The Times are Out of Joint: Chrononormativity and the normal age of learning

The word ‘chrononormativity’ refers to the way in which our experiences follow patterns over time in conformity with normative frameworks. Some of these patterns are pretty obvious: for example, there are age-defined periods of compulsory education, and the right to vote or marry, as well as responsibility for one’s own crimes, are defined by age. So, if it is that obvious, why bother to call it ‘chrononormativity’?

Apprentices at Hornsey Rail Depot, by Lynne Featherstone

I’ve been thinking about this question since reading a new paper on older workers in the apprenticeship system. It’s a great paper which uses the idea of chrononormativity to show how oft-unexamined assumptions about age shape the everyday experiences and understandings of older workers, their trainers, and their managers, in ways that are not always helpful for the intended goals of the training programme.
The authors conclude that the concept of chrononromativity helped reveal the complex ways in which the age-training relationship works out, with older apprentices having to take the initiative in disrupting normalising assumptions, in order to negotiate relationships with (younger) peers and trainers. This is a familiar idea to those who have studied the lives of mature students in higher education, or in other age-bound educational settings such as schools. But if the idea is familiar, the word itself is relatively new.
The authors of the paper on older apprentices acknowledge its origins in queer theory, where Elizabeth Freeman used it in a 2010 book to explore the noncontinuously gendered life narratives of transsexuals. For Freeman, though, the term also has a wider relevance: people are controlled through the regulation of time. She defines chrononormativity as ‘the use of time to organize human bodies toward maximum productivity’. More broadly, ‘chronobiopolitics’ underpins various forms of social solidarity: ‘people are bound to one another, engrouped, made to feel coherently collective, through particular orchestrations of time’.
And this is where I think the concept might be helpful in understanding adult learning. It doesn’t point to anything particularly novel, as we have known for many years that most people see learning in adult life as a deviation from the norm: that is why advocates constantly remind people that learning isn’t just for the young. But it does draw attention to the way that our ideas of the ‘normal right time’ for things is patterned, and is tied in to other socio-cultural (and economic) patterns.
Less attractive, to me at any rate, is the way that Freeman uses the passive voice to describe chrononormativity and its effects. She talks about the way in which ‘people are made to feel’ something – and thus rules out the idea of anyone actually doing the making. The talks about ‘the use of time’ to enforce productivity – and not about who is doing the using, and in whose interests. This is also connected, I believe, to a tendency to ignore or underplay the agency of those involved – yet plenty of people do kick against the constraints of chrononormativity, adult learners included.
Stripped of these limitations, I see this idea as potentially relevant for our understanding of what it means to be ‘learning out of joint with the times’. When three of us wrote a paper drawing on our study of learning biographies, we found it useful to distinguish three representations in people’s accounts of time: chronological time, narrative time, and generational time.
I can see with hindsight that, athough the idea of chrononormativity was present in some of what we were saying, an explicit focus on the norms and practices associated with the concept might have sharpened our discussion of all three representations. Or perhaps it would have annoyed readers without adding anything new.
Potentially, I think the concept is worth exploring as we try to understand people’s experiences of learning ‘out of joint’, as well as improving the ways in which learning and its provision are managed. Whether it brings any novel insights, or simply underlines and helps clarify what we already know, remains to be seen.

Using ‘neutral’ language to report interviews – a case of symbolic violence?

It is interesting how an informal chat over coffee can really get you thinking. I’ve just been discussing shared research concerns with a visiting colleague from Australia, who has been developing some innovative approaches to recording and analysing life histories. Somehow we turned to the question of language, and how people’s spoken words are changed through the processes of transcription and publication.

During a recent large scale life history study, I was struck by the number of participants who responded to their transcripts with horror. What they said was that they didn’t ‘realise I spoke like that’. What did they mean? The most common answer was that they sounded ‘uneducated’, and this was because the transcriber had done her best to reproduce their words as spoken, dialect and all. We offered all participants the right to correct the transcript, but they didn’t use it. Clearly, though, some were responding to the written record with shame – and this was something we hadn’t anticipated.

The decision to include hesitations, slang, swearwords and dialect also crops up when you try to publish your results. I have yet to get a paper accepted that includes the words and sentences that the research participants actually used. Invariably, referees insist that direct quotations are turned into what we usually think of as standard English. Some referees get quite indignant about the use of dialect (‘How can I be expected to understand this stuff?’ was one comment), while others gently remind you of the journal’s international readership. So the quotations are duly turned into standard English.

This is a difficult area, and there isn’t a simple solution. But I think we are committing a kind of ‘symbolic violence’ against people who give us their time and their narratives, but do not speak a socially approved version of our language. And we are also losing sight of an important body of evidence, because language never is truly neutral.

The way people express themselves is bound up with their identity and it provides a series of cues about them. And this is true for all sorts of people, including the advantaged. One woman, who ran camps for the wives of unemployed miners in County Durham during the 1930s, provides a good case in point. She came from a highly privileged background, and she spoke in a very precise, grammatical and clipped manner. By standardising all the direct testimony of my participants, I was suppressing the particularities of her speech, along with important cues about her social status and her sense of who she is.

In summary, we are imposing an invisible standard – or rather, an unheard standard – as the norm. The non-normative are not just stigmatised but written out of sight, and out of hearing as well.