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I. THE CONCEPT OF VALUESRobin M. Williams, Jr.





The term “values” may refer to interests, pleasures, likes, preferences, duties, moral obligations, desires, wants, needs, aversions and attractions, and many other modalities of selective orientation (Pepper 1958, p. 7). Values, in other words, are found in the large and diverse universe of selective behavior. Presumably sheer reflex behavior does not manifest values or valuing: neither an involuntary eyeblink or knee jerk nor any one of numerous biochemical processes in the human body constitutes value behavior. However, it is very doubtful that any one descriptive definition can do complete justice to the full range and diversity of recognizable value phenomena.

The limits of value may be conceived very broadly or quite narrowly, but the limits should never be arbitrarily set, and their location ought to be justified in any particular case. A broad, comprehensive conception of value has the advantage of calling attention to possible value elements in all behavior save the most rigidly instinctive or automatic. A narrow definition may have the virtues of specificity and definiteness but may lead to errors if the excluded phenomena are not taken into account through concepts closely related to the idea of “value.”

One of the more widely accepted definitions in the social science literature considers values to be conceptions of the desirable, influencing selective behavior. In this restrictive definition, a distinction is made between what is desired and what is desirable, the latter being equated with what we ought to desire; values regulate “impulse satisfaction in accord with the whole array of hierarchical enduring goals of the personality, the requirements of both personality and sociocultural system for order, the need for respecting the interests of others and of the group as a whole in social living” (Kluckhohn 1951, p. 399). This is a highly socialized view of values, which rules out, for instance, purely hedonic values.

In the broader view, anything good or bad is a value (Pepper 1958, p. 7), or a value is anything of interest to a human subject (Perry 1954). Men are not indifferent to the world; they do not stop with a sheerly factual view of their experience (Kohler 1938). Explicitly or implicitly they are continually regarding things as good or bad, as true or false, as virtues or vices. A comprehensive view of the total field of valuing seems most useful to begin with; more specific conceptions can then be developed for particular purposes.

Accordingly, we look first to the common features of all value phenomena. It seems that all values contain some cognitive elements (although some definitions do not include this), that they have a selective or directional quality, and that they involve some affective component. Values serve as criteria for selection in action. When most explicit and fully conceptualized, values become criteria for judgment, preference, and choice. When implicit and unreflective, values nevertheless perform as if they constituted grounds for decisions in behavior. Men do prefer some things to others; they do select one course of action rather than another out of a range of possibilities; they do judge the conduct of other men.

Evidently purposive actions fall within the boundaries of evaluative action. Within purposive actions we can identify three main kinds of value: conative (desire, liking), achievement (success versus frustration), and affective (pleasure versus pain or unpleasantness). Within any purposive act, these values may be strung out or distributed along the total history of the act (Pepper 1958, pp. 304-305).

In ordinary speech the term “value” is used interchangeably in two senses that must be kept separate here. In one meaning, we refer to the specific evaluation of any object, as in “industrialized countries place a high value on formal education” or “governmental regulation is worthless.” Here we are told how an object is rated or otherwise appraised, but not what standards are used to make the judgments. The second meaning of value refers to the criteria, or standards in terms of which evaluations are made, as in “education is good because it increases economic efficiency.” Value-as-criterion is usually the more important usage for purposes of social scientific analysis (Williams [1951] 1960, p. 401).

The definition of value we use for purposes of anchoring and clarifying the discussion of values is a descriptive definition, which is continually being confronted by the tests of adequacy imposed by actual behavior. Thus the description must be empirically verified or it must be changed: “the value facts themselves are the ultimate evaluative criteria” (Pepper 1958, p. 300). The value facts are implicit in evaluative acts; therefore, explicit definitions of value are always potentially open to reformulation in the face of new evaluative acts. That which is implicit in evaluative acts is a “selective system” or “natural norm.”

