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Time & Space in History: Cultural Differences & Beliefs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The concepts of time and space are not universal, but in fact vary widely by culture. In this lesson, we'll explore a few different ways to conceptualize these ideas and discuss how those related to the cultures that created them.

Time and Space

What time is it and where am I? These may seem like simple questions, but are in reality some of the most sophisticated inquiries in human existence, which prompt some pretty complex answers. I could answer that I'm at my desk, and it's a little after noon, but the significance of that statement is much broader than you'd think.

You see, for as much as we take them for granted, the concepts of time and space are not universal. They're highly subjective, and the ways that we conceptualize physical space and the movement of time indicate a lot about our society and cultural values. There's a lot more to time and space than you may realize.

Experiencing Time

Researchers call the way a society perceives time and its importance to their lives time orientation. Basically, people can think about time in a variety of ways. In the United States, we're most familiar with linear time, which basically means that time is always moving forward, always running. But, we also think about time as monochronic, or segmented into precise units. We break hours into minutes and minutes into seconds, and we live our lives in accordance with the schedules created by these units. By contrast, Italy and Spain, which also see time as linear, nonetheless also see it as polychronic, where time is best spent achieving many things at once. Work, leisure, vacation, and chores do not need to be segmented into different blocks of time because time is more fluid, less defined.

Of course, those are just the linear time models, and a very European way of conceptualizing time. Many traditional cultures, like those in Asia, perceived time as cyclical, based on perpetually repeating natural cycles. Time is not limited in a cyclical time system, but is in constant abundance. Think of linear time like a sidewalk, and cyclical time like a whirlpool. You're submerged in it, and flowing around through it. Before the Industrial Revolution, this was a common way to think about time. People from the ancient Egyptians to the Norse Vikings observed the cycles of the Sun, the stars, seasons, and weather and constructed their ideas about time accordingly.

Representing Time

So, those are some basic ways to perceive time, but how do we actually represent this? In our society, we use calendars with years, months, and days that are clearly and linearly segmented. Our calendar, called the solar calendar or Gregorian calendar, is based on the movement of the Sun in relation to the Earth.

However, traditional Islamic societies relied on a lunar calendar, which was based instead around the phases of the moon. In a lunar calendar, the 12 months of the year are not directly associated with seasonal changes, and run on roughly a 33-year cycle.

These two systems are actually combined by Chinese and Hindu calendars, which are technically lunisolar, based on the phases of the moon but adjusted to the rotation of the Earth around the Sun and the natural seasons.

These calendars all seek to represent time in a concrete way for the societies that used them, but they're not the only ways to construct time. In ancient Mesoamerica, Mexica (Aztec) and Maya societies actually created calendars to physically represent their views of cyclical time. The solar calendar of 365 days was overlaid by a 260-day cyclical or ritual calendar, forming 52-year periods of cyclic time. Beyond this, the Maya in particular kept a Long Count calendar, which breaks down epochs of existence into 13 periods of roughly 394 years each, called b'ak'tuns. So, time both progresses and repeats. You are within a cycle of repetitive time, but across the entire 5,000 year calendar, each day is always unique based on the interaction of the different cycles.

Mesoamerican calendars represented cycles within cycles
Mesoamerican calendar

Representing Space

Space may seem more tangible than time, but there are also various ways to represent it. And for many people, the two concepts really are inseparable. Remember how our system of time is linear, divided into precise segments? Well, our maps aren't so different. We rely on what is known as the Ptolemaic model, based on the maps of the second century CE Greek geographer Ptolemy. Ptolemy divided his maps of the Earth into defined, consistent segments of latitude and longitude, a system we still use today.

A Ptolemaic map is broken into grids of latitude and longitude
Ptolemaic map

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