Māori & Pākehā Conceptualisations of Time

Cultural Perspectives • 02 Mar 2020

Māori & Pākehā Conceptualisations of Time

“Because conceptualisations of time are essentially cultural constructions, societies adopt many structures that revolve around these constructions.” (Ancona, Okhuysen & Perlow, 2001)

Anthropically speaking, time belongs to a culture’s ‘silent language’ – its invisible influence has far-reaching implications on how a culture perceives itself and the world around it. However, due to the intangibility of time – especially in comparison to language, artefacts and other cultural elements – its significance is often glossed over.

Tāne-Mahuta is the largest Kauri tree in the world and is named after the legendary Lord of the Forest (Credit: Destination Northland)

Māori & Pākehā Conceptualisations

New Zealand has two different conceptualisations of time: Māori (event-time) and Pākehā (clock-time [note: Pākehā is Māori for New Zealander of European descent]). The Māori conceptualisation emerged over centuries of living and working in a close, harmonious relationship with nature. Whereas, the Pākehā inherited the British conceptualisation of time in 1840.

While British colonisation resulted in the gradual erosion of Māori society, traditional Māori values and customs persist. Supported by a desire, amongst both Māori and non-Māori alike, to foster a more inclusive culturally aware society.

Step inside the carved meeting house at Waitangi Treaty Grounds (Credit: Destination Northland)


Clock-time depicts time as a linear continuum made up of infinitely divisible “quantifiable units such that the units are homogenous, uniform, regular, precise, deterministic, and measurable” (Ancona, Okhuysen & Perlow, 2001). Clock-time fully emerged during the Industrial Revolution, alongside the proliferation of accurate clocks, the development of the railway and mass production. Subsequent industrialisation around the world saw the wholesale adoption of clock-time as the preferred conceptualisation of time. Industrialisation goes hand in hand with clock-time.

Highly-skilled Māori women painstakingly produce finely woven korowai (cloaks) (Credit:James Heremaia)

Perhaps one of the most perceptible differences between a clock-time driven and an event-time driven culture is the level of punctuality acceptance. The very idea of being ‘on time’ is at the crux of what it means to be a reliable contributor in a market-based society. To grossly-oversimplify this level of acceptance (or lack thereof), we can view tardiness as the antithesis of value-adding. Running late can thus be thought of as a business expense, 20 minutes of absence translates to an opportunity cost of 20 minutes of labour. Clock-time is predictable and measurable, but it is undoubtedly inflexible.

Traditional Ceremony (Credit: Te Puia)


Event-time, on the other hand, is dependent on the earth’s rotation and the rising and setting of the sun. Because of this, it is far more ambiguous and elastic. According to Berwick-Emms (1995), traditional Māori culture favours event-time due to the “traditional economic practices of Māori tribal communities which were based on survival from the natural environment – hunting, gardening and fishing.”

Traditional pounamu (New Zealand greenstone) carving (Source)

Māori society is fundamentally socio-centric, meaning that collective survival and group interests take precedence over that of the individual. At the heart of Māori identity is the centrality of the tribe (encompassing whanau, hapu and iwi, meaning family, extended family and tribe) and the concept of whanaungatanga, representing the importance of mutual responsibilities and individuals’ relationships amongst their kin group. As a result, social relationships dictate the duration of an event – rather than let an external driver, such as a clock, determine when a meeting should start and finish.

Four generations on their marae (Credit: By James Heremaia)

At a marae (traditional tribal meeting place), notions of punctuality play a subordinate role to letting the meeting run the ‘right way’. Rather than be ‘on time’ per se, whanaungatanga encourages the flexibility needed to attend to the time needs of all participants, without the pressure of the clock. This dynamic actively promotes and favours patience; giving everyone the time to voice their opinion and feel engaged in the marae dynamic is thus considered good form.

The same concept is equally applicable when it comes to work, Neich (2001) elaborates on a wood carver’s relationship with time saying, “time was not an abstract measure, but a relative quality belonging to the activity in progress. Thus, a carver simply devoted as much time as a piece of work required for its successful completion.”

Traditional wood carving (Source)

Past, Present & Future

The Western notion of time is linear; time flows as a straight line. Events are chronologically recorded, one following the other.  The consequence of this is that we live ‘out’ time, as opposed to ‘in’ time. Isolated from history. Events which happened 100 years ago are not typically seen as part of our own individual timeline. Hence, there is a tendency to discredit how past events could have influenced our own present. This finite approach to time trickles down into our everyday vocabulary, evidenced in phrases such as: “his days are numbered”, “I’m running out of time”, “my time to shine”, “it’s about time”. There is a degree of ownership over the present notion of time which is entirely foreign to the circular Māori notion of time.

The most widely used weaving material is harakeke – otherwise known as New Zealand flax (Credit: James Heremaia)

In traditional Māori culture, the present cannot be understood without taking into consideration what happened in the past. Time is circular. The past, the present and the future are linked – the sequence and interconnectedness are more important. In other words, because past events contextualize present events, it is difficult to isolate an event as being present without considering how it fits within the bigger picture. Again, vocabulary gives us an interesting insight into the pervasiveness of this contextualization. The Māori word for past, mua, means ‘in front’; alluding to the cyclical nature of time. Compared to Western conceptualisations of time, there is a much stronger past-time orientation, further illustrated by the phrase, I nga wa o Mua, which in English means “to turn to the times of the past.”

Hongi, traditional greeting (Source)

About Time

Time has been standardised and commoditised for over one hundred years now. Despite this, other conceptualisations of time have remarkably survived, passed on from generation to generation – embedded in the artefacts, language and traditions of cultures all over the world. While clock-time reigns supreme as the dominant conceptualisation of time, we’d all be better off learning a little bit more about how other cultures conceptualise time – as it shines a light on how they perceive and interact with the world.


  1. Berwick-Emms, P. (1995). Concepts of time and pastoral care within Māori businesses. Discussion paper (Massey University. Dept. of Management Systems) No. 8. Published: Massey University, New Zealand.
  2. Houkamau, C. & Lo, K. (2008) ‘An Exploration of Cross-Cultural Differences in Time Orientations between Māori and European New Zealanders.’ 22nd ANZAM (Australian and New Zealand Management Academy) Conference, Auckland, December
  3. Houkamau, C. & Sibley, C. (2015) The Revised Multidimensional Model of Māori Identity and Cultural Engagement (MMM-ICE2). Soc Indic Res 122, 279–296
  4. Lo, K. & Houkamau, C. (2012). Exploring the Cultural Origins of Differences in Time Orientation between European New Zealanders and Māori. NZJHRM. 2012 Spring. 12(3),105-123.
  5. Mead, H. (2003). Tikanga Māori: Living by Māori values. Wellington: Huia Publishing
  6. Neich, R. (2001). Carved histories: Rotorua Ngāti Tarawhai woodcarving. Auckland University Press
  7. Pere, R. (1979). Taku taha Māori – my Māorines. In HeMātāpuna: Some Māori perspectives (pp. 23 – 27). Wellington: New Zealand Planning Council.
  8. Williams, H (1971). Dictionary of the Māori language. Wellington: G.P. Print.

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