Practice Question – Write Short note on  Theory of Cultural Lag – Ogburn and Nimkoff. (UPSC 2012)

Approach – Introduction, Define Cultural Lag, Explain the theory by Ogburn and Nimkoff, Criticisms, Conclusion.



Ogburn’s insistence on the verification of social theories by quantitative methods helped to shift the emphasis in sociology from social philosophy and reform programs toward the development of a more exact science of social phenomena. Ogburn considered what he termed invention—a new combination of existing cultural elements—to be the fundamental cause of social change and cultural evolution. Noting that an invention directly affecting one aspect of culture may require adjustments in other cultural areas, he introduced the term cultural lag to describe delays in adjustment to invention. Although lags are generally imperceptible over long periods of history, they may be so acute at a given moment as to threaten the complete disintegration of a society. For example, a major innovation in industrial processes may disrupt economics, government, and the social philosophy of a nation. In time, a new equilibrium will be established out of those disruptions.



The term cultural lag originated in a famous sociologist W.F. Ogburn’s treatise entitled Social Change. The term was coined by Ogburn. According to him, culture has two aspects, one material and the other non-material. The material aspect, as compared with the non-material, tends to progress rapidly. Thus the non-material part lags behind. It is this faltering action which is termed cultural lag. Defining cultural lag in their work Handbook of Sociology Ogburn and Nimkoff have written that “the strain that exists, between two correlated parts of culture that change at unequal rates of speed may be interpreted as a lag in the part that is changing at the slower rate for the one lags behind the other.”

Examples – In India’s material culture and such town as Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay are in no way inferior to the Western towns in respect of superficial gaudiness. But inspite of having borrowed so much from the West in its material culture, Indian culture, has undergone very limited changes in the sphere of non- material culture. In this way, as far as the question of borrowing from the West in education is concerned, a tremendous lagging behind from material culture is evident in India’s non-material culture.

Culture is changing very rapidly in the sphere of fashion, dress, artificial beautification, art, recreation, etc., but the change in the sphere of religious notions is comparatively very slow. The present age is called the age of science and rationalism and the West is considered the most advanced in this respect but how scientific and rational is the Christian outlook both medieval and modern, concerning beliefs, rituals, etc.? Actually, we are seeing newer and newer superstitions in the age of science.



Material culture refers to the physical objects, resources, and spaces that people use to define their culture. These include homes, neighborhoods, cities, schools, churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, offices, factories and plants, tools, means of production, goods and products, stores, and so forth. All of these physical aspects of a culture help to define its members’ behaviors and perceptions.

Non‐material culture refers to the nonphysical ideas that people have about their culture, including beliefs, values, rules, norms, morals, language, organizations, and institutions. For instance, the non‐material cultural concept of religion consists of a set of ideas and beliefs about God, worship, morals, and ethics. These beliefs, then, determine how the culture responds to its religious topics, issues, and events.



There is no guarantee that discovery of efficient technological device will be easily adopted. Its adoption or application may be opposed by various interest groups. This state of affairs is characterised by Maclver as technological restraint. Some examples may be cited. One reason for opposition may be that its adoption would affect adversely the vested interest involved in the pursuit of the existing method or procedure. In all countries, innovations in administrative procedure receive stiff opposition from the entrenched civil service. Such opposition may stem from the apprehension that honour, power or pecuniary benefit may be affected adversely by the adoption of new procedure or a new technological device.

Computer, for example, is undoubtedly of immense help in any kind of work situation. But the introduction of computer has not been easy in any work place, be it a government department or a semi-government or private enterprise. Trade unions oppose its introduction on the ground that it would restrict employment opportunities. Sometimes opposition may stem from cultural consideration. For example, when tube well was introduced in India about seven or eight decades ago, many conservative Hindu families did not use or drink water from tube wells on the ground that water came in contact with leather (in the form of washer) and thereby became ‘impure’.



To begin with, we must not assume that changes in the material aspects of culture always precede changes in the non-material aspects. There is a constant interaction between the two. In the long run, technological progress itself is largely dependent on certain non- material factors, such as social attitudes. For instance, most, if not all, of the material products of culture originate in the minds of men, and their application and use are dependent upon a favourable social and cultural atmosphere. Thus a desire to improve the standard of living has to be kindled first in a community before it can accept technology and industrialised way of life. The rapid material progress, which is characteristic of present-day society, is itself the result of earlier changes in our thinking and other non-material aspects of culture.

Another objection raised against the cultural lag concept is that it inherently involves valuation. A question naturally arises: Can the value judgment implied in the term lag be reduced to objective and verifiable facts? In other words, we must have a standard of measurement by which to identify the pacemaker and the laggard. Where no such standard is available, we cannot speak of a lag. “Wherever one part or aspect of a productive system fails to measure up in efficiency to another part or aspect, the term lag is relevant. But wherever the question at issue is not one of comparative efficiency, the use of this term becomes dubious and may convey erroneous implications”.

Cultural lag theory is also criticized on the ground that the ‘reasons’ for the lag are not given the importance which they deserve. In two cases of cultural lag, the reasons for the lag may be not only different but these differences may be socially significant. For example, we may acquire the necessary skill and expertise to make the best use of the resources of the forest, but there may be a time lag before we acquire the necessary know- how of preserving forest resources. In another case, there may be a time lag in broadening the streets necessitated by the introduction of automobile because of the opposition of some vested interests. The ‘reasons’ for the lag in the two cases are different and should be brought out, because the two reasons are qualitatively distinct and sociologically significant. Such distinctions are not, however, brought out in the theory of cultural lag, as enunciated by Ogburn.





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