The Intentions and Extensions of the Time Concept: Contributions From a Sociological Perspective

Carol J. Kaufman, Rutgers University
Paul M. Lane, Western Michigan University
ABSTRACT - Time has long been recognized as an important consumer behavior variable (Jacoby, Szybillo, and Berning 1976; Hirschman 1987; Feldman and Hornik 1981). However, our conceptual understanding of time itself is necessarily drawn from a variety of disciplines, often resulting in a disaggregated set of terms and measurement techniques, devoid of a unifying paradigm. Because of this, it is often difficult to assess the intentions and extensions of time both within marketing and in other fields. A systematic review of existing paradigms is recommended to establish a "common" understanding of time studies, or a "chronosophy", as proposed by Fraser (1981). This paper begins the chronosophical process in presenting a paradigm for the sociology of time, and develops a vocabulary which can be usefully incorporated into consumer research.
[ to cite ]:
Carol J. Kaufman and Paul M. Lane (1990) ,"The Intentions and Extensions of the Time Concept: Contributions From a Sociological Perspective", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 895-901.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 895-901


Carol J. Kaufman, Rutgers University

Paul M. Lane, Western Michigan University


Time has long been recognized as an important consumer behavior variable (Jacoby, Szybillo, and Berning 1976; Hirschman 1987; Feldman and Hornik 1981). However, our conceptual understanding of time itself is necessarily drawn from a variety of disciplines, often resulting in a disaggregated set of terms and measurement techniques, devoid of a unifying paradigm. Because of this, it is often difficult to assess the intentions and extensions of time both within marketing and in other fields. A systematic review of existing paradigms is recommended to establish a "common" understanding of time studies, or a "chronosophy", as proposed by Fraser (1981). This paper begins the chronosophical process in presenting a paradigm for the sociology of time, and develops a vocabulary which can be usefully incorporated into consumer research.


Time has long been recognized as an important variable in consumer research. As consumers, individuals spend much of their time in shopping for and using products, perhaps based on a brand preference learned in the past, or prompted by a present immediate need, or stimulated by the perception of a need in the future. Despite the pervasive influence of time in consumer behavior, investigations are often limited by our abilities to conceptualize, model, and measure time itself.

The concept of time is difficult to understand in its entirety when viewed within the limitations and constraints of specific disciplines. That is, certain aspects of time are developed and tested through accepted research methods, while other topics of investigation are classified as inappropriate or not fitting within the discipline itself. Thus, an economic approach to time is likely to emphasize constraints and tradeoffs, while a religious perspective instead would focus on personal experience and feelings.

Several prior reviews present organized summaries of the development of the time concept (see for example, Feldman and Hornik 1981; Hirschman 1987; Jacoby, Szybillo, and Berning 1976). However, existing approaches used in marketing do not seem to be complete enough to model some aspects of consumer time. A frequent argument centers on the need to incorporate perceptual, subjective, and experiential aspects of time within the more traditional economic framework which has largely characterized prior time research (Hirschman 1987; Hornik 1984). That is, the marketing-economics interface forms only a limited subset of the social culture in which time phenomena occur.

In applying the concepts of other fields to the study of consumer time, it is necessary to determine whether the discipline under review is able to account for the aspects-of time use which are of interest to marketers. The present paper argues that the in-depth consideration of time paradigms in other disciplines must precede the incorporation of concepts, terminology, or measurement techniques into consumer research.

A paradigm, according to Deshpande (1983), is "a set of linked assumptions about the world which is shared--by a community of scientists investigating that world (p. 101)." That is, it includes statements of the proper domain of a science, what questions it should ask, and the rules to follow in interpreting results; in effect, a paradigm can be viewed as the foundation of theory, directing theory building efforts (Arndt 1983). However, Anderson (1983) points out that "there are often paradigmatic conflicts as a result of the different philosophical methodologies and frameworks across disciplines (p. 22)." Time studies provide a case in point. That is, many investigations take a mathematical or economic approach for granted, which does not allow the subjective aspects of time to emerge.

