Value Consensus in Sociology

By Charlotte Nickerson, published March 28, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


The term value consensus refers to the extent to which individuals within some social structure share the same values. In Durkheim's view, a society functions well when there is an agreement among the people within it about the structure of beliefs in a society. 

In other words, value consensus is a measure of the agreement within a group on what is seen as, say, virtuous, heinous, or evil. The concept of value consensus has its roots in sociology and anthropology, where it has been studied extensively.

It is closely related to the idea of social norms, which are informal rules that govern behavior within a group. Additionally, value consensus is often seen as a necessary part of social cohesion and stability.

It provides a common set of beliefs and principles that people can rally around and use to unconsciously guide their behavior. Without a shared set of values, it would be difficult for people to interact with one another or to co-operate on anything.

Key Takeaways

  • A value consensus is a shared agreement among a group of people about what is important or valuable. This can be in the form of moral values, political values, religious values, or cultural values. It is often seen as a necessary part of social cohesion and stability.
  • Value consensus can be thought of as a societal binding agent. It provides a common set of beliefs and principles that people can rally around and use to guide their behavior.
  • Others, such as Merton, elaborated on Durkheim's functionalist theory, adding that institutions can also be dysfunctional. Nonetheless, these theories are still consensus theories.
  • More recently, consensus theories have been extended into pluralism and the "new right." Pluralism argues that different groups, or subcultures, within society can have differing norms and values, but there are at least some overriding, shared societal norms.
  • Meanwhile, the new right emphasizes how the breakdown of social institutions can harm society through the dismantling of value consensus. Criminologists also commonly use consensus theories. One notable example of a criminological consensus theory is strain theory.

What do functionalists mean by value consensus?

Value Consensus means that a majority of society agrees with the goals that society sets to show success.

Value Consensus: A Functionalist Theory Of Society

Functionalism is a structural-consensus theory. This means that functionalists argue both that:

  • There is a social structure that shapes individual behavior through the process of socialization.
  • A successful society is based on value consensus, of people agreeing around a shared set of norms and values that enables people to co-operate and work together to achieve shared goals.

For functionalists like Durkheim, social order is maintained by cooperation and unity amongst the individual members of a society. Durkheim called this consensus the "collective consciousness" - a collective way of thinking and acting.

Parsons (1939, 1951) would later elaborate on this collective consciousness, coining the term "value consensus" to describe the need for societies to have a common set of beliefs and principles to work with and towards. This view is why Functionalism is considered to be a consensus theory.

The functionalist perspective sees these values as essential for the smooth running of society. They provide a common purpose for people to strive for and help to ensure that people behave in predictable ways (Patridge, 1971; Marsh, 2007).

Informal social control functions to maintain value consensus through customs, norms, and expectations. For example, social institutions such as the family, education, and religion play an important role in promoting and sustaining value consensus through socialization.

Socialization is a process whereby people learn the values and norms of a given culture, from birth on. For example, during the early years of life, children learn from their parents and other caregivers about what is appropriate behavior for boys and girls.

The family is often the first source of values for individuals. Parents typically instill their own values in their children from a young age. As children grow older, they may begin to develop their own values that are different from those of their parents.

Other factors, such as socio economic development and one's peer group, can play an equally dramatic role in determining whose views become the basis of a society's value consensus as well as what these values are (Schwartz & Sagie, 2000).

Formal social control can also be a mechanism for ensuring a value consensus within society through laws or other official regulations. These social controls explicitly demand compliance, and tend to be repressive and punitive.

While the functionalist perspective emphasizes the importance of socialization in creating value consensus, it does acknowledge that there are always going to be some values that people do not agree on.

In fact, Durkheim argued that a certain amount of deviance — behavior contrary to norms — is necessary for the values of a society to be tested and confirmed.

Durkheim notes value consensus continues to exist in modern societies but in a weaker form because industrialization resulted in people having greater access to a greater variety of knowledge and ideas, e.g. through the mass media and science.

Why is value consensus important?

Functionalists believe that a successful society is based on value consensus, people agreeing about a set of shared norms and values. In this way, people can join forces in society to co-operate and work toward shared goals (Holmwood, 2005).

