Its All About Time
Michael SpiveyUniversity of North Carolina At Pembroke
The Textures of Time: Agency and Temporal ExperienceBy Michael FlahertyPhiladelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2011$69.50 (cloth); $25.95 (paper); $25.95 (E-book); 192 pages
Michael Flahertys book reminds me of that classic analogy that I often use in myintroductory sociology classes concerning the fish in water, which demonstrates howhumans take their culture for granted. Flahertys study of how people manage andmanipulate time in their everyday lives jolts the reader into awareness of the hithertoinvisible processes, which he terms time work, through which we create time forour self-actualization. As Flaherty puts it: This book examines how people alteror customize various dimensions of their temporal experience and resist externalsources of temporal constraint of structure (p. 3).
While there have been many studies in the past concerning time as an objectivefeature of social organizations and social interaction, few, if any, have developeda grounded theory of time as a creative endeavor through which everyday peoplemap out a sense of self-determination. Utilizing a qualitative data set derived from406 semi-structured, open-ended interviews, Flaherty opens a new world before oureyes through the narratives of college students, but also a varied set of people fromall walks of lifefrom bartenders, bankers, to military personnel. With his expertability in weaving interview narratives and conceptual analysis, Flaherty guides thereader toward realizing the profound pervasiveness of temporal agency that we allengage in.
The book chapters are divided along the analytical categories that emerge fromFlahertys grounded analysis of his data set: Making time, Duration, Frequency,Timing, Allocation, and The Ironies of Temporal Agency. Taking a social phe-nomenology approach, Flaherty provides fresh insight into how individuals inmanifold social settings and situations willfully construct time in their pursuit ofself-actualization and determination. As he points out, most situations in whichpeople exercise their temporal agency are either problematic or require conformityto social norms. For example, through temporal manipulation, people develop their
Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 35, Issue 3, pp. 397398, ISSN: 0195-6086 print/1533-8665 online. 2012 Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction. All rights reserved.DOI: 10.1002/SYMB.18
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own strategies to either slow time down or speed time up. A student whorefrains from gazing at a clock in the classroom, for instance, seemingly expediteswhat he or she considers a dull lecture.
Theoretically, Flaherty revisits the ongoing structure/agency debate. He plainlystates that those who espouse a structural determinist position will readily dismisstemporal agency as being romantic and nave. In his last chapter on the ironiesof temporal agency, Flaherty provides a sophisticated theoretical examination ofthe ironic relationship between self-determination and structural determinism. Hecomes to the conclusion that, even if determining social factors shape temporalagency, the cause of ones behavior is filtered through the mediating effects ofself-concept. Time work is an application of this principle (p. 41). Throughout thestudy, Flaherty uses the concept, loop of causality, as a way to analytically providefor a more nuanced and less deterministic lens for examining social phenomenasuch as time work, and its relationship with determining social forces. He givesthe example of a male student who enjoys creative writing, but needs a creativeassignment from a class in order to have the opportunity and demand to write.In this case, the student takes extra creative writing courses that place a constrainton his time, thus providing him with a set of demands that compel his freely chosenwish to write. Flaherty clarifies: It is a loop of causality because, by taking thesecourses, he constructs a new set of environmental provocations that subsequentlyinfluence his own conduct (p. 40).
In the end, Flahertyarmed with the earlier insights of Schutz, Mead, Becker,Garfinkel, Goffman, and Marxprovides his own theoretically ironic tale of howeveryday actors engage in willful agency that ultimately reproduces the largerstructures of society. Flaherty effectively communicates his theoretical conceptsthrough a lucid and evocative writing style. Describing the myriad ways in whichagency and determinism become two sides of the same coin, Flaherty shows his knackfor turning a phrase: [Time work] is something akin to doing an improvisationaldance through the teeth of meshing gears (p. 63). Much like the lads in PaulWilliss (1981), Learning to Labor: How Working-Class Kids Get Working ClassJobs, Flahertys subjects, through their creative self-assertions, help reproduce thestructures that shape their lives.
Flahertys book is truly groundbreaking, and there are many insights to be gainedthat will spawn related areas of study. I have now developed several new researchideas since reading the book, and I am sure other readers will also delight informulating new research topics. In time, I believe that Flahertys book will surelybecome a sociological classic.
Willis, Paul. 1981. Learning to Labor: How Working-Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. NewYork: Columbia University Press.