Ogburn's Cultural Lag theory: Revisiting the media-youth-violence triangle

Social researchers continue seeking direct relationships between media-watched violence and impressionable youth. Much about the effects of violence has been learned since the motion picture Payne Foundation studies of 1929-1932. Thousands of scholarly works have been published - adding to the growing body of knowledge. Yet attacking the television and motion picture as the medium and eulogizing vulnerable youth as victimized audiences has done little to resolve the media-youth-violence issue in Western culture. Various theories have been offered in attempting explanation for the violence phenomenon related to certain exposed juveniles. Thorough scholarly research has determined that American sociologist William F. Ogburn's (1886-1959) theory of cultural lag has never been applied to this issue. The question is asked "Does the answer of 'cultural lag' help explain societal paranoia of alleged media-induced juvenile violence?"

Traditional, routine conventions of mass society are such that social changes do not occur at the same rates of technical invention and diffusion. In exploring the dynamic interplay between technology and society in man's recent times a simple, causal association between the perception of violence and its juveniles may be established. This paper steps beyond traditional research operandi by thrusting cultural lag into the agenda-driven association of media violence and youth. Garvey's observation is: "Our ideas of good and evil are challenged when good and evil move out of the places we expect to find them" (1998, p. 1) and prompts us to reassess the priority of juvenile violence under the influence of cultural lag.

Unseen in the history of mankind and unharnessed by lightening-quick computers, we reside in a period of rapid change where virtually everything has been invented or reinvented since World War II. Beneficial technological breakthroughs such as embryonic stem cell research and advanced computer systems are often impeded by organized government bureaucracies and bioethical concerns. While Baum (1988) argues a society that rejects aesthetic changes in basic systems is not devoid of rendering rational decision, Max Weber's "iron cage" theory lends deeper insight into this phenomenon. Weber's theory posits societal control systems operate in rational and efficient manner, but through bureaucracy loses its edge (Rogers, 1995, p. 383). The control system disappears when leaders and enforcers exert overzealous and impersonal application to laws and rationality. Unsure how to change, organization members demonstrate continued support of authoritarian systems even though they are trapped in its iron cage of control: a paradox. Rheingold (1991) observes that technologies ready for market introduction take a long time before factors of social systems and actors in interaction affect its rate of diffusion in an open market.

Evolution Of Culture And Society

Derived from two Latin words, the term "culture" is: "Cultura" which means tending and "Colera" which means cherish. In short, our culture is comprised of those things which we tend to cherish, those things which are important to us. Culture, therefore, is the way people behave, that is, the accepted and patterned ways of behavior of a given people. Culture is a body of common understandings. Finally, culture is the total of the group's ways of thinking, feeling, and acting (Culture, 1997).

Complaints are heard that a cultural lag exists in the progress of moral and emotional domains, lagging behind that of the techno-scientific and economic ones. It is small wonder if far more emotional energy and strivings go to sports, royalty and fashions of many kinds than to serious ideas, moral problems and fighting subtle manipulation. The essential source of - moral and material - woes in both our own past and the Third World is that so many problems are not experienced and formulated in rational (techno-scientific) and enlightened moral terms. So a socio-cultural climate - an ideology - is created which neither fits nor removes a cultural lag nor addresses vital problems of life in rational and moral ways. It appears not simply an isolated aesthetic ideology, but rather a pervasive social and cultural phenomenon that promotes expert scientific knowledge and elaborate bureaucratic structure (Culture, 1997).

Mores and values have changed rapidly in the West in the last several decades (Mazrui, 1997; Cross, 1997) as revolutions in technology and society have progressed. Premarital sex, for example, was strongly disapproved of until after World War II.

There were laws against sex outside marriage, some of which remain, albeit rarely enforced. Today sex before marriage, with parental consent, is common. An example where cultural lag exists here in the United States is its retention of the death penalty, abolished virtually everywhere else in the Western world. Still, forms of culture lag persists worldwide, including Africa, whether it be in East or West or Southern portions where students are asked to take exams in African ethnography. Younger faculty are often unable to answer most basic questions about many parts of the continent and are relegated to teaching about peoples and cultures of Africa to an emerging populous.

