Technologies of Time – an interdisciplinary PhD workshop


The IT University of Copenhagen

Rued Langgaards Vej 7

Thursday October 2, 1:30-2:30. Aud 4.

Field-times and life-times: Comparing technologies of time in behavioural ecology and social anthropology

Matei Candea, University of Cambridge

This paper takes as its ethnographic object some of the different temporal technologies which enable behavioural ecologists to answer questions cast in terms of evolutionary time through an engagement with animals on much more restricted temporal scales. These include long-term field studies of known individual animals, cross-species comparisons, and field experiments. Tracing these different (and sometimes conflicting) temporal technologies provides food for reflexive evaluation of temporal technologies of anthropological knowledge-making.

Thursday October 2, 4:05-5:05. Aud 4.

Working from the Past: towards an understanding of the temporal technologies of heritage practice.

Tom Yarrow, Durham University

Heritage conservation entails a temporal paradox which is routinely encountered in practice as a material set of problems. Conservation practitioners emphasize the importance of the materials they conserve as embodiments of the past, but recognise that these materials exist in the present where they are subject to various threats. Since these materials decay and change, keeping them ‘as they are’ involves unremitting decisions about whether or how to intervene. Since the 1980s, a burgeoning critical literature has sought to highlight the temporal contradictions of this endeavour, and has pointed in various ways to the construction of heritage pasts as artefacts of present practises and concerns. Building on recent anthropological work, this paper urges an approach that resists a theoretical critique of modern time, in order to better apprehend how these temporal paradoxes are encountered and worked through as a series of situated practices. The paper draws on ethnographic research with heritage practitioners at Historic Scotland, the national conservation agency, tracing how their own commitments to the past configure various efforts to conserve it. While underpinned by a broader set of conservation policies and philosophies, the paper highlights how different expert practitioners understandings about time are embedded in specific expert visions, that sustain and depend on particular material practices and technologies.

Friday October 3, 9:00-10:00. Aud 4.

Matter and memory

Laurent Olivier, Musee Archaeologie Nationale, Paris

As archaeologists, we traditionally tend to consider that time is not a questionable concept: we only have problems with chronology. And for many young scholars, time, being obvious, makes the discussion of chronological processes in archaeology boring and unattractive. But time – together with space – cannot be taken for granted: this is our conventional view of past and processes in archaeology that doesn’t grasp, in fact, what is the intrinsic nature of time and duration. We are not talking here about conventional Time, that is to say the sequential time of History, which is based on events. No, here we are confronted to a very peculiar time, which is the specific time of archaeology: the Time of matter, the time of material things. Here, time is basically multi-temporal, since all duration of the past are coexisting in what we call the present, in the sense of what is actually there: this peculiar nature of time means that processes are fundamentally related to specific scales and that information is transformed from one scale to another. Second, the reconstruction of the Past is dominated by an uncertainty principle, since it is impossible to know simultaneously the position of any moment of the past in time and its speed; that is to say its dating and its relative location within a historical or an archaeological process: seen from the present, the past is fundamentally probabilistic. Finally, the Past, being a duration of the present cannot really be separated from it: we discover the past and we create it at the same time.

Friday October 3, 1:15-2:15. Room 2A12.

The allure of reversible time

Carol Greenhouse, Princeton University

Linear time exerts a heavy editing effect on the organization and representation of social life through its pervasive officialization and bureaucratization – a situation that invites consideration of co-evality and temporal pluralities as openings to cultural and political critique. Such openings have been generative for anthropological ethnographers, yielding critical engagements with the interpretive conventions associated with linear time (e.g., in different eras: “primitive society”, “modernity”) yet, as Fabian has observed, in sometimes contradictory ways.  Anthropology continues to grapple with the critical implications of co-evality and relativity (currently in relation to the ontological turn) – challenging the hegemony of linear time yet without going so far as to challenge the idea of linear time itself. But acknowledging co-evality and the diversity of agencies in temporality compels us to do just that. In the spirit of a critical thought experiment, I approach that challenge through reversible time – by which I refer not to fantasies of time travel or re-scrolling the course of events, but to physical effects (in electromagnetic fields, computation, and nano-technology, for example) that complicate linear time from within, so to speak: confounding the distinction between time and space, the directionality of time, the scalar continuity of space, the sensory registers of time.  Thinking about linear time from the vantage points of its reversibility makes room for renewability – introducing questions of the potentiating conditions of duration and sustainability as integral to an ethnographically informed/informing critical understanding of time. In my remarks, as I develop these issues, I draw them back to social scenarios to suggest what might be at stake in the difference between linearity and sustainability as technologies of time.

