Sociology Of Values Research Paper

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Everything social actors appreciate, appraise, wish to obtain, recommend, set up or propose as an ideal, can be considered as a value. Ideas, emotions, moral deeds, acts, attitudes, institutions, material things, etc. may possess this special quality by virtue of which they are appraised, desired, or recommended. But what is attractive for some, can be repulsive to others. Thus, to values correspond countervalues which are underrated, disapproved, rejected. Nationalism and internationalism, private and public property, freedom and equality, etc., may be, according to diverse actors, values or countervalues.

1. Dimensions Of The Concept

Four main dimensions of the concept can be distinguished:

(a) Each value has an object, i.e. what is valued, prized. The nation, Moslem faith, work, profit, instruction, leisure, honesty, the family, etc., may become values. Any element of social reality, of the spiritual and moral world, can have a ‘value aspect’ insofar it is praised or refused, advocated, or condemned.

(b) This object is qualified by a judgment as valuable or contemptible, as good or bad, as useful or useless, as true or false, as desirable or not, as beautiful or ugly, etc. The sentence expressed is a value judgment. One will say, e.g., that one’s country is inviolable and its enemies are unkind, that Moslem faith is true and unbelievers are mistaken, that work is sacred and profits are unjust, that honesty is a virtue while robbery is dishonest, and so on. Value judgments answer to a large set of principles and criteria whereby opinions, beliefs, convictions are shaped, choices are made.

(c) Values become norms when they command and/or regulate conducts, prescribe a course of action. Norms tend to conform behavior and commitments to the values confessed. If your country is inviolable, you should defend it, if Islam is true, you must comply with its prescriptions, if profits are unjust, you must fight against them, if instruction is important, you must learn, if honesty is a virtue, you are not allowed to misappropriate funds. Values provide the grounds for accepting or rejecting particular norms, and norms are standards for actual conduct.

(d) The value holders are either individual or collective actors or social groups. Therefore one can speak of the values of such and such person, of the liberals, of the middle class, of the teenagers, of the Russians, or of Bantu culture.

The concept of value is inseparable from the notion of preference. To value one object rather than another (e.g. to prefer a party of cards to the theater) means that in a given situation the value inducing the choice was adopted or inculcated to the detriment of another.

2. Value Systems: Definition

The values of an individual or a collectivity do not appear as sharply separated and independent units. Instead, they are bound together, are interdependent, they form a system. When a new value is acquired or an old one is lost, when a value is weakening (lowering) or strengthening (rising), the whole system will be affected.

A system of values is hierarchically built up. It is also a scale of values. Often the difference between actors does not proceed from the content of their systems, but from their difference in ranking their values. For example, in the abortion debate, all participants may highly prize the value of life, but some will emphasize the conceived child’s future while others will take into account the mother’s decision.

The actor is more or less tied to certain values than to others. Values contain not only cognitive elements, they involve strong affective components too. The more a value is deeply rooted, the more it takes a central place in the system and the more it is lived intensely, arouses emotions, and mobilizes vehement energies. There are values men are ready to die for.

The mode of organizing a system of values varies from one culture to another. Its inner logic does not obey the same rules. This fact is undoubtedly the main reason why misunderstanding prevails between peoples pertaining to different cultures, each one interpreting the world in its own terms.

3. Harmony And Contradictions

At a first glance, the word ‘system’ suggests that the values upheld by the actors have their inner rationality and that their logic can be discovered. But a closer examination reveals that values are not necessarily clear and cannot be easily stated. A system is not perforce transparent. Often it comes to light only by action.

Moreover, values of the same actor can be in contradiction, i.e. push towards incompatible goals. The tension may remain covert if the actor is unconscious of this inconsistency, but overt contradiction in crucial matters may produce trouble of conscience, crisis, even anomy.

Another type of contradiction occurs when behavior and acts belie values. Criminals are likely to subscribe to principles and priorities similar to those of the man of the street. They only transgress a few of them by their deviant conduct. Ordinary people also regularly experience noticeable discrepancies between their fine words and their deeds.

Consequently, a set of values is a living system, very complex, open to seesaw motion and variations.

4. How Values Are Acquired And Maintained

Values are shaped and built in, receive their meaning, and are structured primordially by the process of socialization whose main agents are the family, the school, the media, the peer-group, etc. Men progressively learn the rules of their society, their knowledge, their know-how, are educated, i.e. appropriate their ‘cultural equipment.’ Everybody confronts his/her life with the values which are accessible to him/her. Persons born in the same social milieu or at the same time (thus pertaining to the same generation) and having been socialized similarly are likely to embark upon their human destiny sharing the same values. Those who share the same values are likely to assemble and to act together.

