What Disaster Response Management Can Learn From Chaos Theory

Conference Proceedings
May 18-19, 1995

Edited by
Gus A. Koehler, PhD.

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Victoria Koehler -Jones, Sociologist

University of Nevada, Las Vegas


"Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blaze of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols." Thomas Mann

Time is a social construction that brings order to our lives. Barbara Adam says: "Time is an ordering principle that coordinates, orients, and regulates interactions between people and groups" (Adam 1990:42). It also interprets and makes available our natural worlds. Whether cesium clocks or crop harvests are used to mete out important periods, time helps us understand, organize and use the world around us.

Cultural concepts of time are not immediately perceptible or distinct but when they are examined it becomes apparent that they represent strong normative forces affecting both the behaviors and cognitions of members of the culture. Consider the dominant Western view: future oriented, active and individualistic. We place a premium on the security of long-term planning, but social policy is supposed to provide this for us leaving us free to respond to developing opportunities without worrying or doing too much about the future. Popularly we subscribe to a linear, monotonic progression of time from the past, through the present, into the future but we have little use for the past. Our values are largely near-term while we concentrate on the immediate growth ahead. Our desire to continue economic abundance encourages us to overload the present and near future with planning. Both rapid change--related to technology--and "freedom" benefit from short-term perspectives.

Other cultures have other concepts of time and future. Durkheim discusses the subtle power of social time when he argues that, to the extent that social time exercises a restraint or compulsion on the individual it lies outside individual consciousness, so to understand it one must look to the sociocultural factors that create it (Durkheim 1915). The character of temporal perspectives often depend on the way technological development has affected the relationship between people and their natural environments and the consequent ability of people to meet their needs. Social structures such as politics and economics, cultural history and ideas found in religion, philosophy and language also contribute to ideas about time. The order brought by those structures is not uniform, however. Kluckhohn is among those who have shown how variants of the culture's dominant pattern of value-orientation appear in particular sub-cultures in contrasting ways. Ideas about time vary within sub-cultures (Kluckhohn 1953).

On an individual level temporal perspectives reflect cultural and subcultural influences but since individuals adopt cultural values in different degrees depending on pragmatic factors, feelings of social power or alienation, position in the social structure, and so forth specific points of view differ from person to person. Shotwell talks about this imperfect take of culture:

A sense of time means a knowledge of happenings. It is to be found only where memory has been disciplined to its task of knowing the world that was, by a keen awareness of the world that is, where the analysis of the present calls for the prior events in the light of which the present takes on its meaning. The sense of time is not a neglected inheritance to be reacquired from primitive instincts but the slow and still most imperfect acquisition of culture, (Shotwell 1949:65).
So, temporal constructs of culture create a framework for the organization of individual personalities--personalities that show themselves in their unique ways of accommodating and harmonizing with each other and the natural environment. Fraisse speaks of this process when he says: "The very way in which he submits to temporal pressure, or revolts against it, reveals what he [man] is and what he would be," (Fraisse 1963:290).

Individual temporal perspectives, then, are reflections of cultural ideas, which means they evolve, develop and change with culture. But, as with other cultural values, change takes place very slowly (McGrath 1992). Time, perhaps more than other aspects of culture, has been reified and concertized and, while it is moved around and manipulated--daylight savings is an example--meaning stays relatively fixed.

Elements of temporal structure. Cognitions, knowledge, beliefs and attitudes--as well as capabilities and motivations--all come together to structure a model about how time operates and functions. Two important elements of the temporal structure are pattern and flow. These have to do with the way time moves from the past, through the present and into the future. Patterns of time may be circular, elliptical, linear or otherwise. Flow is a term that includes ideas about rates of change as well as consistency or uniformity of change. It embodies ideas about how the environment changes--gradually or sharply--and what expectations are for the speed of onset of particular events.

