Cultural Lag: In the Tradition of Veblenian Economics

By Brinkman, Richard L.; Brinkman, June E. | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Cultural Lag: In the Tradition of Veblenian Economics


Brinkman, Richard L., Brinkman, June E., Journal of Economic Issues


The purpose of this paper is two-fold: one is to demonstrate that the concept and theory of cultural lag is in the tradition of Veblenian economics; and secondly, that while cultural lag theory delineates and explains problems, it does not necessarily provide for a means of resolution. For example, historically the theory of cultural lag has served as a basis for problem identification and dissent. Veblenian economics, however, can also serve to go Beyond Dissent and promote assent in its relevancy to the processes of institutional adjustment and amelioration. In this respect, in the promotion of assent, there is a need for the origination and innovation of a social DNA to promote a synthesis of the disparate parts of culture via instrumental knowledge. In support of this position this paper is divided into five parts as an analytical whole: (1) a survey of references to cultural lag which have appeared in the literature written by Veblenian economists; (2) a clarification of the concept and theory of cultural lag; (3) a clarification of the "what is" vis-a-vis Veblenian economics; (4) a conflation between cultural lag theory and Veblenian economics; and, (5) the need for synthesis in the formation of a social DNA.

Cultural Lag: A Literature Search among Veblenian Economists

Both Clarence E. Ayres and Allan G. Gruchy, certainly considered bona fide Veblenian economists, were instrumental in keeping alive and maintaining a slender thread of scientific DNA for Veblenian economics during the post-WWII era. A question that arises, however, is how then did these two recognized doyens of Veblenian economics address and treat the concept and theory of cultural lag? Based upon his focus on culture and a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to Veblenian economics, in many instances Gruchy addressed the framework of cultural lag. "Institutionalists from Veblen on have been aware of the problem of cultural lag and in general have favored a policy of some form of collective management of the economic system" (Gruchy 1987, xiii). This position emanates from the fact that Gruchy, along with many other Veblenian economists, gave pride of place to the anthropological, holistic conception of culture.

Specifically with respect to Veblen, Gruchy stated that "Veblen explains that institutions and the culture in which they are embedded change over time in response to changes in science and technology ... Since all institutions do not change at the same rate, social or cultural lags develop" (Gruchy 1972, 21). Also, "[i]n working out his concept of class organization, Veblen introduced the concepts of the cultural lag and class conflict. According to his theory of culture the most important single factor that alters institutions, and hence human behavior, is technological change" (Gruchy [1947] 1967, 78). Problems arise, though, because not all classes are equally exposed to the changing technological conditions. This causes different rates of psychological adjustment among the classes, leading to cultural lags that affect cultural standards. "Where classes have different institutional standards and mental habits, their members find themselves acting at cross purposes" (78).

Gruchy, in his chapter on "Experimental Economics of Rexford G. Tugwell" discussed the concept of cultural emergence and its association with the concept of cultural lag. Cultural lag has "come to have a prominent place in the thinking not only of Tugwell but also of the other exponents of economic heterodoxy ... Cultural emergence is not a gradual, uninterrupted process; instead it is a spotty development in which certain cultural elements, such as institutions and social attitudes, fail to change as rapidly as other elements. This uneven cultural development creates lags which are the source of many serious social and economic problems" (Gruchy [1947] 1967, 415).

And on the neoinstitutionalists which include among others John Kenneth Galbraith and Clarence Ayres, Gruchy claimed that "[t]he logic of economic development constructed by the neoinstitutionalists calls attention to the lags in the evolution of society's institutional structure as this structure responds slowly to changes in society's technological foundation" (1972, 297). …

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