Concepts of Time: Some Implications For Consumer Research

Sigmund Gronmo, University of Oslo
ABSTRACT - This paper reviews different concepts of time found in social science literature. It is distinguished among mechanical, natural and social time, and it is argued that future research on time and consumer behavior should give more attention to the concept of social time than has been done in previous research.
[ to cite ]:
Sigmund Gronmo (1989) ,"Concepts of Time: Some Implications For Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 339-345.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 339-345


Sigmund Gronmo, University of Oslo

Norwegian Fund for Market and Distribution Research


This paper reviews different concepts of time found in social science literature. It is distinguished among mechanical, natural and social time, and it is argued that future research on time and consumer behavior should give more attention to the concept of social time than has been done in previous research.


There seems to be no doubt or disagreement that time is an important dimension of consumer behavior. Since the 1970s there has also been an increasing attention to this topic in consumer research. Several researchers in the field have pointed to the inter-disciplinary neglect of the fundamental relationship between time and consumer behavior and argued that the time dimension should be integrated more systematically and more meaningfully in theoretical and empirical studies of consumer behavior (Hawes, 1979; Jacoby, Szybillo and Kohn-Berning, 1976; Nicosia and Mayer, 1976; Nicosia and Witkowsky, 1975).

Most previous research on time and consumer behavior has been empirical, rather than conceptual or theoretical. Although the time dimension is included in various ways in several major theories and models of consumer behavior, it has been pointed out that the importance of time generally tends to be underestimated in existing consumer behavior theories and needs to be considered more thoroughly in future theorizing in this area (Hawes, 1979).

The empirical studies of time and consumer behavior have mainly been focused on use of time (e.g. Anderson, Karns and Venkatesan, 1988; Arndt and Gronmo, 1977; Golden, Umesh, Weeks and Anderson, 1988; Hawes, 1977; Hendrix, Kinnear and Taylor, 1978), and to some extent perceptions of time (Hornik, 1984). Typically, the studies have been based on quantitative approaches, utilizing survey data, with particular emphasis on various methods of measuring timing and duration of different activities (Juster, 1985; Robinson, 1985).

A common feature of the vast majority of previous studies of time and consumer behavior is that they are based on one particular concept of time. Not surprisingly, this is the time concept which has become predominant in the organization and coordination of social and economic life of modern industrialized countries. As this time concept is based on exact measurement by means of clocks and calendars, it is also very well suited for quantitative data collection and analysis. According to this concept, time is linear, and it can be treated as a continuous variable and analyzed by means of the most advanced multivariate and multi-dimensional statistical methods. Thus, time can be regarded either as a general dimension for comparing and interrelating different consumer activities, or as a resource which may itself be consumed or used. In general, the common analogy between time and money is based on this particular concept of time.

While this paper does not question the necessity and adequacy of consumer research based on this time concept, the paper argues that other concepts of time should also be considered in studies of consumer behavior. The purpose is to review different time concepts which have been discussed in social science literature, and to suggest some implications of such concepts for consumer research.


A characteristic feature of time is that it is closely associated with change. The idea of time has been discussed by a number of philosophers, including Aristotle, Condillac, Hume, Descartes, Kant, Spencer, and Bergson. All these philosophers agree that some kind of change is the origin of our idea of time (Fraisse, 1963). Different views are found among the philosophers as to what kinds of changes are most important for the notion of time. Changes may be continuous or discontinuous, and some changes are periodic, while others are not. However, all changes mean that different phenomena or phases of a process are related to each other. A change implies that some phenomena are succeeded by other phenomena, and the new phenomena last until the next change takes place. Thus, changes are concrete manifestations of both succession and duration, which are two fundamental aspects of the notion of time (Fraisse, 1963).

According to Durkheim (1954), those changes which are related to rhythms in society are especially important for our understanding of time. Pointing out that time is a basic category in our understanding of society, he argued that our interest should be focused on the general time which is constituted by the rhythms of the collective life in society, rather than the various rhythms of the lives of different individuals.

In most social science literature on time a distinction is made between two concepts of time. Typically, this conceptual dichotomy refers to time constituted by rhythms, changes or courses of events in society, on the one hand, and time defined by physical phenomena or mechanical instruments, on the other hand. Thus, Sorokin and Merton (1937) distinguish between social time and astronomical time. While this distinction is based on differences in the substance or content of the time-constituting changes, other distinctions may be based on the form of such changes. For example, Braten (1981) contrasts the external running form of time characterized by the present contracted to a point, with an internal, arrestable time, characterized by the present expanded to a field.

For many purposes it might be adequate to distinguish among three concepts of time, rather than using a dichotomy. Referring to forms of changes, and using a geometrical analogy, anthropologists have distinguished among point time, based on single events, circular time, constituted by cycles of repeated events, and linear time, defined by continuous movement (Johansen, 1984). Also for the purpose of the discussion in this paper, it seems reasonable to use an analytical distinction among three different concepts of time. This distinction, however, refers to differences in the content of the time-constituting changes, rather than different forms of these changes.