The desire that people have to see order, pattern and meaning in the world creates a need to ascribe or attribute form and structure to the way time moves--from the past, through the present, and into the future. Patterns of time vary from culture to culture and across history. Those who believe in concepts of progress tend to see time moving linearly while those who are more closely associated with nature are more likely to see a cyclical repetition to events. These patterns can explain variation in hazard perception. For example, a linear sense of time hampers recognition of the repetitive elements in the complex dynamics that trigger cataclysmic events in the natural environment. Or, those who feel that time moves in cyclical, elliptical or spiral patterns may be more sensitive to the possibility of recurring natural disasters but without a focus on the idea of linear progress they may be less ready to believe in prevention.

Another important element of temporal structure has to do with temporal perspective. This subject covers the relative importance of the past, present and future as well as planning density for each of these modalities, differentiation or "realness", extension or distance to events, and evaluation or feelings and assessments about the past, present and future. Temporal perspective is sometimes called future perspective because it focuses on the way expectations pace-out the temporal space ahead giving color and character to the future. It makes connections between imagination and creativity and various futures and it includes ideas about memory decay and the receding past.

The value taken by the elements in temporal perspective depends partly on premises made about prediction and causation--premises that can stem from mystical and teleological approaches to knowledge or from rational, scientific frameworks. These conceptions in turn create a complex of ideas influencing belief in personal power. The world view associated with power and control includes ideas about vulnerability to hazard and capability of recovery. Since the person with an internal locus of control is creating his own future, his perception of his own ability to act effectively differs from the person with an external locus of control. These beliefs often override actual past experiences with attempts to control outcomes, whether successful or failed.

The continuum running from fatalism to self-determination describes philosophies which can limit or enhance the individual ability to shape and control the environment. In extreme fatalism the outcomes of events are subject to fate, determined by a deity perhaps or the stars. Events are predetermined and free will or any act of volition is assumed to be futile. In extreme 'self-determination,' on the other hand, all events have antecedent causes which are completely knowable and which create conditions leading to a predictable outcome but individual 'free will' can control and manipulate causes (Reber, 1985). The 'fatalism/self-determination' variable has been defined by the kind of future image it creates but chance and luck are also used to characterize a perspective where events happen without apparent cause.

One can learn something about the nature of an individual's future--and likely perception of hazard--from the answers given in response to questions like this: Is the future knowable, predictable and stable? Does the future telecast (supernatural) signals like omens? Does the future stem from (rational) causal principles? How much of the present is needed to predict the future? Such questions show what forces--human, natural or supernatural--give shape to the future.

Temporal perspectives are domain and situation specific. Temporal horizons and concepts of change are situation specific (which means they depend on subject and context) and further, the same situation of hazard will be understood differently by professionals and by lay persons. Temporal horizons for a particular hazard or ideas about how a particular disaster is likely to unfold depend on the relative distance and position of the observer and his or her own field of knowledge. A broad general difference in temporal perspectives, such as that between professionals and lay persons, is called a "temporal discalibration." This discalibration is readily apparent in the aftermath of disaster when various cycles, speeds and rates of change come together as different people involve themselves with each other in an active environment. Citizens--the front-line troops--begin the initial response and as authorities organize, mobilize and move in, their responses are formulated from, not a personal perspective but a professional one. Planners and analysts weigh different aspects of an issue than citizens who are interested in their own lives and the material of their own personal existence. The perspective that is up close and immediate contrasts with that of an educated and informed--if impersonal--disaster response planner who can fit happenings into the broader picture of past events and extrapolate to likely outcomes.

A snap-shot of differences between planners and a responding citizens might look like this:

					Planner		Responder
	of future			High		Low
	Extension			Long		Short
	Density				Rational	Creative
					many		disordered
	Flow				Slow		Very fast

This is a very simplified part of the enormous temporal complexity at disaster onset and initial response. Discalibrations also exist between professionals who have different contexts and objectives. In biological crises, for example, toxicologists and pathologists might submerge themselves in painstaking and tedious methods to scientifically study the etiology of some disease or the various pathways taken by some toxin. Disaster response teams, on the other hand, need to take immediate action to save lives. Attention differs. In her book, Guidelines for Field Studies in Environmental Perception, Whyte discusses the way different time scales available to decision-makers influences their perspective on the problem (Whyte 1977:88). Though the depth of the temporal field may be unarticulated--or more likely subconscious--it has a significant affect on communication effectiveness.