For thousands of years toys have reflected how children view their culture and society, enriching young lives through fantasy, adventure and imagination. For a century or so, manufactured American toys - dolls, trains, soldiers, and board games - encouraged children to fantasize about joining the adult world. Instinctively, children emulate their parents. While mothers bore children, daughters played with stuffed dolls. When fathers fought wars, sons played with wooden guns and army soldiers. Childhood is a privileged time, but the game has changed suggests Gary Cross (1997). Contemporary toys like Barbie dolls for girls and action figures like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers and video games like Virtual Fighter and Quake for boys encourage a fantasy world independent of adult influence and adult rationality; a world with its own languages, rules, and culture. Changing notions of childhood and disparate theories of play reveals a lot about how attitudes toward children, and children's attitudes toward the world, have evolved over the last century. Adults are becoming irrelevant as either players or models. Toy makers no longer sell to parents, but to children, and television is a powerful marketing tool.

That mass media reach not only our homes but our minds is nothing new. Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the early 1450's is the origin of mass communication, becoming Western culture's first practical method of disseminating ideas and information from a single source to a large and far-ranging audience. A closer look at the history of print, however, shows that the invention of the printing press depended on a confluence of both cultural and technological forces that had been unfolding for several centuries. Print culture and technology also needed to go through centuries of change after Gutenberg's time before the "massification" of audiences could fully crystallize.

The printed words wielded enormous influence on every aspect of European culture. Many technological, cultural and psychological issues became associated with the emergence of the printing press, making it understandable historians regard printed words instrumental in major shifts in science, religion, politics and the modes of thought that are commonly associated with modern Western culture. (Pitirim Sorokin (1941, p. 295) vehemently argues any contention of difference between American and European cultures is wrong; there is one, Euro-American.) In the twentieth century, not dissimilar to radio, television was introduced to entertain and to sell things, not to inform. Its affiliations with the advertising industry is strong and audience ratings often determine where monetary support goes. With cable television, every CSPAN and Public Television station competes with ten other channels showing reruns of "Mannix" and "I Love Lucy." In television, a 1 percent audience gain or loss measured by the Nielsen ratings may mean a gain or loss of advertising revenue between $80 to $100 million a year (Herman & Chomsky, 1988, p. 16; Robinson & Sheehan, 1983, p. 220).

The prevalent viewpoint is that violence on television and in movies plays a key factor influencing adolescents. Preschoolers have been observed watching nearly four hours of television every day (Bennetts, 1996; Hannaford, 1996), and the American Psychological Association estimates that the average child witnesses 8,000 murders and over 100,000 other violent acts by age 12. American preschool children, ages 2 to 5, watch over 27 hours of television per week (Nielsen, 1990), and one-fourth of all children watch more than six hours per day. Effects of motion picture and television-induced violence (especially on children) has confronted society since the Payne Fund studies in the early 1930s (Chaffee & Rogers, 1997, p. 52). In the 1950s, social scientists studied relationships between viewing violence and subsequent aggression in order to determining if there is a causal link between the two. Laboratory, field, and correlative studies were the research methods largely used. These are open to criticisms on various methodological grounds, and findings are often apparently quite convincing and attractively unambiguous. In his comprehensive review of the effects of television violence on aggression, Freedman (1984) stated that there appeared to be widespread agreement among psychologists that viewing television violence causes an increase in aggression. Correlation does not imply causation and many scholarly research studies arrive at different conclusions. Underwood (1997) cites it is often the large-scale social surveys which are cited as evidence of a link between media violence and real violence. England's Elizabeth Newson, formerly of Nottingham University, presented an official report in support of David Alton MP's amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which was widely popular but did not justify the attention the media paid to it, nor the seriousness which it was treated by the 'serious' press (Underwood,1997).

The greater body of evidence continues suggesting that "the depiction of violence in televisions programs increases the chance that children in the audience will act aggressively themselves" (Vooijs & van der Voort, 1993, p. 139). Kirman however (1997) cautions of claims dealing with media reports of alleged TV-motivated violence by children. In the Canadian Press, Buckingham (1996) suggests that media hype was responsible for a video implication in an Ajax, Ontario killing (pp. 24-27) and that the chief investigating officer stated there was no connection found to link video viewing with the killing (p. 22). Buckingham emphatically states his warning that should be considered concerning claims of TV-inspired violence: "Throughout history, assertions about the negative influence of popular cultural forms have served as a focus for much broader anxieties about moral decline and social disorder" (p. 21).

