There is a sense of anxiousness that people experience when they are left with unstructured time. The desire to perceive one’s actions as productive is fundamental to the individual feeling good about him or herself. This value placed on time use has become the subject of my curiosity.


 Structured time is not essential to the curious, creative, and productive human mind, and yet it is considered essential for the ability of individuals to be innovative, intellectual, and goal oriented. Structured time, which is defined here as regulated activity (either by the self or a larger institution), is a creation of economically-laden social relations, and is so inextricably fundamental to the very fabric of society inasmuch that it guides every part of individuals’ understanding of their selves, others, and their relationship to society. From the very moment children enter the institutional setting through primary education, they learn that structured time is good. Structured time provides a sense of accomplishment and contribution to one’s self and society. Engaging in structured time makes one feel proactive and responsible. Entering the educational system provides young children the framework to eventually learn that unstructured time is bad, and ought to be avoided. Unstructured time is unproductive, lazy, unmotivated, and wasteful. Indeed, it becomes quickly learned that deviant behavior often arises out of too much unstructured time.


 As children grow into adults, they are introduced—yet already familiarized—to the normative workweek. Being part of the labor force allows for the maintenance of activity structure, with the allowance of a break toward the end of the week. However, even the time adults spend during unsupervised and unstructured time are still regulated due to the indoctrinated behavioral customs they learn since childhood. Getting the most out of life means to structure one’s free time with strategy, according to much of the self-help literature. Making the most out of personal time attempts to avoid the idea that free time is indeed unstructured, something that is problematic. As expected, adults learn that time management is a fundamental component to maintaining responsible actions in the everyday, personal life.


 Yet, there is a third dimension to exploring society’s conception of unstructured time. Unwise use of free time is considered highly problematic. Indications of this can be witnessed in society’s institutional rehabilitation practices (Foucault, 1961; Goffman, 1961). If one spends too much of their “free” time unwisely, they are admitted into mental wards, prisons, halfway houses, retreats, and the list continues. Each aspect of one’s day inside of these rehabilitative environments is highly routinized and planned for them. Where did this value in structured time come from, and why is its diametrically opposite end considered in such a negative light?


 In this article, I will examine three cases where structured time has been a vehicle for socialization and also social order: educational institutions, normative labor force participation, and rehabilitating institutions. In providing these three cases, the question is asked as to what occurs when individuals who have been conditioned to experience this kind of structured time enter unstructured terrain. I argue that examining the social construction of structured time allows us to understand how the observable outcomes become real based upon the consequences of conditioning, maintenance, and rehabilitation. I call for more research that investigates the value and meaning of structured time, and why unstructured time has become seen as a social problem. An exploration of these cases asks when unstructured time became carefully scheduled within society’s activities, marginalized as if it were a slippery-slope that only gets allotted a careful amount of consideration.


Pathologizing the Social World


 Durkheim was one of the first to introduce the latent consequences of not providing society, individuals, or both a sense of structure. His concept of anomie suggested that individuals who experience a loss or misalignment of norms and moral guidance often experience a loss of social identity and self-regulatory values. According to Durkheim, an anomic state does not arise strictly out of the the loss of structure, but also from when norms are too rigid. Durkheim’s findings from his study on suicide suggested that people who experienced anomie usually were part of a society that was undergoing rapid change in its moral standards and values. Thus, to experience anomie means to feel as though what may be practically achievable in everyday life is not aligned with what is professed and and valued in the society for which one belongs.


 Durkheim’s work was an important contribution to the field of sociology and psychology because it highlighted the importance of social processes in explaining individual behavior. This was revelatory, as at the time theorists that explained suicide related the phenomenon to individualistic experiences, such as depression associated with the accumulation of experiencing negative life events.


 Although Durkheim left a rich legacy in sociology, he was yet to determine what the meaning behind his conclusions indicated. As such, while sociology has learned much about society from larger structural processes to the everyday reproduction of social reality, much of the analyses traditionally produced by the field have often failed to address the construction behind the social problems for that which it analyzes. While Durkheim informed the field much about the state of anomie, he was yet to determine why the lack or misalignment of norms were considered a social problem in the first place.


