Time and the Muses

Published on: Author: Mark Erickson Leave a comment

Dr Rachel Rosen presented a fantastic paper to the School of Applied Social Science in our Social Science Forum seminar series. Rachel’s paper was about time and its role in participatory research, and it extended the argument in her previous work on temporality and the social character of time. I think time is something that time is something social science has really struggled with as a concept and phenomenon, despite time being a central site of social conflict, a symptom of the inequalities within capitalism (Bear 2014).

At a more practical level, time and temporality is something that we need to consider in our research, and in our professional roles, but rarely do. Our publishing deadlines, the imposed length of time for research projects (three years for as full-time PhD: why?), the need to get research participants to stick to a pre-constructed agenda and schedule, are always with us and we tend to not notice these, or simply adapt to accommodate these constraints. Yet at the same time almost all academics will tell you that they want more time for reflection and reading, less imposed deadlines, and they want these because it would improve the quality of their work and that of their students. In the current UK Higher Education system the opposite is happening, with greater and greater constraints upon our time.

How can we produce better work? Homer knew the answer to this and called upon the Muse to inspire them so they could write the Iliad. When I was carrying out the primary field work for the ‘Homer in the Laboratory’ project I tried to do the same, waiting (and waiting!) for the Muse to arrive and inspire me. But this took time, and I was lucky that I was not on a prescribed timetable with parameters set by either a Doctoral College’s regulations or the parameters of a funded research project. There was just me, with my research diaries and books, watching and waiting. Without that period of reflection through waiting (and even being bored) I don’t think the project would have worked.

More recently I have been working with Dr Catherine Wills on a project about bacteria. We are trying to ‘hear’ different voices from Escherichia coli bacteria across time and space – not a straightforward project but a worthwhile one. Again, it is only through time and reflection that this kind of project can work although, of course, we also need the Muses to inspire and talk through us. In this case it was Thalia, the muse of blooming, Clio, the muse of history, Melpomene, the muse of tragedy and Mnemosyne, their mother and the goddess of memory who came to our aid. We wrote a play in five acts examining different aspects of the character and history of bacterium Escherichia coli and some of the many people involved in using it in their experiments. We are still working on this project and hope to take it to the EASST / 4S Conference in Prague later this year.

Sing Muse!



Bear, Laura. 2014. “Introduction: Doubt, conflict, mediation: the anthropology of modern time”. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20 (S1):3-30.


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