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Rudi Volti - Crisis and Innovation in Asian Technology (review) - Technology and Culture 45:2 Technology and Culture 45.2 (2004) 396-405

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 to industrialization and mass education, American isolationism amid growing international connections, unionization based on occupation rather than industry, and political representation on the basis of locality rather than social class and occupation.

As Ogburn develops this theme he makes it clear that some elements of a culture are more likely than others to take the lead in initiating cultural changes. The most important impetus for change is a "discovery or invention," which alters the material culture, which in turn affects the non-material elements of a culture.5 Ogburn at first defines "invention" broadly enough to cover any sort of cultural novelty, but it soon becomes apparent that inventions involving "material culture" are responsible for the bulk of social change and that a culture's nonmaterial components are the laggards.6

In the final chapters of the first edition, Ogburn moves on to a rather different set of issues centering on the fit, or the lack thereof, between human nature and modern culture. Psychological rather than sociological in its orientation, this segment demonstrates the influence of Freudian ideas on Ogburn; indeed, some parts read like Civilization and Its Discontents. At this point material culture has dropped out of the discussion, and the focus shifts to the psychosocial problems of individual "adjustment." Ogburn was not one to proffer radical solutions for the ills of modern humanity; a few pages from the first edition's end, he blandly notes that "a consideration of the instincts, the libido, sex problems, substitution, and recreation do point to very distinct possibilities of a better adjustment between our modern culture and human nature."7

The publication of the new edition in 1950 gave Ogburn the opportunity to extend and modify a work that was by then nearly three decades old, but, as has been noted, the only emendation he chose to make was the addition of a new three-chapter segment at the end. This mostly recapitulates the points made in the original text, but a few pages are devoted to the theme that gave the book its lasting impact: the overarching role of an advancing material culture in bringing about social change and the tardiness of other elements of culture in catching up with it. Here Ogburn provides a somewhat more extended discussion of the process of social change. "Invention" is still given top billing, complemented by "accumulation" (the store of past inventions, which expands at an exponential rate) and the diffusion of inventions from other cultures. The fourth element of social change is "adjustment," the process through which lagging cultural elements catch up with the changes driven by invention, accumulation, and diffusion.8 Ogburn [End Page 398] apparently felt little need to make significant revisions beyond these, claiming that "there has been little criticism of these theories of social evolution in the years since their first publication."9

Although one may admire such self-confidence, it hardly seems merited. In the first place, any theory that makes alterations in material culture the primary impetus for social and cultural change invites the charge of technological determinism. Ogburn attempted to distance himself from unvarnished technological determinism by noting that the process of cultural change runs in both directions: "a change may first occur in non-material culture and later the material culture be adjusted to such a change."10 But nonmaterial sources of social change receive little consideration in the book, and some of Ogburn's later writings read like a parody of technological determinism, as when he attributed some of the increase in northward African-American migration to the invention of the mechanical coal stoker: the stoker led to the production of more powerful locomotives, which allowed longer trains and hence longer platforms, increasing the distance passengers had to carry luggage, which in turn stimulated a need for more porters, a job usually held by African-Americans.11 In some of his later writings Ogburn denied that he was an adherent of a "technological interpretation of history," again noting that other elements of a culture could serve as prime movers of social change.12 In other places, Ogburn equivocated about technology's role in shaping social change to the point where the reader is left to wonder what he really believed, as when he writes: "Invention is not the prime and basic cause of social change. . . . [W]hen the interrelated parts of a culture are all in motion, there is no such thing as 'first.' Theoretically there is no origin in change, yet practically there is. . . . [Q]uantitatively, if there are many significant inventions there will be many social effects."13 And sometimes he seemed to wash his hands of the whole issue of what causes what: "[T]he more one studies the relationship between mechanical and social inventions, the more interrelated they seem. Civilization is a complex of interconnections between social institutions and customs on one hand, and technology and science, on the other. The whole interconnected mass is in motion. When each part is in motion and banging up against some other part, the question of origins seems artificial and unrealistic. If one pushes the question to the extreme, origins are lost in a maze of causative factors."14 [End Page 399]

Qualified though some of his statements might be, Ogburn's writings unquestionably give pride of place to technology, invention, and material culture as sources of social and cultural change. Yet even if the reader is willing to accept this, there remains the problem of explaining how technological innovations come into being. The easy answer in Ogburn's time was that invention stemmed from the creative energies of individual inventors, but Ogburn was too much a sociologist to give such weight to individual actions, although he did list "mental ability" as one of the fundamental sources of invention. More in keeping with later thought on the subject was his inclusion of "demand," the "social valuation" of inventions, and "other cultural elements out of which inventions are fashioned, sometimes called the cultural base" as sources of technological innovation.15 Had Ogburn expanded on these factors he might have gained at least the threshold of social constructivism, but his lack of interest in doing so can be seen in the relegation of nontechnological forces for social change to the final pages of the 1950 edition.

