Cultural Lag or Cultural Drag
The Impact of Resource Depletion on Social Change in Post-Modern Society
Copyright 2002 John F. Kraus II
Describing socio-cultural change has long been a favorite subject of sociologists. One common criticism of modern sociology is that it often fails to address real problems with potential solutions. One possible opportunity by which sociologists might offer solutions can be found in the study of the underlying motivating factors behind social and cultural change. Cultural lag is one of the theories often used to describe these factors that influence cultural changes. William Fielding Ogburn wrote many articles on empirical sociological methodology. He was a strong proponent of the need to use the results for predictive tasks. Ogburn was also a critic of sociologists who were, in his view, mere reporters of social history (Ogburn, 1929, 1940,1957,). Ogburn first described the theory of cultural lag in 1915, although he began developing the theory as early as 1912. Ogburn’s definition of cultural lag is:
“ A cultural lag occurs when one of two parts of culture which are correlated changes before or in greater degree than the other part does, thereby causing less adjustment between the two parts that existed previously (Ogburn 1957).”
When Ogburn described socio-cultural change and culture in terms of "parts" he relied on a very common model of the day that compared society and culture to an organic model in which the various "parts" were analogous to the organs of the human body. Later Ogburn used the term to indicate a more mechanical model that likened society to machinery that ran either well or poorly depending on the state of the various “parts”. While neither of these models remains in great favor, they do provide ways of looking at society.
The genesis of the theory of cultural lag can be found in Ogburn's fascination with social change and the factors that drive it. Ogburn sought answers to the questions like: why are cars running off the road on curves? Ogburn believed that the answer lay in the culture of road building. When the automobile was first introduced, roads were designed for horses and wagons and were narrow with sharp curves and corners. As the speed of automobiles increased, roads were not able to handle the capability of automobiles. The culture of road building (the socially defined concept of what a road should be) had to change. The period required for society to adapt to the increased speed capability of the automobile was Ogburn's classical description of technologically driven cultural lag (Ogburn 1950). I believe that Ogburn's theory of cultural lag can provide, with slight modifications, a solid foundation for looking at the impact of resource depletion in a post-modern society. Ogburn described societies in which changes are occurring rapidly and contrasts this to societies in which change is occurring slowly (Ogburn 1950). Generally, according to the theory of cultural lag, more examples of cultural lag can be found in societies in which change occurs rapidly than in societies where changes occur slowly.
According to Ogburn, four critical factors drive cultural change. These four factors are: invention, accumulation, diffusion, and adjustment (Ogburn 1950). Ogburn believed that as new inventions were introduced into existing society, maladjustment would occur and a period of adjustment would be required. This underlying idea forms the basis for the theory of cultural lag. Inventions can be formed in a society from within the society by awareness of new possibilities. The accumulation of inventions over time also results in new inventions as two or more ideas are combined. Alternatively, inventions can result from the diffusion of new ideas from other geographical areas. The experiences of Marco Polo and other explorers can serve as examples of the diffusion of ideas and inventions between geographical areas. Ogburn expressly rejected the idea that inventions must be mechanical or technologically based (Ogburn 1950, 1957). Ogburn uses India at the time of Buddha as an example of a lag in which religion was the primary motivating force behind a great deal of social change (Ogburn 1957).
In post-modern society resource depletion, either through an exhaustion of natural resources or through the mal-distribution of available resources may become a more important independent variable than technology was in Ogburn's original theory.
Review of the Literature
Support for using cultural lag theory to analyze post-modern society can be found in an essay by Wendell Bell: “The Sociology of the Future and the Future of Sociology” in the International Review of Sociology in 1999. While Bell does not directly advocate any particular theory, he makes a strong case for the desirability of sociology to take an active and predictive view of society. Bell advocates that sociology should adopt a holistic and transdisciplinary view of society rather than the fragmented and niche focused model that he feels is commonly seen today (Bell 1999).
A similar theme can be found in Elizabeth Atkinson's essay: “The Responsible Anarchist: postmodernism and social change” in the British Journal of Sociology and Education (Atkinson 2002). While primarily focused on a rebuttal to critics of postmodernism, Atkinson also calls for the use of sociological methods for the betterment of society rather than as mere explanatory tools (Atkinson 2002).
