Watching Time in Brazil

Many people regard time as a commodity.  Thus, time is measured, bought, sold, lost and made up.  A labor economy is based upon companies and organizations hiring people who spend their time to manufacture products and to provide services.  In return, the people rent out their time for wages and other forms of compensation.  One might go to work at a McDonalds and work a fixed number of hours for the minimal McWage, and at the end of the shift, one is free to spend the money on one's free time.  This is a straightforward transaction between willing parties, and is the basis of capitalist labor.

But the situation is not always clear-cut  For example, consider the case of overtime work in which one has to work longer than the scheduled shift.  Under certain circumstances --- such as the existence of union rules, or short supply of specialized skills --- one might be able to refuse the assignment or to demand overtime pay.  Under other circumstances --- such as an oversupply of labor --- one might not be paid at all, as the employer would indicate that there will be plenty of others who ready to take that job position.  And then there are those who are not compensated because they are in the class of professionals and managers who are expected to complete their work no matter what.  The implication of these exceptions is that the actual costs may be different from the nominal wages, but this does not change the premise of time as commodity.

As a commodity, time must be measured quantitatively.  The human biological clock is determined by the diurnal cycle between day and night.  An arbitrary convention was adopted whereby every day was divided into twenty-four hours, with each hour being further sub-divided into the minutes and then seconds.  This system of time-keeping is standardized worldwide.  We can then speak of hourly wages as the amount of payment for one hour's worth of labor, and also about scheduled work shifts such as the 9am-to-5pm office hours.

How do people know what time it is?  People use time-pieces or watches.  At first, time-pieces were extremely expensive and somewhat inaccurate mechanical devices that are built by precision craftsmen.  Today, watches are mass-manufactured commodities that can come very cheaply, with the battery-operated LCDs being as cheap as just a few dollars.  

Beyond keeping time to for business reasons, there are also personal and social purposes.  In this regard, though, there is the myth of Latin American disregard for punctuality.  We quote from Priscilla Ann Goslin's How To Be A Carioca: The Alternative Guide for the Tourist in Rio:

There is British time, American time, German time, Japanese time and Brazilian time (among others).  And then there is Carioca time.

Try to follow a tight schedule or set important deadlines while in Rio, and you will soon discover that you're a candidate for an ulcer.  Whether you've set up a business meeting, a dinner for six, a party for thirty, or simply a visit from the plumber to fix your kitchen sink, you will quickly realize that punctuality is not very high on the Carioca's totem pole.  In fact, unless being late would result in dire circumstances (such as missed flights), the true Carioca will simply ignore any predetermined schedule and will arrive for a meeting or an engagement at his own convenience.

Show up on time for a Carioca cocktail or dinner party and you will find yourself talking to the wall or spending an hour or so making small talk with an embarrassed hostess.  And in this case, you can be sure your hostess' embarrassment was not caused by the tardiness of her other guests; she was simply not expecting your punctuality!

To avoid this sort of faux pas the next time you arrive on time for a Carioca "dinner-at-nine" party, instead of standing around alone examining the art in your host's living room, simply slip out the back door, and go (why not?) to a movie.  That will give you at least a two hour delay --- sufficient time to get you back to the party for you new entrance at eleven o'clock, and right on time with the other guests.  And don't forget to pass by the nearest boteco for a few coxinhas or portions of batata frita after the movie to hold you over until dinner, which will be served punctually late.

The obsessions in some cultures about the precise measurement of time and matters of punctuality are socio-cultural habits.  For example, in the language of the Sioux Indians, there are no words for time, late or waiting.  We quote from Michael H. Flaherty's A Watched Pot: How We Experience Time?

 On its most basic level, then, temporality is an aspect of subjectivity.  This perspective is in keeping with Henri Bergson's contention that "time is at first identical with the continuity of our inner life."  To be human is to be self-conscious, and therein lies the primordial feeling of duration.  Put differently, human beings are aware of their own endurance, and this reflexivity gives human existence an intrinsically temporal character.  If, however, temporality is a facet of subjectivity, then it follows that one's sense of duration is shaped from the very outset by society because self-consciousness is generated through socialization.

