I just don't have time

April 28, 2000

Have you missed a conference call? Don't worry, here are the highlights of the recent get-togethers of sociologists, art historians and political scientists.

I once went to visit a physicist in his country cottage in Oxfordshire, and he spent three hours persuading me, with the aid of several cardboard triangles, that there is no such thing as time.

This may come as a shock to the British Sociological Association, whose annual conference last week was devoted to "Making Time/Marking Time". The organisers of this year's conference chose the theme because it is millennium year.

But what does it mean to have such a broad theme? At one level it can seem like an organising principle to avoid a random set of papers being presented, although a look through the abstracts reveals a breadth of topics that falls short of a coherent whole:from The Lunch Hour to Israeli Communities on the Golan Heights under Threat of Relocation.

At another level, constraining contributions by setting such a theme shows how aspects of our lives are intimately connected with the perception of time as a concept. A couple of sub-themes that emerged at the conference hammered the point home. "Family time" raised issues of gender and parent/child relationships. "Work time" led to a series of papers about flexi-time, which nations work longest and what people do in their lunch hours.

Colette Fagan, in Who Works Long Hours and Why?, argued that the pace of life, in both work and leisure, accelerated in market-based societies in the late 20th century. "Notions of 'wasting time', 'making time', 'time is money', 'quality time', 'time management' and the need 'to get on' pepper everyday language," she writes. "However, the time pressures that women and men face are structured by the societal context. Economic conditions, state policies and other social institutions affect the type of working-time arrangements which employers offer."

In an analysis of working hours across Europe, Fagan shows how that societal context leaves British workers working longer than anyone else - for reasons that have more to do with culture than with economics.

Jonathan Gershuny's Service Regimes and the New Political Economy of Time was a sophisticated look at time's role in our lives and an attempt to link time in paid work and time outside it to those two sides of the coin of life - production and consumption.

"Time is at the heart of many of the problems facing modern economies," Gershuny writes. "There is a growing class-type polarisation between the work-rich, time-poor and those with plenty of time but no money since they have no jobs. There is also the gender issue of the 'time bind' that women in particular find themselves tied into; women in good jobs may still be left with a second job at home, caring for young or old people, with not enough time to do both. And anyway, in the age of e-commerce and the worldwide web, what does work consist of? What sort of consumption do we find in a successful service economy?" These questions are grand ones and require a grand analytical approach, which Gershuny supplies. But what are we to make of a paper such as Blasts from the Past: Children's and Mothers' Perspectives on the Gendering of Middle-Class Work/Family Arrangements? Gershuny it is not, although the authors have been just as thorough in their methodology. But the questions they ask seem less interesting and the answers more predictable.

In discussing children's perceptions of their parents' roles in the home, the children report that mothers do more housework than fathers and fathers do more DIY than mothers. The researchers seem surprised that the middle-class family structures in the community they studied mimicked the nuclear family norm of the 1950s.

The question of gender was a thread running through the conference with several papers presenting statistics about the continuing imbalance between men and women - in pay, housework, status, even pension entitlement. But perhaps the most fruitful area explored was the blurred border between paid and unpaid time. This issue affects many working people, who feel they never switch off, but it seems particularly acute for academics, according to Rosemary Deem (see box, left).

She addresses the dilemmas facing academics who reach mid-career and have the opportunity to take on management tasks, as heads of department, deans or pro vice-chancellors. Based on a series of interviews across a range of universities and disciplines, she shows how difficult it is for individuals to combine the tasks, and yet how difficult it often is to refuse the promotion.

Perhaps the reason we should be grateful for the kind of research that underlies this year's conference is that the best of theoretical ideas and the data that support them will eventually feed their way into government departments so that political decisions can be based on evidence rather than hunches. But, to coin a phrase, it will take time.

CAUGHT IN A TIME TRAP

Academics who take on management roles as department heads, deans or pro vice-chancellors face a time-management dilemma, according to research by Rosemary Deem of Lancaster University.

Whereas in the past a head of department might have been able to run things by using his or her normal communications skills, intelligence and common sense, the introduction into universities of management practices derived from the public sector places different emphases on the use of time. Academics have no regular hours and, according to Deem's research, they find it difficult to fence off the time that is left over once paid work and other commitments have been completed.

"Senior manager-academic careers," Deem says, "require considerable individual self-management in a way perhaps not anticipated when entering academe."

Quotes from nearly 80 interviews with senior manager-academics show clearly the strains that are produced by the problems of time management, as well as the difficulty of resisting "the call" to accept a deanship or similar role.

* "I arrived at a stage in my career when I couldn't bear the thought of anybody else managing me. And that persuaded me that I'd better do it myself."

* "There's a culture of working too long and that if you're not sending emails at four in the morning, then are you a serious participant in your institution?"

* "The university has me 100 per cent - lock, stock and barrel - from 5.15 on Monday morning to about half past eight on Friday night, and I don't really switch off when I go home."

Karl Sabbagh

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