Disaster professionals have a unique problem associated with the long-term authority of their office. In many cases early decisions have to be made to forestall or mitigate impending disaster. Such decisions always involve the possible risk of needlessly incurring great social and financial hardships. Caught between the need to act and the desire to wait and see, the disaster professional is plagued by fear of not acting quickly enough or acting precipitously and unnecessarily. The longer they can defer, the more information they have, the better. Scientists can have the same problem: the cure may be worse than the disease.

Another illustration of different temporal perspectives can be seen in some regions with recurring disasters such as hurricanes, tornados or floods. Sometimes a sub-group of the population develops a pattern of response that is maladaptive--say an attitude of unjustifiable bravado--and that response becomes part of the local culture. The normal pace of life is quickened by the expectation of sharp, disjunctive change prior to the actual onset of disaster. The promise of swiftly occurring change--replacing steady and predictable continuity--adds to the growing excitement and feeling of aliveness. The posture toward defying danger emphasizes the here-and-now during the disaster experience--a deliberate short-term modification of future orientation in response to crisis. Using past successes, the sub-group celebrates and exhilarates the present while ignoring future consequences. A legacy is created which colors all future expectations.118

In all these situations, one important thing is going on. These various activities or inactivities reflect different aspects of the temporal paradigm. The actors in the previous examples make decisions and take action in consonance with their own temporal perspectives and the consequence is often that their perspectives clash with those around them.

Future can be permanently lost. When an event precipitates the collapse of social institutions and the dissolution of social order, all attention is focused on the immediate present. If continued crisis after crisis provides no let-up...if hardships and losses continue over a period of time...belief in the possibility of any kind of a predictable and controllable future can be eroded. Recovery is hampered because planning is impossible. People live in an immediate present. Or they turn to the past.

Poland is an example of a country that experienced great instability in the process of establishing new social and political systems. In 1989 Tarkowska published an essay, "Uncertainty of the Future and Domination of a Presentist Orientation," in which she addresses the question of the meaning of the future for people who are actually caught up in rapid social transformation. A 1980 survey of Polish temporal orientations and attitudes toward time119 identified very few people who thought in terms of distant goals. Even those who were most active focused only on everyday activities and, at most, the proximal future:

"Present-day pressure was felt as a closed, expired time, with a lack of perspectives, limited by concern for various necessities of life. Preoccupation with current matters and concentration on everyday family needs did not allow any wider perspectives" (Tarkowska 1989:178).
This survey was done in the climate of political unrest leading up to the establishment of Solidarity in September of 1980.120 During the time the survey was being conducted, the Charter of Workers Rights was drafted (1979) and dissidents and workers continued to agitate for change. Local authorities and leaders were experiencing a growing sense of instability in their positions and a large percentage of them did not expect to remain in office (ibid:179n). So it was in this state of extreme turmoil that citizens were polled and found to have no future. Tarkowska concluded that, at the end of the seventies, "presentism" characterized the temporal orientation of the entire Polish society.

Then came the establishment of the Solidarity Movement in September of 1980 and large masses of people plunged themselves into public activities with renewed hope and energy. Another perspective of the future dawned for some of these citizens, but others remained caught in the 'presentist' position. Basing her distinctions on Gurvitch (1969), Tarkowska believes two distinct temporal perspectives were in evidence at the time, neither very good for planning: One, dominated by the present, is characterized by the experience of change which seems to occur in accidental and irregular fashion, while the other, moving toward the future, is characterized by the feeling that time overtakes itself because the future so rapidly becomes the present. Tarkowska argues that perception of reality, and orientation to time. is case specific and depends on the position of the individual in this way: For those who were positioned to be actively involved in events unfolding in Poland at the time, temporal horizons opened up into the past and the future, at least to some extent. "This was particularly true in the first optimistic, hopeful months of Solidarity's existence when suddenly the pre-determined world turned into a set of opportunities" (Tarkowska 1989:180).