An Example: Problems with Existing Approaches

In particular, the often-used fixed resource paradigm from economics is not sufficient to capture the social, perceptual, or experiential aspects of time use (Hibshoosh and Silver 1988). Although the economic approach is useful in some studies, the "Beckerian" tradition is oriented toward the economy, considering quantities of time, rather than their value to the consumer. That is, economic or fixed resource models identify fixed amounts of clock time among work, or household, or leisure activities, without examining the importance or enjoyment perceived by the participants.

For instance, time budgets are frequently used in social psychology, home economics, and sociology in order to study individuals' time use throughout their day. Respondents are required to record, usually in minutes, all the activities done throughout a specified time period, similar to a monetary budget. Along with the straightforward process of time or money measurement, however, are also a set of underlying assumptions regarding the variables being studied. In a monetary budget, a given sum of money is used for a specified purpose, mutually-exclusive of other uses. The same period of time, in contrast, can be used to accomplish multiple purposes, when time is used polychronically. This is borne out in empirical research, as respondents frequently indicate secondary or tertiary activities (Lane, Kaufman, and Lindquist 1989). The assumptions of the budget analogy do not allow for additional uses of the same time, nor do they provide information of the context, value, and meaning of time use. Instead, an overriding constraint specifies that daily time is limited to 24 hours a day, and implicit in that constraint, is that the 24 hours are divided among mutually-exclusive activities. This is a problem, since many consumer-related activities are often combined with other activities, such as shopping and child care, and can be classified as polychronic.

In response, economic models may be extended or modified in several ways: the utilization of a psychologically-based theory of time equilibrium (Wilson and Holman 1984); the addition of "subjective preference propositions" in time use studies (Hornik 1985); the consideration of both objective and subjective needs of the individual in modeling time allocation behavior (Hendrix 1980); the development of explanations and predictions of the future (Holman 1981; Nicosia 1982); or the application of transportation research to time study (Hibshoosh and Silver 1988).

It is also necessary to extend time research to include interaction with groups outside the individual (Gronmo 1989), as well as to more fully investigate internal perceptual time processing (Settle, Alreck, and Glasheen 1978). That is, research has largely focused on measuring quantities of time expenditure per individual, rather than the patterns of time expenditure among both individuals and groups (Jacoby, Szybillo, and Berning 1976).

A Complementary Perspective

Gronmo (1989) argues that concepts of time are complementary, rather than mutually exclusive or completely independent of each other. Moreover, some perspectives on time have been underutilized, such as social time, perhaps due to unfamiliarity with paradigms which tap the perceptual dimensions of time, and overreliance on the economic model which has predominated since it was formally introduced and reviewed.

The present paper addresses this need by proposing that a sociological paradigm, suggested by Lewis and Weigert (1981), can be used in the conceptualization of consumer time phenomena. That paradigm incorporates perceptions of time, as well as the interaction between individuals' time and their membership in groups. Some theory building terminology will be introduced next, for use in the paradigm review.


Theoretical Suggestions

In learning, evaluating, and possibly combining alternative paradigms for use in any study, Zaltman, Pinson, and Angelmar (1973) recommend that the respective concepts from each specific discipline be examined to learn if they refer to the same set of phenomena. That is, it is necessary to insure that they have "intentional and extensional compatibility with another and that they are rooted in identical or at least comparative assumptions (p. 96)." In order to avoid conceptual mismatching, the researcher must determine whether there is "compatibility between the nonmarketing context in which a concept or theory has been empirically tested and the marketing context in which it is to be applied."

The recognition that given paradigms are appropriate for certain aspects of the time phenomena, and not for others forms a central core of the present paper. A chronosophical approach. discussed next, can provide an organized method to evaluate the intentions and extensions of time paradigms which are under consideration for use in modeling consumer behavior.


While Fraser (1981) argues that the successful study of time must be interdisciplinary, the extension of time concepts into marketing must be done systematically and carefully. Prior reviews encompass a vast background of research, generally found in economics, home economics, sociology, social psychology, and psychology, as well as marketing. In addition, other, perhaps-less consulted fields, such as biology, physics, religion, music, and child development also provide insight into additional time processes and uses. A systematic research program which investigates, presents, and unifies these "traditional" and "nontraditional" fields is likely to add depth and understanding to current efforts to examine time in consumer research.

