The idea of cultural lag arose in sociology as a phenomenon that occurs when culture evolves at a slower pace than the innovations of the material world. This gap appears because technology and innovation tend to develop rapidly while people’s beliefs and habits change much more slowly.


The term “cultural lag” was proposed for the first time by William Ogburn in 1922 as a sociological concept. Ogburn referred to the period in which non-material culture lags behind current material trends, and emphasized that this temporal gap creates sociological and ethical problems. According to Ogburn, cultural lag is caused by the conflict between the natural tendency of technology to be in constant, rapid development and the propensity of a non-material culture to preserve tradition and reject changes.

This concept arose because of the theory that cultural components are interdependent, patterned, and structured; if one is modernized, then the others will follow. However, these changes do not usually occur at the same time. The constant evolution of technology and culture’s reluctance to change are major factors that cause cultural lag.

Examples of culture lag are quite easy to notice in the modern world, since technological development moves at a rapid pace. Moreover, this gap exists at many levels, from the everyday world to the scientific realm. For example, some schools prohibit children from using smartphones in class although these technologies can benefit the learning process. In addition, scientists and the public are now arguing about the safety and ethical implications of autopilot cars.

However, since the world is constantly evolving, cultural lag can also be seen retrospectively, in examples from everyday life in the past. For instance, people have almost always been sceptical of medical innovations, especially in the Middle Ages, when sick people preferred to use prayer instead of herbal infusions, considering the latter to be a witch’s potion. A more current example is seen in television and cinema; they were perceived solely as entertainment in the early twentieth century, but nowadays, people recognize their educational and social functions.

Cultural lag does not always refer to technology. The gap arises because non-material culture does not keep pace with the material, meaning that innovations in medicine, changes in education, trends of the work market, or the way of doing business can be its cause. For example, many parents encourage their children to attend university because they believe that an educational degree will provide their offspring with work opportunities and high earnings. However, Elon Musk hires employees without a college degree.

The main disadvantage of cultural lag is its ability to provoke disputes and sociological problems in the modern world. A culture that lags behind innovations perceives them as dangerous and unacceptable. Society often creates myths to justify its fear of innovation and believes in them until its cultural perception adapts to the changes in the outside world. However, over time, culture usually catches up with technology and the conflict is resolved.

Cultural lag will continue to be part of society in the future since non-material culture repels change and people are slow to accept new ideas. Therefore, each new stage of development will bring about a new struggle between the beliefs and habits of society and the innovations of technology and other sectors.