Time and Temporalities in the Anthropological Record


Mar 24 - Apr 1, 2000

Organized by

Andre Gingrich and Elinor Ochs


Hotel Bon Sol, Illetas (Palma), Mallorca


Special Issue Repertoires of Timekeeping in Anthropology, Current Anthropology, Vol. 43, S4, August/October 2002.


  • Barbara Bender University College, London, UK
  • Ruth Berman Tel Aviv University, Israel
  • Caroline Brettell Southern Methodist University, USA
  • Richard Fox Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA
  • Andre Gingrich University of Vienna, Austria
  • Charles Goodwin University of California, Los Angeles, USA
  • Mark Leone University of Maryland, USA
  • Shirley Lindenbaum City University of New York, Graduate Center, USA
  • Mary Pavelka University of Calgary, Canada
  • Richard Meindl Kent State University, USA
  • Elinor Ochs University of California - Los Angeles, USA
  • Mary Orgel University of Massachusetts, USA
  • Robert Paynter University of Massachusetts, USA
  • Charles Ramble Université de Paris X, France
  • John Rashford College of Charleston, South Carolina
  • Bambi Schieffelin New York University, USA
  • Sydel Silverman Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA
  • Alan Swedlund University of Massachusetts, USA

ORGANIZER’S STATEMENT: A conference on “Time and Temporalities in the Anthropological Record” took place in Mallorca, Spain, from March 24 to April 1, 2000, as reckoned by the Gregorian calendar and through American recording conventions.

The conference probed the concept of ´record´ through an examination of culturally and professionally diverse modalities for temporally situating events. Modalities for recording include, but are not limited to, oral, visual, written, musical, material, and somatic forms.  Moreover, they extend beyond institutional documents to informal, local, and individual repositories of time. As such, conference participants were encouraged to explore the concept of ´record´ beyond the conventional definitions, such as “an account made in an enduring form, especially in writing, that preserves the knowledge or memory of events or facts” (American Heritage dictionary of the English Language).  Although any form of record allegedly is only a construction of the past, participants considered how it simultaneously informs present and future realities. Central to the interest of this conference was the notion that forms of recording are situated and vary, within and across societies in time and space.  Records therefore are both informed by and inform their socio-historical contexts.

For the purpose of the conference, the concept of time was juxtaposed with that of temporality in such a way that time can be used in the sense of modern physics, as a processual quality of the material world, whereas temporality designates how beings experience such processual qualities, e.g. through memory or anticipation. These introductory suggestions encouraged participants to move beyond the simplistic dichotomies of subjectivism and objectivism, without attempting to create a unified epistemological stance among conference participants.

Rather than being a “state of the art” summation of a well researched anthropological topic, a central goal of the conference was to bring into dialogue for the first time perspectives on recording evolutionary, historical, life span, and interactive time and temporality across the fields that constitute the discipline. The recording of time and temporality has been a pervasive but relatively invisible concern within anthropology. The conference was instigated to bring the reckoning of time and temporality to the foreground. Organizers considered this conference to be particularly important at a time when biological, archaeological, sociocultural, and linguistic anthropologists find it increasingly difficult to find intellectual venues for dialogue. Specific to the theme at hand, a central orientation of biological anthropologists is the evolutionary perspective, while archaeologists primarily attend to history, linguistic anthropologists to ongoing social interaction, and sociocultural anthropologists to the organization of mental and social lifeworlds. During the conference, we were able to enhance cross-cutting domains of scholarly communication that breach these apparent barriers. Participating scholars explored commonalities and divergences in recording and conceptualizing events, conditions, processes in and across different scales of time by addressing such questions as “What gets recorded” “How” “To what end” “In what context” “With what consequences.” For example, how are concepts such as sequence, gap, and turning point relevant to the reckoning of phenomena across momentary and epic ranges of time? What is the role of place, space, territory, or landscape in remembering and anticipating events? How is the present used as an orientation for recording temporality?

In order to pursue these and related questions, conference participants were asked to submit written papers that were distributed to all participants before arrival. During the conference itself, however, participants did not formally present their papers, but rather were directed to address a range of topics that followed a specific format oriented to fostering dialogue. In each session, three to four participants commented on a designated topic from their respective research orientation, followed by two discussants who identified common themes in the papers and raised issues for a broader discussion. After the organizers introduced this format, rationale, and aspirations of the conference on day 1, day 2 was devoted to exploring the temporal scope of records. On the morning of day 3, we explored the multiplicity of recording devices available to networks of actors. The afternoon was dedicated to the selection, omission, bounding, and order of events across time. Following a break on day 4, we focused on the recording of significant turning points that mark shifts in the direction of processes. In the afternoon, we raised the issue of records as legitimizing power and consequently, of power over records. Day 6 and 7 were devoted to revisiting our discussions of records, and reflecting on our conference contributions in light of our evolving dialogues. These dialogues and debates included topics such as the technologies of recording, the materiality of records, records as data, the historical transformation of records, the political economy of preservation, erasure, denial and displacement, the contestation of temporalities, and the social organization of standardizing the future.

Of the many interesting discussions in these sessions, we highlight a few examples of recurrent themes: An emergent focus of analysis over the course of the conference was the coexistence of divergent modes for recording and conceptualizing temporalities. This condition holds for both professional groups as well as for other communities studied by researchers. Members of communities have repertoires of temporal markers (e.g. calendars, genealogies, chronologies that are historically and institutionally rooted, with different symbolic and moral meanings). In addition, one and the same temporal marker (e.g. Stonehenge) may be interpreted in widely divergent, and possibly conflicting ways within and across communities and groups. A recurrent focus was the power asymmetry among modes of reckoning dimensions of temporality, such as they become evident in missionizing processes in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, or in the interface between national, Buddhist, and local calendars in northern Nepal. In the context of biological anthropology, the recent case of the Kennewick man discovery made public asymmetries of time reckoning through Radiocarbon dating ascertained by geoscientists, as opposed to the differing reckoning of time by Native American communities from the region of discovery.

Another major focus of the conference was the intersections of time and space, as manifested through place, celestial constellations, or landscapes. As one discussion group noted, people´s “lives are always intimately engaged with their physical) and metaphysical worlds, and the variable temporalities of their life cycles and cycles of life they live within.” Across many languages and local groups, time is experienced as being rooted in space. For instance, it can be seen as being encapsulated in material objects within the landscape, or by moving through it. Complementarily, landscapes and other spatialities such as maps are given meaning by being connected to different temporal repertoires.

At the conclusion of the conference there was unaniminity among the participants that a great deal had been learned about alternative modes of recording time and of representing temporalities.  In the final session of the conference participants felt confidant enough to have a round table discussion in which all were invited to comment on each participant’s paper and to suggest revisions for an eventual volume.  This, also, proved very useful and will aid the organizers in pulling together the contributions and writing a lead chapter for a future volume on “Time and Temporality in the Anthropological Record.”

Wenner-Gren Symposium #126

Front: M. Orgel, C. Goodwin, R. Berman, A. Swedlund, E. Ochs, A. Gingrich, M. Pavelka, L. Obbink. Back: C. Ramble, S. Silverman, C. Brettell, M. Mahoney, R. Meindl, S. Lindenbaum, B. Bender, J. Rashford, M. Leone, B. Schieffelin, R. Fox, R. Paynter.