If the system of values proves to be an efficient guide, a good map for the travel through life, there is no manifest reason to modify it. It is consolidated by experience. It is in congruity with the conditions of real existence.

Social approval or disapproval constitutes another way of reinforcing values. Opinions and behavior are socially controlled: conformity with the predominant values is rewarded, deviance is more or less severely penalized.

5. How Values Change

Nevertheless, a value system is a ‘living concern’ and it is regularly challenged by an evolving social environment. It responds by a slow, adaptive change, its main features persisting, but sometimes it undergoes more dramatic change, a complete upheaval.

Change has several meanings: some values are being upgraded or downgraded in the actor’s value system; some values enter into the system, others exit; some gain in intensity, others weaken; values elicit greater or less commitment from their holders; some expand, the number of their adherents grows, others lose their attractiveness; the scope of validity of a value can vary (e.g. fraternity may be limited to the members of the family, but it may be extended to the nation or to mankind); etc.

Value changes can be induced by a large range of causal factors. It would be impossible to draw up a complete list. Some examples: value change may result from economic crisis or from prosperity, from demographic collapse or from a population explosion, from ecological alterations (such as pollution). Learning, knowledge, increased information are propitious to questioning values. External cultural influences may give rise to imitation or suggest that some institutions, customs, and ways of thinking are inadequate. Technological inventions play an important role: television has successfully replaced or diminished other leisure activities in the preference scale of citizens. If an organization is at odds with the surrounding world, it is challenged to change its mind, to introduce reforms or perish. The past and present of all political regimes or 2000 years of Christian history tend to show this.

Scarcity entails the rise of a value (in an anonymous world people are likely to cherish the value of conviviality). A durable conditioning by either advertisement or propaganda may provoke value shifts. Sometimes dormant values are awoken: generally solidarity is not very highly ranked in opinion polls, but some disaster may suddenly ‘warm up’ the value and mobilize people to help the victims.

In all these cases external pressure or influence initiate the process of value change. If change begins and continues in the same orientation, it can speed up and/or become cumulative. But the movement between values and the social environment is not unidirectional, as in the examples mentioned where values are dependent variables. Values are also independent variables. If, for example, technological inventions influence values through modifying ways of living, it is also true that valuing inventiveness, novelty, creativity, scientific research, will powerfully stimulate technological progress. The relation between values and economic, social, political, or cultural factors is governed by a dialectical swinging. Change is the product of the combined operation of the external world and the mental and psychic universe.

To explain dramatic value changes, reference must be made to a theory of social problems. In this perspective, as long as the itinerary of a society or a group, or the trajectory of an individual are unfolding without a major accident, there is no need for a change of course. But if suddenly a rupture happens (e.g. the death of a beloved person, the loss of a job, a divorce … for the individual; deep dysfunctioning, a foreign attack, a revolutionary situation … for the society)—imbalance, disorganization, deadlock, frustration, alienation come about. The overall guiding capacity of the value system is cruelly put to the test.

It becomes rapidly apparent if the existing values are adapted or not to define the problem and suggest solutions. If this operation is successful, the value system of the actor will be consolidated. On the contrary, it may occur that the ‘cultural equipment’ of the actor is insufficient to recognize and evaluate the ins and outs of the situation. his/her perceptions, ways of thinking, and values which inform and command his/her feelings and reasoning lose grip on the reality. He/she seems to be culturally blind. He/ she risks to succumb to a crisis or fall into anomy. At the macrolevel, whole civilizations may witness decline and final collapse.

Another eventuality is particularly interesting from the point of view of value change. The actor has perceived and formulated the problem, but he/she lacks means for tackling it. his/her value system is then submitted to a partial decomposition: the elements which do not respond to the requirements of the situation (i.e. to understand what is at stake and conceive a project) are dismantled, abandoned. For example, a society desirous to undertake economic development is forced to eliminate such values as conformity, respect for inherited hierarchies, or the acceptance of fatality.

A stage of recomposition is undertaken when the actor is trying to integrate new values able to suggest objectives and means for a suitable action. In this search, the total number of appropriate values is not infinite. Only those will be retained which offer a satisfactory solution to the original problem, correspond to the intimate aspirations of the actor, and can be bound up with other existing values. In the case of a development oriented society, entrepreneurship, the notion of exact time, or middle-term prevision will be values to be promoted.

The process described above is by no means a mechanical one, following a logical step-by-step operation or a fixed chronological order. It takes place in the very heart of the conscience, in the midst of impressions, reflexions, and hesitations; the values, as well as the project, which finally will prevail, will emerge from a more or less long incubation period. The path followed will of course differ in the case of an individual actor as for a collective one.

