Values in Sociology

By Charlotte Nickerson, published October 31, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


In sociology, values are the beliefs that we have about what is important, both to us and to society as a whole.They can be implicit or explicit (stated directly). Values help us to decide what is right or wrong, good or bad.

Values comprise culturally constructed goals, presented as legitimate objects for attainment to a diverse array of individuals in a society. Such goals are accorded varying degrees of significance based on their relevance to a particular culture’s most cherished ideals.

These values are communicated to individuals, commencing at a tender age, as dreams worth pursuing.

Ancient Sparta offers an example of a society that explicitly upheld the value of military preeminence (Plutarch, 1859). Sparta’s granting of headstones only to a select victorious, the poetry of Tyrtaeus glorifying military prowess, and the agoges that molded 7-year-old boys into warriors barely elude attention.

Key Takeaways

  • Social values are the beliefs, attitudes, and opinions about what is important, both to us and to society as a whole. A value, therefore, is a belief (right or wrong) about the way something should be.
  • Social values can be categorized according to their source, which can be materialistic or idealistic; positive or negative, dominant or variant, innate or acquired, or a number of other categories.
  • Every value that individuals hold has a number of associated ideas called norms.
  • Perspectives as far ranging as functionalism, Marxism, and feminism have created different lenses through which sociologists view the function of social values.

Some values are very personal to us as individuals, whilst others are much more widely-held by large groups of people. In this case, values become morals - things that we consider to be of such absolute and fundamental importance that we believe everyone should hold such ideas as a personal value.

There is an ethical dimension to the concept of values, in that beliefs about goodness are often attached to them. In functionalist sociology, values have a central place, as they are thought to be crucial in forging social solidarity amongst disparate individuals.

Some common social values in Western societies include freedom, equality, individualism, democracy, and respect for others. However, these values are not shared by all cultures. For example, in some traditional societies, collectivism (valuing the needs of the group over the needs of the individual) may be more important than individualism (Boudon, 2017).

Sociologists often study how social values change over time. For example, in the past, many Western societies valued men over women and white people over racial minorities. However, over time, these values have changed in many countries, as women and minority groups have fought for equality.

In short, the values we hold are general behavioural guidelines. They tell us what we believe is right or wrong, for example, but that do not tell us how we should behave appropriately in any given social situation. This is the part played by norms in the overall structure of our social behaviour.

Characteristics of Values (Boudon, 2017):

  • Values are typically a matter of faith and belief

  • They tend to be abstract and cognitive

  • Values are normative in nature

  • Values are general ideas shared by people

  • Values are related to emotions and sentiments

  • Values are the basis for the choices of things

  • Values are relatively permanent

  • Values bring cohesiveness to society

  • Values are motivated by public welfare

  • Values have a hierarchy of order.

Types of Values

Moral

Moral values are beliefs about right and wrong behavior. They are usually based on religion, culture, or philosophy. Many people have different moral values, depending on their beliefs.

These values are not scientific. Moral values that are also used to evaluate social institutions are sometimes also known as political values.

Some common moral values in Western societies include honesty, respect for others and one's parents, honesty, and loyalty. Generally, society punishes the violation of such values gravely (Boudon, 2017).

Another example of moral values are the 10 Commandments. These include values such as you should not steal from another person.

Rational

Rational values are based on reason or logic. They are scientific and objective, and can be measured. They often relate to people's physical needs and desires, such as the need for food, shelter, and safety.

Some common rational values in Western societies include health, wealth, knowledge, and efficiency. For example, a society may value an individual working hard because those who work hard are more likely to bring increased productivity - in the forms of goods and services. Thus allowing the people within it to prosper and creating a safety net for when a disaster - be it famine, war, or economic recession - strikes (Boudon, 2017).

Individualistic

Individualistic values emphasize the importance of the individual over the group. In individualistic societies, people are expected to take care of themselves and their immediate families only.

People in individualistic societies value independence, self-reliance, and personal achievement. Thus, individualistic values can include liberty, privacy, and competition.

Scholars believe that the origins of these individualistic values reflect a commitment to reason, with social relations organized in terms of principles, rules, and laws (Ghorbani et al., 2003).

Dominant values

Dominant values are values that limit social sanctions and cannot be infringed by an individual. In a society, there can be multiple dominant values that are respected by the majority of people.

