The term cultural lag refers to the notion that culture takes time to catch up with technological innovations, and that social problems and conflicts are caused by this lag. Subsequently, cultural lag does not only apply to this idea only, but also relates to theory and explanation. It helps by identifying and explaining social problems to predict future problems.
As explained by James W. Woodward, when the material conditions change, changes are occasioned in the adaptive culture, but these changes in the adaptive culture do not synchronize exactly with the change in the material culture, this delay is the culture lag. The term was coined by sociologist William F. Ogburn in his 1922 work Social change with respect to culture and original nature. His theory of cultural lag suggests that a period of maladjustment occurs when the non-material culture is struggling to adapt to new material conditions. This resonates with ideas of technological determinism. That is it can presuppose that technology has independent effects on society at large. However it does not necessarily assign causality to technology. Rather cultural lag focuses examination on the period of adjustment to new technologies.
According to Ogburn, cultural lag is a common societal phenomenon due to the tendency of material culture to evolve and change rapidly and voluminously while non-material culture tends to resist change and remain fixed for a far longer period of time. Due to the opposing nature of these two aspects of culture, adaptation of new technology becomes rather difficult. This distinction between material and non-material culture is also a contribution of Ogburn's 1922 work on social change.
Cultural lag creates problems for a society in a multitude of ways. The issue of cultural lag tends to permeate any discussion in which the implementation of some new technology is a topic. For example, the advent of stem cell research has given rise to many new, potentially beneficial medical technologies; however these new technologies have also raised serious ethical questions about the use of stem cells in medicine. Cultural lag is seen as a critical ethical issue because failure to develop broad social consensus on appropriate applications of modern technology may lead to breakdowns in social solidarity and the rise of social conflict.