Samoa Loses a Day: Sociology of Time

Samoa (Credit: sarah|rose, Flickr. CC)

The island nation of Samoa wants to improve its trade relations with Australia, New Zealand and China. As such, it is getting set to lose a day in order to align its time zone with its trade partners. Tomorrow, on what should have been Friday the 30th of December in Samoa, time on this island will jump ahead to Saturday the 31st of December.

I want to explore this shift in time in Samoa through the broader lens of the sociology of time. The theory of social construction states that the things that we take for granted as ordinary, mundane or commonsense are actually social ideas shaped by culture. The idea of temporal time is measured through our watches, calendars and other scientific instruments and technologies. As such, the passing of time is perceived as an unremarkable fact of life. The social meaning of time in different cultures varies. The idea of time as a fixed entity is actually a social illusion. I will show how history, social forces and life situations shape our ideas about time. I include a case study of ‘island time’ to show the variability of how time is understood and valued in island nations such as Samoa and Gabriola Island in British Columbia, Canada. I use the impending time change in Samoa to introduce the idea of ‘social time’, which is a useful way to understand how people in different cultures organise and think about time.

Samoa loses time

Mark Memmott from NPR reports on the developments in Samoa:

People in Samoa (population 193,000) want to be closer time-wise to Australia, New Zealand, China and Tonga because they do so much more day-to-day business with those relatively nearby nations than with the rest of the world. And the problem until now, for example, has been that when it’s 8 a.m. Monday in Samoa it’s 8 a.m. Tuesday in Tonga. Business people in Samoa have kind of been losing a working day when it comes to dealing with their nearest neighbours.

Now the time, literally, has come. When 11:59:59 p.m. strikes Thursday in Samoa, the next tick will take folks there to Saturday.

And no one will be born or die on Dec. 30, 2011, in Samoa. Weird.

The event in Samoa might seem extraordinary. By jumping one entire day ahead, this island is disrupting the idea that time is linear. Most people take the passage of time as a given – it seems an inevitable part of everyday life. We might even dismiss the passing of time as mundane. As I’ve been noting in my Tumblr blog, however, there’s more to the mundane than meets the eye.

Sociology of time

Credit: skalas Flickr. CC.

The passage of time has little mystique to most people who are healthy, free and going about their daily lives. Time change is notable during daylight savings because we wind our clocks forward or back, but otherwise, time ticking by seems matter of fact.

Things are only perceived as being mundane because they are routine. From the moment we are born, we are taught to accept certain ideas as facts. Time is one overarching principle that is used to structure societies, but the way we organise time is socially constructed. This refers to the social forces which shape our social reality. What is perceived as natural, normal, and true varies from one society to the next, and these ideas also change at different points in history.

Sociology shows that the things we take for granted are actually spectacular because so much work goes into our early socialisation in order to shape our ‘common sense’ view of the world. Look deeper into any culture, and ‘our’ shared social reality is suddenly revealed to be highly peculiar.

Sociologist Werner Bergmann has written a great review of the sociological literature on time. Bergmann shows that the concept of time as we know it in the present day has evolved through a complex set of historical relations between social institutions such as the economy and the law. These historical and institutional influences can be seen to have affected Samoa’s decision to realign their time zone with its closest trading partners. The idea of ‘social time’ might help to put this into perspective.

Social time

Credit: Joe Langman, Flickr
Credit: Joe Langman, Flickr

Bergmann argues that historical developments have meant that most ‘Western’ societies assert two ‘truths’ about time. Both of these conventions are governed by temporal notions of time (that is, by clocks and the Gregorian calendar used as the international measurement of days, weeks and months). First, people have come to believe that everyone understands that time is linear. Second, people think that all cultures can be classified as being either past, present, or future-orientated. Commonsense dictates that ‘traditionalist’ societies and rural cultures in developing societies are focused more on the past. Technologically advanced societies are thought to be focused on the present and future. Studies of various cultures around the world show that these conventions about time are false.

The idea of ‘social time’ is a useful way of understanding the differences that shape our relationship to time beyond its temporal dimension. Some societies can be seen to be highly influenced by ancestral past, such as Chinese cultures. Then again, Bergmann notes that societies actually accommodate several variations of time. Around the world religious calendars are maintained alongside the Gregorian calendar, which suggest a more complicated relationship between the temporal and social dimensions of time.

Credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz, via Flickr
Credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz, via Flickr

Different groups have different relationships to extraordinary events in time. Some sciences (such as quantum physics) and the science fiction genre share a fascination with time travel. ‘Western’ societies are preoccupied with time because it means we are ageing in a culture that is increasingly obsessed with looking youthful. Time can be stressful when we have to meet deadlines or when there is ‘too much to do and so little time’, as the adage goes. Time can be an adventure in an altered state when under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Time can become confusing and difficult to manage for people with addictions. Time is precious to people who are seriously ill or to people whose freedom has been restricted. Certain social situations (such as work), particular life stages (such as having kids) and other external events (such as an accident) may also require a re-evaluation of our subjective understandings of time.