6. Production Of Values

Values are not impersonal, everlasting principles, existing since the first mists of time, floating in the air. They are, in the last instance, shaped by historically situated outstanding figures or institutions. These latter can be called ‘value producers,’ ‘standard setters,’ ‘sense makers.’

Who are they? Mostly, great moral personalities, prophets, philosophers, ideologists, intellectuals, scientists, artists, novelists, film directors, and institutions such as Churches, clubs, learned societies, research centers, universities, etc.

Their tasks consist of answering the society’s existential questions, in giving a meaning to events, in elaborating systems of thought, in proposing new horizons. They supply society and the actors with ideas, objectives, programs, ethical principles, critical judgments, etc.

The expansion of values is assumed by ‘value transmitters,’ ‘opinion leaders,’ ‘popularizers,’ ‘teachers,’ etc. and takes the usual channels of cultural communication such as newspapers, radio, television and other media, books, music, the school system, etc.

Public opinion generally lags behind with regard to the value producers and the opinion leaders. The speed and the scale of the diffusion of a value depends on a complex interplay between the needs, the receptivity, and the resistance of the public and the power holders, as well as the opportunities for innovation.

7. Classifications

Many typologies of values have been put forward. Here are some of the most significant and useful:

(a) The core values are those endorsed by the whole population. The specific values are shared by some segment of people: social class, age group, a region, an ethnic minority, etc. Social consensus is built upon the core values. They make sure that the members of a society can live together, understand each other, communicate and enjoy a minimal cohesion. Core values correspond to what are called the ‘ethos of a civilization’ or the ‘dominant values’ of a people.

(b) The structuring values are those in the center of a value system, ordering it, commanding the arrangement of the whole. They are the most important for the actor, explain his/her choices. They resist change while the peripheral values are more open to external influences. For some individuals, their structuring value is family, for others love or professional success or religion or soccer, etc., as well as any combination of two or three values.

(c) A similar distinction opposes final and instrumental values. The final values are at the top of the hierarchy in the system while the instrumental values are necessary to achieve them (like hard work as a means for professional success).

(d) Global values transcend the different spheres of social life, their area of validity embraces all human relations. For example, justice may be a requirement for the allotment of an inheritance, the fixing of a price, a legal verdict or the international relations. Moral values are naturally global. Sectorial values are confined to a special sphere of society. Political, economic, religious etc. values like parliamentary democracy, competition, or piety, are sectorial.

(e) Totalitarian societies impose unanimity in the field of values. Many traditional communities tend to be unanimous. If constraint loosens, society becomes progressively pluralistic. The coexistence of divergent value systems calls for tolerance. But they can clash too. Value conflicts are sharper than conflicts of interests because values arouse emotions and passions. When values like nationalism or religion (or both) motivate the contenders and define their very identity, the struggle threatens with destruction and death.

8. Place, Role, And Function Of Values In Sociological Analysis

Values are present practically in all social process and historical transformation. It would be impossible to list all situations and evolutions where they play an active role. To mention some of them must suffice.

Values assume the function of identity building. The individual aware of his/her values, can consider him/herself as a person, find his/her place in the world, feel confident, interpret and evaluate his/her environment. The group sees in its values one of the major reasons of its members’ adhesion, the common denominator of the participants: to share the same values is cementing their union.

Values are constituents of the system of action of individual and collective actors. They motivate them, influence their needs and aspirations (for one strives to obtain what one is valuing), order their perceptions (for one looks on the world through the glasses of his/her values), provide criteria for their judgments on the society, their situation, on others, on themselves.

Values hold an intermediary position between the reality and the actor’s will to preserve or to modify it. Indeed, values suggest projects. They command the selection of objectives: one goal is preferentially chosen because it is more attractive, more desirable, more appreciated. They help to determine the means: which one is better, cheaper, more appropriate, more efficient, etc.

Values supply the ‘raw materials’ of ideologies. Ideologies rationalize the values, the aspirations, and the interests of the actors. Values also intervene in any speech whose aim is to persuade or promote nourishing a more or less occult argumentation. They serve to justify unavowable initiatives, attitudes, or feelings: an aggression, e.g., will not be presented as such, but legitimated by values such as national security or the liberation of a neighboring country.

Values generate attitudes and steer behavior. The meaning of the patterns of behavior is not understandable without referring to the values of a given culture.

Values are often a mobilizing force for social change. Large-scale shifts like revolutions or reforms are generally preceded by transformations in the value systems and guided by new values. They are embodied by new symbols: flag, colors, emblems, statues, revered places or monuments, songs, etc.

Values contribute to maintain and regulate society, being the fundamentals of legitimacy, law, and social control. (Following the scientific ideal, it is claimed that social sciences must be value-free, which means that ideologies, doctrines, and beliefs can never impede, interfere with, or distort the impartiality and desirable objectivity of scientific method.)