Such an interdisciplinary and normative study of time is designated as "chronosophy" (Fraser 1981). Its purposes include the search for new knowledge regarding time, while developing methods to integrate the contributions from existing multidisciplinary knowledge. Particularly important is the conscious effort to identify and communicate across research boundaries to permit interaction of experience and theory construction.

According to Fraser, the chronosophical approach would include the following:

1. surveys of historical and current ideas of time in the sciences and in the humanities;

2. studies of the relation of time to ideas of conceptual extremities such as motion and rest, or the spatially very large and very small;

3. comparative analysis of those properties of time that various fields of learning and intuitive expressions designate unproblematically as "the nature of time";

4. inquiries into the processes and methods whereby man learns to perceive, proceeds to measure, and proposes to reason about time;

5. exploration of the role of time in the communication of thought and emotion;

6. search for an understanding of the relation of time to personal identity and to death;

7. research concerning time and organic evolution, time and the psychological development of man, and the role of time in the growth of civilizations; and

8. determination of the status of chronosophy vis-a-vis the traditional systems of knowledge (pp. 591-592).

Using the chronosophical process as a guide, the following sections are organized to review and evaluate the potential contributions of a sociological time paradigm, introduced next.


The sociological perspective is particularly useful in incorporating the qualitative features of time. A paradigm proposed by Lewis and Weigert (1981) suggests that social time permeates every region of social life, and thus time use is tied to a social structural framework, given as the individual, group, subcultural, and cultural levels of analysis.

Each of these levels has its own form of social time: the individual-level "self-time;" the group level "interaction time," for informal interactions and "institutional time" for organizations; and the socio-cultural level "cyclic time," such as days, weeks, and seasons (p. 434). This typology enables the researcher to conceptualize and study the movement of individuals from one temporal structure to another in everyday life. Self-time quite naturally taps the time perceptions of the solitary individual, including remembered pasts, experienced presents, and anticipated futures. At some point, however, the individual interacts with others, whether in an informal situation, such as a family, or one that is formal, such as employment. Here norms of behavior and specific interactional rules partially govern the situation. In turn, the individual's self-time and interaction time are embedded within the macro structures of institutional time and cultural time. Institutions, such as schools, stores, and factories, make up their own rules. "Although they may take into account time structures of other organization with which they must conduct exchanges, the norms and sanctions governing the use of time in any particular organization extend directly only to its own members (p. 438)."

The time levels are not mutually-exclusive, however, as behaviors at one level may depend on behavior at another, such as husbands' and wives' activities being somewhat dependent upon the needs of their families. Individuals acquire social roles which constitute the points of intersection between the levels, coordinating their behaviors to avoid role conflict. As a result, individuals must schedule their time to match the time standard of the larger groups in which they must function (Lane and Kaufman 1989). When invited to a social dinner, one customarily arrives close to the specified time, regardless if one becomes hungry several hours earlier. Similarly, consumers of mass transit may purchase the right to travel within days and times specified by a set schedule, rather than simply at their own individual discretion.

On a larger scale, cultural time demands that its members match their time use with the standardized time of the culture. For instance, Lewis and Weigert point out that the weekend has become the dominant temporal marker of the weekly routine, evidenced by special weekend shopping hours and Monday holidays. However, desired shopping services are often not available on late nights or weekends, which may be the consumer's self-time for shopping. When consumers cannot standardize to the schedules of existing market institutions, opportunities are created for new developments, such as automated teller machines and round-the-clock repair services.

As part of this paradigm, however, Lewis and Weigert argue that the types of time exhibit a well-defined stratification. That is, "organizational time demands precedence over interaction time, and interaction time, in turn, demands precedence over self time (p. 444)." Thus one does not shop when required to be at work, although polychronic time processing allows consumers to blend several of these levels of stratification, such as shopping at home while supervising children.


