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Technology and Culture 45.2 (2004) 396-405

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William F. Ogburn, Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature

When the Society for the History of Technology was formed in 1958, its founders hoped that the new organization would provide a multidisciplinary home for scholars concerned with the historical interactions of technology, society, and culture. One indication of the society's intellectual eclecticism was the name of its journal, Technology and Culture. Another was the selection of a sociologist, William Fielding Ogburn (1886-1959), to serve as the society's first president. Ogburn's interests and scholarly pedigree certainly gave him the proper credentials; unfortunately, he died before he was able to take office.1

Technology had not been the sole focus of Ogburn's work; his voluminous writings include articles on child labor, race relations, the family, urbanization, income distribution, even psychoanalysis.2 But technology and its consequences were at the center of his intellectual career, as can be seen in the titles of two of his books, Technology and the Changing Family and The Social Effects of Aviation. Significant as these were, Ogburn's seminal work on technology was Social Change with Respect to Cultural and Original Nature, the subject of this essay. First published in 1922, it was reprinted eleven times. Its only revision came with an edition published in 1950, in which Ogburn added a new concluding chapter while leaving the original text unaltered.3 [End Page 396]

Much of Social Change offered little that was new, even by the standards of 1920s social science. A considerable amount of space is devoted to an enduring theme in the social sciences, the relative importance of culture and "original nature" in determining human behavior. "Original nature," the awkward and misleading term that appears in the book's title, refers to the bundle of instincts and predilections supposedly derived from the human species' biological heritage. As might be expected of a sociologist, especially one writing in the early twentieth century, Ogburn argues that culture is of greater significance in shaping human societies and individual behavior. This in turn sets the stage for an opening inquiry into the book's key topic: how culture and society change.

It is at this point that the spotlight falls upon technology. Firmly resisting the notion that technological advance is the product of inventive genius, Ogburn notes that the "cultural base" has more to do with technological progress than the inspiration and efforts of solitary inventors. By way of proof (or at least demonstration), he lists no fewer than 148 examples of simultaneous or near-simultaneous invention. In similar fashion, a section on the spread of inventions stresses cultural variability in accounting for differential diffusion rates. The following section continues this theme through a consideration of some of the political and psychological barriers to the diffusion of potentially beneficial inventions.

Finally, at page 200, more than halfway through the book, we get to what makes Social Change at least a contender for "classic" status, for it is here that Ogburn introduces the concept that has been his greatest sociological legacy: cultural lag. As he explains: "The thesis is that the various parts of modern culture are not changing at the same rate, some parts are changing much more rapidly that others; and that since there is a correlation and interdependence of parts, a rapid change in one part of our culture requires readjustments through other changes in the various correlated parts of culture."4

Ogburn goes on to provide a number of cases that illustrate cultural lag, the most lengthy of which deals with workmen's compensation. He gives several pages to a history of payments to workers for on-the-job injuries in order to highlight the time lag between the growth of industrial employment (and industrial accidents) and the provision of adequate financial compensation for injured workers. More illustrations of tardy responses to changes in material culture follow: tax policies based on real property [End Page 397] instead of financial assets, the loss of many traditional functions of the family due...


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