But in late 1980 and 1981, economic crises continued to grow, "forcing short-range, emergency actions and turning upside-down any planning" (ibid: 180). Martial Law was imposed in December 1981. In Tarkowska's argument the future was foreshortened, not just as a result of the shock of martial law, but also as old pre-August 1980 orientations came flooding back:

"The effects of extreme presentism - immediacy and provisionality, making up typical elements of the existing socio-political system - intertwine with the effects of a collapse of social hopes and of the protracted crisis bearing a specifically intensive "culture of the present" limited in its future visions, permeated with provisionality and temporal discontinuity" (ibid:193).
Tarkowska concludes that attitudes toward time can be an adaptation to the political situation of the moment. In some cases, the "presentist" orientation in Poland was a deliberate attempt to avoid disappointment. Tarkowska explains that these citizens were withdrawing or resigning from the future because of a real lack of influence over the shape of their own future. So the Polish "presentist" orientation can be seen as a justifiable defense in response to a new social order. The effect of restricting temporal horizons to the present may be further passivity leading to anti-social behaviors such as vandalism, drug abuse, alcoholism, etc. And in fact Tarkowska notes that, in 1989 at the time of her essay, many of these things were actually happening.

We see that larger political and economic processes can create feelings of stability for the individual or, with swiftly moving and tumultuous change, feelings of great insecurity. This is important because when everything appears to be shifting rapidly, control is at a premium and the primary need of the individual is to adapt or stabilize. In periods of stability, what exists has always existed but in periods of radical change the future evaporates.

Each person has a temporal signature. The term, "temporal signature," sometimes called "temporal identity," gives recognition to the idea that temporal perspectives are as unique to each individual as personality itself. Pattern and flow and various aspects of future perspective are reflexive definitional structures which shape the way individuals understand and relate to their various environments.

While methodology require the distinction, separation and definition of parts, this parsing up of temporal elements is artificial and possibly misleading since these parts do not exist in isolation from each other. To understand the role of time the whole temporal network must be considered--at least with respect to future time horizons and attitudes toward the process of change--because no single aspect can be assumed to predominate over others. The entire temporal identity is a complex of ideas and attitudes forming a kind of individual cognitive map--an interpretive framework--within which the individual understands and acts on the world around him.

The temporal signature is perhaps better understood after considering the way it develops and matures. Temporal development begins in early childhood as an adaptive process built on prediction and feedback. Success depends on how well one reads (predicts) the environment. Successive cognitive models clash with environmental happenings and cultural expectations and are adjusted. Adaptations are made and re-made until--at some point in the maturation process--concepts of time are well enough developed to allow the individual to function more or less successfully.

Within this sense of time, each man creates his personal temporal horizons--the past through memory and the future through anticipation. This temporal control is "..conditioned by everything which determines personality: age, environment, temperament [and] experience," (Fraisse 1963: 177).

The product is an emergent structure which is a durable, stable part of personality (Rappaport 1990:49). It is consonant with, but not identical to, those around him. Idiosyncratic, unique and imperfect, it remains unexamined, for most people, throughout their lives. Time becomes part of the background of daily life and is unlikely to be the subject of scrutiny or evaluation unless it creates a problem of some kind such as tardiness, moving too slow or too fast, inability to let go of the past, unreasonable pre-occupation with living in a suspended present, irrational expectations of the future, and so forth. In his book, Marking Time: How our personalities, our problems, and their treatment are shaped by our anxiety about time, (1990), Rapport describes case studies of clients who exhibit some of these problems, but even in the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders, time, as an imperfectly learned construct, is rarely addressed.

The articulation of multiple timings. So the individual temporal signature is a learned matrix of elements which come together to create a context within which people relate to each other. But temporal structures order relationships, not just between individuals and groups, but also between individuals (or groups) and their environments. Even the ability to perceive and recognize various environmental timings--man-made and natural--are affected. A strong view of this limitation is represented by Schutz and Luckmann who argue that temporal structures create cognitive boundaries that actually limit what can be experienced and given meaning (Schutz 1960).