In order to determine whether the sociological paradigm possesses intentional compatibility with consumer phenomena, it is necessary to examine the 0 properties of time within the framework. Lewis and Weigert propose three major dimensions: embeddedness, syncronicity, and stratification. In addition, related terms are also presented which are commonly used in other social settings and are used within the paradigm presented here.

Sociological Aspects

Social embeddedness. Social embeddedness refers to the fact that all social acts are temporally fitted inside of larger social acts (Lewis and Weigert p. 437). Basically, this aspect of time recognizes the "human life and the social actions which constitute it are a complex overlap of actions and meanings at various stages of enactment (p. 450)." For instance, a physician may schedule a series of appointments as a set of embedded acts, which are to be completed before hospital rounds or after surgery.

Synchronicity. A coordination of broadly recurring sets of meaningful events characterizes synchronicity. "A modem industrialized and rationalized society can function only if most of its members follow a highly patterned and dependable daily round (Lewis and Weigert p. 439)." The physician's patients must match, or synchronize, their schedules with that of their appointments. Similarly, retailers are likely to conduct business during certain hours deemed acceptable by the society, or community, in which they exist. Lack of synchronization generally reduces the productivity of a group, as evidenced by problems brought on by a transit strike or inclement weather.

Stratification. In order to synchronize their time with the demands and schedules of others, individuals must be able to order their time use according to some established priority. Certain types of time can demand precedence over other types of time, based on the subjective value assigned by the individual, as well as the obligations the individual bears to both informal and formal groups. The sociological paradigm proposes that organization time has priority over interaction time, which in turn has priority over self time. Overall, people must synchronize their embedded times to attain temporal coordination, depending on the stratification.

Other Related Aspects of Time

Time duration. Time duration can be defined as the interval between separate events (Piaget 1981). That is, its measure answers questions such as "how long an event takes," or "how long until the next event," or "how long since a past event."

Relational time versus absolute time. In contrast, relational time is used when our experience is related to other events happening in time. Thus the individual can discuss time "speeding up" or "slowing down." In contrast, time duration can be measured objectively, without referring to its content. This is known as "absolute time," and has its origin in Newtonian physics (Benjamin 1981).

Subjective time. Individuals perceive time differently. Thus, durations can be affected by the individual's perceptual capabilities as well as their time orientation (Settle, Alreck, and Glasheen 1978). For instance, some events seem longer than others. Enjoyable tasks may appear to move quickly, while unpleasant chores may seem to last "forever." This unevenness in perception is likely to be situational, as a one hour block spent browsing in a favorite store may appear to pass at quite a different rate than an hour hurriedly searching for a last-minute gift.

Succession. Succession, or temporal order, deals with the sequence of events (Piaget 1981). Certain events precede others naturally (i.e., day-night cycles), while some are scheduled to occur before or after specific events. Thus "After Christmas" and "Back-to-School" sales tie their expectations to the passage of certain days, offering retail assortments which match the needs of consumers.

Time Standardization. Similar to the notion of absolute time, this concept refers to the specific schedule required by a household, community, organization, or government. Individuals are thought to standardize their internal time senses to match external conventions, when necessary. This manifestation becomes our public time (Lane and Kaufman 1989).


In developing the sociological paradigm, Lewis and Weigert offer some preliminary propositions regarding the study of time. These appear to represent the general foundation for some specific consumer research relationships between activity and time.

Perceived Temporal Distance

P1: The greater the number of temporally-embedded events between two points in physical time, the shorter is the perceived temporal distance between two Points.

A few studies in marketing have investigated consumers' perceptions of waiting time. For instance, using supermarket checkout lines, Hornik (1984) found that individuals exhibit a tendency to overestimate waiting time, perhaps because little is happening between entering the line and eventually paying for one's purchases. It is likely that the lack of other-embedded activities affects the overestimation. Common managerial strategies, such as providing entertainment or displays while in amusement or exhibit lines, embed "filler" activities between the two points of entry and exit, which presumably shorten the consumers' perceived wait. Comm and Palachek (1984) further extend the notion of perceived wait to consumer regret levels.


P2a: The greater the interdependence of actors, the greater the necessity for temporal synchronization.

