A Day at a Time: A research agenda to grasp the everyday experience of time in the COVID-19 pandemic

A Day at a Time: A research agenda to grasp the everyday experience of time in the COVID-19 pandemic

Simon Bailey, Michelle Bastian, Rebecca Coleman, Emily Grabham, Dawn Lyon & Dean Pierides

COVID-19 has changed time as we know it, in ways that are both prosaic and extraordinary. During the period of national lockdown in the UK, rapidly reassembled household schedules, days that seemed to bleed into each other, supermarket shopping slots and Claps for Carers produced a new sense of time, reconfiguring previous daily and weekly rhythms.

Some people’s lives were slowed or suspended in time as they waited for care, food or the days to pass. Some experienced collapsed social boundaries – and fresh and troubling synchronies – as domestic rhythms registered new entanglements of care, work, communication and conflict. For many, temporal demarcations between paid and unpaid work, and the schedules of children and adults, have been fundamentally rearranged. For those now recognised as ‘key workers’, everyday routines have accelerated and intensified, often to a frenzied pace. Furthermore, estimates of the speed of the spread of the virus and legal and political strategies of containment and delay informed new spatial and temporal regulations and experiences in everyday life. Time was and is central to the unfolding of the pandemic.

As lockdown is (at the time of writing in September 2020) currently easing in some parts of the UK and being stepped up again in others, what the future ‘new normal’ will hold is the subject of much speculation and uncertainty. The temporal organisation and experience of everyday life and relationships have come into view for reflection, debate and the basis of new imagined futures. In informal exchanges, blogs, diaries, social media and journalism, people are grappling with what the temporal instability of the past months means for the present and the future.

As Michael J Flexer (2020) discusses, such radical disruption ‘demands swift accounts’ at the very moment that it is impossible to secure them. It is too soon to know whether the COVID-19 pandemic will come to be seen as an episode, event, shock, crisis, emergency, turning point, new epoch, ongoing experience of liminality – that sense of being ‘betwixt and between’ – all of these things or something else altogether. However, questions about what the time of the pandemic means in the present and for the future are important for us all in terms of identity, community, relationships, mental health and sense of purpose.

Drawing on a wide range of social science and humanities literature on the centrality of time and temporality in the social world, over the past few months we have come together to develop a research agenda that makes use of time as a crucial lens through which to understand and study the pandemic as it unfolds. This has led to a new collaboration between scholars at the Universities of Kent, Edinburgh, Goldsmiths, Stirling and the Mass Observation Archive to investigate the structure and experience of time in the pandemic.

Our project, A Day at a Time, starts from the recognition that research in social sciences and humanities is essential in these ‘crisis’ times to understand the recursive relationship between our sense and experience of time and the manner in which time constitutes our social worlds at different scales. Indeed, the indicative everyday examples of queuing, waiting, wondering and rushing demonstrate just how rapidly time can unravel and be reorganised. Far from a neutral or unproblematic backdrop then, time is key to how the pandemic has reconfigured everyday life, and in so doing has highlighted already existing differences and inequalities. We argue in this blog that thinking through the lens of time can help us to make sense of the experience of the pandemic; we consider how the pandemic itself may be generating new temporal relationships; and we explore how to research everyday practices and relationships to time during the pandemic.

How are people experiencing, making and remaking time?
Whilst research on time in the social sciences is vibrant and longstanding (see for instance the work of Barbara Adam, e.g. 1990), we contend that the time of the pandemic is new and requires further investigation. We therefore need data about how people are actively remaking their everyday routines in light of the changes they are experiencing through the imposition/lifting of lockdowns at the local and national level, social distancing, new work patterns, and illness and bereavement in households. It is important to grasp how people organise and operate in the present and seek to re-inscribe rhythm into the everyday (Lyon 2018) and how they collaborate in the making of new collective memories within ‘suspended’ or ‘extended’ presents’ (Nowotny 1994).

Within this we attend to the shifting relationships between time and value, i.e. whose time counts, and how temporal dynamics can perpetuate social differences and inequalities (Coleman 2016; Sharma 2014). In a context where the nature, scale and pace of change can render individuals passive and reactive, we are particularly interested in the different ways in which the future is being imagined and enacted and how what Ann Mische (2009) calls ‘projectivity’ or anticipation, might be used to cope with the pandemic. We explore the ‘reach’ of the future that is anticipated and the very measure of time that is deployed to make sense of the pandemic, shifting across hours, weeks, months and years.