 It was not until C. Wright Mills’ “The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists” (1943) questioned the routinized analyses of sociologists. In this historical and influential piece by Mills, the sociologist is questioned as a social actor, or claims-maker. Mills argued that the very conditioning of sociologists as part of the society for which he or she studies deprived them of the guidance needed for parsing out the very nature of their work from their socialization. For Mills, the background of sociologists aided in their contextualizing of the very things they studied, blinding them to the unseen and penetrating power of social structures. Considering that suicide is a problem to society in an of itself was never considered in the work of Durkheim, indicating that he was unaware of the pathologization of this social problem.


 Mills’ contribution left much to consider in the field of sociology. For the first time, sociologists were being considered under the lens of investigation. Mills was concerned that instead of sociologists making sense of the problems of society, they were indeed aiding in instituting observations as being social facts. Sociologists assumed—and continue to assume—that there was a natural order to society, and for there to be unusual observations within it implied that there were unnatural occurrences that demanded further exploration. In further tending to explore these social problems, they inadvertently became decriers of social abnormalities. For Mills, the proper sociological approach would explore the reason as to why these social problems existed in the first place—who created them, and what is the meaning of its existence?


 It was not long after Mills that social constructionists began to write about the nature of constructing social problems. Spector and Kitsuse (1977, 1987) were part of this movement in sociology toward the study of social problems construction. As avid engagers in the social problems dialogue, they defined a social problems as, “The activities of individuals or groups making assertions of grievances and claims with respect to some putative conditions” (1977, p. 75). Substantive literature surrounding social constructionism in sociology began to flourish. It wasn’t long after that sociologists also began to ask the question of who owns social problems (Loseke, 2011).


 While some sociologists have attempted to construct a third-way approach to mending the arguments from objectivists and social constructionist viewpoints (i.e., Henslin, 2003), some sociologists have discredited the merit of the social constructionist viewpoint in understanding social problems. Some phenomena appear convincing enough to be considered objective. For example, much of sociology has focused on unemployment across many decades, if not centuries. Unemployment seems to be a social problem that many sociologists would agree requires a solution due to the observed consequences of higher unemployment rates within society. While seemingly objective, a social constructionist viewpoint would observe the rise and widespread diffusion of the thought of this phenomenon as being a social problem. Where does it come from, and why is it important to society? Further, because it has been constituted as a social problem, what are the consequences of sociologists reinforcing its pathology?


 Much of the work in the social problems literature has focused on a distinct problem that often has specific association with particular institutions and actors. Examining the social construction of unstructured time provides a broader analysis because it is very much part of America’s social fabric (Weber, 1905). Therefore, in order to provide a thoughtful analysis, examples of where structured time is fundamental to the conditioning and socializing environments will be important to highlight. Isolating the need for structured time provokes the question as to why unstructured time is considered problematic. The next section will examine three cases where structured time has been a vehicle for socialization and also social order: educational institutions, normative labor force participation, and rehabilitating institutions.


Unstructured time as a problem: three cases


 The three cases presented here indicate two things. The first is that too much unstructured time is considered deviant, and in need of careful management and planning. Although unstructured time is considers a break from daily routine, in some circumstances, it is also highly regulated, and carefully considered. Too much unstructured time can be seen as a means to an array of deviant behavior. The second is that structured time is a vehicle for helping people become conditioned into the normative structure of a greater society vis-a-vis an institution. Such rigid time structuring can be witnessed in the cases of educational institutions, normative labor force participation, and rehabilitating institutions. Each case serves to highlight structured time as either: conditioning individuals for routinized order, provide maintenance for social order, or rehabilitate them from unstructured environments. These three examples serve to display how unstructured time is considered a vehicle for deviant behavior.


Educational institutions


 The field of sociology has provided rich contribution to our understanding of the institution of education as a socializing agent. Not only do adolescents enter the educational system in order to receive formal education and early professional training, but they also learn the social norms and values of the society for that they belong. Durkheim argued that schooling heavily regulates behavior. According to his analysis, students have yet to internalize the norms of society until the completion of their training. Because this socializing agent is not at the forefront of the institution’s mission, as education is the professed primary motivation, this kind of learning has been conceptualized as the “hidden curriculum” (Durkheim, 1925).


