In This Article Time Geography

  • Introduction
  • Origins of Time-Geographic Thinking
  • Foundational Works: Torsten Hägerstrand
  • International Diffusion of Time Geography

Geography Time Geography
Kajsa Ellegård
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0161


Time geography is an integrative approach to studying the coordination of human activities in society and nature. It concerns environmental problems caused by humans and aims to develop knowledge about human life that may facilitate social and ecological sustainability. Time geography is interested in the idea of competition in and for time and space, and time-geographic analyses, often applying a bottom-up perspective, study how individuals’ everyday activities are arranged and coordinated in time in the context of the geographical location of important places, such as home, work, and service centers. Planning at urban and regional levels gains from knowledge of how peoples’ access to work, service, and necessary resources relates to regulations; physical, temporal, and societal structures; and capacities for social cohesion. Precisely defined locations in time and space are important for time-geographic analyses. Torsten Hägerstrand, the founder of time geography, suggested in the 1950s that places should be defined by coordinates, which is one basis for geographic information systems (GIS). Data collection on daily activities gains from technologies like the Global Positioning System (GPS) and information and communication technology (ICT) devices. Computers facilitate analyses of large data sets, which are important in many empirical time-geographical studies. The basic time-geographical assumptions that time and place are vital for understanding human life make the approach simultaneously abstract and mundane. Since it is difficult to find precise words to express such complex but self-evident phenomena, a time-geographic visual language—a notation system—gives a processual understanding of sequences of events in time and space. The main concept in this language is trajectory, or “path,” which describes an individual’s movements in time-space. All existents with corporeality are regarded as individuals—humans, animals, plants, artifacts, stones, and so on. Such a take on how individuals of various kinds compete for a place in time-space facilitates ecological analyses. However, most time-geographic studies concern human individuals. Every individual is indivisible during his or her lifetime, and the path concept underlines this inevitable corporeality. Everyone is always located somewhere, and the path reveals logical gaps in reasoning: nobody can simultaneously be located at two places or leave out an hour of the day. In its bare form, the path helps analyze peoples’ approaches and departures to and from each other, as well as the duration of activities and movements between, and stays at, places. But the path does not grant an inside perspective on peoples’ wishes and motives. Time geography differs from most social science approaches in its adherence to the indivisible individual, which implies that an individual can’t be averaged. This bottom-up perspective also implies that some meaning is expressed by the mere sequence of individuals’ daily activities. Time geography has increasingly inspired researchers in other disciplines outside geography—in health science and engineering, for example. In a social science context, time geography to some extent has inspired structuration theory.

Origins of Time-Geographic Thinking

Time geography is a theory developed by Torsten Hägerstrand and furthered by members of his research group and many others worldwide. Hägerstrand’s early works were the seeds for what later emerged as the time-geographical approach. The starting point was empirical studies of migration in Sweden and emigration to the United States from 19th-century Asby, a small parish in the southeast of Sweden. The empirical grounding was fieldwork, information about population changes from the parish registers held by the church, and maps of land use. Hägerstrand 1950 is a thorough investigation of people’s use of local resources and their movements between dwellings in Asby. It laid the ground for studies of migration and migration chains, and for the time-geographic “path” concept. These studies were published in English in Hägerstrand 1957 and Hägerstrand 1963, and Hägerstrand 1975 is a summary of these studies, and of time geography overall. Hägerstrand’s PhD thesis (Hägerstrand 1953) studied the spread of technological innovations in Asby, introducing the Monte Carlo simulation and other quantitative methods to human geography. This study laid the ground for innovation diffusion theory and was part of the quantitative revolution in human geography. Hägerstrand’s works on innovation inspired many researchers, who still reference his innovation studies in relation to time geography. Hägerstrand 1975 presents a migration chain model that clearly demonstrates how humans bring innovation when they move from one place to another. Based on concepts from Hägerstrand’s two main theoretical contributions, innovation diffusion and time geography, Pred 1978 analyzed the impact of the telegraph on peoples’ roles and life content in the 19th-century United States. Following Hägerstrand’s innovation diffusion approach, Törnqvist 2004 uses time geography to problematize the influence of places, institutions, and people on Nobel laureates. Hägerstrand 1955 points to the need to give buildings coordinates, in order to study population changes independent of administrative borders. Both researchers and administrators using the Swedish population registers were hampered by steadily ongoing mergers of municipalities, changing geographic borders and making old administrative districts useless. However, coordinates were not applied until many years later, when they formed the basis for the development of geographic information systems (GIS) and even an early National Real Estate Register in Sweden. With the empirical work from Asby Parish on migration and the diffusion of innovations in time and space, Hägerstrand laid the ground for his worldview. In 1966 Hägerstrand was awarded funding for a research project that made it possible for him develop the time-geographic approach and employ research assistants. They collected and analyzed data on contemporary everyday life in Swedish municipalities in order to investigate different conditions influencing people’s opportunities to fulfill activities, especially transportation facilities. Several reports were presented in the book series Urbaniseringsprocessen. These reports grounded publications on time geography to come in the 1970s, starting with the highly influential Hägerstrand 1970.

