Sociology Values
Eva Jaspers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0182


Values have been an important topic of sociological research for over a century. The classical sociologists considered values to be key elements of human groups and societies. For instance, sociology’s founding fathers Émile Durkheim and Max Weber considered how differences in values, and the extent to which our actions are influenced by these values via norm compliance, explain differences between groups. Sociologists tend not to write about what ought to be valued, but rather they describe (differences in) values, search for values that are shared among individuals/societies, and explain their origin and consequences. Theoretical and empirical questions on the distribution of values in societies are now a firm part of sociological research worldwide, although economics, political science, psychology, and anthropology study values as well. Any overview of the literature on values thus necessarily draws on these fields. Values remain, however, to some extent a contested concept in sociology, partly due to measurement difficulties and partly to lacking evidence of what values may do. Values give direction to the way that individuals, organizations, and societies act; what they strive for; and what they deem important. Values are culturally approved, internalized wishes that motivate our actions. Values are relatively abstract notions that inspire our beliefs and attitudes and determine what we strive for. Shalom Schwartz theorizes that value dimensions are universal because they refer to three questions that all groups must relate to: (1) How do the individual and the group relate? (2) How should social relations be organized in a way that maintains the social structure of society? (3) How should we relate to other societies or the natural world? We know that both the parental home and the larger society have influence on value formation. The empirical results on how values matter in the daily decisions, emotions, and behaviors of individuals, organizations, and societies are scarce. We do not know the importance of values for outcomes from sociological studies, but there is more empirical evidence from organizational or psychological literature. For instance, people for whom individuality, independence, and freedom are important values become unsatisfied in work environments that ask for obedience and compliance. At the same time, people hold many values that may conflict with one another, depending on the context that people are in. There exists no straightforward relation between finding a particular value important and how one behaves because of this continuous conflict of values. Generally speaking, people have values that differ in importance to them and that may or may not be activated in a particular context. Some related concepts are sometimes mistaken for values, most notably attitudes, beliefs, and norms. Attitudes are affective evaluations of all kinds of specific objects, such as soccer teams, coffees, emancipation, or political candidates. Beliefs are statements that individuals hold to be true, whether they are or not. “Penguins live at the South Pole” and “Penguins live at the North Pole” are two examples of beliefs that people may hold. Beliefs can also take the form of prejudice. Norms are rules or guidelines that are shared within groups (large or small) and that prescribe acceptable behaviors.

General Overviews: Universal Value Systems

From the first scholars up to the early 21st century, there have been numerous attempts to categorize values into universal value systems, and some main works on universal values are given in this section. Classic texts include Rokeach 1973 and Parsons 1935. There seems to be consensus on at least part of the definition of value systems, and most scholars agree that a universal set of values exists. Some of the most influential work (e.g., Hofstede 2001, Schwartz 1992) contends that two sets of value dimensions exist, one at the level of the individual and one at the level of societies. Smith and Dugan 1996 and Fischer and Poortinga 2012 test this assumption. Other studies, such as Inglehart 1977, aggregate individual values to the macro level without considering a different structure at the macro level. More-recent studies aim to bring back the importance of values to the sociological research tradition in innovative ways. Hitlin and Piliavin 2004 discusses the role of values in behavior; Hitlin and Vaisey 2013 considers the study of morality as a new avenue for sociological research.

  • Fischer, Ronald, and Ype H. Poortinga. 2012. Are cultural values the same as the values of individuals? An examination of similarities in personal, social and cultural value structures. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management 12.2: 157–170.

    DOI: 10.1177/1470595812439867

    Both Shalom Schwartz and Geert Hofstede have argued that individual value systems differ from national value systems, and this article tests this claim through using the Schwartz Value Survey and two others. Shows that value dimensions are identical at both levels and need not be treated or researched separately.

  • Hitlin, Steven, and Jane Allyn Piliavin. 2004. Values: Reviving a dormant concept. Annual Review of Sociology 30:359–393.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.30.012703.110640

    Excellent overview of scholarly work on values, albeit with a rather strong emphasis on Schwartz’s Basic Human Values. Noteworthy is the section on what values do. Although the authors bring together what we know of the consequences of values in 2004, the result is meager because few studies have studied (and found) effects of values on behaviors.

  • Hitlin, Steven, and Stephen Vaisey. 2013. The new sociology of morality. Annual Review of Sociology 39:51–68.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145628

    Theoretical paper that combines different strands of literature from within and outside sociology to arrive at a synthesis that covers recent developments in (neuro)psychology. Shifts from a focus on values to a focus on morality and names three contributions that sociologist can and ought to make in the field: (1) to study variation in what is considered moral, (2) to study social processes that can explain this variation, (3) to study how morality affects behavior in natural contexts.

  • Hofstede, Geert. 2001. Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    On the basis of an employee survey in multinational IBM, Hofstede in this influential book distinguishes four values that are continuums on which countries vary: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism (collectivism), and masculinity (femininity). In the updated second edition, a fifth factor is added on the basis of research in China: long-term orientation (short term). Cited mostly in management and organization science.

  • Inglehart, Ronald. 1977. The silent revolution: Changing values and political styles among Western publics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Influential book, notably in political sociology. The first of many more books by this author around the same major theme: that there exists an intergenerational shift in values. Due to circumstances of affluence, younger generations have less materialist values (security, law, and order) and more post-materialist values (freedom of speech). His findings remain important but continue to be debated on persistency.

  • Parsons, Talcott. 1935. The place of ultimate values in sociological theory. International Journal of Ethics 45.3: 282–316.

    DOI: 10.1086/intejethi.45.3.2378271

    Early functionalist work on values that studied values as compliance to societal norms. It assumed a singular moral system for societies, supported by its institutions. Became unpopular in the second half of the 20th century, as sociologists moved to study power and stratification issues. In its day, however, Parsons was an eminent theorist and he influenced many sociologists.

  • Rokeach, Milton. 1973. The nature of human values. New York: Free Press.

    One of the seminal works on values that inspired much of the later work. Rokeach distinguishes between terminal and instrumental values, which reflect end states or goals and modes or means, respectively. In this important book, values are discussed in relation to attitudes and behavior, as well as politics.

  • Schwartz, Shalom H. 1992. Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 25. Edited by Mark P. Zanna, 1–65. New York: Academic Press.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60281-6

    Categorization into nine or ten basic values in the structure of a circle. Values next to each other are closer on a theoretical continuum, whereas values across from each other are contradictory. Further reduced to two value dimensions: self-enhancement versus self-transcendence and conservatism versus openness to change. Tested in twenty nations, empirical evidence is presented. Schwartz´s measurement was influenced by the Rokeach questionnaire. Currently, Schwartz is the most influential scholar in the sociological study of values. Highly cited.

  • Smith, Peter B., and Shaun Dugan. 1996. National culture and the values of organizational employees: A dimensional analysis across 43 nations. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 27.2: 231–264.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022022196272006

    Attempts to reconstruct Hofstede’s key constructs with a new global sample, incorporating the work of Schwartz and other values scholars. Finds strong evidence for an individualism/collectivism-like construct but fails to find the other Hofstede dimensions. Their differing findings are (partly) explained by differences in surveyed countries, since this study includes (former) communist nations with particular value systems.

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