Social Theories

Hawkins and Pingree's (1983) extensive review of studies into the television construction of reality finds many scattered indications of relationships, but do not find conclusive proof of the direction of the relationship between television viewing and social reality. Cultivation research theory relates to "perceptions of reality" and assumes that the repetitive pattern of television's mass-produced messages and images forms the mainstream of a common symbolic environment. McQuail and Windahl (1993, p.101) find television portrayal of violence and crime comparable to the actual incidence of crime in society, a focus in cultivation research. Yet they too concede that In the cultivation process and dealing with longer-term and indirect effects of the television media in construction of social reality, there has been a general failure in confirming cultivation effects other than personal experience and the social structures of family, peer groups and the wider community (1993, p.102).

Television has undeniably become the common storyteller of our time and viewers cannot avoid absorbing or dealing with TV's recurrent patterns (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorelli, 1986). Instead of immediate change in viewer attitude or behavior as a result of viewing a specific program one time, viewers recognize the "massive long-term and common exposure of large and heterogeneous publics to centrally produced, mass-distributed, and repetitive systems of stories" (p. 18) will help form perceptions of what the world is like. Malcolm McCombs and Donald Shaw (1976) write that audiences learn about public issues through the media and how much importance to attach to issues or topics from the emphasis the mass media places upon it. Rubin (1986) describes uses and gratifications theory research as a "receiver-oriented approach" where the focus is on what people do with mass media rather than what mass media do to people (Klapper, 1963, cited in Rubin, 1986). Media use is assumed to be goal directed and purposive. Used by individuals to satisfy felt needs they initiate their media selection. The literature in perceived reality focuses primarily on that variable as a moderator of social reality effects (Hawkins, 1977; Potter, 1986, 1988; Reeves, 1978) and recognizes that a reality judgment can be intermediate between totally real and totally unreal. These judgments can be subtle. For instance, fictional events may be judged enough like real events for a person to learn from them and may recognize that certain aspects of a fictional television character may partially resemble real people. Some investigators suggest that perceived reality judgments may be part of a mental mechanism determining which experiences will be integrated into social reality judgments (Rubin et al., 1988, Shapiro & Lang, 1991) in a sort of pseudo-reality. Television's influence on social reality appears to be overshadowed by direct and interpersonal experience (Rubin et al., 1988; Tyler, 1980; Tyler & Cook, 1984).

Imploding The Bubble

Real statistics and facts may reframe the media-youth-violence triangle issue:

At a time when legislators are trying to 'out-tough' each other on the juvenile crime issue, facts underline that juvenile crime and arrest rates have decreased every year since 1992. The overall crime rate fell in every region of the country. In his 1997 Website, Congressman Max Sandlin (D-TX) acknowledges that since 1991, the number of violent crimes has dropped by 6 percent -- over 100,000 fewer crimes each year. This trend is reflected by U.S. Department of Justice statistics noting number of arrests for drug abuse violations increased from 1995 to 1996 for both juveniles and adults, but serious violent crime rates declining with rates for men and women approaching parity. In 1998 U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno cited 1997 FBI figures that arrests for all violent crimes declined for the third year in a row (Reno, 1998). Nationally, 1997's homicide rate was down to 7.4, the lowest in decades. For a third consecutive year, national fatal gun accidents again hit an all-time low in 1996. Since 1975, such accidents have decreased about 75 percent (Harvard, 1997).

Juvenile homicide arrests, which increased nearly 170 percent from 1984 to 1993, a peak year, were down 23 percent for 1995, the second year of decline, an Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) study found (Harvard, 1997). Latest compiled data (CDC, 1995) regarding violent deaths demonstrates that annually, fewer individuals die from violence than from pneumonia.

