rochester (New York), Lansing (Michigan), Nashville, Memphis, and Houston. The helpful cities are a curious mix of Northern and Southern mid-sized cites that tended to have moderate to slow pace of life indices. The five least helpful cities were Sacramento (California), Fresno (California), Los Angeles, Patterson (New Jersey), and New York City. New York has the fastest pace of life and appears to be the least charitable to strangers, but the slower-paced California cities were hardly helpful either. (Richard, SF was 31st in helpfulness, even trailing Chicago. You have your work cut out for you.)

Levine closes his book with some philosophical discussions of time entitled “Changing Pace.” He suggests that rather than being a metaphorical slave to time, we should use our understanding of it to maximize our enjoyment of life and to enhance our relations with others. He envisions an attitude of
“multi-temporality” whereby the person who has mastered time can move easily between nature time, event time and clock time as the situation and need requires.

For persons interested in time, “A Geography of Time” is a fun and interesting read.

Reference information : Levine, R. (1997). A geography of time: The temporal misadventures of a social psychologist. New York: Basic Books/Harper Collins.