In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Time Use and Time Diary Research

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Time Diary Collection Methodology
  • Diary Analysis Methods
  • Overall Time Use and Change in Single Countries
  • Cross-National Comparisons of Overall Time Use
  • Extended National Economic Accounting
  • Time and Income Poverty
  • Quality of Life and Well-Being
  • Time Use by Older People, People with Disabilities, and Carers
  • Estimates and Impacts of Working Hours
  • The Gendered Division of Unpaid Domestic Labor
  • Children’s Time Use and Parents’ Time with Children
  • Leisure and Free Time
  • Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Eating
  • Health and Exposure
  • Transport and Environmental Research

Sociology Time Use and Time Diary Research
Kimberly Fisher, Jonathan Gershuny
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0027


Our daily activities reflect important aspects of social and economic life. Because everything we experience is located in time, measuring daily experiences captures indicators of economic activity, individual health and well-being, and societal coherence. Economists in prerevolutionary Russia, influenced by Western anthropology, observed and recorded the daily lives of peasants. Stanislav Strumilin, utilizing their methods, collected time diary samples in the Soviet Union between 1921 and 1923 for economic planning purposes, though little material from these has survived. Parallel developments in western Europe and North America focused on relatively poor women. The English Fabian Society collected a small number of single-week diaries of working-class housewives in London to investigate the budgeting of time alongside money. The 1925 USA Purnell Act, mandating federal funding for a wide range of agricultural research, enabled the pioneering statistician Hildegarde Kneeland, head of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Department of Home Economics, to collect records of time use diaries from “farm,” town, and (in 1931) “college” women (the last constituting the first study of upper-class time use patterns). Television and radio stations developed a third independent line of diary studies to fit programming (and to sell advertisement space) relative to their audiences’ daily and weekly activity patterns. The BBC’s Audience Research Department conducted pioneering “viewer/listener availability studies” from 1937 onward. NHK in Japan engaged in a similar exercise from 1941 onward, and the Korean Broadcasting Service began collecting a time use survey every five years in 1981. The Columbia Broadcasting Corporation in the United States also collected occasional time diary surveys from the early 1950s onward, and its published reports, combined with those from the USDA, contributed to the first academic studies of historical change in time use derived from diaries. Other means of collecting time use data, including experience sampling, direct observation, and stylized estimates, have been developed. Technological advances in data collection techniques will facilitate the combination of some of these methods in the future. As computing power increases and costs of computers and software decline, a growing range of researchers study people’s use of time. This article provides an overview of the field, research techniques, and main topics of research. Users can find a more extensive range of time use references on the Centre for Time Use Research (CTUR) website. The CTUR website also offers harmonized time use data sets and other time use resources. Statistics Sweden Minnesota Population Center and Maryland Population Research Center offer other general resources on time diary data.

General Overviews

The nonspecialist Anglophone academic world was first introduced to time use research in a general sociological context in Sorokin and Merton 1937. But, contrary to the claim in Andorka 1987 that empirical work in this area started in the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s and in the United States with Lundberg, et al. 1934, we can in fact identify much-earlier research using time diary methods, in turn-of-the-20th-century Russia and in pre–World War I London (e.g., Pember-Reeves 2008, cited under Time and Income Poverty, and Bevans 2008, cited under Leisure and Free Time), as well as extensive applications of time diary techniques in the United States in the 1920s. Szalai 1972 is the most appropriate entry point to the empirical literature, while Ås 1978 provides a still-current introduction to the conceptual issues that should be considered when conducting diary analysis. Parkes and Thrift 1980 provides a route into issues of visualization of time use patterns. The pioneering modeling of time use in Becker 1965 continues to influence economic time use research. Hamermesh and Pfann 2005 offers a useful starting point for the current economics of time. The author of Michelson 2005, himself an important innovator in this field, provides an appropriate starting point for students.

  • Andorka, Rudolf. 1987. Time budgets and their uses. Annual Review of Sociology 13:149–164.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Sets out a reasonably comprehensive range of academic and public policy applications of time diary research, notably identifying for the first time quality of life in general and subjective evaluations of activities in particular as important applications, but unsurprising for the period, missing health- and environment-related applications altogether. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Ås, Dagfinn. 1978. Studies of time-use: Problems and prospects. Acta Sociologica 21.2: 125–141.

    DOI: 10.1177/000169937802100203

    General theoretical discussion of the nature and structure of time diary data, still strongly relevant. Widely cited for its articulation of the four category classifications of time allocation—“necessary” (sleeping and eating), “contracted” (paid work), “committed” (unpaid), and “free”—it should be more widely consulted for its description of the filtering process through which diffuse observations of social reality are reduced to numerical data. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Becker, Gary S. 1965. A theory of the allocation of time. Economic Journal 75.299: 493–517.

    DOI: 10.2307/2228949

    Still a starting point for economists and others. His central insight—modes for meeting human wants require both inputs of commodities from the market (and hence, paid work time, dependent on wage rates, to pay for these) and also specific amounts of the time necessary for unpaid work or consumption—provides clues both about choices of mode of satisfaction and the distribution of time between leisure, unpaid work, and paid work. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hamermesh, Daniel S., and Gerard A. Pfann, eds. 2005. The economics of time use. Contributions to Economic Analysis 271. Boston: Elsevier.

    Provides a helpful general introduction to a wide range of thinking on theoretical topics, with an unusual—for economists—commitment to relevant empirical issues.

  • Lundberg, George A., Mirra Komarovsky, and Mary Alice McInerny. 1934. Leisure: A suburban study. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    This is the earliest major academic book in this subject area, usually credited as the methodological pioneer (though the authors themselves identify the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) economist Hildegard Kneeland as the designer of their diary instrument, which was widely deployed by the USDA in the 1920s). Reprinted as recently as 1992 (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI).

  • Michelson, William. 2005. Time use: Expanding explanation in the social sciences. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

    Clearly written and reasonably comprehensive introduction to the subject, from a leading academic practitioner, suitable for undergraduate as well as postgraduate readers.

  • Parkes, Don, and Nigel Thrift. 1980. Times, spaces and places: A chronogeographic perspective. New York: Wiley.

    Highly innovative discussion of theoretical and empirical approaches to the analysis of time use. Now dated, but still a source for hardly used approaches to visualizing time use patterns, drawn from, but certainly advancing beyond, the earlier (1978) three-volume set of readings by the same authors plus Tommy Carlstein. Reprinted as recently as 1992 (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI).

  • Sorokin, Pitirim A., and Robert K. Merton. 1937. Social time: A methodological and functional analysis. American Journal of Sociology 42.5: 615–629.

    DOI: 10.1086/217540

    A claim by two sociological pioneers of the existence of a distinct conceptualization of time on the basis of the periodicity of social events (e.g., “when he comes out of the theatre,” “market day”) rather than astronomical or other mechanical phenomena. Not operationalizable in that historical era, but now potentially instructive for time use researchers. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Szalai, Alexander, ed. 1972. The use of time: Daily activities of urban and suburban populations in twelve countries. Publications of the European Coordination Centre for Research and Documentation in Social Sciences 5. The Hague: Mouton.

    Volume containing description of the first-ever cross-national comparative time diary study, funded by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, involving twelve national (single-city) studies, from both sides of what was then the “Iron Curtain.” Principles and procedures first codified here still have a major influence on the subject.

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