Cultural Lag

By Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

February 14, 2020

When I think back on the things that I learned as a graduate student, there are a few big ideas that have, over the years, stood out as having done an exceptionally good job of explaining some critically important (and frequently repeated) aspect of social conflict. One of those ideas is William F. Ogburn's notion of "cultural lag." 

I first learned about this when Howard Higman (the professor who started me on my career path) explained that most of the commencement speeches being given at the time were, in one way or another, focused on cultural lag. In the 50 years since, I have found that the concept continues to explain much of what is going on in society (even though the concept itself seems to be less-widely recognized). 

The basic idea is based on an evolutionary view of cultural beliefs and cultural evolution. It sees culture as a set of beliefs that tell people how to think about their place in the larger social and environmental context, and how they should behave within that context. Over time, the success of individual communities and societies is, in large part, determined by the degree to which their cultural norms encourage behaviors that take advantage of as many social and environmental opportunities as possible, while simultaneously limiting exposure to downside risks. 

When social and environmental conditions are fairly stable, the slow process of trial-and-error leads to the evolutionary selection of beliefs that "work" and the de-selection of ideas that don't.   The result is a series of stable social, religious, cultural, and political institutions.

Since societies are stronger when everyone works together and the level of internal strife is minimized, it is not surprising that strong social pressures and enforcement mechanisms also become part of the culture to force most citizens to stay within normative bounds.  That said, there is usually room for a few outlying "deviants" who are allowed to try to figure out how to better adapt the culture to changing social conditions. These individuals usually fail (often because they pursue purely selfish goals) and are treated as semi-outcasts by the larger society.  Occasionally, however, one of their ideas will catch on and lead to significant changes in a society's cultural beliefs. There was, for example, a time when those who challenged the "separate but equal" doctrine of segregation were seen as outcasts (or worse). Now we have a national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday. There was a time when women, if they work outside the home, were confined to to a few occupations like nursing, elementary school teaching, and secretarial work. Now they earn more advanced degrees than men.

The problem that Ogburn noted in the 1920s was that the social environment had, at least since the start of the Industrial Revolution, been changing so rapidly that cultural norms were increasingly ill-suited for the emerging world. He saw this as giving rise to a whole series of conflicts as increasing numbers of people (generally with more risk-tolerant personalities) started to question and then quit observing traditional norms. Instead, they started experimenting with alternatives that they believed would offer them a better life.  The result was a series of new counter cultures that presented a significant challenge to the established order.

This, of course, led to conflict with the more risk-averse members of society who continued to place their trust in more traditional and well-established institutions—institutions that placed great value on social cohesiveness and a willingness to forgo personal, short-term pleasures for the longer-term benefit of the larger community (and, of course, those in more dominant positions).  As traditionalists frequently point out, the cultural nonconformists tend to be more motivated by the pursuit of immediate personal gratification than the longer-term well-being of the entire community.

There is also a generational component to all of this. This process of internalizing cultural norms is something that is primarily done in one's formative years with peer group pressures (in young adulthood) often playing as important a role as traditional institutions. In later years, significantly changing one's beliefs is pretty tough, partly because of cognitive dissonance and partly because people don't want to admit that they may have been wrong. More importantly, there are strong social pressures against walking away from cultural norms of one's group. This is a quick way to become ostracized, and deprived of the social support group which is so much a part of our lives. 

Since the 1920s, the pace of social, environmental, and technological change has only accelerated with prospects for even more daunting changes in the near future. The result has been a series of deep and increasingly bitter conflicts between traditionalists and nonconformists and between generations who have formed their cultural orientations in very different environments. 

Think for a minute about the environments in which different US generations developed their cultural beliefs. The so-called "Greatest Generation" won World War II by respecting authority and subordinating one's personal needs to the needs of the larger society. By contrast, Baby Boomers, with their unprecedented educational and economic opportunities, had to come to terms with the folly of Vietnam, the environmental catastrophes that gave rise to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the sexual revolution, and demands for social justice emanating from the civil rights and women's movements.

