Culture refers to the ideas, customs, thoughts, behaviors and everything from the way they eat, to the way they dress, to the kind of music they listen to, the art forms that they show interest in, etc. Culture often has two aspects, the material, and the non-material aspects; while the former refers to the more tangible parts of culture, such as the technology, the clothes, cars, phones and anything that we are able to see and touch rather than observe. The latter on the other hand refers to the intangible parts of culture, such as the language, the ideology, the norms, values, gestures, etc. we cannot see or touch these parts, however, we can observe them in the way people behave, their daily actions they carry out and how they react to situations.
Change in the society is inevitable, along with other social change, change takes place in the culture of the society as well, in both material and non-material aspects. Often we find that the material culture is likely to go through change faster than the non-material aspects, this is due to the fact that the technology, is more likely to evolve before we are able to adjust to it. This is known as cultural lag, it is the process where the non-material culture is not able to keep up with material culture. It is believed that it is because of this lag that the social problems and conflicts are caused.
The term has been coined by William F. Ogburn in 1992 in his work ‘Social Change With Respect to Culture and Original Nature’. This cultural lag is a period of maladjustment, it occurs when the nonmaterial culture is struggling to adapt to the new material conditions. This theory identifies with technological determinism, which assumes that the growth or development of the social structure and the cultural values, depends on the technological innovation in the society, it determines the change that comes about in the values of the society and thus, determinism.
We find various examples of cultural lag when we see the growth of medical technology and other forms of technology.
E.g. the use of cancer vaccines, which have become available for cervical cancer have been developed, these are given to teenagers or preteens, this raised many ethical issues, saying that this was encouraging children to engage in sexual activity from an early age. Such an issue is raised due to the fact that cervical cancer is acquired through a virus called the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), this virus is spread through the onset of sexual activity, thus a woman is likely to get cancer if she does indulge in sexual activity, and preventing her from cancer would then be required once she has been sexually active, and giving it to teenagers meant they were being encouraged to engage in sexual activity. The risk of cancer, however, is high at the reproductive stage of life due to the fact that the HPV may multiply in the affected cells causing issues. This is such situations ‘prevention is better than cure’ becomes true, however culturally we are still to accept that.
Another such issue was raised in the discovery of the fact that the stem cells can be stored in order to cure diseases later in life, however the extraction of the embryonic stem cells is considered unethical as it is seen, that the destruction of embryo for the extraction of the stem cell is indirectly the death of the embryo. Similarly, the research for the harmful effects of video games, mobiles, screening, etc. came in much after the development of the technology.
Thus cultural lag is considered to take place as the values and ideologies and the ways of thinking are likely to evolve slower than technology.