Much of this has yet to be empirically examined. For example, no one has investigated the way perceptions of time in the man-made environment affect perceptions of time in the natural world but it can be argued that involvement in one estranges its inhabitants from the other by familiarity and expectation. The research on urban/rural differences in perception of hazard could be re-examined using the temporal paradigm. For those of us who live primarily in urban settings, who thinks in meteorologic time scales? Clues to climatological hazard will be easily overlooked when the focus is on the present or near-term. If the forces at work create 100-year floods and the time scales characterizing human activities span five years, or perhaps as much as a decade, the "temporal discalibration" is enormous! And how can either urban or rural inhabitants conceptualize a geologic time scale for once or twice-in-a-century earthquakes?

In addition to intervals of time one must investigate expectations around the speed of onset of various environmental events and rates of change that can be experienced with those events. Dombrowsky notes that the severity (hence the very nature) of disaster depends on the speed with which preparations can be made:

If the danger is faster than any protection wreckage is unavoidable, if readiness is an fast as the onset of danger, withstanding is possible; and if readiness is faster than the onset of danger, even precautionary measures can be utilized or safer grounds can be reached. Hence, disaster may be defined as a result of interfering periods of time, or, in other words, as a proportion of correlating speeds. The speed which people need to analyze their situation is the first factor that will influence the rapidity of an upcoming danger. Stunned people "accelerate" the onset of danger, fast reactions "decelerate" the onset of danger. Consequently, threats have no speed of their own, no absolute unevadable velocity (Dombrowsky 1993:26).
The unifying theme is anticipation of the future we develop expectations for "what," "how" and "when." Since we are primarily social creatures we use normative and valuative interpretations about speeds and rates of change and various qualities of "future." Sensitivity to the position of the "other" smooths and articulates the interplay between temporalities. Collective behavior is ordered as each individual continually assesses ways to meet the expected expectations of others--blending the psychological with the socio-cultural. Schutz and Luckmann state that intersubjective meaning is grounded in a common time consciousness: "Action gains meaning by integrating internal consciousness of experience with the total context of experience" (Schutz 1960).

Of course, the equal interval standard runs through all subjective constructions of mundane reality. While, phenomenologically speaking, "flow" is constantly emerging and constantly changing in speed and texture, we are only required to attend to clock time. Understanding and using experience in a phenomenological way would require a constant process of learning and adaptation, but we don't have to do that: we have a cultural overlay that directs us to attend to the "uniformity" of time. This practical invention together with socially learned expectations smooths relationships between people and nature. We have wide-spread agreement in how to articulate these multiple timings. Until disaster strikes.

Disruption of the temporal signature. No one who has ever been in a devastating earthquake, sudden flood or volcanic eruption, can forget their surprise at the realization of disaster onset. The precipitous intrusion of the natural world creates a surreal quality of disbelief. It is not just that we expect each day to follow the last in it's general character...in the conduct of normal life we depend on it.

The shattering of daily life by a truly devastating disaster disrupts, not just the daily plans, but the entire temporal structure. The immediate sense of the future crumbles in the face of terror, confusion and fear. Later realization and response shapes a different temporal structure. Long term disruption affects the temporal signature in still a different way, and with it, the sense of personal identity.

Future time perspectives lend comfort, order and direction to life, but more than that--because we are goal-oriented creatures--our needs, incentives and emotions all stem from perceptions of the future. Emotional states have strong motivational properties, and while primary or fundamental motivations may have to do with immediate survival, further behavioral motivation involves assessment and decision-making. And what is it that's assessed? The way the future is unfolding. In fact, whether or not there is a future at all.