Further support for the validity of Ogburn's theory of cultural lag can be found in an essay titled: “Cultural Lag: conception and theory” that was published in the International Journal of Social Economics (Brinkman et al. 1997). Brinkman notes that most critics of cultural lag point to the theory as being too broad or too general to be of any real value Brinkman disagrees with this assertion if the lag in question is empirically testable; a belief that was at the heart of Ogburn’s theory as well (Ogburn 1957). To help distinguish between different types of lag Brinkman prefers the term socio-cultural lag rather than merely cultural lag. Brinkman uses this term “socio-cultural lag”, which he attributes to Frances R. Allen, to indicate that lags involve both social as well as cultural elements. Brinkman believes that socio-cultural lags are often overlooked when defining relationships within the non-material aspects of culture. Brinkman defines a classical lag as occurring when the material part of culture moves ahead of the non-material part. Lags can also occur when the non-material moves ahead of the material. Brinkman and Ogburn offer, compelling examples of non-material socio-cultural lags (Brinkman et al. 1997) (Ogburn 1957). An example of this non-material type of lag can be seen in differing attitudes found in various groups about jobs that are suitable for women. The primary factors influencing these changes in social attitudes have been the alteration over time in the beliefs held by different groups, not the introduction of a specific technology. As certain beliefs became more popular in the mainstream of society, culture changed. Other examples of non-material lags can be found in studies of race and gender issues. The resistance of American Southern societies to the call by civil rights groups for integration of public institutions is one example of a non-material cultural lag. The imposition of governmental force was required to begin the resolution many of these civil rights era cultural lags.
Considerable reference material is available that described various cause and effect relationships in the area of resource depletion (Davis, 1978) (MacAvoy, 1983) (Commoner, 1976) (Deffeyes, 2001). However, very little of this information actually addresses the consequences of resource depletion on socio-cultural change. For example, Kenneth Deffeyes’s book Hubbert's Peak describes an impending world oil shortage in graphic terms yet there is little discussion of the long-term social consequences of the potential loss of oil as a fuel source.
The above review of the literature, while in no way complete, supports my contention that cultural lag remains a valid theoretical basis for the study of a post-modern society. Furthermore, I believe cultural lag may actually be more useful in a post-modern context where technology (as the independent variable) is less of a determining factor then was the case in the 1920’s and 30’s when Ogburn was developing the theory. Ogburn worked during a time marked by rapid expansion of inventions and technology as well as plentiful resources. In the post-modern world, resource depletion is likely to be a more quantifiable variable than is technology. Furthermore, resource depletion will occur more quickly and have a more critical impact on larger numbers of people than will many non-material lags. Therefore, resolution of cultural lags that derive from resource depletion is more problematic because they will require an abrupt change in society.
Many models attempt to describe the exact nature of culture. More interesting to Ogburn and other sociologists are the motivating factors that influence individual decision making in a large enough number of individuals to create a wholesale cultural change. I believe these motivating factors revolve around a concept that may be called “perceived benefit”. Perceived benefit is a simple concept that merely recognizes that most individuals when faced with a choice will choose the option that carries the greatest potential benefit for them. In many ways, this is essentially a selfish choice model. It is grounded in the belief that man's nature is self-preservationist.
When relating perceived benefit to cultural lag four key factors are of particular interest:
· The perceived benefit may be a positive or negative one for the individual.
· The perceived benefit may take the form of the lesser of two evils.
· The perceived benefit may have positive or negative consequences for society as a whole.
· A previously positive benefit may become negative for either the individual, society or both over time
A perceived benefit for a given individual is merely an assumption by the individual that a particular course of action will produce positive benefits for that individual. Individuals may further assume, rightly or wrongly, that the benefit will accrue to society as well. Ogburn's classic example of technology driven cultural lag can aptly demonstrate this. It is highly unlikely that individuals in the 1920's who were contemplating the purchase of an automobile choose to buy because it would make their life more difficult or because it would allow them to run off the road on curves designed for horse drawn wagons. Another example can be found in the advances in information technology. One can find articles in journals less than a decade old that state that e-mail will never be a viable communications method in the world of business. Unfortunately, for these authors a sufficient number of individuals perceived a benefit to acquiring the means to use e-mail. Given the rapidity with which e-mail and other technologies have proliferated in modern society, it is obvious that many individuals must have perceived a benefit these authors did not foresee.