Beginning with the development of rail-roads and the telegraph, to modern day innovations in telecommunication and information technologies, new communication networks have also increased global synchronisation of time towards a singular rhythm.  That is, to the chiming of the stock exchange bell. This has obviously had an effect on the decision to realign Samoa’s time zone.

The NPR report on the Samoan time change has a link to an Associated Press video interview with a Samoan business woman. She talks about the difficulties that the time differences have caused thus far. For example, Samoan businesses sometimes have to work weekends to keep up with international market demands. International time differences are clearly a nuisance to Samoan businesses. The upcoming change may ease Samoa’s trade relations, but what consequences might this decision have on everyday citizens who are not involved in international business? The reporter in the Associated Press video makes a fleeting mention to the concept of ‘island time’, which is yet another example of how notions of time are shaped by culture. Island time is Samoa’s measure of social time. It’s possible that the upcoming changes may impact on the Samoan conception of social time.

Cultural dynamics of time

Nowadays many people around the world are driven by ideas of schedules and timetables, but these are relatively recent concepts in human history, and not everybody shares the same emphasis on time management. In English-speaking cultures, the language used to describe time suggests a frantic and even ruthless need to tackle time: we ‘juggle’, ‘make’, ‘fill in’, ‘pass’ and ‘kill time’. All of these are action-based terms that suggest a need to anxiously fit in our lives and ourselves around time. The notion of schedules suggests a fragmentation of time, where time is broken down time into segments. In this frenetic convention, people are judged according to how well they manage time.

In all cultures, people’s relationship to time reflects a specific world view.  In the case of Samoa and other islander nations, the idea of ‘island time’ illustrates that the concept of time is elastic.

Jaigris Hodson and Phillip Vannini have written a wonderful ethnography on the concept of time on the Gabriola Island in British Columbia, Canada, which speaks to this idea. The researchers focus on the Islanders’ ferry commuting from Gabriola Island to the city of Nanaimo on central Vancouver Island for work. Clearly, Gabriola and Samoa are distinct islander nations, so I don’t seek to make spurious links between the two cultures. Nevertheless, Hodson and Vannini’s analysis of ‘island time’ shows how time derives its social meaning through cultural norms. Definitions of time reflect shared values, and so time is used to bind societies together and to regulate how societies function. In the case of ‘island time’, taking things slower than the temporal time shown on a clock is a cultural identifier that sets islander nations apart from other societies, especially big cities where the pace of life is chaotic. Hodson and Vannini write:

Island time is a perfect example of a socially shared rhythm that unites those who live by it while separating this same group of people from those who do not. The concept of island time can only be understood as a relative term in an idealized relationship with another symbolic temporal zone…  The meaning of island time, in sum, is relative and defined only relationally within a semiotic system of oppositions.

Hodson and Vannini’s research shows that Islanders’ ‘disposition’ of time is centred on protracted enjoyment of the ‘good things in life’. Being late to an event can be explained in this positive light, because ‘Island time is sacred’. Rushing around when travelling off the island (running on city time), is perceived less positively. City time robs people of the opportunity to enjoy the ‘finer things in life’.

Island time unites islanders as a community, and authentic participation in these unique rhythms (or even just knowledge of them) marks one as a true islander.  Coming to the island with the intent of imposing city time on its residents results in castigation and failure.

Samoa and other islander nations have obviously been managing international time demands alongside island time for decades – the same as other societies. Tomorrow’s time change simply brings transnational ‘city time’ closer to home. This may eventually lead to major social change years down the track, or perhaps it will mean very little. It will be curious to see what effect, if any, the Samoan time shift might have on the notion of ‘island time’ in Samoa in the long term.

Time marches on

Sociology teaches us that the fixed ideas we take for granted about the world, such as time, are actually negotiable and constantly under transformation. There is great diversity in how time is experienced in different cultures and social contexts. Clearly the government of Samoa and businesses see it as an economic necessity to align their time zone with their trading partners. It will free up their weekends and possibly stimulate their economy. Cultural rituals are continually being reinvented in response to changing social relations and institutional processes. Whatever the consequences of Samoa’s time change, come Saturday the 31st, temporal time will continue to tick on as usual, as if nothing unremarkable has happened. Social time evolves, however, in inventive and sometimes unexpected ways, all the while maintaining the spectacular illusion that time is mundane.


The sociology of time: The social meaning of time varies across cultures & place
The sociology of time: The social meaning of time varies across cultures & place


Thanks to radioon for sharing the link to the NPR news story on Tumblr.

Time Change Has Samoa Losing a Day. Video by the Associated Press via NRP.

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