  • Hägerstrand, Torsten. “Torp och backstugor i 1800-talets Asby.” In Från Sommabygd till Vätterstrand. Edited by E. Hedkvist, 30–38. Linköping, Sweden: Tranås Hembygdsgille, 1950.

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    This work is a treasure for researchers interested in migration. Usually, rural populations without property moved once a year from one employer to another in order to earn their living as farmhands or maids, which caused large population movements. This rhythm helped to capture the patterns of migration.

  • Hägerstrand, Torsten. Innovationsförloppet ur korologisk synpunkt. Lund, Sweden: Gleerupska University-bokhandeln, 1953.

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    Hägerstrand collected data in Asby on technological innovations, and he used quantitative methods to simulate the spread of these innovations by introducing simulation, lump numbers, and information fields. The book yielded much international attention when it was translated into English in the mid-1960s. However, in the 1960s Hägerstrand’s thinking had moved further, now developing the time-geographic approach. Translated into English by Allan Pred as Innovation Diffusion as a Spatial Process (Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, 1967).

  • Hägerstrand, Torsten. “Statistiska primäruppgifter, flygkartering och “data processing”-maskiner. Ett kombineringsprojekt.” Svensk Geografisk Årsbok (1955): 233–255.

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    This article foreshadows GIS science. When presented in the 1950s, however, there was little understanding of the use of coordinates for locational analyses, which did not become standard until much later.

  • Hägerstrand, Torsten. “Migration and Area. Survey of a Sample of Swedish Migration Fields and Hypothetical Considerations on Their Genesis.” In Migration in Sweden: A Symposium. Edited by D. Hannerberg, T. Hägerstrand, and B. Odeving, 27–158. Lund studies in Geography, Ser. B. Human Geography, no.13. Lund, Sweden: C.W.K. Gleerup, 1957.

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    A series of maps showing immigration and emigration in rural parishes explains the dynamics of migration. Contemporary areas, with migration losses and gains, are identified. A longer time perspective is applied to show in- and out-migration to Asby Parish over a century, and logarithmic maps emphasize the dominance of migration to and from areas close by.

  • Hägerstrand, Torsten. “Geographic Measurements of Migration: Swedish Data.” In Les déplacements humains: Aspects methodologiques de leur mésure. Edited by J. Sutter, 61–83. Monaco: Hachette, 1963.

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    An empirical investigation of peoples’ movements from and to stations is presented as a point of departure for a critique of the official statistics on migration in Sweden. The size of internal migration in the same register unit is shown to be larger than out-migration. New measures of migration and ideas to explain it are presented.

  • Hägerstrand, Torsten. “What about People in Regional Science?” Papers of the Regional Science Association 24 (1970): 7–21.

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    This seminal theoretical article on time geography in English presents basic concepts and the notation system of the approach. Knowledge of individuals’ daily activity sequences identified by empirical studies provides grounding for the time-geographical approach.

  • Hägerstrand, Torsten. “Survival and Arena: On the Life-History of Individuals in Relation to their Geographical Environment.” The Monadnock 49 (June 1975): 9–29.

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    Based on the studies of migration in Asby Parish, Hägerstrand presents a model of how people move not only geographically, but also between social classes in the time-space of the region. He declares his ambition to develop conceptual coherence regarding how to understand human life geographically from the home to the globe and with various time perspectives from a day to a lifetime. Also published in Timing Space and Spacing Time. Vol. 2, Human Activity and Time Geography, edited by Tommy Carlstein, Don Parkes, and Nigel Thrift (Edward Arnold, 1978), 122–145.

  • Pred, Allan. “The Impact of Technological and Institutional Innovations on Life Content: Some Time-Geographic Observations.” Geographical Analysis 10.4 (1978): 345–372.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1538-4632.1978.tb00664.xE-mail Citation »

    In the context of a techno-institutional innovation, the telegraph, the basic concepts and thoughts of time geography are employed to show the complexity of couplings and effects revealed in the life content of those who directly or indirectly are involved infrastructure-building or use of the telegraph services.

  • Törnqvist, Gunnar. “Creativity in Time and space.” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 86.4 (2004): 227–243.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0435-3684.2004.00165.xE-mail Citation »

    Innovations stem from individuals active in contexts that fertilize creativity. Why do some places and social contacts result in more innovative thinking than others do? The article shows, grounded on the time-geographical path concept, the movements and sources of inspiration of Nobel laureates. It is shown that there are bundles of Nobel Prize winners at some universities, which serve as creative kernels over extended periods.

  • Urbaniseringsprocessen. 56 vols. Mimeo, Sweden: Lund University, 1969–1970.

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    Volumes 3, 17, 38, and 39 in this series of reports present the material that laid the empirical grounding for time geography. The series as a whole consists of reports from one of the first big, externally funded research projects involving several departments in human geography in Sweden.

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