Social Change: An Analysis of Professor Ogburns Culture Theory

Floyd Henry Allport

FROM the standpoint of the social psychologist an attempt to discuss culture apart from the human behavior which gives rise to it must appear as fundamentally inadequate. The 'super-organic' is only a descriptive concept. Human action is the force; culture the result. To say that culture itself is a cause is to use the word cause in a loose and metaphorical sense. It would be unfair to say that Professor Ogburn's book [1] ignores the psychological factors underlying culture; yet the treatment of these factors is superficial and their value for social causation is often controverted.

A brief summary of the work will reveal the features which are salient for discussion. Culture, the product of concerted human action, includes materials, tools, knowledge, beliefs, morals, law, religion, and custom. It is as old as the race, yet its greatest development has occurred within comparatively recent times. Civilization is modern culture. The process of its growth and modification and the adjustments both within culture itself and between culture and human nature comprise the data of social change. The behavior of an individual as a member of society is the joint result of his original nature (biological, psychological) and the cultural heritage by which he is surrounded. These two behavior sources are often confused, and much is attributed to original nature which is more accurately ascribed to the culture medium, that is, to the social environment. Differences between the Americans and the French in the trait of thrift, for example, may be due to such cultural factors as a necessary policy of conservation of resources, rather than to innate disposition. Cultural traits : are to be distinguished from racial traits.

False emphasis upon the biological factor to the neglect of the cultural has, according to the author, been especially pronounced in discussions of social change. Social evolution, which involves organic changes in the race, is not the same as cultural evolution. The meager evidence from prehistoric culture shows that at a comparatively late date in the biological evolution of man culture was at its very beginning. Its whole course of development has covered only a few thousand years, a period during which anthropological data give us no evidence of a parallel change in the biological equipment of man. Striking evidence exists of development previous to the last ice age and to the dawn of culture ; but skeletal remains from that era do not differ essentially from the morphology of modern men. The likelihood of mutations is dismissed after pointing out that in the few available researches, such as that of Morgan upon the fruit fly, drosophilia, their occurrence has been extremely rare.

From this marked disparity in the rates of cultural and biological evolution it is deduced that the former does not depend upon the latter, but follows its own course, guided by laws of its own. Culture makes possible, and in fact inevitable, the occurrence of inventions by affording the necessary stock of materials and concepts for the inventor to draw from. Thus the existing culture may be said to be the "mother of invention." The achievement of the genius is the inevitable product of the thought of the age. This thesis is supported by a formidable list of discoveries and inventions made about the same time but independently by two or more investigators.

Cultural evolution proceeds according to the following laws. Its stream accumulates with the passage of time; it changes, dropping obsolete

(672) and superseded forms and acquiring new ones (selective accumulation) ; it differentiates; it causes individuals to specialize in various parts of it; it grows by inventions which are instituted from the existing culture base; its rate of growth though irregular is fairly geometrical, one invention may cause a sudden spurt by making a large number of later developments possible; it is also subject to forces making for inertia. As causes of inertia are introduced certain psychological factors opposed to cultural change, such as a substituted utility for some culture form, causing its persistence as a `survival' of its original usefulness. Further barriers to culture evolution are the difficulties of invention and of diffusion, lack of resources, lack of correlation with parts of existing culture, vested interests, power of tradition, habit, social pressure, orderliness of social organization, forgetting the unpleasant in an apotheosis of the tradition of the past, radicalism, curiosity, and conservatism.

The attitude of treating culture as an entity separate from human action is continued into the discussion of cultural maladjustments. Maladjustments between the various parts of culture are brilliantly and convincingly treated under the caption of "cultural lag." In the complexity of our civilization rapid advances in one portion of culture often fail to be accompanied by proportionate advances in other portions ; and maladjustment arises until the lagging elements have been brought into line. The effects, for example, upon the economic and social organization of the family resulting from the transition from an agricultural to an industrial civilization created numerous maladjustments which lasted until other necessary cultural changes, such as compulsory public education, juvenile courts, and child labor legislation, were developed to meet the needs arising from the altered conditions.