To Parsons, the value-consensus was the basis of social order, as it integrated disparate individuals and reduced conflict between them.

Value consensus is important because it determines the social norms and mores in a culture. For example, in American culture, there is a general consensus that individual freedom is more important than collectivism.

This value shapes many of the social norms in American culture, such as the emphasis on individual achievement and rights, and influences people and policymakers alike to attribute success and failure in all realms to personal traits and character (Schwartz & Sagie, 2000).

Value consensus, on a broader level, is important for systems such as democracy, governance, and the corpus of law. The way everyone lives their lives is dependent on these social norms and systems.

Understanding value consensus is vital in furthering positive social goals such as increasing social stability and encouraging peaceful conflict resolution.

A consensus of values also limits the amount and weight of conflict in society, as adherence to shared values engenders a sense of identity and acceptance of common goals as well as agreement on the norms for how these goals should be achieved (Partridge, 1971).

How does the family establish a value consensus?

Family instills certain values in their children, which leads to those values being passed down from generation to generation. This can create a strong sense of shared values within a family, and can lead to families cooperating with each other on political and other issues.

The family plays a vital role, although perhaps in subtle ways, in the inculcation of values such as fairness, honesty, teamwork, and empathy, in their members commencing at infancy.

Additionally, the family significantly influences the passage of cultural and religious norms as well.

The role of family in value consensus is evident in many cultures around the world. In some cultures, families are very close-knit and co-operate on a variety of needs. In others, families may be more isolated from each other, but still share similar values (Schwartz & Sagie, 2000).

The functionalist, Talcott Parsons, argued that the particular structure of a family fits the needs of the society it is enclosed in. In essence, the structure of the family and the creation of values consensus is in a reciprocal relationship.

Broadly, in less close knit societies, families may encourage the development of individualism as a value, leading to leaving the family structure at a younger age and greater immersion in non-family social institutions. This serves to give these other institutions an even greater role in creating values consensus (Schwartz & Sagie, 2000).

How does education establish a value consensus?

After the family, educational institutions play the most significant role in grooming young children into responsible citizens. The position of authority teachers occupy in a child’s mind often makes a child receptive to indoctrination. Consequently, schools invariably function as mechanisms whereby civic values are propagated.

Secondary socialization agents act as learning environments that produce conformity and consensus among people from potentially dissimilar backgrounds.

For example, by teaching a country's history and laws in schools, children from different regions and cultures come to learn a common set of values and norms. This is especially important in societies that are ethnically and racially diverse, as it helps to create a sense of shared identity and purpose (Schwartz & Sagie, 2000).

Teaching Norms and Values

Durkheim also argued that schools in complex societies teach how people can co-operate with people who are neither their kin nor friends in a way that neither the family or friendship can.

Thus, school is the only institution that can prepare children for membership in wider society by enforcing a set of rules applied to all children.

Althusser argues that the family, as part of the superstructure of capitalist society, socializes children into norms and values that are useful to the capitalist ruling class. That is to say, the family is an ideological agent, a puppet, of the ruling class.

For example, children learn obedience and respect for those in authority within the family. This means that the capitalist class can later exploit these children because, when these children become adults, they are more likely to view the power and authority of the capitalist class as natural.

By socializing children into ruling-class values, the family ensures that children will become uncritical and conformist adults and passive workers who accept exploitation with little complaint. 

Role Allocation

Additionally, education serves to provide a means of role allocation by sorting younger students into tracks according to their abilities and future goals. This role allocation then leads to value consensus as those individuals with similar educational backgrounds are more likely to share, and be socialized into, the same values (Schwartz & Sagie, 2000).

For example, people who have graduated from Ivy League schools are likely to have very different values than those who have been sorted into community college or trade schools. The former group is likely to prioritize things like working long hours and achieving economic success at a number of prestigious companies or universities, while the latter group may prioritize family, community, and settling for stability.

In theory, this is a meritocratic shifting and sorting; however, sociological studies have long shown that there tends to be overrepresentation of those from high socioeconomic status families at the most selective tiers of the education system (Schwartz & Sagie, 2000).