Gen Xers came of age amidst renewed Cold War tensions and the Reagan-era backlash against government efforts to promote social justice and protect the environment.  By the time that the Millennials came around, the Soviet Union had fallen and the globalization of the world economy was in full swing. This, of course, was followed by 9/11 and the insecurity that comes from seeing yourself as a terrorist target.

Now, Gen Y is coming of age at a time when the "can-do, post-9/11 spirit of globalization" has been replaced by war fatigue and cynicism with increasing inequality that has left large fractions of the population in a state of despair at being left behind. 

And, all of these events have played out as the communication system that we rely on to tell us what's happening has made the transition from broadcasting to narrowcasting to, now, targetcasting. 

For more information about generational differences in cultural beliefs we recommend the Pew Research Center's report on Millennial life: How young adulthood today compares with prior generations.  Another excellent window into all of this is David Brooks' new article in the AtlanticThe Nuclear Family Was a Mistake. Not only does he document the many ways in which families have struggled to adapt to changing social conditions, he suggests an alternative family structure that he thinks would be better adapted to the modern world. Finally, the New York Times has a great set of interactive graphics entitled How Birth Year Influences Political Views that further illuminates the concept.

Is it any wonder that these (and a great many other events of comparable consequence) have produced a population with widely differing cultural adaptations to the world in which they live? With no let up in the pace of change in sight, we can expect cultural-lag conflicts to persist and probably intensify. 

It's pretty clear that the continuing quest for decisive victory in the culture wars is a recipe for continuing and potentially catastrophic strife. Cultural lag conflicts can easily escalate to the point where they undermine the ability of culturally-diverse societies to work together to solve a wide range of common problems. Further complicating things is the fact that this escalation process is often being deliberately amplified by "mobilize-the-base" politicians who try (often with great success) to ride cultural conflicts to political victory.  This is, in turn, is making it harder for us to wisely and equitably find solutions to common problems (like climate change). It is also increasing the risk of large-scale civil unrest or the possibility that some cultural groups will come to dominate and oppress others.

So, what should we do? We think it would be much better to live in a world characterized by mutual tolerance, respect, and coexistence—one that gives everyone the freedom to search, in their own way, for the best way of living. This will require charting a middle course between guarantees of cultural security (in which everyone is protected from hearing things that might call their beliefs into question) and continuing efforts to defeat those with whom we disagree. 

We need safe cultural spaces in which to live our everyday lives. And, when we are ready, we need to be able to pursue opportunities for cultural cross-fertilization that can enable us to learn from the experiences and beliefs of others.  For the left, this simply requires them to extend their commitment to diversity to those with less progressive cultural beliefs. On the right, it is simply a call to "walk the talk" with respect to individual liberties.

These are both ideas that have been long championed by people working in conflict and peacebuilding-related fields who have, for years, found cultural tensions to be at the core of many of the world's difficult and destructive conflicts.  Rather than trying to briefly summarize their collective insights, I thought I would highlight a few articles from the Beyond Intractability system which I think explain some of the big ideas from this literature.  To start with, it's worth thinking about the many problems which arise when cultural lag conflicts are handled poorly. You certainly have trouble meeting basic human needs (which include cultural security, a sense of belonging, and an identity that is respected by the larger population). Without these things, conflicts can escalate in ways that give rise to feelings of humiliationvictimhood, and even a sense of being under siege on the part of low-power groups. Higher power groups can become oppressive and even start thinking they can push the other group into the sea (figuratively and, sometimes, literally).  The alternative is developing a vision of a society characterized by tolerance, respect, and coexistence.  To do this a lot of tools have been developed for facilitating cross-cultural communication such as narrativesdialogue, and empathic listening.  Hopefully, these articles will give you a starting point for thinking about more constructive ways of dealing with cultural lag.

The big idea that I'd like you to get from this essay is that cultural differences are largely (but not wholly) attributable to differences in the way and the speed with which different communities adapt to changing social conditions. As such, a good deal more tolerance is in order for people who are, in different ways, struggling through similar social changes.