One of the three time concepts discussed here is the concept underlying most previous research on time and consumer behavior. This is what may be appropriately called mechanical time, since it is defined by means of clocks and calendars. The year is divided into time units of fixed lengths, such as months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds. Mechanical time is linear, and it is to a large extent standardized as a common frame of reference for all nations of the world (Zerubavel, 1982). The earth is divided into different time zones, but the lengths of the time units do not vary with seasonal or geographical variations. Instead, they are measured accurately by means of precise mechanical or electronic instruments.

The second concept is natural time, which is -determined by changes and rhythms in the nature. This time concept refers to such natural phenomena as the change between day and night, sunrise and sunset, and different seasons of year, as well as biological changes and cycles of the human body. Natural time is often cyclical, and it may differ, depending, for example, on time of the year and place of the earth. Thus, the length of the day changes from summer to winter, and this seasonal change increases when we move from the equator towards the poles.

The third time concept is social time, which is understood in relation to human and social activity. Social time refers to rhythms or changes involved in social processes. Thus, we may perceive or experience time with reference to our own action and interaction, or with reference to events in our social environment and in the society at large. This means that social time may be subject to substantial variations, depending not only on the organization of social processes in different societies, but also on the relation to and participation in these processes among different groups and individuals.

A similar distinction among three time concepts is suggested by Elchardus (1988). In his terms, time may be regarded as a (mathematical) concept, as a (natural) fact, or as a (social) temporality .

Mechanical time is abstract and identified in terms of changes or movements related to more or less mechanical processes within instruments for time measurement. Natural and social time, on the other hand, are concrete and can only be understood in relation to specific contexts of natural and social processes. However, the three concepts of time are not mutually exclusive or completely independent of each other. Rather, they should be regarded as complementary concepts.

Furthermore, as illustrated in Figure 1, certain relationships among the concepts should be noted. Thus, the definition of mechanical time is adapted to natural rhythms, which are also basic determinants of natural time, such as the movement of the earth on its own axis and around the sun. However, the relationships between the concept of social time and each of the other two time concepts are more important for the purpose of this paper. Natural forces as well as mechanical clocks may be important determinants of the social organization of human activity. Thus, social time may be influenced by both natural and mechanical time. But these influences are different from one society to another. In general, industrialization leads to a decrease in the importance of natural time and an increase in the importance of mechanical time. Social time in pre-industrial societies is characterized by task-orientation. In industrialized societies social time is more influenced by the use of mechanical time to measure, co-ordinate and synchronize labor (Anderson, 1961; Thompson, 1967; Tornes, 1983). Mumford (1934) maintains that the clock was even more important than the steam engine for the process of industrialization. Mechanical time is of particular importance for the coordination of communication processes (Zerubavel, 1982). It may thus be expected that social time will become even more influenced by mechanical time in the post-industrial information society. Mechanical time seems to become more and more important for the perception and measurement, not only of work, but of all human activity.

Regardless of the importance of natural and mechanical time, however, social time is important in all kinds of societies. What differs between types of societies, is not the importance of social time, but the extent to which social time is influenced by, and related to, natural or mechanical time. These variations depend on the degree to which social life is organized according to natural or mechanical time, respectively. Furthermore, it can be argued that, since social time is always closely related to human activities and social processes, studies of the temporal dimension of such activities and processes should be based on the concept of social time, either instead of or in addition to other time concepts. Thus, Elchardus (1988), in his discussion of the new role of time in sociological theory, proposes to focus on social temporality.

In studies of human activities and social processes, each of the three concepts of time suggested here may be used with reference to different levels of analysis. Thus, the analysis may be focused on micro level phenomena, taking place among individuals or households, or it may be focused on macro level phenomena, occurring in social institutions or in the society at large. Furthermore, each time concept may be applied with reference to different temporal horizons. Thus, we may distinguish between studies of short term processes and long term processes. Combining level of analysis and temporal horizon, we may distinguish among four major time perspectives, as shown in Figure 2. These perspectives refer to such typical short term processes as daily life events at the micro level and institutional rhythms at the macro level, and to such typical long term processes as life cycle stages at the micro level and historical development at the macro level.





Similar to this classification of four different time perspectives, Luckmann (n.d.), in his analysis of personal identity as a structure of intersecting temporalities, distinguishes among four such temporalities. One of these is inner time, related to body-bound rhythms of individuals. The second temporality is intersubjective time, based on coordination and synchronization involved in social interaction. The third temporality refers to the life course of the individual and is called biographical time. Finally, time which transcends human life-time, is called historical time.