By promoting different types of values consensus among different social groups, the education system ensures that different specializations of varying levels of status and income are supplied with a population of people willing to fill them.

How does the state establish a value consensus?

Governmental policy, especially via legislation, is an evident example of formal social control that demonstrates what may be acceptable or unacceptable in a certain society.

Governments can create value consensus by setting up institutions and laws that create incentives for people to reach agreement, or by using their own power to directly influence the values of citizens.

Governments can also provide platforms for dialogue and deliberation, or by investing in education and public awareness campaigns. Ultimately, government action is essential for creating the conditions under which value consensus is possible (Schwartz & Sagie, 2000).

Governments can significantly alter the routine lives of their citizens so as to create value consensus. As an extreme example, the Soviet Union implemented a system in the 1930s of abolishing traditional weekends among workers, instead alternating days off that were determined by the work week.

The reasoning behind this measure was both to ensure the continuous operation of factories and to weaken social institutions outside of work and government. When people within families or communities struggle to find common leisure time, it becomes more difficult to strengthen the bonds between people in these groups and organize against the state. This policy was later changed, but it highlights the potential for government action in value formation (Nash, 1967).

Today, governments use carrots and sticks to nudge citizens towards values that serve the public good. For instance, taxes can be used to discourage activities that are harmful to society, such as smoking or pollution.

Alternatively, tax breaks can be used to encourage and normalize activities deemed desirable, such as driving an electric car in lieu of a gasoline-fueled one. By setting these sorts of rules and incentives, governments ensure that behaviors healthy for their own interests are normalized, creating order.

How do politics establish a value consensus?

Politics leads to value consensus in a society by shaping people's perceptions of what is valuable. Through the political process, society decides which values are important and how they should be ranked. This creates a shared understanding of what is valuable, which leads to more cooperation and less conflict.

When there is no value consensus, people are more likely to disagree and fight over what they believe is important on a political level. This can lead to social unrest and even violence. A value consensus helps to prevent these problems by creating a shared understanding of what is important (Schwartz & Sagie, 2000).

Politics can create value consensus through a number of avenues, and individual political parties can create value consensus that, at times, runs completely contrary to that of its opposition.

One means of exerting control over value consensus through politics is through the media. The media can be used to promote certain values and downplay others.

For example, the media can be used to make people feel that their safety is more important than their freedom, or that their economic well-being is more important than their civil rights (Schwartz & Sagie, 2000).

The media can also be used to create a false sense of consensus. This happens when the media only presents one side of an issue, or when it only presents the views of those in power. This can lead to people believing that everyone agrees with them, even though there may be a large number of people who disagree.

Critical evaluation

The extent of a value consensus in society has been challenged, with many sociologists denying that it exists at all.

The functionalist perspective has been critiqued by many other perspectives, including the conflict perspective and the symbolic interactionist perspective.

These perspectives argue that not all values are shared by all members of society and that some values are promoted at the expense of others. For example, a value of individualism and individual achievement perpetrated through political and governmental structures that reward individuals who achieve highly may harm, through exclusion, those who by circumstances or not may not.

Critics of the functionalist perspective on value consensus also point out that institutions can sometimes be used to control people rather than help them reach their full potential (Kulkarni, 2010).

Rather than "value consensus" being a necessary, fundamental, condition for human society, Marxists see this consensus as being manufactured by the bourgeoisie (through the primary and secondary socialisation process and cultural institutions such as religion, education and the mass media).

What is value consensus according to Durkheim?

In brief, Durkheim believed that in order for a society to function properly, its members must share a certain degree of agreement on what is valuable.

This common set of values – or value consensus – allows people to know how to behave and what to expect from others. It also provides a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Without value consensus, Durkheim thought that social anarchy, or anomie, would reign (Marsh, 2007).

What is value consensus according to functionalism?

Functionalists see value consensus as necessary for the smooth functioning of society.

This perspective emphasizes the role of institutions in socializing individuals and transmitting values. According to functionalism, when there is a value consensus, people know what is expected of them and they are able to co-operate with one another to achieve common goals.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, October 28). Value Consensus in Sociology. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/consensus-theory.html

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