The last part of the book is devoted to the vital question of whether culture has been carried along too rapidly by its own momentum so that it is in serious conflict with the primitive and unchanging biological nature of man. In discussing whether our original `cave man' instincts are given full play in modern life the author makes a psychologically valuable distinction between acts externally stimulated (e. g. flight) and those internally stimulated (e. g. hunger, sex). By recognizing the latter class we can replace the notion of instincts as innate reservoirs of power that must be liberated. The internal stimulations take care of themselves, and do not depend upon culture for their arousal. Professor Ogburn refers to the fact that the rejection of drafted men by army boards on the grounds of nervous and mental disease was greater for city than for country districts. This may indicate a morbid trend resulting from excess of modern culture as seen in large cities. Statistics of admissions to insane hospitals in recent years are of course impossible to interpret as bearing upon the question of whether insanity is on the increase. Neurotic tendencies have been pointed out among primitive peoples. Mental conflict in childhood, a condition much noted in recent years, seems to be due to special family environments, rather than to the necessary effect of modern culture. Possible evidences for maladjustment to culture are seen in a number of social problems, such as crime, sex problems, and selfishness.

Though no conclusion is reached as to the degree of disharmony between man and his cultural environment, methods are discussed for helping to resolve such discrepancies as may exist. Either human nature or culture must be changed so that the two will conform. Changing human nature by breeding methods is dismissed as impossible in our present ignorance of eugenic laws. Too much pressure upon the individual by environmental agencies is also to be deplored since it results in harmful repression. Sweeping changes in culture are equally impracticable. Civilization cannot be controlled; the effects of invention, diffusion, and other social changes are unpredictable. Minor adjustments however are possible in special regions of cultural maladjustment. Examples of these are the better adaptation of the sex instinct, (relieving psychoneuroses), sublimation, relief from strain, substituted activities releasing the energies of the primitive instincts and emotions. Games, sports, and other methods of recreation offer practicable methods for better adjustment through the substitution process.

In the present writer's opinion Professor Ogburn's book would have been more convincing had he limited himself to an exposition of cultural factors often neglected in theories of social

(673) change. The attack upon the biological and organic factors is not necessary for proving the importance of culture, and it considerably weakens the argument. This criticism is the more pertinent because the psychological factors in social causation are not distinguished by the author from the discredited biological elements, or else they are obscured by being incorporated in the notion of culture itself. By `biological factors' the author seems to mean the innate equipment of man (instincts, intelligence, etc.) which is practically unchanging and therefore cannot be considered the cause of cultural evolution. By `culture' he means not only social products but, by continual implication, the acquired habits of individuals through which culture is learned, used, and-in short-given its reality. Having thus smuggled in human behavior to give solidity to the notion of culture, he turns his back upon it and proceeds to discuss culture as though it were a thing apart from human nature and subject to its own laws and principles of change. This apparently unconscious inconsistency may be illustrated by the following quotations. On page 344 we read : "In the first place, man always appears as active agent in any social change, in the sense that none of these changes could take place without man." But on page 342: "Culture grows because of purely cultural factors, despite the fact that this growth occurs through the medium of human beings."

Turning for the present from the question of culture as a behavior phenomenon, let us examine those innate or constitutional factors which Professor Ogburn terms `biological.' It seems surprising nowadays to find a scientist basing an argument for the absence of changes in mental endowment upon external and morphological similarities between prehistoric and modern man.

Psychologists have proved the extreme unreliability of physical measurements as indicators of capacity for achievement. Another argument is that which deduces the cultural causation of large culture differences between neighboring Indian tribes from the fact that these tribes come from a common ancestral stock and therefore cannot be supposed to vary in innate (biological) endowment. How do we know, in the absence of mental measurement, that the intelligence of the Athapascan is equal to that of the Northwest coast Indian? In the same manner one might argue that the backwardness of culture among the mountain whites is due to cultural causes, such, for example, as barriers to diffusion. Every one knows however that this backwardness is due primarily to defect of intelligence and accompanying traits, intensified through isolation and inbreeding. Yet these people come from the same racial . and national stock as those who have developed the complex cultures of the more flourishing areas of the eastern states. Isolation and barriers to culture diffusion are here not causes but results. Failure in competition with more intelligent people has operated selectively to force the mountain whites into the isolated and unfavorable regions. Low intelligence level is furthermore a barrier to the assimilation of such culture as may penetrate into those places. In view of the many recent findings in differences in intelligence, few psychologists would care to assert, without the employment of actual tests, that Indian tribes living in adjoining regions have equal innate capacities, and that no differences significant for cultural development exist.

Intelligence is best defined as learning capacity. Differences of intelligence are therefore interpretable as differences of ability to earn (assimilate) new and complex cultures. A slight difference in the mode of the curve of intelligence distribution for any race (and substantial racial differences have been found) might greatly affect the general level of ability to assimilate a new culture. This fact, together with other characterial factors no doubt underlies the differences of assimilability of immigrants of various nationalities. Difference of existing culture habits is, of course, also important. To an even greater degree would such shift of the mode of distribution affect the production, at the upper extreme of the curve, of geniuses by whose efforts sweeping cultural changes are made possible. Inventions are not so inevitable as Professor Ogburn maintains. No list of discoveries and inventions in which duplication did not occur was given for comparison with that presented on pages 90 to 102. Although several geniuses may conceive of an idea simultaneously, it is still true that there has to be some one with sufficient capacity (biological factor) to conceive it.