 One aspect of the hidden curriculum that has yet to be elucidated in the sociological literature is the rigid conditioning of productive time. Students enter the physical environment of educational institutions during early morning hours and have a routinized and structured day, which is repeated five out of seven days, weekly. The theory behind scheduling is to keep students productive. When students are left with too much ‘free-time’, issues are then believed to arise. Osgood’s extensive research findings on deviant behavior among schoolchildren suggested that unstructured and unsupervised environments provide the potential for children to undergo deviance training, where delinquent behavior is encouraged and reinforced by peers  (1996, 2004, 2005). After school programs (ASPs) illustrate the attempt to mend this problem. With the U.S. Congress allocating $1 billion dollars each year in the past eight years, the intention of ASPs is in part to “occupy youth’s after-school time so that they avoid involvement in dangerous or harmful behaviors” (Rorie et. al., 2011).


 Yet, the full dimensions of deviance must be illuminated, and not oversimplified as harmful behavior or disobeying everyday rules. The total-institution standpoint can also provide richer analysis for understanding the problematizing of unproductive time. Unstructured time is considered wasteful if it does not produce anything of substance. As Weber highlighted in his influential work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1905), Benjamin Franklin professed that “time is money,” and so to waste time was to disadvantage one’s own economic security and fulfillment, and also society’s economic advancement. Children learn at a young age that being productive—structuring activity—is important. They learn, with conditioning, that unstructured time leads to bad habits, and ultimately unfulfillment. They are encouraged to act in such a way before it is a cognizant thought, which is the goal of the curriculum.


 It appears that two things can be understood from examining the educational institution as a conditioning agent for social order. The first is that the institution’s latent functions are to provide adolescents with as much time structure. This is based upon the theory that being without supervised- and planned time provides the opportunity to engage in deviant behaviors. The association between theory and action is fundamentally woven together, and difficult to parse out. The foundation of this institution is grounded in activity structure, with the constant consideration of keeping children from acting in such ways that are considered bad behaviors. The second is that these actions are backed by the empirical observations of social scientists. In this instance, social scientists are providing the scientific power to back the structure and reform of these institutions.


 Education may be a good vehicle for understanding the time-conditioning agent present at early adolescence and beyond. It provides the very inextricable, taken-for-granted reality of the idea that unstructured time allows for the potential to learn and engage in deviant- and unproductive behaviors. Because unstructured time has not been conceptualized in this institution as being an agent for good thoughts that serve the individual, it highlights how time structure is conceptualized with regard to “good” and “bad” behaviors. Curiously, unstructured time allows children more time to think: explore curiosity, creativity, imagination, intellect, and such other kinds of thoughts. However, these thoughts are considered dangerous in the sense that curiosity at such a young age can be a dangerous quality. The old saying curiosity killed the cat has famously entered the minds of young children who have learned time and again that their curiosities often land them in trouble with authoritative figures.


 In light of this, it is the educational institution—the first observation—that lends a legitimate rationale as to why social constructionists ought to be particularly curious about the  existence of structured time. Why is it that the very nature of unstructured time has become a problem for this institution, and where did it come from? Pathologizing adolescent unstructured time has conditioned members of society for orderly adulthood, as shall be explored with normative labor force participation.


Normative labor force participation


 Labor force participation has been traditionally structured around the workweek in the United States, which loosely involves variably working around 40 hours for full-time employment. Economic productivity is considered a critical component of abiding by social norms and values in American society, and presents its own unique set of standards when considering social problems. By the time one reaches adulthood, structured time provided by employment has already been conditioned through education, and thus working individuals enter the phase of maintenance. The idea of maintaining structured time throughout adulthood is important to the literature surrounding social deviance, if considering social strain theories (i.e., Agnew, 1992; Cloward and Ohlin, 1960; Cohen, 1955; Merton, 1957; Smelser, 1963). The contestation among these scholars have yet to produce consistent results, but turning to the concept of Foucault’s (1991) knowledge/power allows us to consider how the everyday production of activity allows power structures to remain in tact.


