Night as Frontier


In 1978, Murray Melbin wrote an article I think still interesting. In it, he states:

While the settlement of some of the world’s land areas was coming to an end, there began an increase in wakeful activity over more of the 24-hour day. This trend of expansion in time is continuing, especially in urban areas. The hypothesis that night has become the new frontier is supported by the premise that time, like space, can be occupied and is treated so by humans. A set of evidence, including results of several field experiments, show that nighttime social life in urban areas resembles social life on former land frontiers.” (3)

Humans are showing a trend toward more and more wakeful activity at all hours of day and night. The activities are extremely varied. Large numbers of people are involved. And the trend is worldwide. A unifying hypothesis to account for it is that night is a frontier, that expansion into the dark hours is a continuation of the geographic migration across the face of the earth.” (3)

We were once a diurnal species bounded by dawn and dusk in our wakeful activity. Upon mastering fire, early humans used it for cooking and also for sociable assemblies that lasted for a few hours after darkness fell. Some bustle throughout the 24-hour cycle occurred too. Over the centuries there have been fires tended in military encampments, prayer vigils in temples, midnight betrothal ceremonies, sentinels on guard duty at city gates, officer watches on ships, the curing ceremonies of Venezuelan Indians that begin at sundwon and end at sunrise, innkeepers serving travelers at all hours. … Yet around-the-clock activity used to be a small part of the whole until the nineteenth century. Then the pace and scope of wakefulness at all hours increased smartly. William Murdock developed a feasible method of coal-gas illumination and, in 1803, arranged for the interior of the Soho works in Brimingham, england to be lighted that way. Other mills nearby began to use gas lighting. Methods of distributing coal-gas to all buildings and street lamps in a town were introduced soon after. In 1820 Pall Mall in London became the first street to be lit by coal-gas. Artificial lighting gave great stimulus to the nightime entertainment industry. It also permitted multiple-shift factory operations [-p.4] on a broad scale. Indeed by 1867 Karl Marx (1867: chap. 10, sec. 4) was to declare that night work was a new mode of exploiting human labor.” (pp.3-4)

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century two developments marked the changeover from space to time as the realm of human migration in the United States. In 1890 the Bureau of the Census announced that the land frontier in America had come to an end, …. Meanwhile, the search for an optimum material for lantern lights, capable of being repeatedly brought to a white heat, culminated in 1885 in the invention of the Welsbach mantle – a chemically impregnated cotton mesh. The use of the dark hours increased thereafter, and grew further with the introduction of electric lighting.” (4)

“Time, like space, is part of the ecological niche occupied by a species. Although every type exists throughout the 24-hour cycle, to reflect the way a species uses its niche we label it by the timing of its wakeful life. The terms diurnal and nocturnal refer to the periods the creatures are active. We improve our grasp of the ecology of a region by recognizing the nighttime activity of raccoons, owls and rats, as well as by knowing the spatial dispersion of these and other animals. The same area of forest or meadow or coral reef is used incessantly, with diurnal and nocturnal creatures taking their active turns. We make geographic references to humans in a similar way. We refer to an island people or a desert people, or the people of arctic lands as a means of pinting out salient features of their habitats.

This similar treatment of time and space rests on the assumption that both of them are containers for living. Consider the dictionary definition of the word occupy: ‘2. To fill up (take time or space) ….” (5)

Melbin goes on to provide evidence for his thesis of ‘night as frontier’ in the form of several points connecting the expansion of humans in space to that of humans in time. Life on the frontier can be described in this way:

1. Advance is in stages

2. Population is sparse and also more homogenous (his point that young males are highly represented in such ‘frontier’ groups is interesting)

3. There is welcome solitude, fewer social constraints, and less persecution (he points out that many homosexuals and obese people occupied the night for social reasons…(p.9))

4. Settlements are isolated 

5. Government is initially decentralized

6. New behavioral styles emerge

7. There is more lawlessness and violence

8. There is more helpfulness and friendliness (Interestingly, he notes that: “In the city during the day, the mood of pressured schedules takes hold of folk and makes their encounters specific and short. The tempo slows markedly after midnight. The few who are out then hurry less because there are fewer places to rush to. Whereas lack of time inhibits sociability and helpfulness, available time clears the way for them.” (13))

9. Exploitation of the Basic Resource finally becomes national policy

10. Interest groups emerge 

In his conclusion, Melbin writes: “What is the gain in thinking of night as a frontier? A single theoretical idea gives coherence to a wide range of events: the kind of people up and about at those hours, why they differ from daytimers in their behavior, the beginnings of political efforts by night people, the slow realization among leaders that public policy might be applied to the time resource.” (19)

This expansion is also unusual because it happens in time rather than in space. We change from a diurnal into an incessant species. We move beyond the environmental cycle – alternating day and night – in which our biological and social life evolved, and thus force novelty on these areas.” (20)

“What is the carrying capacity of the 24-hour day? What will happen when saturation occurs? Time will have extraordinary leverage as it gets used up, for time is a resource without direct substitute. It is unstretchable; we cannot do with it as we did with land by building up toward the sky and digging into the ground. Time is unstorable: we cannot save the unused hours every night for future need.” (21)

Ref: Murray Melbin (1978) Night as Frontier. American Sociological Review 43(1), 3-22

One of his references looks interesting: Melbin, Murray (1977) ‘The colonization of time.’ In T. Carlstein, D. Parkes, and N. Thrift (eds.), Timing Space and Spacing Time in Social Organization. London: Arnold


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