In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Time-Space Compression

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Geography Time-Space Compression
Barney Warf
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0025


Time-space compression refers to the set of processes that cause the relative distances between places (i.e., as measured in terms of travel time or cost) to contract, effectively making such places grow “closer.” The idea of a “shrinking world” is not new and, in the face of rapid advances in travel, such as the jet airplane, and communications (especially the Internet), has entered into the public geographical imagination. In geography, the topic was long an integral part of the work of those who study transportation and communications systems. In the 1970s and 1980s, Marxists, led by David Harvey, recast the process not simply as a set of technological advancements but as part of the general process of capitalist commodity production and capital accumulation, particularly the reduction in the turnover time of capital. More recently, cultural theorists, historians, and others interested in the perception of space have invoked the notion to understand the sense of disorientation that often accompanies periods of major technological change.

General Overviews

While there are relatively few works that are concerned only with time-space compression, a number of authors have offered good introductions and overviews. Dodgshon 1987, Dodgshon 1998, and Dodgshon 1999 depict the process as part of the long-term evolution of society. Allen and Hamnett 1995 has an especially useful introduction. Giddens 1984, on the theory of structuration, contains what the author labels time-space distanciation as a fundamental part of the process by which societies become differentially stretched over the earth’s surface. Kirsch 1995 ties the process to modern trends in social theory, including the perceptual dimensions of space. Gleick 1999, a short monograph aimed at a popular audience, contains numerous insightful anecdotes about how time-space compression is linked to the rhythms of everyday life. Finally, Warf 2011 presents several pedagogic strategies for teaching the subject in the classroom.

  • Allen, John, and Chris Hamnett, eds. A Shrinking World? Global Unevenness and Inequality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Designed as an introductory human geography textbook, this volume contains numerous essays that demonstrate time-space compression through the analysis of transnational corporations, tourism, global cities, and international flows of pollution. The introduction is priceless for its succinct and elegant synopsis of the concept.

  • Dodgshon, Robert A. “Geographical Change: A Study in Marching Time or the March of Time?” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 5.2 (1987): 173–193.

    DOI: 10.1068/d050173

    This essay offers a long-term conceptual overview of the processes that generate spatial change, noting a succession of five different systems that generated time-space compression at ever-larger spatial scales. Available online by subscription.

  • Dodgshon, Robert A. Society in Time and Space: A Geographical Perspective on Change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    An overview of the nature of social change that emphasizes the spatial unevenness of propensity to change, or inertia, which itself has multiple origins.

  • Dodgshon, Robert A. “Human Geography at the End of Time? Some Thoughts on the Notion of Time-Space Compression.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 17.5 (1999): 607–620.

    DOI: 10.1068/d170607

    An insightful paper that examines how time-space compression changes our sense of time and space and questions the common postmodern notion that the past has been erased in favor of a perpetual present; rather than the end of history, this argument holds that modern experiences can be understood only in light of the inertia of the past. Available online by subscription.

  • Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

    Written by one of the 20th century’s most influential sociologists. Giddens’s theory of structuration—that people unintentionally reproduce social structures through the rhythms of everyday life—reframes time-space compression as distanciation, the stretching of social relations over the earth’s surface via complex webs of power and meaning.

  • Gleick, James. Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. New York: Pantheon, 1999.

    A popular account about the culture of speed, or what the author calls “hurry sickness,” emphasizing that nearly everyone is in a rush, which addresses phenomena such as speeding tickets to pushing the “close doors” button on elevators, leaving little or no time to fulfill basic human needs.

  • Kirsch, Scott. “The Incredible Shrinking World? Technology and the Production of Space.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 13.5 (1995): 529–555.

    DOI: 10.1068/d130529

    A thorough theoretical treatment of time-space compression that invokes the ideas of David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre to argue that the technologies that produce a “shrinking world” also permeate the contours of everyday life; that is, in Lefebvre’s terms, the phenomenon is not confined to social relations but enters into conceived space as well. Available online by subscription.

  • Sullivan, Daniel, Lucas A. Keefer, Sheridan A. Stewart, and Roman Palitsky. “Time-Space Distanciation: An Interdisciplinary Account of How Culture Shapes the Implicit and Explicit Psychology of Time and Space.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 46.4 (2016): 450–474.

    DOI: 10.1111/jtsb.12103

    This is a lengthy exploration of distanciation from a socio-psychological perspective, drawing heavily on Giddens’s structuration theory. It emphasizes cultural experiences of the phenomenon includes two ethnographic case studies to illustrate how distanciation varies among societies.

  • Warf, Barney. “Teaching Time-Space Compression.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 35.2 (2011): 143–161.

    DOI: 10.1080/03098265.2010.523681

    This paper presents heuristic strategies for introducing time-space compression into the classroom, including a brief overview of conceptual approaches and examples of how students may apply the concept in their local contexts. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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