Perceived benefit can also take the form of a choice involving the lesser of two evils. In this circumstance, the individual recognizes that they are faced with two unpalatable choices. Rational choice theory would hold that the individual would make a choice based on rational evaluation of the options. One key criticism of this theory is the lack of explanation for the number of factors that can influence an individual’s choice. I hold it is far more likely that the individual will choose the outcome that is potentially the least harmful in the short term regardless of whether or not the choice is inherently rational. Examples of this may be found in the experiences of Somalia and other nations in the Great Lakes region of Africa. For the last several decades, international aid has poured into these regions. Various groups competing to maintain their power and social position have siphoned off much of this aid. These groups are often composed of relatively small numbers of powerful individuals. As famine gripped Somalia a decade ago, the civil infrastructure collapsed. Faced with a choice of starvation on the one hand, or supporting a particular strongman on the other, a lesser of the evils choice, many individuals choose to support a given strongman in exchange for food. Perhaps this could be seen as a logical choice. Less easily seen as a rational choice was a decision by many, especially women and children, to attack American and U.N. troops who were attempting to deliver food aid. I believe that Somalia and other similarly situated societies can provide examples of the culture shaping effect of perceived benefit in a lesser of two evils situation. Faced with this type of choice individuals often choose options that seem to offer them a benefit in the immediate short term. However, these decisions when viewed from a more distant perspective are frequently harmful to both the individual as well as to social order. The culture then becomes dysfunctional for the society as a whole although it may still be marginally functional for some segments of the society.
As can be seen from the previous two examples perceived benefit could have either a positive or a negative effect on society. It is also possible that a society will develop a culture centered on a technology like the automobile that has a positive benefit for both the individual and society as a whole. In the first 75 years of the last century, the automobile clearly enhanced the mobility and autonomy of the individual American citizen. This mobility and autonomy has largely become synonymous with liberty and freedom in American culture. The result of this cultural linking of concepts is that Americans are extremely reluctant to give up the automobile in exchange for public transportation. This situation can also demonstrate that a cultural component that is at first positive can become a negative influence over the long term. Cultural lag or perhaps, more succinctly, cultural drag may provide some insight into this quandary.
Historically, the resolution of a cultural lag has been a positive outcome. It is far less clear whether the resolution of a cultural drag will be as positive. Indeed cultural drag may have a significant negative affect on society at least in the short-term. In a post-modern society, resource depletion will become a fundamental drag on the direction of society and the underlying culture that defines it. A simple way of viewing the difference between a cultural lag and a cultural drag can be seen in the motivating factors that underlie the cultural changes that occur. In a lag society is being coaxed or pulled, more or less willingly, in a given direction by a perceived benefit. Conversely, in a cultural drag the motivation becomes more of a push. This motivating force is often an unpalatable choice of the lesser of two evils. When faced with this unpalatable choice individuals as well as societies are more reluctant to make changes and tend to resist the push. In this scenario, resistance to change provides an opportunity for individuals to diverge from social norms due to less agreement in individual perceived benefit. This divergence from accepted norms is at the root of many social conflicts. The potential impact of cultural drag may be most easily seen in the post-modern problem of resource depletion. The discussion of using cultural drag to describe the impact of resource depletion on society can use any number of resources as examples however; two in particular are appropriate to provide a basic example. These are global oil supplies, and the availability and allocation of water resources.
Society is built around the utilization of resources. These resources may be finite or quasi-infinite. Finite resources are those that are in limited supply and have an end beyond which they are exhausted. Quasi-infinite resources are those that lack a definable end although they also can be exhausted. First, as an example of a finite resource I will consider global oil supplies. Secondly, as a quasi-infinite natural resource I will look at water availability and allocation.