All of this is backdrop for the most enduring part of Social Change: the theory of cultural lag. If one is willing to lend at least some credence to Ogburn's conceptualization of the primary forces underlying social change, the idea of cultural lag readily follows. Logically, a lag can be said to have occurred if something has been affected by something else, then failed to keep pace with the causative agent. From this perspective the concept is little more than a truism. But more than logic was involved in the widespread influence of Ogburn's formulation. Perhaps most important, the times were ripe for it. For all of our present conceits about living in an era of uniquely rapid social change, America in the 1920s was going through transitions that were no less epochal: on the technological front, a quickened pace of residential and commercial electrification, accelerating ownership of private automobiles, the emergence of commercial aviation, and the establishment of movies and radio as prime entertainment media; socially and culturally, the changing status of women, massive rural-to-urban migration, the rise of organized crime, and the cultural residue of the most lethal war in human history. In such a world it was all too easy to look to technology as the dynamic, progressive element in human affairs and to see established cultural patterns and individual behaviors as retrograde, even atavistic. Under these circumstances, Ogburn's expostulation of cultural lag helped to explain why things seemed to be so badly out of "adjustment." Equally important, the theory contained an implicit intellectual basis for ameliorating many of the problems besetting modern society. [End Page 400]

That Ogburn's ideas could serve as the basis for bringing the process of social change under control was more than a little ironic. Like many sociologists of his generation, Ogburn viewed his discipline as an objective science that had to be kept aloof from prescriptive nostrums. Ogburn's intellectual approach has been characterized as neopositivist; for him, the sociologist's primary tasks were the gathering of facts and the finding of statistical correlations between them.16 Given these strictures, sociological research had to be kept at a safe distance from the formulation of social policy, no matter how well-intentioned. As Ogburn put it: "Sociology as a science is not interested in making the world a better place in which to live . . . or in guiding the ship of state. Science is interested in one thing only, to wit, discovering new knowledge."17 To Ogburn, a concern with practical application was pernicious, for it could only get in the way of a clear-headed search for objective facts about society: "If pressure is put upon solving the practical problem, upon the ethical point of view, upon the choice, or upon doing something that is worth while, you obscure very greatly and hinder very greatly the process of getting this information."18

Ogburn's commitment to the relentless gathering of statistically presented facts could be seen in the approach he took when serving as director of research for the President's Research Committee on Social Trends. Organized in the year that followed Herbert Hoover's election to the presidency in 1928 and funded to the tune of $560,000 by the Rockefeller Foundation, the committee embodied the newly elected president's hope that social issues and problems could be scrutinized in the rational manner that characterized Hoover's earlier engineering career. But Ogburn's unyielding emphasis on the collection of facts and their separation from policy recommendations put him at odds with the reform-minded social scientists who also served on the committee.

In keeping with his emphasis on sociology as a fact-driven science, Ogburn had no taste for social engineering. Although he devoted a considerable amount of space in Social Change to cataloging the manifold psychological problems brought on by the mismatch of different cultural elements, Ogburn refrained from offering sweeping prescriptions for bringing the lagging elements of a culture into better "adjustment" with the ones leading the way. As he asserted on the penultimate page of the first edition, "the nature of cultural growth and change shows that it is futile to plan any wholesale [End Page 401] and powerful control of the course of social evolution."19 Accordingly, the social adjustments that he proffered were vague, bland, or both; in need of attention were "influences affecting the lives of children and parental affection, sex education, modification of social codes, shorter hours of labor, recognition of boundaries to selfishness, specific social programs, and . . . the wise development of substitutive activities such as recreation."20

Although he eschewed detailed policy formulation, Ogburn wielded considerable influence over contemporary social thought, as the key ideas expressed in Social Change had become staples of introductory sociology textbooks by the 1930s.21 But inclusion did not signify complete acceptance. Despite Ogburn's brave assertion that the contents of Social Change had met with little criticism, a number of sociologists and other scholars took issue with various aspects of the book in the years that followed its publication. Several found fault with Ogburn's efforts to identify the prime mover of cultural change, variously "invention," "technology," or "material culture." S. C. Gilfillan challenged the idea that "invention" broadly construed could serve as a kind of unmoved mover and argued that invention was itself too bound up with social factors to play an independent role.22 Another sociologist, Michael Choukas, noted that the separation between material and nonmaterial culture was an artificial construct because material objects could serve a variety of functions; consequently, the emotions and sentiments that they evoked at least partially determined how these objects influenced society and culture.