Related concepts. Value as an explicit concept was in early use in various narrow technical meanings in the field of economics. Only in the last three decades or so have value concepts found widespread use among the other social sciences, although a pioneering effort was made by Thomas and Znaniecki prior to the 1920s in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918). Psychologists have employed an array of related terms: attitudes, needs, sentiments, dispositions, interests, preferences, motives, cathexes, valences (Smith 1963, pp. 326-331). Anthropologists have spoken of obligation (Brandt 1961), ethos, culture pattern, themes, and life style. Sociologists and political scientists have referred to interests, ethics, ideologies, mores, norms, attitudes, aspirations, obligations, rights, and sanctions.

Clearly there is no point in extending the meaning of the term so broadly that there is no way of distinguishing between values and other determinants of behavior. Human social behavior is the outcome of physiological states and capacities of the organism, of the stimulus field to which it reacts, of the conceptual schemes within which it interprets its environment, and of “motives” or “needs” which are not identical with the value elements which enter into them. Values constitute only one among several classes of factors that should be taken into account if one seeks to predict and understand human behavior.

Although it is often difficult in specific instances to distinguish between values and such related concepts as beliefs, needs, or motives, reasonably clear distinctions can be drawn in general terms. When, for example, we think of values as components of personality, it is clear that values are not the same as needs or desires. Needs derive from deficiency or disruption. Desires are wishes or ap-petitions directed toward certain objects or states. Desires may become so intense as to become needs, and needs are typically intermingled with corresponding desires. In any case, however, it is possible for there to be a need or a desire (for example, for food) in which values are not the only, or even the most important, component. On the other hand, values themselves may be a source of needs and desires, as when one seeks to remove the pangs of not fulfilling “one’s duty” or positively aspires to live up to high standards of craftsmanship.

Values are not motives. Many particular motives may reinforce commitment to a given value: “A given value may have a strength that is relatively independent of any particular motive, though it remains in some sense a function of the total motivational system” (Kluckhohn 1951, p. 425).

Values are not the same as norms for conduct. Norms are rules for behaving: they say more or less specifically what should or should not be done by particular types of actors in given circumstances. Values are standards of desirability that are more nearly independent of specific situations. The same value may be a point of reference for a great many specific norms; a particular norm may represent the simultaneous application of several separable values. Thus the value premise “equality” may enter into norms for relationships between husband and wife, brother and brother, teacher and student, and so on; on the other hand, the norm “a teacher must not show favoritism in grading” may in a particular instance involve the values of equality, honesty, humanitarianism, and several others. Values, as standards (criteria) for establishing what should be regarded as desirable, provide the grounds for accepting or rejecting particular norms. Thus achievement values, stressing active instrumental accomplishment against a standard of excellence, may be reflected in norms for sports, games, occupational activities, community service, political life, education, science, and so on. The same principle holds for values considered as desirable objects or states; for example, a high positive evaluation of “freedom” or “authority” may be one of the grounds for a great many specific norms in various areas of society, culture, and personality. On the other hand, many norms are multivalued, relating simultaneously, for example, to hedonic criteria, considerations of efficiency, and values of social integration. A minor but clear case in point might be norms of etiquette for social dining.

As one moves along a scale of increasing generality, in which norms become more and more detached from particular circumstances, a point eventually will be reached at which “norm” becomes practically indistinguishable from value. Marginal cases naturally are debatable and difficult to classify, but a knowledge of the context usually permits a reasonably satisfactory assignment of the concrete specifications of conduct to the class of “norms” and the standards of desirability to the category of “values.” The injunction “Be honest" has the appearance of a norm, but unless we know what behavior qualifies as honest in various circumstances we have no real guide to particular conduct; we know only that something called “honesty” is regarded as a desirable thing. Careful study of a large sample of norms dealing with honesty typically is required to disentangle the generalized value principle from the admixture of other values and other determinants of behavior.

Empirical study of values . Description and analysis of values by social scientists rest on the use of several lines of evidence. Preliminary clues may be obtained from testimony: individuals are able, to some extent, to tell what values they hold. Although such testimony is not fully accurate or complete, it should not be ignored. Further evidence may come from systematic study of choices of objects and actions, either in “natural” behavior or in various kinds of tests, interviews, and experiments. Research may chart indications of directions of interest as shown by cultural products as well as by behavior directly observed. Content analysis of verbal materials is often a suitable technique in this connection; identification of implicit assumptions in social discourse often reveals values not otherwise readily discovered. Another particularly valuable source of evidence concerning values is found in observations of rewards and punishments. By observing which behaviors are praised and otherwise rewarded and which are criticized, condemned, or punished, we gain important data for identifying the socially effective standards that are actually operating in any group or society.

