Theses Doctoral

From Alfred Schutz to Machine Learning: Temporal Orientation, Meaning and Social Action

Cleveland, Jonathan

This dissertation offers a novel quantitative method for assessing an actor's subjective temporal orientation. Our method involves the use of supervised machine learning techniques in concert with natural language processing tools and linguistic principles. We suggest our method may offer a clandestine technique for extracting aspects of an actor’s temporal orientations from right behind their back. This capacity occurs because of the unique ways time references are reflected in language syntax. This reflection does not simply occur in face-to-face spoken interactions, but also resides in recorded vocal transcripts and within textual documents articulated by speakers for a social audience (e.g., political speeches).
From a social theory point of view, we argue that our technique can help objectify some of the major links theorists have long made between the temporal features of mind, subjective meaning, and social processes. Temporal orientation has long been defined as a tripartite mental process. Edmund Husserl famously defined this process as involving retention (a mental focus on past), presentation (a mental focus on the present) or protention (a mental envisioning of the future). From a pure phenomenology perspective, Husserl’s innovation was to link this mental interlocking process with meaning-making. For Husserl, it was directly through an actor’s temporal orientation that meaning became variably constituted and the problem of subjectivity emerged.

From a sociological point of view, it is primarily through Alfred Schutz’s formulation of social phenomenology that Husserl’s tripartite system was opened to accommodate the influence of the social in meaning-making. This opening has possessed a long-standing contradiction. For Schutz, endogenous social structure could affect where an actor temporally orients. The resulting implication is that social structure could have a direct effect on how actors assign specific meanings in social systems. Even more, social structure could facilitate shared temporal orientations among actors. However, Schutz also promoted the idea that different temporal orientations could explain how different meanings could be assigned to the same social object by disparate actors. This possibility served as the centerpiece of Schutz’s well-known methodological critique of Max Weber’s direct linkage between subjective meaning, motive, and empathetic based interpretations of social action.

To carry out our efforts to quantify how the subjective processes of temporal orientation appear to be influenced by endogenous social processes, we employed our algorithm on three different text-based data sets. We suggest these datasets possess strong reflections of the social world.

The first dataset entails a collection of matched twitter tweets that correspond to Trump’s reelection bid and Biden’s challenge during the 2020 period. In this dataset, our method illustrates how both candidates appear to have different temporal orientations despite being bounded by a similar social event. We suggest this finding may reflect the relationship between what Schütz called inner duration and the influence of external stocks of knowledge (i.e., external structures.)

The second dataset corresponds to a recorded conversational transcript of the Cuban missile crisis, taken from President Kennedy’s Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) on the 6th of October in 1962. Using our algorithm, we offer objective measures of homogenous temporal orientations of committee members that are consistent with meso-group conformity. We suggest that our method may offer a novel way of measuring group conformity in general.

The third dataset consists of the State of the Union Corpora (SOU). In this dataset, we apply our algorithm to identify changes in temporal orientation occurring among a single President’s entire collection of SOU speeches. Furthermore, we compare the average temporal orientation of the Presidents in relation to various social categories, such as party affiliation and societal events. The scope of the Presidents inventoried for temporal orientation is restricted from Eisenhower to Biden.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2028-10-12.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Bearman, Peter Shawn
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 18, 2023