What roles are infrastructures, material objects, technologies and regulations playing in people’s changing experiences of time during the pandemic?
There has been much discussion during the national lockdown as to the increasing irrelevance of the clock and the calendar. Our research agenda recognises the importance of changes in ‘infrastructural time’ during the pandemic, in other words how infrastructures such as food provisioning or care embed, support or erode other rhythms. We seek to capture the unsteadiness of the pandemic’s infrastructural time, its associated glitches and failures, shadow histories and nostalgic futures. Furthermore, we ask how material objects (Birth 2012; Pierides and Woodman 2012), laws (Beynon-Jones and Grabham 2019), media and technologies (Bailey et al 2020), and natural environments are generating new forms of time-making – and with what effects on individuals, households and communities. Indeed, the disappearance for many of strong temporal markers across the day or week gives rise to new relationships to devices for planning, anticipation, and structuring time. We look afresh at the ‘liberatory potential’ and curation of clocks, calendars and other objects and technologies of time in the context of crisis (Bastian 2017).

What research methods best capture changing experiences, practices, and structures of time during the pandemic?
The pandemic presents a radical new disruptive global experience of time which has not been experienced en masse in the UK in recent decades. Time use diaries are a well-established tool for the collection of information about people’s use of time and are especially powerful for recording changes in the distribution and sequencing of tasks and activities (Sullivan et al nd). However, they stop short of capturing people’s sense of time or their thinking about how they can reorganise time. We therefore need methods that can get at the lived and felt experiences of time and the collective coordination of social time (e.g. in queues) as well as an overview of time use. This can be achieved through bringing together existing techniques and/or developing new ones to trace and analyse the non-linearity of pandemic time and new understandings of present and future as people face changed rhythms, crumpled futures, accelerated deaths and the fretful intensities of waiting and delay.

As part of our collaboration with the Mass Observation Archive, we have prepared a Directive asking their panel of diary-writers to document first-hand how they are sustaining and making new everyday rhythms and routines, especially in relation to the household; the role of media, technology and material devices in the structuring of time; and the experience of speed, suspension and other forms of waiting – with a focus on the present and the future. We invite a variety of forms across the textual, audio and visual that can render the expressive, affective and embodied dimensions of authors’ relationships to time. From this starting point in gathering accounts of time, we will envisage subsequent methodological developments.

A key aspect of studying the time of the pandemic is the timeliness of our own research. The launch of the Mass Observation diary exercise on the first weekend of August 2020 comes just as shielding has been formally paused in the UK. It implies a period of time to reflect on and the possibility of a new temporal horizon for imagination. We look forward to reading, viewing and listening to how the diary writers make sense of time.

Adam, B. (1990) Time and Social Theory, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bailey, S., Pierides, D., Brisley, A., Weisshaar, C. and Blakeman, T. (2020) ‘Dismembering organisation: The coordination of algorithmic work in healthcare’, Current Sociology, 68(4).
Bastian, M. (2017) ‘From critical cartography to a critical horology
Beynon-Jones, S. and Grabham, E. (eds) (2019) Law and Time, London: Routledge.
Birth, K. (2012) Objects of Time: How Things Shape Temporality, New York: Palgrave.
Coleman, R. (2016) ‘Austerity Futures: Debt, Temporality and Hopeful Pessimism as an Austerity Mood’, New Formations, 87.
Flexer, M. J. (2020) ‘Having a moment: the revolutionary semiotic of COVID-19’ in Waiting & Care in Pandemic Times: A collection of papers on COVID-19 by the Waiting Times Project, Wellcome Open Research 5-134.
Lyon, D (2018) What is Rhythmanalysis? London: Bloomsbury Education.
Mische, A (2009) ‘Projects and possibilities: Researching futures in actionSociological Forum, 24(3): 694-704.
Nowotny, H. (1994) Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Pierides, D. and Woodman, D. (2012) ‘Object‐oriented sociology and organizing in the face of emergency: Bruno Latour, Graham Harman and the material turn’, British Journal of Sociology, 63(4): 662-679.
Sharma, S. (2014) In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics, Durham: Duke University Press.
Sullivan, O, Gershuny, J, Sevilla, A, Walthery, P, Vega-Rapun, M (nd) ‘Time use diary design for our times – an overview, presenting a ‘Click-and-drag’ diary instrument for online application’,  Centre for Time Use Research, Department of Social Science, UCL (IOE).


Simon Bailey (University of Kent) is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Health Services Studies, University of Kent. Michelle Bastian is Senior Lecturer in Environmental Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. Rebecca Coleman is Reader and Co-Director of Methods Lab, Sociology Department, Goldsmiths. Emily Grabham is Professor in Law at the University of Kent. Dawn Lyon is Reader in Sociology at the University of Kent. Dean Pierides is Lecturer in Business and Management at the University of Stirling. * Dawn and Rebecca are the project leads and key contacts for our work with Mass Observation.