A full description of the values present in any situation comes only from the cumulative data from all of the sources listed above. As I have said elsewhere:

Starting with the initial location of value in a relation of a person to an object of interest, the sources of evidence mentioned above indicate just so many “operational definitions” of value: value as overt choice or preference, as attention or emphasis, as statement or assertion, as implicit premise, as a referent of social sanctions. These various evidences are “pointers” that say “this is what is meant.” Not all are of equal usefulness for every purpose, but all are useful. When used in combination, these several different approximations gain reliability in so far as they are mutually consistent. (Williams [1951] 1960, pp. 408-409)

A sound general principle in observing social behavior is to follow the dynamic course of sanctions wherever this may lead. Extremely close analysis of every detail of rewarding or punishing social consequences of a particular line of action typically will reveal important value data.

For values that are concealed by conformity to social conventions and taboos, as well as for those camouflaged by defenses arising from repressions, recourse must be had to indirect approaches through projective testing, ingenious experimental designs and techniques, and intensive clinical interviewing and observation. In this connection it should be noted that much of psychotherapy involves the identification and strengthening of some value commitments and the weakening or redefinition of others.

Although values are not identical with ideologies, it is feasible to extract useful data on values from content analysis of ideological materials.

Undoubtedly the empirical study of values by objective methods is in its infancy. Results already achieved, however, are grounds for expecting very important, and now unsuspected, findings in the future.

Values in social science . In its efforts to attain higher levels of objectivity and scientific rigor, a considerable part of Western sociology for a generation or so after 1900 tended to avoid explicit dealings with values. Values were often regarded as somehow “subjective” and were not included among the “hard facts” that were thought to be proper objects of study. Beginning perhaps with The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918), the concept of values found increasing use, although the full influence of this study was not felt until the 1930s. By 1949, it could be said that a movement was under way “to come out in the open with an explicit presentation of values and full analysis of their moral presuppositions, deductions and consequences” (Mukerjee 1949, p. vii).

Economics. In the nature of the case, of course, economics has worked continuously with one or another variant of the concept of value—for example, value-in-exchange or preference order. The long struggle to develop measures of utility has largely been renounced in modern times in favor of direct indices of preference or choice and substitut-ability, as in “indifference curve” analysis. Thus for certain kinds of economic analysis, “value” is “the relative position of a good in a preference ordering, and the higher its position the greater is its value” (Kuhn 1963, p. 266).

Anthropology. Much work in modern anthropology has made use of the concept of “value” or of closely related ideas. Aside from the explicit value analyses of Clyde Kluckhohn (1951), Caudill and Scarr (1962), and Florence Kluckhohn and Fred Strodtbeck (1961), there are the influential notions of dominant cultural patterns (Ruth Benedict), cultural focus (Alfred L. Kroeber), and the conception of cultural themes developed by Morris E. Opler (1948; 1959).

Psychology. As M. Brewster Smith (1963) has shown, the presuppositions of twentieth-century academic psychology have militated against effective use of value concepts in research and theory. Experimental psychology, in spite of a willingness to accept many hypothetical intervening variables, long resisted the use of value theory. But the pressure of repeated empirical observations could not be denied beyond a certain point (Asch 1952, pp. 353-384), and modern learning theories appear increasingly to recognize the phenomenon of massive learning of generalizations under affectively charged conditions.

Political science. Political science in its traditional forms has been in considerable part a normative discipline, often attempting to state desirable specifications for political life. Newer emphases on the scientific study of political behavior tend to force a more explicit recognition of hidden value assumptions and to direct attention at the same time to values as relevant facts to be explained or used in their turn as explanatory factors in political analyses.