Commenting on the leading causes for death in the United States, the National Safety Council now estimates that the fatal firearm accident per capita rate fell to an all-time low in 1995. The new rate, 0.5 per 100,000 population, represents an 85 percent decrease from the all-time high recorded in 1904, and is well below rates for other types of fatal accidents, including those involving motor vehicles (16.7), falls (4.8), poisonings (4.0), drowning (1.7), fires (1.6), and choking on an ingested object (1.1).

The annual number of fatal firearm accidents has also fallen to an all-time low (1,400), cut by more than half since 1930, even as the population doubled and the number of firearms owned quadrupled. By comparison, other types of accidents accounted for much larger numbers of fatalities in 1995, including motor vehicles (43,900), falls (12,600), drownings (4,500), fires (4,100) choking on an ingested object (2,800) and poisonings (10,600).

There were 200 fatal firearm accidents among children in 1995; 3 percent of all fatal accidents among children. Other accident types accounted for a greater share of fatalities among children, including motor vehicle (44 percent), fires (16 percent), drowning (14 percent), and choking on ingested object (4.5 percent). The number of fatal firearm accidents among children in 1995 represents a 64 percent decrease from the all-time high of 550 in 1975 (CDC, 1995).

Reiterating, all crime is nationally declining. While the CDC shows a selective interest in homicide trends it tends to ignore trends in accidental gun deaths - with good reason. The CDC and the researchers it funds hesitate discussing dramatic contra-developments, since they fly in the face of academic assumptions that more guns in the hands of criminals and juveniles equal more deaths. Still, in the 25 years from 1968 to 1992, American gun ownership increased almost 135 percent (from 97 million to 222 million), with handgun ownership rising more than 300 percent. These huge increases coincided with a two-thirds decline in accidental gun fatalities (Hates, Schaffer, Henry & Waters, 1997, p. 7). Probably for good reason, a May 14, 1996 press release from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) proclaimed "If drugs were the scapegoats of the 1980's, then kids are clearly the scapegoats of the 1990's" (ACLU, 1996).

Applying Ogburn's Cultural Lag Theory

Sociologist William Ogburn (1886-1959), the director of Herbert Hoover's President's Research Committee on Social Trends in 1929 developed the concept of cultural lag that is still referred to and utilized, where he defines the composition of material culture as "houses, factories, machines, raw materials, manufactured products, foodstuffs and other material objects." Nonmaterial culture includes such phenomena as "custom, folkways, social institutions, beliefs, philosophies, laws, and governments" (Schneider, 1976, pp. 106-7).

Two types of culture are identified by Ogburn. The first of these is the 'Material' and includes physical objects which we can see and touch. Included in the material culture would be the name of our streets, our school mascots, our cars, the type of

architecture, and other similar objects. The other type of culture is the 'Nonmaterial' culture that includes our beliefs, feelings, values, etc. It borrows heavily from German Thorstein Bunde Veblen's (1857-1929) evolutionary work in what he referred to as "post Darwinian" thought, providing basis for his analysis of social change. Veblen remarked that "the question is not how things stabilize themselves in a static state, but how they further grow and change" (Eby, 1998, p. 693). Veblen's thoughts on cultural lag calls attention to the restraining "dead hand of the past" from which it becomes impossible to escape the pull of the past. He introduces the idea that "Institutions are products of the past process, are adapted to past circumstances, and are therefore never in full accord with the requirements of the present" (Eby, 1998, p. 693). The human tendency to remember the good old times - to venerate past beliefs - comprises the psychological dimension of cultural lag. It demands very little attention by the vested interests, serving them equally well. Because men and women believe in the truths which they profess, psychological lag fosters a cycle of self-deception. Cultural lag does not inherently cause political stagnation, but its social function tends to maintain the existing power structure: those institutions of control, authority and subjection.

American sociologist William James (1842-1910), whose pragmatist philosophy is believed to have first influenced Thorstein Veblen, thought social evolution results from the interaction of the individual and the social environment (Eby, 1998). Cultural lag represents more an explanation for why problems occur than a theory of what causes them. Mentioned previously, sociologist, Max Weber (1958) characterized bureaucratic organizations and societal controls as the "iron cage" in which order deteriorates by virtue of over enforcement of a broken system. Members of an organization continue to support an authoritarian system, trapped by its iron cage of control (Rogers, 1995, p. 383). Because of their relative stability, institutions cause established behaviors and social structures to seem "natural" and therefore correct. Institutions confer power on groups of people whom Veblen refers to as "vested interests," allowing them to exploit the general public, or "common man" (Eby, 1998).

