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Zerubavel – 1987 – The Language of Time: Toward a Semiotics of Temporality

Summary: The paper explores how people use symbolic language to communicate about sociotemporality (the social contexts of how time is perceived, experienced and contextualized). Temporal semiotics are used to convey sociocultural meaning in either interpersonal (microsocial) and large social structural/systemic (marcosocial) relationships. Semiotic codes that represent symbolic, non-literal social communication about time/temporality is not an explicit skill to be learned but something seemingly intuitive to both speaker and listener. This is likely a factor in why it’s so hard to for people to talk in explicit terms about temporality. Semiotic signs, metaphors, metonyms and other figures of speech do a lot of heavy lifting to convey meaning beyond the literal definition of the words. Such that, to describe such an innate metacognitive process can be very challenging.

Synthesis: Lots to unpack here. How does semiotic communication get reflected in Reddy’s TRH or Mazmanian’s porous time concepts? How can you manage online social coordination of rhythms/horizons when there are no ready cues/signals to convey intent/commitment? Is there something unique in the way SBTF volunteers symbolically talk online via an asynchronous platform about Zerubavel’s time codes: duration, waiting, lead time, speed, frequency, timing, ever-available, firmness/finality, rigidity, sequence, and the manipulation of these temporal experiences?

Example: Could the multiple temporalities that symbolize importance account for a source of tension between always online volunteers and those who show up for random periods of time? Deployments have fixed time periods for data collection but no scheduling mechanisms for volunteers. Does this create a source of friction when there is no mechanism to signal social intent or meaning?

Foundational concepts in this study: Sociotemporality, semiotics, language of time

Agreement in related work: The paper is heavily influenced by Saussure’s concept of structuralist semiotics which describes the deeply intertwined ways that symbolic language is used, interpreted, contrasted, and contextualized by other signs within the system [pp. 347-348].

Contested areas: None noted.

Gaps/Limits in this study: One limitation is that the social and cultural perspectives that inform Zerubavel’s theory building about temporal semiotics are distinctly Western in nature. Another constraint in this paper — at least with respect to my research that I need to dig into — is whether these observations hold true for online relationships. Is there more contemporary work that examines whether spatial or personally-situated symbols/cues are necessary for communicating between widely distributed people (languages, cultures, time zones, temporal philosophies/practices) who are not physically co-located and that could augment the findings here?

Connections to my work: time + temporality, qualitative time representations, sociotemporality, temporal theory, language of time

Annotated paper:

Zerubavel – 1987 – The Language of Time – Toward a Semiotics of Temporality

Published inannotationstemporality