Cultural Lag

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The U.S. sociologist William F. Ogburn (1886–1959) developed the concept of cultural lag, which occurs when unequal rates or degrees of change between interdependent parts of culture leads to "maladjustment" (1922). According to Ogburn, as new inventions are introduced into society, a maladjustment occurs and a period of adjustment is required. Most often these inventions are technological in nature, and are part of what he termed "material culture." However, Ogburn noted that "non-material culture" can also drive change. For example, he cites India in the early years of Buddhism as a case where religion was driving change in other areas of culture (1964).

Ogburn's classic description of technologically-driven cultural lag was the period required for society to adapt to the speed of the automobile (1964). It took some time for the social institutions and customs of road building to adapt to the ability of new cars to travel much faster than horses and older car models. A more pressing example is provided by the advent of nuclear weapons, which represent an enormous leap in scientific knowledge without a complimentary advance in political institutions capable of regulating and using that knowledge wisely. Another example is provided by the rapid advances in biomedical technologies and the ability of institutionalized ethics committees, such as Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs), to adapt to those changes and make wise decisions. The depletion of natural resources, especially oil, represents a broader interpretation of cultural lag, where changes in the material environment may outpace the cultural response to those changes.

Numerous other cases exist where science and technology have advanced more rapidly than the spiritual, social, or political aspects of culture. Indeed, the anthropological studies collected by Edward H. Spicer (1952) and H. Russell Bernard and Pertti J. Pelto (1987) document examples of a relationship that Bernard and Pelto simplify as shown in Figure 1. Such maladjustment can prove socially harmful.

However, the concept of cultural lag must be interpreted and applied carefully in order to avoid dubious assumptions about progress. First, it must be recognized that culture can also lead rather than follow. Many historical analyses of how modern science and technology arose in Europe after the 1500s, such as those by Max Weber (1904), Lynn White, Jr. (1978), and others, have argued that cultural change preceded technological change. Second, it need not follow that "lagging" aspects of culture must simply be altered in order to "catch up" with more rapidly changing elements. If applied interculturally, the concept can also promote Eurocentric assumptions about "underdeveloped" parts of the world, and lead to irresponsible transfer and application of technologies.

Several evaluations of cultural lag exist in terms of its ability to describe and predict cultural change (Brinkman and Brinkman 1997). More important, however, is the need to deconstruct any bias toward an inadequate notion of progress within the metaphor of cultural lag. It is intuitive that various parts of culture change at different rates and thus no longer fit together smoothly. Yet this does not necessarily mean that one part now "lags behind" another. The metaphor of cultural lag easily connotes the "failure" of different cultures or parts of culture to adjust to change, as if there were no agency or choice outside of simply running along the treadmill of material change.

In other words, as Alvin Toffler argues, cultural lag needs a balancing term of "future shock," which describes "the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time" (1970, p. 4). Building directly off of Ogburn's concept, Toffler explains, "The concept of future shock ... suggests that there must be balance, not merely between rates of change in different sectors [of society], but between the pace of environmental change and the limited pace of human response. For future shock grows out of the increasing lag between the two" (p. 5).

He makes the argument that rapid change is neither indisputably good nor out of one's control to shape and sometimes slow down. The future can arrive too soon for society's own good. This highlights the central idea within cultural lag of proportionality, equilibrium, and harmony (the right adjustment) among the parts of culture. As Toffler argues, "The only way to maintain any semblance of equilibrium ... will be to meet invention with invention—to design new personal and social change-regulators. Thus we need neither blind acceptance nor blind resistance, but an array of creative strategies for shaping, deflecting, accelerating, or decelerating change selectively" (p. 331). Achieving this selective change is not a simple, technical matter of "catching up," but rather a series of decisions about the meaning of the good life and the ideal society.


SEE ALSO Double Effect and Dual Use;Science, Technology, and Society Studies;Social Theory of Science and Technology;Unintended Consequences.


Bernard, H. Russell, and Pertti Pelto, eds. (1987). Technology and Social Change, 2nd edition. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Brinkman, R.L., and J.E. Brinkman. (1997). "Cultural Lag: Conception and Theory." International Journal of Social Economics 24(6): 609–627. Surveys and evaluates the theory of cultural lag and some of its applications.

Ogburn, William F. (1922). Social Change with Respect to Nature and Original Culture. New York: Viking. Ogburn's first systematic formulation of cultural lag as a part of his theory of social change, which is presented in the chapter "The Hypothesis of Cultural Lag."

Ogburn, William F. (1964). "Cultural Lag as Theory." In On Culture and Social Change, ed. Otis Dudley Duncan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A concise overview of the concept with several examples where lags accumulate as the result of rapid technological change. Also provides some background to its development and addresses criticisms.

Ogburn, William F. (1964). On Culture and Social Change, ed. Otis Dudley Duncan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A posthumous collection of 25 essays by Ogburn. Includes works on social evolution, social trends, short-run changes, and methods.

Spicer, Edward H., ed. (1952). Human Problems in Technological Change: A Casebook. New York: Russell Sage. Fifteen case studies, including the often cited "Steel Axes for Stone Age Australians" by Luriston Sharp.

Toffler, Alvin. (1970). Future Shock. New York: Random House. A 505-page book that argues that there can be too much change in too short of a time, and therefore peoples need to improve their ability to wisely regulate, moderate, and apply technology to serve human ends.

Weber, Max. (2001 [1904]). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Stephen Kalberg. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.

White, Lynn Jr. (1978). Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays. Berkeley: University of California Press.