Following Fraisse, Melges shows how identity depends on continuity in temporal perspectives, especially those aspects touching on the future. Melges argues that ideas about future are more permanent to a person's essential, continuous self than other elements of time (Melges 1990). Klineberg, elaborates on the relationship of "future" and "identity" by exploring the ability to differentiate between unattainable wishes and realizable expectations and their relationships to emotional problems and social adjustment. He concludes that future orientation goes hand-in-hand with the development of a positive ego-identity (Klineberg 1967:192).

When the continuity of future perspective is disrupted one becomes alienated from one's self leaving an uneasy feeling of strangeness and unfamiliarity (Melges 1990). The result can be both exciting and terrifying.

Creativity and the edge of chaos. Man reacts to disaster in various stages--immediate response, desperate struggle, gradual recognition, seasoned view, sustained endurance--moving through multiple processes of change. What happens to "future" during all this? Learned ideas are irrelevant in the shocking realization that disaster time moves.. how? Fast.. slow.. unevenly? Only theory can address the way these temporal experiences contribute to confusion, panic and hysteria or, alternatively, assessment, planning and deliberate action.

On the surface we see a collection of complex, dynamic elements which we tend to interpret using linear models. In the past the question of how future perspective actually functions has been addressed with untested models which, seemingly, try to connect everything with double-ended arrows. No one knows, for example, under what conditions future orientation might function as an independent, dependent or intervening variable. Research has been unable to lay out the tangled relationships between future perspectives and social and natural environments.

In everyday use, moments of time create "leaves" which join with branches and trunks creating patterns which reproduce themselves in micro and macro ways. In the interweaving of different plans of action we see interplay between temporalities--within and between, micro and macro--and as we look closer and closer paradoxes crop up. In the weaving and unraveling of time we search for a grand pattern and we find that linear descriptions are adequate.

Chaos happens at the limit of the capacity to control, which recommends it as a model for understanding ruptured social and psychological processes. Time, initially ordered and predictable, becomes chaotic and unpredictable at the moment of disaster. Disfunction and disorder increase with environmental upheaval. Seeming randomness or noise makes various elements salient at various points.

Since the edge of chaos--that place between order and chaos--is a region of creativity and adaptability where many things can happen, we ask: what happens to the temporal signature at the moment of disaster? We know that temporal identity is durable but adaptive. We have evidence of elasticity but we also see brittleness. Under some conditions the temporal signature actually changes. In many cases it doesn't. The moment of disaster may be a moment of liberation from the tyranny of the temporal identity.

During and immediately after disaster it appears that temporal elements can hold multiple values simultaneously: Despair and presentism together with abandonment and retreat into the past, at the same time as the dawning of new hope for a future filled with opportunity. Time moves slowly and deliberately, while at the same time feeling uneven, ragged and uncontrollable. Sharp, disjunctive change brings feelings of tenuousness and insecurity but feelings of familiarity and predictability are there too. Fast and heady, slow and deliberate... contradictory and paradoxical states seem to exist all at once. It seems that chaos provides a psychologically realistic model of the unbounded, adaptive processes which evolve temporal structures.

Collective disruption. Ideally disaster responses coordinate planning and spontaneous self-organization so they work in tandem. But it's hard to solve temporal discontinuities in the underlying linkages when each part has its own uneven and unpredictable rhythms. The system struggles for entrainment but it's hard for the various responders to be flexible, especially when the environment, moving at it's own pace, continues to pose a danger.

When disaster strikes, formality and authority break down. Rules no longer apply. The temporal structures of organizations, groups and individuals are fragmented. "Errors" increase. As individuals coalesce and self-organize to deal with unfolding events new temporal structures come out. These are impacted by the various rates and speeds of governmental and official entities as they begin to respond and, during all this, environmental events continue at still a different pace. Soon after catastrophe the tangle of various temporal orders continues with post-disaster problems such as loss of shelter, water, electricity, spread of infectious diseases and so forth, each of which become acute at different times after disaster onset. An organizational rate may be optimal until new information comes in and the system becomes overloaded. Changes in time frames create confusion. The clashing pace and timing of authority and individual or small group response affects motivation which in turn affects disaster response.


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