It was, of course, Emile Durkheim who recognized that the individual's temporal experience is conditioned by the collective rhythms of society.  Given his functional orientation, he emphasized that a working consensus on temporality is requisite for the maintenance of social order because consensus is constitutive of intersubjectivity and interpersonal coordination.  Indeed, his macrosociological outlook is explicitly where he concludes "that a common time is agreed upon, which everybody conceives in the same fashion."  Here, Durkheim let the matter rest, but two important qualifications must be noted.

First, socialization notwithstanding, human beings still experience duration in a seemingly idiosyncratic manner.  A minute may be a minute, but is there anyone who has not had the sensation that time has passed quickly or slowly?  Clocks and calendars represent cultural unanimity, and they have made for some standardization of temporality.  Near the turn of the century, for example, Georg Simmel asserted that metropolitan "precision has been brought about through the general diffusion of pocket watches."  Nonetheless, standardization and socialization did not prevent individuals from intermittently experiencing personal disjuncture with the time of clocks and calendars.  One could argue, in fact, that the experience of personal disjuncture is made more visible by viewing it against the backdrop of temporal orthodoxy.

Second, social reality is not the monolithic entity that Durkheim makes it out to be.  It his seminal essay, "The Perception of Reality," William James describes several "worlds" or "sub-universes" of social reality.  He observes that the world of science is not the same as the world of religion, and the world of religion is not the same as the world of common sense.  This way of thinking especially influenced the work of Alfred Schutz, whose essay, "On Multiple Realities," picks up where the writings of James leave off.  For Schutz, social reality is partitioned into "finite provinces of meaning," each of which is characterized by "a specific time-perspective."  For instance, divergent forms of temporal experience help to distinguish dreams from the wide-awake world of everyday life.  In turn, Erving Goffman was influenced by both James and Schutz when he wrote: Frame Analysis: An Essay On The Organization of Experience.  Goffman argues that one does not know how to act until one has defined, or "framed," the situation at hand.  By classifying situations in this fashion, human beings define a multiplicity of realities, each of which is invested with its own kind of meaning --- such a trial, versus a mock trial in law school, versus the cinematic portrayal of a mock trial in law school.

For a modern industrialized nation, the measurement and management of time are undoubtedly important for the performance of the nation.  We will now cite some survey data from the 2002 TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 5,312 Brazilians between the ages of 12 to 64 years old interviewed during the first half of 2002.  During the survey, the respondents are asked if they have purchased any watches during the past 12 months.  Overall, 39.1% of the people said that they did so.  The next chart shows the breakdown by age/sex and socio-economic level.  Generally speaking, women are more likely to buy watches than men and younger people are more likely to buy watches.  There do not appear to be large differences by socio-economic level.

 Watches serve functional purposes.  But because watches are often worn on wrists and are visible, watches can also serve ornamental and decorative purposes just like jewelry.  If watches were purely functional (for example, as in the case of batteries), they would be a commodity that is manufactured and sold as cheaply as possible.  But if watches are also ornamental, there are now vast differences in quality and prices.  A gold watch or a diamond watch may costs tens of thousands of dollars as they are obviously indicators of conspicuous consumption.  Special watches have the functionalities of calculators and heart rate monitors and can also perform under extreme physical conditions (e.g. 100 feet under water).  

Within the TGI Brasil study, the watch-buyers were further asked to describe the value of the last watch purchased.  Of these people, 18.9% said that their last purchased watch was worth more than US$50.  In the next chart, we show the breakdown by age/sex and socio-economic level.  Compared to the profiles of the general watch buyer, there has been a dramatic shift.  Most importantly, due to the high price tag, there are now sharp differences by socio-economic level.  Among the age/sex group, the incidence is markedly higher among men 20-24, which is the group just entering into the workforce.  These results support the idea that the watch market is heavily segmented by price and needs.

 (posted by Roland Soong, 8/25/2002)

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