The word lag connotes crippled movement. Hence cultural lag means the faltering of one aspect of culture behind another. For example if either the material or the non-material aspect of culture were to stay behind the other, it would be a case of cultural lag. It is generally observed that material culture progresses faster in comparison with non-material culture.

Ogburn’s Theory

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.” Citing an example of cultural lag in his Social Characteristics of Cities Ogburn has stated that the number of policemen per 10,000 residents is less in towns in which the population is increasing than the towns in which it is decreasing. This situation Ogburn has represented diagrammatically, thus:


Police a B

In this diagram, the line above represents the increase in population while the one below shows the increase in the police force. It has been assumed that at the point A the police force was adequate for a town.

The population of the town increased rapidly but the police force did not expand till population has reached the point B. In this way, the difference between ‘A’ and ‘B’ indicates that while the population increased continually, expansion in the police force lagged behind.

Similarly, presenting another example of cultural lag Ogburn has stated that the advent of the motor car was disastrous for railway companies as many became bankrupt as a result of their inability to compete with motor trucks for hauling material over short distances.


Some Examples from Indian Conditions

In Indian conditions one comes across many forms of cultural lag. During the last two hundred years much has been borrowed from the West

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.

Another example of cultural lag can be found in the condition of Indian women. In India women share equal rights with men in receiving education, casting votes, taking equal part in the social, political and religious life, and they are progressing in this direction. And yet how different is an Indian woman from her Western counterpart in her sentiments, feelings, thoughts and ideals the fact of the matter is that whereas the Indian woman owns much to the Western in one direction, she is still much the same as she was in another.


It is not true that there has been no transformation or change in these directions but rather it is a fact that the change is very little when compared with the change that has occurred in the other directions.

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 le m 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.

In this way, in modern age, cultural lag in the! Various elements of culture is evident in all cultures, be it Indian, Japanese, English or any other. Lumley has written correctly that it seems as if many pedestrian soldiers or a complete army are marching out of step or as if some of the performers of an orchestra are playing this year’s music on their instruments while others are playing last year’s music and still others last century’s music or even more ancient music at the same time. Such music would not be particularly musical or melodious. But this is the picture of every culture.

Difference in Changeability


What is the cause of this cultural lag? The main cause is that the various elements of culture possess varying degrees of changeability. As has been said before, changes in religious opinions are slow and few.

It is doubtful whether the major religions, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism have undergone any change in the last few hundred years although major changes in the dress, standard of living, methods and even the values of life, of their respective followers are only too apparent.

The same slow speed of change is true not only of the major religions but also of the religions of ancient tribes. For example, in America, the Red Indians have changed enormously in their methods of obtaining food, of fighting and of using the gun and the horse, but their religion is still more or less intact.

Similar to religion the speed of change in law is also slow though not quite as slow as the changes in religion.


A major cause contributing to the slow speed of change in law is that traditions are deeply respected in law. In many countries, particularly in England, traditions are valued very much. The judges dispense justice on the basis of piecedents. New laws are enacted only when extreme difficulty is experienced in some sphere due to their absence. It is evident that laws change after other changes have taken place. For example, in the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution the number of factories increased rapidly and they employed women and children in addition to the men.

There was no law pertaining to the hours of work of these laborers, their wages and working conditions, hence the capitalists, taking advantage of their helpless conditions, exploited the laborers causing widespread dissatisfaction. Only then did the government wake to this predicament, and the labour laws came into existence.

Even now many examples can be cited of cases where changing conditions have necessitated newer and more adequate legislation which has not been enacted or implemented. In India, the question of coloration of hydrogenated vegetable oil is a case in point. Like the laborers, the women had to launch movements for a long period before they could manage to have laws concerning their rights.

Technology progresses at a faster rate than does non material culture. But even in technology, the rate of change is not uniform everywhere. For example, at present the speed of change in chemistry and electrical science is faster than his speed of change in power production.


Similarly, cultural lag is responsible, in the main, for the existing internal tension. Science has made the world a small one. The discovery of atomic power has precipitated a stage in which there should be a solid organization of the human race on an international scale so that a configuration destructive of the entire world may be avoided even if there is a spark.

But the hearts of men are as yet unprepared for such a change. Narrow nationalism has not yet vanished, but is assuming aggressive forms in some spheres. In addition to the difference in the rate of change of the various elements of culture, one major cause of cultural lag is man’s psychological dogmatism.

Man commonly respects old concepts and dogmas or mores. He finds it convenient to follow the path of his ancestors. In such spheres as religion, novelty is not only objected to, but also regarded as sign of depravity.


Many sociologists have indulged in bitter criticism of Ogburn’s theory of cultural lag. According to Mueller, cultural lag is artificial and imaginary. Some other scholars regard lag as artificial and imaginary. Some other scholars view it as a very simple background to the understanding of social change. James W. Woodard and R.M. Maclver have put forward the following objections to Ogburn’s theory of cultural lag:

1. Ogburn’s distinction between material and non-material culture is not clear

Again, it is not necessary that non-material culture should invariably lag behind material culture.

2. A major defect of Ogburn’s theory lies in the fact that the same term cultural lag has been employed for all disequilibriums occurring in the process of social change. Maclver has in this connection, suggested the use of many terms for the various types of disequilibriums and conflicts, such as technological lag, ethnological restraint, cultural clash; cultural ambivalence; etc.

4. According to cultural lag, one thing progresses forward while another lags or restricts. Hence this word should not be used in the context of those objects in whose case the encouraging as well as the restraining objects are similar and possess a common standard of evaluation.