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Alfred Schutz, time, social relationships and media

Back in 2011, my then-Honours supervisor warned me about getting too enamoured of some newly discovered theory or theorist that seemed to provide vital insight into whatever it is that you were working on. The rookie mistake that it was easy to make was to get caught up in the apparent novelty of the new discovery, at the expense of evaluating its genuine usefulness for your own project. Your entire, carefully elaborated trail of previous research and writing then runs the risk of getting derailed as you try to jam it all into the new paradigm, without taking the time to check if it really is a good fit. It worries me a little as to whether I might be falling into that trap with the works of Alfred Schutz.

After I’ve done much reading in areas that tend towards a realist, or at the very least, a-subjective perspective on reality (structuration theory, actor-network theory, the philosophy of object-oriented ontology), Schutz’s work is quite a break from that tradition. The reason it seems to provide “vital insight” into my interest in time and media is that Schutz’s analysis is very, very sensitive to how time is subjectively experienced. For Schutz, consciousness begins with the subjective experience of the passage of time.

A powerful undercurrent of thinking about time and consciousness in the early 20th century (when Schutz was writing) was the concept of stream of consciousness. The idea was that time wasn’t subjectively experienced as discrete and divisible units, but as an interrupted flow: the perceived future traversed seamlessly into the perceived past through a phase transition that was never experienced as an identifiable “moment”, but only as an ever-ongoing, never directly perceivable process. Perceiving time as something that could be divided up into measurable and differentiable categories took a specific mental effort; it wasn’t the “natural” state of conscious experience.

Schutz took this idea and extended it from a theory of consciousness to a theory of social relationships. He did this by suggesting how two (or more) individuals’ streams of consciousness could conceivably be inter-related. The basis of all social relationships for Schutz was what he termed the “We-relationship”. This relationship could only exist when two people met and interacted face to face. In this situation, the streams of consciousness of each person would be indirectly visible (through their voluntary and involuntary actions). Moreover those streams of consciousness would be visible as streams of consciousness, and the two people in the relationship could, without special effort, perceive each other as progressing through time.

The aspect of this mutual orientation that made it an ongoing social relationship was that the progression through time that each person mutually observed would include the mutual awareness of and orientation to the fact that the other was perceiving the person. Each person would simultaneously perceive the other, act in a certain way as a consequence of this perception, perceive the other acting in a certain way because of how they perceived this consequent action, and so forth. Schutz referred to this multi-faceted mirroring of perception and action as “growing older together”.

For Schutz, all other forms of social relationships were derivative of the “We-relationship”, a relationship only possible through face to face interaction. He suggested a scale of relative social relationships where the strength of the relationship stemmed mainly from how frequently face to face interaction occurred, but also in part how closely more indirect forms of interaction resembled the face to face situation.

In the context of early 20th century society, this seems like quite a strong theory about the relationship between time, subjective consciousness and social relations. In the early 21st century, the theory is still quite intriguing, but I think it remains to be seen just how well the theory holds up when trying to describe social relationships as they are maintained (and to some degree created) via interpersonal media.

Schutz was aware of media, but he didn’t really systematically take account of it until very late in his work. Even then, precious little of his work was devoted to the way communication via interpersonal media might affect social relationships. This flaw in his work becomes quite noticeable in an era like the contemporary one, where tremendous varieties of interpersonal media proliferate, each with somewhat different ways of bridging the spatial and temporal gap between communicators.

How does one use Schutz terminology to describe the situation where a student just starting university examines the public Facebook profiles of their future fellow students, chats with some of them in person based on what they find, exchanges numbers with a few and then texts them on an intermittent basis in between classes? Must we treat the actual face to face interactions as the only time when the students are truly “growing older together”, solely because that is the only time that the students’ streams of consciousness are mutually perceivable as streams of consciousness? Or is there a qualitative, rather than merely quantitative, way of describing the differences in spatial and temporal organisation outside of the face to face situation? Should the face to face situation still even be the sole standard by which the nature of social relationships are judged?

These are the questions I get from reading Schutz. I do worry that some of the answers to them may be quite prosaic. Face to face interaction, for instance, still seems to be the “gold standard” of interaction among my peers in everyday life, even with the variety of alternative communication channels available. But the grounds upon which Schutz discussed social interaction as it occurs indirectly – including interaction among people who have previously met face to face but are currently separated in space – seems like it might be useful to consider, insofar as those grounds have shifted considerably. I guess we’ll see.