Kenneth S. Deffeyes notes in Hubbert's Peak that global oil supplies will peak this century. This is not optional, the peak will occur as petroleum reserves are a finite resource. The only real questions are when the peak will occur and how steep the down slope will be. Given the importance of oil to the cultural changes that have occurred in the last 100 years it is virtually impossible that the end of cheap oil will not have far reaching effects on socio-cultural change. One solution to this problem might be to institute strong conservation measures and thereby attempt to move the peak to a later time and flatten the down slope. This is an example of a social policy that attempts to influence individual perceived benefit through a lesser of two evils choice. In Europe, governments have instituted high taxes on petroleum-based fuels as both a revenue source and as a deterrent to auto use. By providing acceptable alternatives, government has avoided problems of social rebellion. These policies have largely succeeded in producing a social attitude that favors public transportation over personal automobiles. An example of this cultural attitude can be seen in Europe and in parts of Asia that have less reliance on the automobile and consequently less cultural entanglement with the concepts of liberty and autonomy.
This is not true in the American cultural viewpoint. The perception of the automobile has become entangled with an American cultural viewpoint that equates mobility and autonomy with liberty and freedom. This entanglement represents one primary inhibiting factor to instituting strong oil conservation measures in the United States. For many Americans, public transportation represents a loss of autonomy, and by extension, liberty, and freedom. Therefore, these individuals do not perceive any benefit to relinquishing their reliance on personal transportation in the form of fossil fuel powered vehicles. Moreover, there are currently no alternative technologies that can provide the functional capability of the automobile.
The capabilities of the modern automobile have remained unchanged since shortly after World War II. These capabilities can be essentially summed up as:
· The ability to load the family and cargo when desired
· The ability to travel without restriction when and where desired
· A speed of 55 to 75 miles per hour (8 hour range of 440 to 600 miles)
· A range of between 200 and 450 mi. on a single refueling
Personal transportation using alternative technologies does not currently come anywhere close to these capabilities. Electric vehicles typically have a range of between 30 and 60 miles and can not carry cargo payloads as large as most cars and trucks. Electric cars require 5-8 hours to recharge, which limits them to commuter status. Fuel cell vehicles are currently unavailable to the average consumer. Fuel cell technology vehicles suffer from similar range and cargo capacity issues. Furthermore, there is an almost total lack of infrastructure to support refueling or recharging either of these types of vehicles. The most promising near-term alternative may be bio-diesel, a fuel that can be used in current diesel engines with little alteration. The main problem with this strategy is the inability to produce sufficient quantities to support the existing automobile base. This is an especially acute problem if fuel economy requirements remain low when compared to the potential economy that can be achieved with high efficiency engines. One difficulty in promoting efficiency is in the perceived lack of safety of small cars, a side effect of advertising, a point that will be addressed in detail later.
There is a similar lack of infrastructure for public transportation. It will require significant public expense to build and support. Another problem with public transportation is the loss of autonomy that it will pose for most Americans. The inability to travel at will and the need to meet schedules will be a wrenching change for many. Public transportation represents a perceived loss of liberty and freedom among those who have always relied on the car. Often the mere suggestion of higher taxes to support public transportation is sufficient to ensure removal from office for any politician foolish enough to suggest it. This leads to decreased political support for change.
Quasi-infinite resources are the second type of resource depletion that will affect post-modern society. Water is the most obvious quasi-infinite resource. However, many human resources can be categorized as quasi-infinite as well. An example of this can be seen in the current nursing shortage. I think that the resource within a professional field is the knowledge that these professionals such as nurses possess. It is this knowledge that provides value to society and it is the lack of knowledgeable practitioners rather than a simple lack of individuals to do a job that defines the nursing and other professional shortages. This is also an example of a non-material lag or drag.
The primary method by which water and other quasi-infinite resources will affect post-modern society is through mal-distribution. Unlike oil, water is extremely common; it will not cease to exist as a substance. There are two issues with regard to water as a resource. The first is in the quality of the water the second problem is in the availability and allocation of the resource. The unequal distribution of water, either politically or geographically or as the result of natural phenomena, is the primary underlying problem with availability and allocation. It is in the third world that water quality will become a significant drag on cultures. An example of the allocation type of problem can be seen in the American Southwest in the year 2002. Various laws that were enacted in the last century, often in the early part of the century when populations were low, grant subsurface water rights to the surface landowner. In the American Southwest, this has allowed speculators to purchase land with the intent of drilling into subsurface aquifers and supplying the water to large cities. Often the volume of water that is pumped from the aquifer is so great that it has resulted in depletion of the aquifer to the point that other users of the aquifer have been left without water. Frequently rural communities and farmers have been harmed by these actions. This is a situation in which the cultural drag is not part of the material but rather the non-material part of culture. The cultural drag is the result of laws that have not been updated to reflect changing social patterns and needs. Unfortunately, these laws are unlikely to be changed, as the perceived benefit (A reflection of American cultural views on individual property rights) is a function of the political climate and large cities have more voters. The long-term result may be decreased food supply due to lack of water for crops.