 Contrary to what is often believed to be productive and fulfilling, the maintenance of structured time keeps society orderly. Too much ‘free time’ is not a good thing; and the idea of free time in and of itself, nearly taboo. However, this conditioning is not universal for all professions, socializing environments, and rehabilitative institutions and practices. When isolating professions, for instance, those in fields that are considered to have more flexibility—the fine arts and philosophy—are thought to produce thinkers rather than workers. And yet, curiously, these professions are often considered as being wasteful to the American work ethic; ironically, also considered needed for the enrichment of society. Society’s conceptions surroundings workforce participation seems a bit contradictory in this light. On the one hand, it values professional identity and mobility, yet on the other, it is divisive in what professions warrant positive attribution and which ones are considered less important to the betterment of society as a whole.


 However, returning to the inquiry of workforce participation as a broader concept, understanding social responses to unemployment may better impart an understanding of society’s conception of employment. I hypothesize that the professions that provide more work flexibility (i.e., fine-art, writers, some musicians) have a field of professionals that cope better with unstructured time. However, this is based on speculation. It is known, however, that those who are unemployed in more traditionally time-structured professions experience negative emotions when unemployed, in part due to a lack of time structure. Exploring Jahoda’s (1982) work on latent deprivations may impart a deeper understanding of this phenomenon.


 Jahoda was one of the first social scientists to put forth the notion that unemployment was a social problem because of the poor mental well-being observed in the unemployed. In her theory of latent deprivations, she argued that the unemployed were not only at a loss of financial security, but also of five qualities that maintained normative wellbeing and were associated with employment: time structure, social interaction, sense of purpose, sense of social identity, and regular activity. These five concepts were considered to be the contribution to much of the negative emotions that the unemployed were observed to experience. Jahoda’s research was groundbreaking for the sociological and psychological inquiry into unemployment experiences. Sociologists who applied Jahoda’s framework continued in their attempt to understand the value of employment for mental wellbeing—a buzzword among the vast array of social scientists within the past 20 years. In more recent years, publications that have called for policy change based upon their findings (i.e., Ghayad, 2013; Young and Lim, 2014) have decried the importance for having an economically productive workforce. The idea of having an economically productive society seems to be at the heart of labor studies. Researchers from Budd (2011) to Muirhead (2007) also have explored the idea of what economic productivity means to society. The roots of this line of inquiry, no doubt, reach as far back to Weber’s theory of the Protestant ethic and spirit of capitalism.


 Curiously, the thought of unproductive time as a social problem is at the forefront of much of the theories in labor studies. In examining the maintenance of everyday time structure vis-a-vis the workweek, it may be suggested that the prior conditioning and adulthood maintenance of daily activity structure disrupts one’s mental wellbeing because of its degree of deviation from the everyday norm. In attempting to understand how disruption to time structure incurs a sense of such distress or deviant activity, the next section explores how institutions seek to rehabilitate members of society back into the normative time structures.


Rehabilitating institutions


 Foucault (1961) and Goffman (1961) both describe the austere and penetrating circumstances of institutions that seek to either rehabilitate members of society, or indefinitely isolate them from the rest of it. Total institutions take over every aspect of an individual’s life—from structuring their daily activity, the food they eat, and the behavior they enact. Rehabilitation facilities that profess to help people reintegrate back into society are often criticized as creating lifetime residents. Foucault argued that there were two sets of rationales, depending on whether one is examining psychiatric wards or prisons. He argued that the ultimate rationale for psychiatric wards was to isolate those who were considered inept to participate living with the rest of society. The belief in ineptitude lives in response to the belief in reason: those who can reason and use rationality can live among others in society, and those without it may not. Foucault saw the prison system as the evolution of society’s response to deviance, beginning first with torture and punishment. The prison system evolved into an institution in and of itself—a total carceral system that became a sovereign entity distinct from other things.