P2b: The degree of difficulty in temporal synchronization is a positive exponential function of the number of timetables involved.

These two propositions appear to be directly related to the multiple time schedules inherent in interdependent groups, such as households. That is, rather than restricting time allocation models to the individual level, the explicit recognition of synchronization must be incorporated into consumer research. Perhaps difficulties in temporal synchronization are a key to the wives' employment area. Role overload, defined as conflict resulting from multiple roles, would appear to be directly related to the ability to synchronize multiple role expectations. The interdependence between husbands' and wives' employment constraints is likely to affect their individual and joint household responsibilities.


P3: Social times are stratified in the following hierarchy (from highest priority to lowest): cyclic time, institutional-organizational time, interaction time, self time

Stratification enables consumers to prioritize their uses of time, allocating precedence to those activities which are deemed most important. For instance, a society typically establishes certain holidays, which affect customary employment schedules. Certain retailers are likely to close on those holidays, or perhaps offer additional incentive salaries as compensation for working on a holiday. Interactional time, such as that spent with one's family, is necessarily structured around one's employment obligations, leaving the remainder as time for self. However, priorities regarding one's time use are often established based also on the value of certain activities to the individual. As Hirschman (1987) indicates, consumers are likely to schedule their time in certain activities based on tradeoffs between the perceived pleasure of the experience and the obligations which constrain use of time.


The underlying importance of time in consumer behavior stems from its inherent role in the purchase and use of products. Needs may be perceived in relation to past experience, present dissatisfaction, or anticipated future requirements. Those needs will be addressed in terms of consumer self-time, the consumers' interaction with others, the consumers' synchronization time with household and employment, and standardization with the environment.

Consumer researchers need to describe time involved in recognizing and searching for ways to fulfill needs. The simple economic assessment of quantities of time greatly limits our ability to describe the dimensions of time. For instance, needs may be recognized as part of consumer self-time. However, the consumer is likely to discuss those needs within family or social settings, engaging in interaction time. Moreover, overly-simplistic measures of institutional time, such as number of minutes spent shopping, reduces our understanding. Without in-depth questioning, it would be difficult to discern from present-day time budgets what amount of shopping time is spent in search, in negotiation, in discussion, and in complaints; moreover, no information is given whether the retail time is perceived as short or long. These fine distinctions enable us to describe the tradeoffs among temporal resources which characterize the dimensions of time discussed above. All the time use categories are additionally affected by cultural influence and perceptions of time.

In addition, time processing may vary among linear, procedural and cyclic perspectives across respondents in any given study. For instance, some individuals may shop after receiving their pay, in a linear sense; others instead may shop procedurally until the "right" product is found; while yet others may schedule weekly or monthly shopping trips in a cyclical sense. Economic time budgets, however, would necessarily group time used in shopping in similar categories, without being able to investigate the underlying differences in the patterns of shopping time. Moreover, shopping may be done as a single, monochronic activity, or it may be combined with other tasks, such as child care, socializing with friends, or housework, if home shopping is chosen. The complexities of polychronic shopping behavior is also masked by research frameworks and measurement tools which implicitly assume that time use is a linear, separable, monochronic, individual phenomena.

The conceptual framework and terminologies provide clear implications for consumer research. The sociological perspective enables us to differentiate among time used solely by self, such as that in need recognition or internal search; various types of interaction time, such as time spent negotiating household activities or retail purchases; and culturally-determined time patterns, such as "appropriate" sales hours and holidays. For instance, consumers shop for "back-to-school" clothing or for holiday gifts and food, rather than just shopping for three hours in a given week in 1985.


