Practice Question:  Is the theory of cultural lag valid in present times? Discuss. (10 Marks) (UPSC 2018)

Approach: Introduction; Outline the concept of culture; Discuss the genesis of culture lag as a concept, give examples, substantiate on the validity of theory of cultural lag in the present times; Conclusion.



Sociology understands culture as the languages, customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge, and collective identities and memories developed by members of all social groups that make their social environments meaningful. Sociologists study cultural meaning by exploring individual and group communication; meaningfulness is expressed in social narratives, ideologies, practices, tastes, values, and norms as well as in collective representations and social classifications.

Sociology also studies the production, diffusion, reception, evaluation, and application of cultural meaning across institutions, organizations, and groups, including how cultures differentiate racial, ethnic, and class groups, and the role of culture in producing inequalities and group boundaries.



Acculturation is a process through which a person or group from one culture comes to adopt the practices and values of another culture, while still retaining their own distinct culture. This process is most commonly discussed regarding a minority culture adopting elements of the majority culture, as is typically the case with immigrant groups that are culturally or ethnically distinct from the majority in the place to which they have immigrated. However, acculturation is a two-way process, so those within the majority culture often adopt elements of minority cultures with which they come into contact. The process plays out between groups where neither is necessarily a majority or a minority. It can happen at both group and individual levels and can occur as a result of in-person contact or contact through art, literature, or media.

Five different strategies and outcomes of acculturation.

  1. Assimilation. This strategy is used when little to no importance is placed on maintaining the original culture, and great importance is put on fitting in and developing relationships with the new culture. The outcome is that the person or group is, eventually, culturally indistinguishable from the culture into which they have assimilated. This type of acculturation is likely to occur in societies that are considered “melting pots” into which new members are absorbed.
  2. Separation. This strategy is used when little to no importance is placed on embracing the new culture, and high importance is placed on maintaining the original culture. The outcome is that the original culture is maintained while the new culture is rejected. This type of acculturation is likely to occur in culturally or racially segregated societies.
  3. Integration. This strategy is used when both maintaining the original culture and adapting to the new one are considered important. This is a common strategy of acculturation and can be observed among many immigrant communities and those with a high proportion of ethnic or racial minorities. Those who use this strategy might be thought of as bicultural and may be known to code-switch when moving between different cultural groups. This is the norm in what are considered multicultural societies.
  4. Marginalization. This strategy is used by those who place no importance on either maintaining their original culture or adopting the new one. The result is that the person or group is marginalized — pushed aside, overlooked, and forgotten by the rest of society. This can occur in societies where cultural exclusion is practiced, thus making it difficult or unappealing for a culturally different person to integrate.
  5. Transmutation. This strategy is used by those who place importance on both maintaining their original culture and on adopting the new culture — but rather than integrating two different cultures into their daily lives, those who do this create a third culture (a blend of the old and the new).



Though they are often used interchangeably, acculturation and assimilation are two different things. Assimilation can be an eventual outcome of acculturation, but it doesn’t have to be. Also, assimilation is often a largely one-way process, rather than the two-way process of cultural exchange that is acculturation. Assimilation is the process by which a person or group adopts a new culture that virtually replaces their original culture, leaving only trace elements behind, at most. The word means to make similar, and at the end of the process, the person or group will be culturally indistinguishable from those culturally native to the society into which it has assimilated.



Diffusion, also known as cultural diffusion, is a social process through which elements of culture spread from one society or social group to another, which means it is, in essence, a process of social change. It is also the process through which innovations are introduced into an organization or social group, sometimes called the diffusion of innovations. Things that are spread through diffusion include ideas, values, concepts, knowledge, practices, behaviors, materials, and symbols.

The process of diffusion, according to Rogers, happens in five steps:

  1. Knowledge: awareness of the innovation.
  2. Persuasion: interest in the innovation rises and a person begins to research it further.
  3. Decision: a person or group evaluates the pros and cons of the innovation (the key point in the process).
  4. Implementation: leaders introduce the innovation to the social system and evaluate its usefulness.
  5. Confirmation: those in charge decide to continue using it.



The concept of cultural relativism as we know and use it today was established as an analytic tool by German-American anthropologist Franz Boas in the early 20th century. In the context of early social science, cultural relativism became an important tool for pushing back on the ethnocentrism that often tarnished research at that time, which was mostly conducted by white, wealthy, Western men, and often focused on people of color, foreign indigenous populations, and persons of lower economic class than the researcher. Cultural relativism refers to the idea that the values, knowledge, and behavior of people must be understood within their own cultural context. This is one of the most fundamental concepts in sociology, as it recognizes and affirms the connections between the greater social structure and trends and the everyday lives of individual people.



Ethnocentrism is the practice of viewing and judging someone else’s culture based on the values and beliefs of one’s own. From this standpoint, we might frame other cultures as weird, exotic, intriguing, and even as problems to be solved. In contrast, when we recognize that the many cultures of the world have their own beliefs, values, and practices that have developed in particular historical, political, social, material, and ecological contexts and that it makes sense that they would differ from our own and that none are necessarily right or wrong or good or bad, then we are engaging the concept of cultural relativism.



The concept of cultural lag was first introduced by W.F. Ogburn in his book Social Change which was published in 1922. Since that date ‘cultural lag’ has been discussed from different angles by sociologists. According to this theory, the culture of any society consists of a pattern of interrelated elements. We can easily see that all aspects of a culture will not change at the same rate at the same time. Hence, a change in any one part of the cultural pattern may create strains and disturbances in the other closely related parts.

Adjustments between these parts will have to be made eventually to restore harmony. But there will naturally be a time lag before harmony is restored. This is known as cultural lag. In modern societies, it is technological change that sets the pace. According to Ogburn, “technological progress produces rapid changes in the material aspects of our culture, but the non-material aspects fail to adjust or they do so only after an excessive time lag. As a result, many troublesome social problems are created”.

Some sociologists hold that the concept of cultural lag may be accepted with important qualifications. 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.


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