The distinction among different concepts of time has a number of implications for consumer research. Three sets of such implications are emphasized here. First, in order to identify meaningful temporal dimensions of consumer behavior, it may be important to relate this behavior to natural and social time, in addition to mechanical time. Second, with reference to the particular importance, and neglect, of social time, special attention should be given to analyses of sociotemporal contexts of consumer behavior. Third, such studies of the social temporality of consumer behavior seems to require combinations of qualitative and quantitative approaches.



Each of the three sets of implications will be discussed in the following.

Relating Consumer Behavior to Different Time Concepts

As pointed out above, most previous research on temporal dimensions of consumer behavior has been focused on mechanical time. This may be explained, and to some extent even justified, by the fact that almost all consumer research has been carried out in modern, industrialized countries, where mechanical time is very important for the organization of social and economic life. However, since natural time, and, particularly, social time also are relevant time concepts in such societies, consumer behavior should be related to these two time concepts in addition to mechanical time. Moreover, relating consumer behavior to different time concepts will most likely lead to a better understanding of cross-cultural variations and changes over time in this behavior.

As an illustration of what is meant by relating consumer behavior to different time concepts, Figure 3 provides some examples of how typical consumer behavior phenomena can be described in relation to each of the three time concepts as well as to each of the four time perspectives. As to daily life events, the time dimension of an activity like shopping may refer to mechanical instruments, such as the clock, to natural phenomena, such as the sun, or to such social activities as commuting. As far as life cycle stages are concerned, the time dimension involved in buying a new house may be expressed in terms of the mechanical measurement of age, the natural development of fertility or the social process of divorce. With reference to institutional rhythms, the consumers' daily use of a public swimming pool may start at a time which is determined by the clock, by the sun, or by the breakfast meal. Finally, referring to historical development, a decrease in private consumption may be temporally identified by means of a calendar, an earthquake or a war.

The examples presented in Figure 3 are focused on the timing of consumer behavior phenomena, illustrating different ways of indicating when such phenomena take place. Similar examples could have been provided as to the duration of these phenomena, in order to demonstrate various ways of describing how long they last. Thus, the consumers' use of a public swimming pool may last from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m., from sunrise until sunset, or from breakfast until supper.

Analyzing Socio-Temporal Contexts of Consumer Behavior

Since the concept of social time is particularly important in studies of time involved in human activities and social processes, this time concept should be given special attention in consumer research. However, although this research definitely is focused on human activities and social processes, social time has obviously been neglected in previous studies regarding temporal dimensions of consumer behavior.

As emphasized by Staikov (1982), social time is formed by the temporal relations of social objects, reflecting the development of social phenomena and social processes. Social time cannot be isolated from these phenomena and processes and defined independently. On the contrary, the phenomena and processes may be regarded as the content of social time, and social time is defined in terms of this content. Thus, Staikov (1982, p. 7) regards social time as "... duration of a social phenomenon, action or fact as compared to the duration of another phenomenon or fact of social reality." Julkunen (1977) suggests a similar definition. According to her, social time is time as the condition and measure of social and individual activity. In other words, social time is perceived in terms of what it is used for or filled with, or in terms of what happens in the time or over time. Thus, time is not only used as a measure to examine what happens; time is also defined in terms of what happens.

Some suggestions regarding how to examine social time in connection with consumer behavior, may be presented with reference to short term micro level processes, which is one of the four time perspectives discussed above. In this perspective social time is related to events in the daily lives of individuals or households, which represent the most typical focus of consumer behavior studies.

Following the terminology used in time budget research, we may distinguish among three major aspects of a daily life event: Activity, interaction and location. Thus, for a given person an event is defined by what the person does, with whom he or she is together, and where he or she is. The event lasts as long as there is no change in any of its three aspects. If the person starts doing something else, changing social company or moving to another place, the event is replaced by a new event.

Although social time may be examined with reference to such courses of events in daily life, it is assumed that social time does not follow directly from the objective course of events, but is instead based on each individual's own subjective perception of time in relation to his or her specific events. Thus, social time is understood from the individual actor's point of view. It has been argued that perceptual time should be distinguished from conceptual time (Cleugh, 1937; Korey and Bogorya, 1981),. Understanding social time from the actor's point of view means that the perceptual nature of time is emphasized. Social time is closely related to the subjective dimension of everyday life (Hornik, 1984). The sense of time is developed through a process of subjective discussion or self-conscious reflection at the level of everyday experience. Depending on these reflections, social time may be perceived differently by different persons, even though they are involved in the same events. Thus, while some persons may perceive time primarily in terms of movement from one place to another, the time perception of other persons may be more related to changes in activity or interaction.