On a global scale, drought and political conflict pose the greatest threat to water as a resource. Somalia again becomes an easy example of the socio-cultural consequences of this type of resource depletion. Longstanding drought has exerted such a significant drag on the culture of Somalia that the society has become essentially dysfunctional in a post-modern social context. The result of water resource depletion in Somalia has been massive human tragedy. While the primary causative factor was a naturally occurring event, the final social consequence was the result of resource depletion forcing a change in the culture of a society. In this case, the final social consequence was extremely negative despite the perceived benefit choices of many individuals.
One of the most important keys to understanding society is to be able to understand the motivations of both individuals and groups. In a cultural lag, choice on both the individual level as well as in groups, is motivated by many conflicting factors that influence how an individual perceives a given situation. Some of these factors are political, while others are ideological. Additional factors may be cultural or based on religious beliefs. In American society, one influential cultural factor is mass media advertising. When Ogburn was developing the theory of cultural lag in the 1920's there was no massive media driven marketing and advertising. The advent of mass media marketing did not appear until after World War II. Ogburn did not anticipate the impact of mass media marketing on individual decision making.
The impact of advertising consumer behavior has been widely researched. Indeed an entire branch of economics is devoted to consumer research and consumer demographics. It should be obvious even to the casual observer that market research could have a pronounced effect on influencing the way consumers perceive products. Since the primary purpose of advertising is to sell products, it is unlikely that advertisers will describe their product in terms that do not highlight its benefit to the consumer. Perceived benefit is based on the individual’s knowledge and personal interpretation of a given situation. When an individual makes choices based on incomplete or inaccurate information a possibility exists that the decision as to whether or not the perceived benefit exists may be wrong. While a complete discussion of advertising is beyond the scope of this paper, it should suffice to note that the vast majority of automobile commercials on television and advertising in print media are not of alternative fuel vehicles. Furthermore, many of the television commercials portray automobiles in grandiose and status enhancing terms with a strong appeal to personal vanity and fantasy.
Advertising represents only one of the many confounding factors that influence perceived benefit. Political affiliation, educational levels, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and prior experience can all play significant roles in individuals perceived benefit for any given situation. It may be difficult to see the perceived benefit when discussing a lesser of two evils type of choice. However a lesser of two evils choice is still fundamentally a decision by the individual as to which of the two options is most likely to be beneficial.
The sociological study and empirical testing of cultural lag and cultural drag, as they relate to individual perceived benefit, may improve individual decision-making by providing the individual with information they may not otherwise have. This could make these decisions more beneficial for both the individual and society. By defining and describing the individual perceptions that make up perceived benefit sociology can offer policymakers the tools that will enable them to make better decisions. This predictive sociology was at the heart of much of Ogburn's writings.
A predictive sociology must function within a value frame. Hornell Hart first applied a value frame to the concept of cultural lag in his series of essays on atomic cultural lag. His value frame was essentially, whether certain societal results were desirable or not. By providing respondents with a series of questions that were answered by providing a percentage of good or bad for each statement, Hart was able to create a scale that consolidated perceived values in empirical framework. While Hart's work was mostly related to the Cold War, the underlying concept and methodology remains sound. A new scale can be created utilizing the same methodology. This new scale may allow empirical testing of a cultural lag or cultural drag that is present in a given resource depletion equation. By producing an empirically testable hypothesis, Hart's methodology may allow sociologists to better predict the perceived benefit inherent in a given cultural lag. Even more importantly, it may allow sociologists to test empirically the influence of various confounding factors on perceived benefit. If the influence of confounding factors can be controlled for, it may be possible to develop predictive modeling for social change in a cultural lag or cultural drag equation. It is by providing information that allows the individual to make socially responsible choices that sociology can move from a passive observational role to an active participant in social change.
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