For example, in many Western societies, personal freedom and independence are highly valued. Other examples of dominant values include hard work, self-discipline, non-violence, and respect for authority (Boudon, 2017).

While dominant values may vary from one society to another, they usually remain stable over time within a given culture. This is because they are supported by institutions such as the family, education system, and religion.

Dominant values help to define what is considered normal or acceptable behavior in a society. They also provide a sense of order and stability, which can help to reduce social conflict.

Variant values

Variants are values that individuals can choose to follow while being part of the culture or society. A common example is food choices – vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

While some cultures or societies may have a preference for one type of food over the other — French cuisine relies heavily on meat and cheese while Indian cuisine is largely vegan —  individuals within those groups are free to choose which they will consume.

Variant values also exist within larger social institutions, such as religion. For instance, many Christian denominations allow for different interpretations of key scriptures; thus, followers of Christianity may hold slightly different beliefs while still being united under the same umbrella faith (Boudon, 2017).

Aesthetic values

Aesthetic values are based on ideas about what is beautiful or ugly, artful or tasteless. They are often related to morality, but not always. For example, some people may think that an artwork depicting nudity is morally wrong, but they may still find it aesthetically pleasing "high art."

Some common aesthetic values in Western societies include symmetry, balance, and neatness. Nonetheless, aesthetic values can change over time.  For example, in the past, artists often tried to depict idealized versions of people and nature.

However, in more recent times, artists have been exploring more "realistic" and "ugly" subjects. Similarly, architecture in the 20th century moved from symmetrical neoclassical styles to those marked by asymmetry and uniqueness.

Although whether or not these new works are "beautiful," is subjective, these new styles of art and architecture encompass aesthetic values because they have been adopted as a standard for what is right and good by authorities in the fields (Pawlowski, 2012).

Terminal and Instrumental Values

Terminal values are those that relate to the endpoint or goal of a person's life, such as freedom, happiness, and inner peace. Instrumental values are those that relate to the means by which a person achieves their goals, such as honesty, hard work, and self-discipline (Feather & Peay, 1975).

While both types of values are important in shaping a person's behavior, instrumental values are typically more important in predicting day-to-day actions. This is because instrumental values represent the specific steps that a person must take to achieve their goals. As such, they provide a clear blueprint for action. In contrast, terminal values usually remain more abstract and  may be difficult to translate into concrete behavior.

Functions of Social Values

Values provide stability in group interactions. They give individuals a sense of identity and belonging, and contribute to the maintenance of social order, because they are shared in common.

Values also serve as standards against which people judge the appropriateness of their own behavior and the behavior of others, and can make people more likely to see others as like themselves.

Values can also bring legitimacy to the rules governing specific activities.  The rules that spring from these values are followed on virtue of embodying values. For example, in many societies, the value of individualism is highly valued.

This value may help to legitimize activities such as competition and aggressiveness, which are seen as necessary for success (Levy & Guttman, 1985).

They can also be used to explain and justify societal problems, such as social inequality. For example, the value of hard work may be used to justify why some people have more money than others. Indeed, hierarchical societies may even consider these inequities to be natural, and take down any efforts to overthrow them.

Finally, values help to bring about adjustments between different sets of rules over time. For example, the value of freedom may be used to justify changes in the rules governing interactions between people, such as the abolition of slavery, as well as a more distant relationship between the government and individual.

Or, the value of progress may be used to support new technologies or ways of doing things, even when these entail a loss of tradition (Levy & Guttman, 1985).

Example of Social Valuess

Justice

Justice helps to ensure that people are treated fairly and equally. It is also a value that can help to prevent conflict and promote social cohesion.

For example, in a society where people believe that wrongdoings will be punished swiftly and appropriately, people are more likely to feel safe and less likely to break the rules themselves.

This justice can be both legal or extralegal, encompassing anything from law enforcement to spiritual beliefs (Bourne & Jenkins, 2013).

Freedom

Freedom allows people to express themselves freely and choose their own lifestyles. It promotes individualism and self-expression (Carter, 1995).

When freedom is functional, it allows individuals to pursue their own interests and goals without interference from others. It also fosters creativity and innovation by giving people the opportunity to experiment with new ideas and methods.

Societies that value freedom have the potential to bring ideas into the world that would have otherwise passed by unvalued, as they do not conform to tradition.