PhD workshop at the ITU

Background description:

Research in the humanities and social sciences depend increasingly on digital technologies. Such technologies affect how research is conducted and the knowledge that it produces, not least in terms of time. This workshop provides an opportunity to discuss ‘technologies of time’ in human and social scientific research practices with special attention to the engagement in fieldwork and similar kinds of empirical studies. This workshop is aimed at PhD students in a broad variety of disciplines, such as anthropology, archaeology, ethnology, history, science and technology (STS) and other related disciplines. The workshop invites papers dealing with the intersection of ‘time work’ and research, and not the least how specific (new) forms of technology reconfigure the temporality of the relation between researcher and object in a field of study.

Conventionally, different disciplines have been characterized by alternating empirical frameworks and methods. For example, archaeology has been associated with the study of material culture in the past; anthropology has been synonymous with studying social relations in the contemporary world, while STS has focused on the social and technological as intertwined and co-produced. At least two crucial aspects of these disciplines’ methods of inquiry surface, when considering the relationship between technology and time.

Firstly, fieldwork is a primary mode of research practice, and the intensity, span and nature of fieldwork as highly important. Secondly, such a research practice involves specific temporalities and, in turn, affects the researchers’ relationship to the object of study.

This workshop aims at discussing these aspects and how they are interrelated. We are particularly interested in how they emerge in the context of different technologies, for instance those currently inspiring new research practices in archaeology, anthropology and STS. The workshop therefore invites PhD students engaged in empirical, ethnographic, historical or archaeological research to offer their reflections on time and temporality including the relationship between these themes, their research field and the object of study. The aim is to explore what dynamics emerge when disciplines meet in this perspective, and to strengthen the methodological and theoretical underpinnings of the participants’ research projects.

The topic includes two broad themes.

1) Contemporary demands on universities go towards cross- or interdisciplinary forms of research and comparison, and the comparison of research methods and objects may prove to engender fruitful debate (Candea 2013). Likewise, new digital technologies increasingly facilitate all kinds of research, but are the demands to technology comparable? And are the objects of study changing accordingly, and to what extent?

2) Apart from simply being located in time (i.e. given historical periods or epochs), research relies on methodological, analytical as well as theoretical endeavours on working with time, and field-sites can be said to involve temporalities and presence in time as much as in space (Dalsgaard and Nielsen 2013).

The construction of the anthropological Other has long been acknowledged as based as much on temporal as spatial distance (Fabian 1983), even if the ramifications of this insight have hardly been explored to the extent that it deserves. One topic in this regard would be the implications of doing ethnographic research via internet technologies that allows instant updating and connectivity, and how the technologies conversely affect research by fostering demands for faster, more ‘relevant’ and up to date results that are aligned to contemporary affairs (e.g. Marcus 2013).

It is obvious that archaeology deals with material objects stemming from specific times (periods), but also in practice must handle how such objects are exposed to time and changing times in terms of conceptualisation, in the combination of artefacts from different times (Olivier 1999), and concretely in decay of the material. It is important to take into account how constructing the archaeological ‘Other’ relies on different technological developments in how to establish chronologies, making inferences about periods, and how to treat and thus preserve objects in ways that ‘take them out’ of time (which temporarily arrests decay). How, for instance, does the archaeological obsession with chronology and conservation affect notions of time in the past?

To STS the obviously very intimate relation between how we think about time and the pervasiveness of technologies of times such as clocks and calendars calls for reflection and discussion no less in the light of digitalization.

Acknowledging that anthropology, archaeology and STS work with time to construct their objects and Others, the question nonetheless remains whether this diversity of temporalities that inform their respective research practices can be analysed in unison or comparison. Do the temporal research practices have anything in common across disciplines? And is it possible to generalize the role of time and temporality in field-based research by comparing the social and technological practices across disciplines?

For more information contact Steffen Dalsgaard (

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