Leaving as debatable the possibility of significant biological change in the last six thousand years, there still must have been considerable de-

(674) -velopment of human capacity up to that time. It was this very improvement in human intelligence which made it possible at a certain stage of development to invent and transmit the beginnings of that culture which has grown steadily down to the present day. For the origin of culture man is thus indebted to his original traits and capacities, rather than to social heritage. In the development of culture as well as in its origin the inherited endowment is of great import. It should not be set over against the culture habits of a people as an opposite principle, but should be combined with these acquired habit systems, both going to make up human nature ; and the individual thus constituted should be considered as the unit of social change.

From this standpoint the biological equipment is of profound significance for cultural development. It affords the level of capacity necessary for (1) learning by trial and chance success, which is invention, and (2) learning as the acquisition through contact with others of habits necessary for the use of transmitted culture materials. Biological inheritance moreover provides the prepotent (instinctive) drives which are behind these forms of inventive and assimilative learning. Interest (the biological need) is a factor which psychologists agree in assigning an indispensable rôle throughout the learning process. It is true that culture, through the cultural behavior of elders, may be said to modify this original nature. But the modification is no passive affair: the ability to be modified and the innately founded drive for acquiring modification are determining factors in social change without which the principles of culture dynamics would be but empty and inactive formulae.

Culture is the work of man. It springs jointly from his own nature and from the materials and instruction already existing at his disposal. The works of man's hand and brain naturally grow and differentiate more rapidly than the hand and brain which made them. Yet these objects are still the work of man, and always will be. To argue that, because no series of changes in biological nature can be observed to parallel the changes of culture evolution, therefore the former has slight causal relation to the latter is to lose sight of the true nature of social causation. The relatively stable biological factor forms in successive individuals an ever renewed capacity and urge toward cultural adaptation, that is, an ever renewed cause of social change.[2]

It must be remembered that in so far as culture has any dynamic or causal character it is to be defined as culture-habit. Culture in this sense exists not so much in the tool as in the ability to make and use it. If a group of engineers, chemists, manufacturers, mechanics and professional men were deported empty handed from New York City to the habitat of primitive man in Australia, they could build up a creditable civilization there in a few years. On the other hand, if a portion of New York City were depopulated of Americans and turned over without instructions of any sort to a group of Australian aboriginees, we might expect a rapid deterioration of our metropolitan culture to the level of savagery. In a very general sense culture may be said to be a cause, but only through the habit patterns of individuals does such a cause ever become operative. Conflict, or lack of adaptability of a new form to the cultural pattern already existing, is also readily understood through psychological categories, as habit interference. Fundamentally the conflict is in the habit system of individuals, not in the culture pattern as an abstract entity.

For the sake of further testing the claim that objective culture (social products) is in itself a cause, let us consider the following instance. Suppose the elder generation should suddenly cease, from the birth of the younger generation, to teach the latter any of the skill necessary for handling modern culture, but should bequeath to them in mute fashion all their elaborate material

(675) machinery, recorded thought, and unexplained formulae. It is probable that there would not be a total lapse in culture, but that the younger generation would manage to guess the use of some of the appliances, and would come by trial and error to master them to some degree. In such a case it might be said that the tool is by itself, and independently of the culture habit of its use, a cause in social change. It should be pointed out however that this situation is unnatural and unlikely. The universal rule in social evolution is for each generation both to bequeath the tool and teach the succeeding generation how to use it.

In order to state the factors of social change in a different manner, we may subsume them under the following heads. To produce growth and change in culture there must be

A. The social factors, comprising (1) a heritage of social products (material and recorded culture) and (2) an environment of fellow beings to transmit the habits of use of the social heritage and such cultural habits as exist without objective form, such as customs and folkways.

B. The individual factors, comprising intelligence, i. e.

(1) capacity to invent, to learn from teaching of elders, or to learn (assimilate) diffusing cultures;

(2) culture habits and knowledge already of sufficiently high level to make possible either new discovery and invention or the assimilation of neighboring or imported cultures of some complexity;

(3) a pattern of drives, habits, and ways of doing things (culture habits) of such a nature as not to involve reactions antagonistic to those which would be required in assimilating the newly imported or invented culture.