However, freedom also has its negative aspects. One of the downsides of freedom is that it can lead to social disharmony and conflict. When people are free to pursue their own interests and goals, they may sometimes clash with others who have different interests.

This can lead to tension and conflict within society. Additionally, societies that value freedom may be more likely to experience crime. When people are free to pursue their own goals, some may choose to do so through illegal or criminal activities (Carter, 1995).

Respect

Respect ensures that people treat each other with dignity. There are two main types of respect: personal and social. Personal respect is when someone is treated with dignity because they are valued as an individual.

Social respect is when someone is treated with dignity because they have a certain status in society. Some social theorists have argued that respect is closely tied to agency.

Reich, Schirmer, and Hamann (2009) found that people are sensitive to the legitimacy of the other's claim to respect, which means that they are unwilling to associate disrespect with situations in which a person's non‐ legitimate claims to agential treatment have been violated.

Sources of Values

Functionalist

According to functionalism, social values are created in order to maintain stability and balance within society. These values are essential for the proper functioning of society and help to ensure that all members of society know what is expected of them.

Social values also play an important role in social cohesion, by helping to bind people together and creating a sense of shared purpose through socializing societal newcomers into the values system.

Functionalists believe that all aspects of society serve a purpose and contribute to the overall functioning of society. They see social values as being beneficial to society as they help to ensure that everyone knows what is expected of them.

Some functionalist theorists have even argued that social values are innate and hard-wired into human beings (Parsons, 1991).

Marxist

Marxists believe that the ruling class imposes values on the working class, which leads to false consciousness. This means that the working class does not understand their own interests and instead accepts the values of the ruling class.

Underlying this control of consciousness through values is, in the view of Marxism, a fundamental conflict between the ruling class and the working class, which is why values can never be fully shared or agreed upon.

The ruling class has an interest in maintaining their power and privilege, while the working class wants to overthrow them and create a more equal society (Armstrong, 2020).

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. 

Some Marxist sociologists have criticized functionalist theories of value for being unable to explain how values change over time. They argue that functionalists assume that values are fixed and unchanging, when in reality they are always changing and being contested.

 

Feminism

Some feminist theorists, in a similar vein to Marxists who believe that values serve the ruling class, believe that values serve the needs of men.

The values that are most prominent in society – such as individualism, competition, and materialism – benefit men more than women, who are expected to be caretakers and providers.

Other feminist theorists have argued that there is no single set of values that characterize all societies; rather, values vary depending on the specific culture or subculture (Armstrong, 2020).

Must social values always be in harmony with each other?

Even within individual cultures, social values are not always in harmony with each other.

For example, the social value of individualism reflected in the workplace in the form of competing against peers and pursuing one's "passion" may conflict with the social value of collectivism, requiring families to put each other before outside obligations and ambitions.

A society can hold other seemingly contradictory social values, such as competition and cooperation and autonomy and conformity. Although these social values are not necessarily mutually reinforcing, they do not portend chaos or downfall, either.

What are the different types of values in sociology?

The concept of values in sociology can be further divided into positive and negative values; dominant and variant, innate and acquired, and intrinsic and extrinsic values.

Values can be further classified relationally, characterized as moral, rational, and individual.

How are values measured in sociology?

There are many different ways to measure and compare values. One common approach is the Rokeach Value Survey, which asks people to rank a list of 18 terminal values and 18 instrumental values in order of importance.

Other approaches focus on specific values or value clusters, such as those related to environmentalism or religiosity. The terminal values in the Rokeach Value Survey are (Johnston, 1995):

  • True Friendship

  • Mature Love

  • Self-Respect

  • Happiness

  • Inner Harmony

  • Equality

  • Freedom

  • Pleasure

  • Social Recognition

  • Wisdom

  • Salvation

  • Family Security

  • National Security

  • A Sense of Accomplishment

  • A World of Beauty

  • A World at Peace

  • A Comfortable Life

  • An Exciting Life

While the instrumental values - preferable modes of behavior - involve (Johnston, 1995):

  • Cheerfulness

  • Ambition

  • Love

  • Cleanliness

  • Self-Control

  • Capability

  • Courage

  • Politeness

  • Honesty

  • Imagination

  • Independence

  • Intellect

  • Broad-Mindedness

  • Logic

  • Obedience

  • Helpfulness

  • Responsibility

  • Forgiveness

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 31). Values in Sociology. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/values-definition-sociology.html

References

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