 Beyond Foucault and Goffman’s analyses of institutions, rehabilitating institutions can also be considered in less sovereign environments. Using Foucault for understanding the rationale behind institutions for those who are considered inept to reason, career-help centers, retreats for those going through non-specific issues, weekly meet-up groups, and such other engagements can be considered within the scope of this concept. All of these rehabilitating institutions provide structure from unstructured time, and perceive unstructured time as being the vehicle for impairing the individual. For example, when long-term unemployed job seekers receive career-help, they report that having someone to check in with weekly allowed them to fare better in their job search (Sharone and author, forthcoming). This need for weekly structure has become so heavily ingrained in the psyche of a time-ordered society that when it becomes disrupted, individuals often require a structured regimen in order to rehabilitate their potential in what appears to be unrelated pursuits.


 Rehabilitating institutions relate to the two former processes, as they also seek to manage constructive time, and that they enforces the notion that unstructured or unaccounted time is problematic. In addition, there is progression that moves from education to rehabilitation institutions that attempts to weave together how time is structured from early adolescence to later adult life. Future research may aid in illuminating this progression.




 Ruminating is considered a problem in many circumstances. Too much time to think does not allow for productive action. Unstructured time is the vehicle for promoting the time to think freely, but the wonderment of the mind is believed to possess its own set of dangers. Too much thinking is considered to reverse the ability to progress, stagnating the individual. If the mind is unlocked, it ought to be done so in a safe environment—with a therapist, in the classroom, and other very limited spaces. The fear of where the mind can wander is instilled at a very young age. I argue that it has been conditioned into the American mindset since childhood, and maintained throughout adulthood. Structuring time allows for the control over how much time we provide individuals to think, and the kind of thinking that is deemed appropriate.


 This was not apparent to me until I began studying the emotional experience of long-term unemployed job seekers. After providing three months of professional career help to the job seekers, a dramatic shift in mental well-being, and consequently job search prospects, emerged. This was curious. What was it about the professional career help that allowed these job seekers to fare better than before the intervention? I began considering what the mechanism is that creates a sense of positive emotions when job seekers feels that they are being held accountable each week of their job search. Once I began to think about the relationship between time management and this population of job seekers, I began to see the problem as being larger than their specific circumstances. The question still remains, however, why structured time is as salient as it is today in American society.


 This line of inquiry is important to consider as trends in workforce participation are shifting and are predicted to increasingly shift in the coming years. Flexible workweeks are continuing to grow as a response to the demand of incoming workers. Some research findings, though unacademic, suggest that the generation born between 1980 and 1995 desire greater workplace flexibility, with more expected to work flexible workweeks in the next 10 years (Ernst & Young, 2013). Education has also become increasingly flexible with more charter schools emerging for secondary education, online education for college, and accelerated degree programs that emphasize personal time management and motivation. With this increasingly inclination toward flexibility, the implications for how structured and unstructured time is negotiated presents a new set of questions. With this change, more concern for time management appears to be emerging in the self-help literatures and media. While Durkheim may have considered anomie to be a result of the misalignment of the professed norms and values of society, contemporary observations of a more flexible society attempting to manage the conditioned perception of the need and requirement for structured environments ought to provoke the sociological community.


 This paper has attempted to provide the beginning of a sociological inquiry into the social construction of unstructured time. However, there is much that this paper did not explore. Future work ought to interrogate this social problem by conducting research that explores how structured and unstructured time is conceptualized and negotiated. Gender, race and class differences should also be analyzed in light of problematized unstructured time. There may be differences for both lines of inquiries that may guide the sociological community in determining the construction of this social problem.  Perhaps what is most salient for conducting further research is identifying the historical significance of this problem. Rumination as problematic ought to be analyzed in order to contextualize contemporary observations. In addition, inquiry into types of unstructured time that produce what is conceived to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ thought ought to be further understood. Schoolchildren are warned not to be too curious, yet young adults are encouraged to think deeply about the meaning of their lives. What are these differences, and what promotes them? When do institutional settings provide individuals the ability to think freely, and when do they limit kinds of thought? Future research will need to explore questions such as these, and more.




























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