In particular, the sociological paradigm can be used to propose the following time vocabulary with clear extensions to consumer research:

consumer self-time: experiential, subjective, perceptions of time use as interpreted by the individual

consumer interaction time: time spent in informal groups such as households, decision-making units; in retail settings; in work settings

consumer institutional time: employment or other organizational activity, volunteer time, etc.

consumer cyclical time: individuals have certain repetitive routines, determined by their subculture or culture, which may affect time spent in market exchange. Shopping for holidays follows a ritualistic pattern

market institutional time: consumers must conduct exchanges during standardized shopping hours, which may be culturally-determined - this may lead to dissatisfaction when needs occur during non-standard hours, such as supermarket delis and pharmacies which close at a specified early evening hour

cyclic time: defined in terms of repetitive structures, such as days, weeks, and seasons blue laws result from the interaction of culture and market institutions

time embeddedness: consumer shopping and household production behavior take place within the confines of employment obligations. There may be only limited time for shopping. Rise of home shopping is one response. Problems occur in synchronizing market time and consumer time.

synchronicity: the matching of consumers time schedules creates the necessity for scheduling in households. This may be a factor contributing to the role overload.

stratification: valuing time, enabling consumer to determine schedules through the setting of priorities

The interactions between the various levels and dimensions are useful in identifying opportunities and problems in consumer research. For instance, when the demands of consumers' institutional time limits their time spent in interaction with their households or friends, convenience products and household services may provide a needed supplement to reduce role conflict. Moreover, institutional demands may also make it difficult for consumers to synchronize their time with other household members. Products which enable time to be deferred, such as VCRs and telephone answering machines, can adjust discrepancies in time schedules. Employed parents' time is necessarily embedded within the demands of their households as well as those of their employers, creating new needs which face sometimes conflicting sets of stratified commitments. Similarly, when consumers cannot synchronize their institutional and market schedules because of priorities assigned by work, new retail modifications, such as home shopping networks, can provide a way to achieve synchronization.


This paper presents a sociological time paradigm as a complement to the prevailing microeconomic/fixed resource framework. It has been argued that the latter paradigm is limited in its ability to integrate the experiential, subjective, or perceptual natures of time phenomena into consumer research. As a result, it is likely that current measures and models of time use are largely dominated by the assumptions of linear, separable, monochronic time.

Instead, the Lewis and Weigert framework provides additional tools for theory development in this area. In particular, the matching of individual consumer time with the interaction time of households and retailers provides a broader context which can accommodate the time tradeoffs (stratification) and schedule synchronization which occur. In addition, institutional time and cyclic time place additional constraints on the consumer's actual choices in using time, taking into account the notion of time embeddedness. The authors recognize that while these links with consumer research are preliminary in nature, the proposed "time vocabulary" can provide a basis for incorporating additional dimensions of time use into existing models, and form a broader foundation for further theory development.


Several implications can be drawn from this chronosophical review and evaluation of the sociological paradigm. In applying the proposed framework, exchange theory can be extended to examine the retail interaction time spent in search, evaluation, and purchase activities. Moreover, the retail perspective can also help to identify mismatches of time processes: for example, consumers may spend time waiting for a repairman or in a physician's office for an appointment. That is, the lack of synchronization and stratification of social timetables can be investigated as a possible cause of consumer dissatisfaction. In addition, cyclic time appears to form part of the rationale behind some of the ritualistic behavior exhibited by consumers. Weekly shopping, holiday gift-giving, and seasonal "white" sales follow the consumer's apparent response to repetitive cycles held in regard by the larger society in which the individual resides, or is "temporally-embedded."

Perhaps a more far-reaching implication is the further consideration of other disciplines in developing a theory of time. The studies reviewed in this paper strongly support the notion that time is multidimensional, and that those dimensions are often the specific focus within a given discipline. For instance, a three-dimensional approach might involve a processing dimension, an activity dimension, and a level of involvement dimension (Lane and Kaufman 1989). Individuals would vary based on their use of linear, circular, or procedural processing; their capabilities for monochronic or polychronic activities; and their level of cognitive effort as they use time. It is possible that these dimensions can account for some of the variability in consumers' use of time.

Alternative frameworks, like the one reviewed here, are likely to suggest additional dimensions of time. For instance, time is culture-bound; disciplines in the laboratory sciences, such as physics and biology, may provide further insight into time dimensions since they are not as strongly-tied to cultural bias as fields such as sociology. Disciplines which look across cultures, such as art, music, and biology, may also uncover additional dimensions, which transcend cultural boundaries.


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