Television violence, sex in mainstream movies, and rock bands such as Marilyn Manson are desensitizing the American public, leaving little to shock the average person according to Richard Aquila, director of the American Studies Program, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind. He also attributes an incremental increase of "bad taste" since the 1950s caused by the anti-Establishment movement, Vietnam War, Watergate, poverty of the lower classes, and resignation of President Richard Nixon for creating a distrust of anything connected to the government and big business (Warner, 1997).

The cultural reflectionist theory of Adolphe E. Meyer, who posited that the institutions of society reflect the culture of the society in which they exist, lends to Ogburn's cultural gap theory. Again, Ogburn's theory refers to that which develops between fast-changing technology and other slower paced socio-cultural traits. Meyer considered a new combination of existing cultural elements to be a fundamental cause of cultural evolution, noting that an invention directly affecting one aspect of culture may require adjustments in other cultural areas. Ogburn noted cultural lags may be imperceptible over long periods of history, and may cause so many problems and be perceived as so acute [at a given moment] as to threaten complete disintegration of a society. One clear area for impact and change is in the domain of culture. And cultural change is an inherently slow process - large changes generally only occur between generations, as the young go through the socialization process.

There are strong additional countervailing forces at work trying to minimize cultural changes. A direct example is offered by Bates (1992) who suggests while the essence of telecommunications is speed, the manner in which cultural changes are wrought is limited to a much slower pace - to the speed at which we grow and learn and acquire our culture. Changes in the adaptive culture frustratingly never fully synchronize with the change in the material culture. There results a lag "which may last for varying lengths of time, sometimes for many years" (Schneider, 1976, p. 107). An aspect of the living systems theory (LST) asserts that all of the great variety of living entities throughout evolution result from complexly-structured open systems which maintain within their boundaries energetic states by continually interacting with their environments. Inputs and outputs of both matter-energy and information are essential for development. It is how they progress and evolve (Miller & Miller, 1995).

Illustrative Contemporary Lags

Kingery, Pruitt, Heuberger, & Brizzolara (1993) collected data on school violence from 7th-12th graders in 38 rural central Texas school districts where more than half of the boys reported carrying a knife to school (twice the national average) for protection from schoolmate violence. The research conclusion was that rural school violence was a growing problem and that violence education within rural schools is seldom attempted (Kingery, Pruitt, & Hurley, 1992). Their study exemplifies an ongoing cycle of violence - exacerbated by a cultural lag - existing in administration's failure to recognize and address a perceived problem.

There was a lag of ten to 15 years between the introduction of television and a doubling of the homicide rate in the United States and Canada, Stevenson (1997, p. 61) remarks. South Africa saw a similar lag. His conclusion is that since TV exerts its behavior-modifying effects primarily on children and homicide is primarily an adult activity, this lag represents the time needed for the "television generation" to come of age. Finally, he implies that many factors other than television must influence the amount of violent crime that manifests later (p. 62).

From a law enforcement point of view, Bennett (1990) proffers Western society in the grips of a "crimewarp," which is a displacement in crime patterns, and influenced by a confluence of social, political, economic, and technological forces; forces to which police in the 21st century must respond. The institution of law enforcement is evolving more slowly than the crime patterns it must manage. To become effective in the future, Behan (1990) notes that crime fighters must revise their organization and procedures to respond to changing community needs and threats. She considers the cultural lag that currently defines police work to be related to a "closed" mentality that attempts to make the community conform to present enforcement policies. Once agencies change with their environments they will likely find ways to increase effectiveness and efficiency of police services.

Cultural lag causes confusion and confusion causes us to grasp for any tool or idea that might help us make sense of our situation. Most easily grasped are "magic bullets" because they are compatible with much of industrial thinking about looking for a single cause. Busch & Busch (1990) find these magic bullets are also compatible with even more simplistic thinking of the pre-industrial era where logic was not even a requirement in a magical world view where like goes with like. They conclude that the use of magic bullets makes us a danger to each other and to ourselves.