This emphasis on subjective perceptions implies that social time is regarded as the result of a reflective process. During this process time is not only perceived in terms of changes related to immediate events. The reflection also leads to consciousness of the relationship between this perceived time and larger contexts. Thus, the time dimension of everyday events may be understood in relation to various kinds of structures and systems within which the individual actor operates and the events take place. These larger contexts are often defined geographically, such as communities, or socially, such as groups or organizations. However, temporally defined contexts may also be important, in particular for reflections on time. As pointed out by Cullen, Godson and Major (1972), any event in the individual's day is part of a sequence of interdependent events. Similarly, the social background and life history of the individual actor, as well as the history of the actor's environment may be important contexts for conscious reflections on social time.- Looking back in time has been emphasized as a characteristic feature of reflection on time (Korey and Bogorya, 1981).

This reflective process, in which time is perceived in terms of immediate events and understood in relation to larger contexts, defines the meaning of social time for the individual actor. In other words, time becomes meaningful only when its content is understood in relation to a larger context or connection. Thus, although social time is perceived by the individual consumer, people within the same cultural context and with the same historical background will typically share a common frame of reference for their time perception. This provides a basis for the development of a general social time within the particular societal context (Durkheim, 1954).

Based on this discussion, it is reasonable to argue that future consumer research should emphasize analyses of the socio-temporal contexts of consumer behavior. This means that consumer behavior should not only be related to clocks and calendars. It should also be temporally related to other activities, and to specific patterns of interaction and location. The social temporality of consumer behavior should be identified by specifying the particular preceding, succeeding or coinciding events, and by examining the consumer's own perceptions and reflections regarding these temporal relations between the consumer behavior and other events. In this way, both timing and duration can be identified. For example, a particular consumer activity may occur before, after, or simultaneously with another event, and the consumer activity may last shorter, longer, or as long as the other event.

The challenge is to develop more insight into how consumers themselves perceive and reflect on this temporal coordination of consumer behavior in relation to other events, including action, actors and arenas, within particular contexts. Such insight regarding socio-temporal contexts are especially important in connection with cross-cultural comparative studies of consumer behavior.

Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches

It was pointed out above that most previous research on time and consumer behavior has been focused on use of time, primarily based on quantitative survey data regarding how people spend their time on different activities. Typically, such time budget surveys provide information on who does what during the day, for how long, how often, at what time, in what order, where, and with whom (Szalai, 1972).

Although the many strengths and advantages of this approach as a framework and method for analyzing patterns of human behavior has been well documented by a large number of very interesting and important studies carried out in many countries and for a variety of purposes, it has also been maintained that time budget data tend to be broad but shallow (Szalai, 1977). Reviewing the critical evaluations of time budget research, one might conclude that this research, while leading to rich data on use of time, provides more limited information on the context and meaning of the time use (Gronmo and Christensen, 1986). - These limitations are particularly important when it comes to studies of social time, which is closely related to both context and meaning of time use. Thus, for examinations of socio-temporal contexts of consumer behavior, it seems necessary to overcome such shortcomings of the time budget approach.

Several strategies for solution of these problems have been suggested in the literature. Some of these are focused on efforts to extend and improve the techniques involved in time budget research. Thus, Szalai (1977) suggests that ever more new dimensions have to be added to the time budget record, and that more complex indicators should be developed in order to capture more contextual aspects. It is also suggested that observational and analytical methods used in time budget research could be utilized for more psychological studies of individuals in their daily transactions (Szalai, 1972).

Another, more interesting set of strategies directs the attention towards combinations of time budget data and other data. Feldheim (1972) argues that the time budget technique can be much more useful if it is associated with other sociopsychological methods. Moreover, it has been suggested that time budget surveys could be combined with qualitative methods used in anthropological and sociological studies, including participant observation, case studies and historical studies (Arndt, Gronmo and Hawes, 1981). Similar views are expressed by Julkunen (1977). Cullen (1982) has developed what he calls an extended diary approach, which combines the time budget technique with more flexible interviews concerning the objective context as well as the subjective aspects of the time use. Similarly, a field research approach has been proposed as a systematic attempt to identify the meaning of time by relating time use to specific contexts and subjective reflections (Gronmo and Christensen, 1986).

Such attempts to develop more comprehensive designs and strategies for combining quantitative time budget studies with various qualitative approaches represent another major challenge for research on temporal dimensions of consumer behavior.


In this discussion of time concepts found in social science literature, it has been distinguished among mechanical, natural and social time. While previous research on time and consumer behavior has been focused on mechanical time, it has been argued here that future consumer research should give more attention to studies of social time.

Three sets of implications of this argument have been emphasized. First, temporal dimensions of consumer behavior should be specified, not only with reference to clocks and calendars, but in relation to all three time concepts. Second, studies of time and consumer behavior should be focused on the socio-temporal contexts of this behavior. Third, in order to examine such socio-temporal contexts, it is necessary to develop comprehensive designs for combining quantitative time budget studies with various qualitative approaches.


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