What Is Cultural Lag?

How Cultural Lag Affects Societies

Scientist pipetting a sample into a petri dish during a experiment in the laboratory
Andrew Brookes / Getty Images

Cultural lag — also called culture lag — describes what happens in a social system when the ideals that regulate life do not keep pace with other changes which are often — but not always — technological. Advances in technology and in other areas effectively render old ideals and social norms obsolete, leading to ethical conflicts and crises. 

The Cultural Lag Concept 

The cultural lag concept was first theorized and the term was coined by William F.

Ogburn, an American sociologist, in his book "Social Change With Respect to Culture and Original Nature," published in 1922. Ogden felt that materiality — and by extension, the technology that promotes it — advances at a rapid pace, whereas societal norms tend to resist change and advance much more slowly. Innovation surpasses adaptation and this creates conflict. 

Some Examples of Cultural Lag 

Medical technology has advanced at such a pace as to put it in conflict with several moral and ethical beliefs. Here are a few examples: 

  • Life Support: Medical technology is now being used to keep people’s bodies functioning long after they would otherwise have been declared dead. This raises cultural and ethical questions about when life ends and who has the right to end artificial life support or to prolong existence. The development of new cultural beliefs, values, and norms lags behind the dilemmas posed by the technological change. 
  • Stem cell research and therapies: Stem cells have been proven to defeat a host of diseases, yet they must come from unborn fetuses. Some types of abortion remain illegal on several state and federal levels, creating a conflict between medical advancement, the law, and ethical and religious beliefs. 
  • Cancer vaccines: A vaccine against cervical cancer became available in the 21st century, but some oppose it because it is given to preteens. This is seen in some quarters as encouraging youngsters to engage in sexual activity. Again, medical advancement has outpaced cultural and moral considerations. 

Other Cultural Lags in the 20th Century 

History — and particularly recent history — is rife with other, less traumatic examples of cultural lag that nonetheless support Ogburn's position. Technology and society are fast-paced, and human nature and inclination are slow to catch up.

Despite their many advantages over the handwritten word, typewriters weren't routinely used in offices until 50 years after their invention. A similar situation exists with the computers and word processors that are commonplace in businesses today. They were at first met with objections from labor unions that they would undermine the workforce, ultimately replacing people and ultimately costing jobs. 

Is There a Cure? 

Human nature being what it is, it's unlikely that any solution exists for cultural lag. The human intellect will always strive to find ways to do things faster and more easily. It has always attempted to fix problems thought to be insurmountable.

But people are wary by nature, wanting proof that something is good and worthwhile before accepting and embracing it.

Cultural lag has been around since man first invented the wheel, and woman worried that traveling so fast would surely cause grievous injury. 

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Crossman, Ashley. "What Is Cultural Lag?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 18, 2018, thoughtco.com/cultural-lag-3026167. Crossman, Ashley. (2018, April 18). What Is Cultural Lag? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/cultural-lag-3026167 Crossman, Ashley. "What Is Cultural Lag?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/cultural-lag-3026167 (accessed May 26, 2018).