Ann Balsamo (1995) ascribes a unique identity and lag to members of the first generation to grow up with computers in their homes, where technological access to electronic information networks is a natural condition of their world. This subculture (Hebdige, 1979) of "cyberpunks" claims cyberspace as their own private frontier, develops a closed culture and language, and resents imposition of limits on their vicarious travels to the Internet world where "authority" and "real" are not operative words. Often associated with "hacking", many Generation X-ers channel interests into beneficial results (Stroh, 1998).


Contemporary technological determinist viewpoint is a technology-led theory of social change in which technology is seen as the "prime mover" in history, as it has been from the time of cave man. Application of Ogburn's cultural lag theory overpowers social factors like desensitization, poverty, and familial unemployment as explanations for juvenile violence in society under perceived assault of popular visual media. Episodic, exciting action offered by the entertainment media continues methodically replacing conventional play toys of previous generations which embraced and taught traditional mores and cultural values. Having existed for less than 50 years, new technologies represented by television, computers, and video games are influencing and endowing millions of youth (Balsamo and Cross would argue) with a common culture and language. Having read every trade journal, toy press release, Erector set ad and obscure article from or on American toy history for his book, Cross (1997) concludes that if the once modest toy is beginning to be displaced from its previous spot in the child's heart, the history of [old] toys should achieve a place in adult consciousness additional to memory. Newer toys, too, become tools, directing us toward a new-style education in what's important in our particular age of confusion presided over by the entertainment conglomerate: that voice of modern authority. Cross suggests it is okay to historically recall the past while giving thought on how to deal with our children's new transnational babysitters.

This paper finds there is no clear consensus among observers and researchers debating visual media's role on violence in juvenile conduct. While limited cause-and-effect relationships are observed with individual populations, the majority appear unscathed by their allotted exposures - producing an indignant outcry from the ACLU - which notes death is more likely from pneumonia than violence. During impressionable age periods, when youth may be more inclined to react to the visual stimuli of violent television images, numbers bear out that even the closely-studied, juvenile population "affected" by television have contributed to an overall decrease in crime statistics for most of a decade. Confident researcher predictions for troubling societal media-violence effects have proved largely inaccurate. Agenda-setting often primes academic research money trails and provisions in Texas' 1998 tobacco settlement provide funding for support research at four university health centers (Meier, 1998). Sociologically, it could prove interesting to follow academia's next research focus.

The collective influence of James, Meyer, Veblen, Bennett, Rheingold and Balsamo contribute to William Ogburn's cultural lag theory. It melds a body of thought recognizing individuals as member residents of respective cultures policed by social rules, folkways and customs, mores, and laws. Reciprocally, each society bears strict obligation for managing its own technology and system, although transnational media influences make this increasingly difficult. Time variables between social and technical advancements and adjustment [to them] represents cultural gap. It has been noted that the differential between the introduction and socially-accepted diffusion phase can take many years, during which it may appear the transitional society is corrupt or failing. Russia under capitalism comes readily to mind.

Clearly, this paper suggests that early concerns representing social reaction to new technologies of the motion picture (Payne Foundation studies), radio (Lazarsfeld, Cantril), and television (countless studies) follow historical pathways. Ogburn's cultural lag theory helps explain why our fast-paced, technologically advancing society eagerly focused concerns of perceived media-induced violence upon its children. It also suggests the social problem of violence cannot be "fixed" by traditional (Busch) magic bullets of blame or "dead hands of the past" administered by "ironed caged" bureaucrats. Historically strong argument is made that "tenor of the times" traditional social exercises inherently exhibit coping inabilities, and are quickly out paced by innovative technologies such as visually-violent computer games, virtual reality (VR), Internet voyeurism and pornography. Their proliferation suggests future lag times of adjustment where society debates V-Chips, more restrictive television rating systems, and 'Net Nannies. Ogburn's theory interjects argument of historically incomplete societal assimilation of dynamic technical advances relative to the media-youth-violence triangle. Remarkably, societal offspring generationally adapt and resiliently emerge - both victims and victors.



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