The greatest volume of criticism centered on the conceptualization of cultural lag and the presuppositions that lay behind it. Although Ogburn repeatedly asserted his commitment to keeping "objective" facts uncontaminated by personal values, his critics accurately perceived that in his schema science and technology come off as dynamic forces of progress, while the cultural elements that are slow to respond are implicitly portrayed as impediments to human betterment. As might be expected, Lewis Mumford was not one to accept the notion that technology was necessarily a force for good, arguing instead that "change in a direction opposite to the machine may be as important in ensuring adjustment as change in the same direction, when it happens that the machine is taking a course that would . . . lead to deterioration and collapse."23 Similarly, some academic sociologists were uncomfortable with the value judgments implicit in [End Page 402] Ogburn's schema. As Henry H. Frost noted, "That the concept of lag is itself . . . a moral judgment cannot be overemphasized."24 This "moral judgment" was nicely captured by James W. Woodward's observation that "after we have kicked the concept of 'progress' out of the front door, we find it returning in scientific guise by a rear entrance."25

Other criticisms were aimed at Ogburn's explications of the processes whereby lagging cultural elements eventually adjust to the advances initiated by the culture's progressive elements. As several sociologists pointed out, the notion of "adjustment" was vague, making it impossible to state with any degree of precision when lagging cultural elements could be said to have "caught up" with advanced ones.26 And, as with his general notion of social change, Ogburn's conceptualization of adjustment was seen to be value-laden; what one person defined as a lagging element might seem eminently worthy of preservation to another.27

Ogburn never seems to have recognized that adjustment was an inherently political process.28 As often happened with sociologists of his era, Ogburn's structural-functionalist approach to social analysis obscured the cold reality that cultural changes, whatever their source, could substantially alter power relationships, social status, and the distribution of income and wealth. The key question, then, was posed by John H. Mueller: "Who gets to determine what constitutes an adjustment?"29 After all, what some might see as maladjustment might be a desirable condition for others.30 For Ogburn, a smoother meshing of cultural elements promised a higher level of social organization, but, as Mueller objected, "The alleviation of the lag for the few may result in the disorganization of the many."31

These criticisms did not prevent Social Change from exercising considerable influence, and not just in academic circles. One measure of the book's long-term influence is the passage of the term "cultural lag" from sociological jargon to everyday usage. As with "role model," "social engineering," and the word "culture" itself, "cultural lag" has been incorporated [End Page 403] into everyday discourse. One commonly used dictionary defines it (without attribution) as "a relatively slower advance or change of one aspect of a culture, esp the slower development of nonmaterial or technological culture traits."32

Within academia, the concept of cultural lag has enjoyed enduring if not universal acceptance. One of the best measures of the significance of a concept, theory, or empirical finding is the extent to which it has become embedded in textbooks. Ogburn's key ideas about social change and cultural lag received extensive coverage in one of the most widely used sociology textbooks of the 1940s—not surprising, as Ogburn was its coauthor.33 Today's sociology textbooks, however, bear mixed witness to the endurance of the ideas presented in Social Change, especially the concept of cultural lag. My survey of ten recently published introductory sociology textbooks indicated that four of them made no mention of the concept. In the texts that did, Ogburn is sometimes credited with the concept, sometimes not. Textbooks are not known for nuanced presentations of basic concepts, so it is not surprising that the summaries of Ogburn's ideas about social change and cultural lag in these take no notice of the author's caveats and qualifications; all of the textbook descriptions of cultural lag identify "material culture" or "technology" as the initiator of subsequent social and cultural changes.

Although it has been out of print for many years, Social Change continues to exert influence, and not just in sociology texts. As a pedagogical device the concept of cultural lag still has the virtue of bringing technology directly into the teaching of both history and sociology. It is also useful as a way of introducing students to the intellectual perils of technological determinism. But does Social Change merit "classic" status? Ogburn probably would be bemused by such a question; during his long teaching career he warned against a fixation on the sociological "classics," noting that chemistry textbooks did not devote space to the ideas of the great alchemists.

Social Change is not the sociological equivalent of the philosopher's stone, and we are still in search of more sophisticated explications of the relationship between technological and cultural change. It is no longer true, as George H. Daniels once claimed, that most scholars implicitly adopt Ogburn's point of view when they concern themselves with the relations between technology and society, but neither can his perspectives be dismissed out of hand.34 As an all-encompassing theory of how societies and cultures [End Page 404] evolve, Social Change falls short of the mark, but the concept of cultural lag still has considerable utility, especially when it is applied within a narrower compass than society as a whole. Although Social Change was published more than eighty years ago, its ability to illuminate twenty-first-century issues can be seen when introductory sociology textbooks incorporate cultural lag into their discussions of how new reproductive technologies are forcing a redefinition of one of society's oldest and most cherished roles, parenthood.