The chief emphasis of Professor Ogburn's book is thrown upon A, in the above scheme, and particularly upon the social heritage factor. Intelligence, the first of the individual factors, has been mentioned (e. g. on p. 33), but it has been obviously slighted through the discussion of the central theme. The existence of a stock of cultural habits (B2) as a necessary basis for acquiring further culture, and the necessity for absence of conflict in culture habits, have been clearly treated in Part III, and in certain instances the psychological nature of these factors has been recognized (pp. 174-5). But on the whole the tendency has been to discuss them as though they were traits rather of `culture' than of human beings. In fairness to the author we must point out a passage (p. 32) in which he states that cultural traits may be interpreted as psychological traits. Any careful reader of the book will however agree that this interpretation is steadily ignored throughout the principal discussion. The lack of sufficient attention to the development of institutions as a part of social change is perhaps due in part to this neglect of the social psychology of the individual.

One might reply that Professor Ogburn's purpose was to stress the social and cultural factors in this manner because they are usually overlooked, whereas the individual and mental factors are obvious to all. No one can deny that the author has done a real service in the clearness and skill with which he has thrown the cultural elements into relief. But over emphasis in order to gain attention for a neglected factor savors slightly of propaganda and is a dangerous practice.

By way of summary we may conclude that causation in social change lies fundamentally in the behavior of individuals. The processes and objects which are invented and transmitted through individual behavior may be described independently of that behavior as "culture," but they are not in themselves and independently of behavior sufficient agents for the explanation of social change. Not society as a whole, but individuals in society are the true causes. The effects of individuals reacting together to a common environment may be stored as socially modified habits of the individuals concerned and reëstablished through learning as habits of a later generation. In this sense we may speak of a large class of individual habits as socialized, or perhaps as "culturized." The chief causal factor in social change would then be, not culture as an entity separate from human action, but the 'culturized' behavior of individuals. If the human element is ignored, the treatment becomes, as in the evolutionary formulations of Spencer, a way of picturing social change without contributing to our knowledge of how such change comes about. Many of Professor Ogburn's laws of culture dynamics, such as rate of growth, inertia, diffusion, and lag, are in close touch with reality and are set forth from a most scholarly analysis of facts; yet insofar as the laws of individual

(676) human behavior are left unintegrated in the scheme of culture evolution, these culture formulae do not explain social change, but merely describe it.

This criticism should not be permitted to obscure the substantial merit of the book as a positive contribution to the study of social change. Insofar as it shows that no account of cultural development is complete without a consideration of the existing cultural attainments, it is a brilliant achievement. Professor Ogburn's thesis, aside from his criticism of organic factors, is highly important. Through restatement in terms of individual habit (and the writer is by no means certain that Professor Ogburn would object to such a restatement) it may be brought into accord with a natural science view of causation. An interesting agreement, for example, may be shown by following up the admission that ‘culture traits' are after all psychological traits, or habits, of individuals. Professor Ogburn affirms (p. 51) the methodological importance of examining the cultural factors in social change before we inquire into the biological causes. Since the cultural factors are essentially habits this statement may be rendered to the effect that in explaining social behavior we must exhaust the rôle of habit formation, or acquisition from the environment, before we ascribe the behavior in question to the hypothesis of instinct (biological factor). And this is precisely the trend of modern social psychology.


  1. Social Change: with respect to Culture and Original Nature. New York. B. W. Huebsch, 1922.
  2. It may be objected that, while we may count upon these human factors as ever present and necessary causes of culture, their very constancy renders them valueless for explaining the particular pattern assumed in cultural change, which is after all the sociologist's chief interest. To this we should reply: (1) There is no proof of the constancy through time nor equality among peoples of the biological equipment. There exists an unfortunate tendency of sociologists to overlook recent developments in the field of socially applied intelligence and character measurement and in the psychology of race differences. Morphological aspects and community of ancestral origin are both entirely insufficient as criteria. (2) The interplay of innate drives, capacities, habits, and conflicting responses in the formation or adoption of culture is so complex that without a careful study of these elements neither the origin nor the significance of the culture pattern can be understood. Professor burn himself has given excellent examples of this fact from survivals, tribal customs, tabus, and the like (pp. 156, 174-5, 185). (3) Geniuses and great leaders play an important rôle in social change. Although they are to some degree products of their age, an attempt to explain their lives and influence without a study of them as individuals would be absurd. (4) It is bad logic to ignore a permanent and relatively stable cause in pursuit of less fundamental variables. We should concentrate attention rather upon the interplay between the two. This means of course that we keep the individual ever in mind and cease trying to explain society in terms of the group as a whole, or culture wholly in terms of culture itself.

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