9. Study Of Values: Methodological Devices

Talleyrand said: ‘God gave us the faculty to speak in order to conceal what we think.’ This is the reason why it is so difficult to study values. Furthermore, even the most honest persons meet with difficulties in accounting for their values. A lot of these remain implicit, taken for granted. Another problem: how to identify values? They are embedded in verbal, behavioral, and situational contexts. We often have to infer them constructing indicators and being attentive to the signs which reveal them. This careful study requires a critical apparatus and a well-constructed method.

A large array of research instruments has been developed to recognize and index values. Allport, Vernon, and Lindzey used a values test. M. Rokeach listed 18 terminal values (‘preferred end-states of existence’) and 18 instrumental values (‘preferred modes of behavior’). Respondents ranked the items by importance as guiding principles for daily life.

Interviews with standardized questionnaires are another path to follow. If they are conceived in an international comparative perspective, the selection of the vocabulary requires a preliminary contextual analysis. In case of free, nondirective interviews or autobiographies, the respondents choose their own words and produce a richer material, but less easy to generalize.

The researcher has at his/her disposal a great variety of sources: newspapers, magazines, advertisements, school textbooks, novels, doctrinal works, speeches, songs, pictures (photos, films), symbols, etc. He/she needs adapted content analysis or different kinds of semiological approaches to extract the values held by the authors and actors.

Values can also be observed in their natural setting focusing on men’s activities and behavior which embody their motivations, desires, aspirations. In certain circumstances experimental designs and techniques are advisable.

The approach to adopt depends on several considerations: the nature of the values to be discovered, the seeking of rapidity of results, extensivity or intensivity of the knowledge targeted, etc. A combination of procedures is always recommended, for none of the instruments covers the entire field alone.

10. Past And Recent Research

For philosophers and moralists, ‘value’ has been a familiar notion for a long time. For economists, from the outset, it was a central concept. The founding fathers of sociology approached the study of cultural phenomena without necessarily using the word ‘value.’ Tocqueville, for example, speaks of the ‘spirit’ of the Americans and attributes to religiosity the main characteristic of their society. For Karl Marx, ideas, feelings, ethics, law are superstructural facts determined by the infrastructure. According to Max Weber protestant ethics (values) play a central role in the birth of capitalism. With The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918–1921), W. Thomas and F. Znaniecki make of values an important factor.

Finally, the concept becomes the object of a book with C. Bougle, one of Durkheim’s followers (Lecons de sociologie sur l’Evolution des valeurs 1922). Anthropologists were particularly well qualified at focusing their interests on field studies of cultural phenomena in small communities. Following their dominant values, Ruth Benedict divided Indian communities in the South-West of the US into Apollonians and Dionysians (Patterns of Culture 1934).

A new and decisive trend opens with the Cornell Values Study Group under the impulse of Clyde Kluckhohn (1949). It initiated a long-term comparative project which led to the theory of value orientations of Florence Kluckhohn and Fred Strodtbeck. These investigations owe much to Talcott Parsons’ functionalism which places the actor and value guided action at the heart of the sociologists’ interest. Seymour Lipset was inspired by Parsonian categories in comparing American values with those of other Anglo-Saxon societies (1963) and those of Latin America (1967).

In the meantime, the theory of development founded by economists was extended to the cultural field. Everett Hagen (1964) and others emphasized the decisive contribution of values to the transition towards economic growth.

At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, a deep cultural turmoil surprised the Western world. Old traditional values were refused and new ones adopted and diffused by osmosis. These profound and fast changes stimulated sociological research on values. The new era was baptized, following the authors, individualistic, narcissistic (Christopher Lasch), hedonistic, secularized, postindustrialist (Daniel Bell), postmaterialist, etc.

The postmaterialist hypothesis of Roland Inglehart (from 1971 on) opened a broad current of empirical investigations. Another pioneering effort was due to Milton Rokeach (1973).

In 1981 a first international comparative survey was launched by the European Value Systems Study Group headed by Jan Kerkhofs and Ruud de Moor, and covering 10 countries (the same questionnaire being used). Jean Stoetzel synthetized the results in his Les valeurs du temps present: une enquete europeenne (1983). A new wave of surveys took place in 1990 with all European countries as well as the US and Canada participating. The enterprise has become the largest research program ever carried out. It was decided to replicate the study at 10-year intervals. The 1999 survey encompassed 45 countries. A rich academic literature abounds around the investigations (between 1990 and 1997 alone, 194 recorded titles). A similar work was done by the European Union’s Eurobarometer, publishing recurrent data on values too. More recent investigations have penetrated specific fields such as political values (Rezsohazy 1996).


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