Numerous other examples of cultural lag could be cited, and many more will appear in the future. Directly or indirectly, Social Change has helped generations of scholars, teachers, and students to perceive the powerful role that technology has played in shaping society and culture. The intellectual and practical challenge lies in creatively applying Ogburn's insights while at the same time always keeping in mind that technological change is not invariably progressive, and that technology is too embedded in society and culture for it to be viewed as a force in its own right.

Dr. Volti is professor of sociology at Pitzer College and a member of the Science, Technology, and Society program of the Claremont Colleges. He is the author of numerous publications, most recently Technology Transfer and East Asian Economic Transformation (2002), a booklet in the SHOT/AHA series.


1. Ogburn's obituary, written by his former student Otis Dudley Duncan, appears in the premiere issue of Technology and Culture: "An Appreciation of William Fielding Ogburn," Technology and Culture 1 (1959): 94-99.

2. For an Ogburn bibliography, see William F. Ogburn, On Culture and Social Change: Selected Papers, ed. Otis Dudley Duncan (Chicago, 1964), 349-60.

3. W. F. Ogburn and M. F. Nimkoff, Technology and the Changing Family (Boston, 1955 ). William Fielding Ogburn, with the assistance of Jean L. Adams and S. C. Gilfillan, The Social Effects of Aviation (Boston, 1946). The publishing history of Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature is long and complicated. The original edition was published by B. W. Huebsch (New York, 1922) and went through a number of reprintings. The revised edition was published by Viking (New York, 1950) and reprinted by Peter Smith (Gloucester, Mass., 1964). It was again reprinted by Dell (New York, 1966), this time with an introduction by Hendrik Ruitenbeek.

4. Social Change, 200-201.

5. Social Change, 201.

6. Social Change, 275.

7. Social Change, 360.

8. Social Change, 377.

9. Social Change, 374.

10. Social Change, 268.

11. William F. Ogburn, Living with Machines (Chicago, 1933), 13.

12. William F. Ogburn, "Cultural Lag as Theory," Sociology and Social Research 41 (January-February 1957), reprinted in Ogburn, On Culture and Social Change (n. 2 above), 90-91.

13. William F. Ogburn, review of The Sociology of Invention, by S. C. Gilfillan, American Journal of Sociology 42 (July 1936): 127.

14. William F. Ogburn, "Technology and Governmental Change," Journal of Business of the University of Chicago 9 (January 1936), reprinted in Ogburn, On Culture and Social Change, 132-33.

15. William F. Ogburn, "The Great Man vs. Social Forces," Social Forces 5 (December 1926), reprinted in Ogburn, On Culture and Social Change, 38.

16. John Madge, The Origins of Scientific Sociology (New York, 1962), 206-7; Robert Bannister, "Sociology and Scientism: The Case of William F. Ogburn" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, 1988).

17. "The Folk-Ways of a Scientific Sociology," Scientific Monthly 30 (1930): 300-301, quoted in John M. Jordan, Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1994), 150-51.

18. Communication to the 1928 Hanover Conference, quoted in Jordan, 160-61.

19. Social Change, 364.

20. Social Change, 364-65.

21. Michael Choukas, "The Concept of Cultural Lag Re-Examined," American Sociological Review 1 (October 1936): 752.

22. S. C. Gilfillan, The Sociology of Invention (Chicago, 1935), 132-35. While he may have held a different view of the technology-culture nexus, Gilfillan later collaborated with Ogburn on The Social Effects of Aviation.

23. Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York, 1934), 316-17.

24. Henry H. Frost, "Functionalism in Anthropology and Sociology," Sociology and Social Research 23 (March-April 1939): 378.

25. James W. Woodward, "Critical Notes on the Culture Lag Concept," Social Forces 12 (March 1933): 390.

26. Abbott P. Herman, "An Answer to Criticisms of the Lag Concept," American Journal of Sociology 43 (November 1937): 449.

27. W. D. Wallis, "The Concept of Lag," Sociology and Social Research 19 (May-June 1935).

28. For a Marxist critique of Ogburn, see Herman and Julia Schwendinger, Sociologists of the Chair: A Radical Analysis of the Formative Years of North American Sociology (1883-1922) (New York, 1974), 460-62, 469-71.

29. John H. Mueller, "Present Status of the Cultural Lag Hypothesis," American Sociological Review 3 (June 1938): 322.

30. Woodward, 394-97.

31. Mueller, 324.

32. Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged.

33. William F. Ogburn and Meyer F. Nimkoff, Sociology (Boston, 1940). The section on cultural lag appears on 886-93. On the other hand, The Social Effects of Aviation makes no reference to cultural lag, and the term does not appear in the index of Technology and the Changing Family.

34. George H. Daniels, "The Big Questions in the History of American Technology," Technology and Culture 11 (January 1970): 4.

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