Insofar as history elects to strive for objectively tested generalizations rather than only literary narrative or humanistic interpretations, it likewise confronts the dual needs of controlling the influence of values upon the historian’s conclusions and of analyzing values as variables in historical events and sequences.

Thus, problems of values appear in all fields of the social sciences, and value elements are potentially important as variables to be analyzed in all major areas of investigation.

Value classification and value analysis . Values may be usefully classified in a large number of different ways; each mode of classification points to potentially important properties, modalities, or dimensions. Any value analysis must at least take into account the existence of values answering to appetites and aversions, including both affective values, having to do with pleasure or gratification and the avoidance of displeasure, and conative-achievement values, having to do with the attainment of desired states. In addition, such an analysis must be aware of prudential values, character (personality integration) values, social values, cultural values, and biological survival values (Pepper 1958). In short, values enter into each of the four great systems of human action: organism, personality, society, and culture. Both philosophical analysis and social science often fall into serious error by paying attention to a single kind of value while ignoring or underestimating others.

Values as empirical elements in human behavior certainly arise out of human experience and hence may be affected by any conditions, including social conditions, that affect experience. Values may therefore be analyzed as dependent variables, subject to changes that are consequent to changes in population, technology, economic production, political organization, and so on. Once established, however, values also operate as independent variables, channeling reactions to prior innovations and serving as a basis for further innovations.

Sociological thought generally attributes strategic importance to moral values in processes of institutionalization and social control. Indeed, one important modern social theory holds that “Moral standards constitute, as the focus of the evaluative aspect of the common culture, the core of the stabilizing mechanisms of the system of social interaction” (Parsons 1964, p. 22). A crucial problem for further study arises in just this connection. All conflict of values that occurs within a single organism-personality is resolvable, in principle, within a single locus of integration. But there is an enormous (and perhaps unbridgeable) gap between the individual and the social levels (Arrow 1951). In a very crude way we already know that as the socio-cultural systems are pressed more severely for survival, they impose increasingly stringent restrictions on “personal” values. The extent to which individual value realization is compatible with social, cultural, and biological survival values requires much additional analysis.

Values do not emerge in experience as sharply separated, unitary standards, each self-contained in its monadic independence from other coexisting values. Instead, the actual content and boundaries of any particular value will be affected by its changing relations to other values. In one group or society men may conceive of “freedom” only within the limits set by commitment to a principle of submission to a hierarchical order of authority; in another society, freedom is closely tied to equal-itarian values. The two societies will not experience the same “freedom.”

Oppositions and conflicts of value are present in all societies. Under conditions of rapid social change, special strains are placed upon value integration. When serious conflicts arise over basic values, it is doubtful that either suppression or compromise is effective in producing new integration as is the expansion of interests to rearrange and recenter value priorities (Allport 1959, p. 146).

It is the rare and limiting case if and when a person’s behavior is guided over a considerable period of time by one and only one value. Such a value would represent an “absolute preference” (Wright 1963a). More often, particular acts or sequences of acts are steered by multiple and changing clusters of values. Furthermore, oppositions and contradictions among values are not unusual, and both individuals and collectivities must, inescapably, face choices among values from time to time. At the very least, even the most harmonious systems of values require selectivity in the balancing of different claims to time, energy, and other resources. Not all desiderata can be equally met at any one time.

Robin M. Williams, Jr.

[Directly related are the entries Attitudes; Creativity, article onsocial aspects; Duty; Ethics, article Onethical systems and social structures; Moral development; Motivation; Norms; Sanctions; Social psychology; Systems analysis, article onsocial systems. Other relevant material may be found in Aesthetics; Ideology; Integration; Law, article onthe legal system; National character; Social structure; Utilitarianism; Utility; and in the biographies of Becker; Kluckhohn; KÖhler; Sorokin; Thomas; Znaniecki.]


Values may be classified in a large number of ways. Of the books listed below, the following contain classifications of particular interest to social scientists: Kluckhohn 1951; Williams 1951, chapters 3 and 11; Pepper 1958; Wright 1963b; White 1951. For a useful bibliography, see Albert & Kluckhohn 1959.

Albert, Ethel M.; and Kluckhohn, Clyde 1959 A Selected Bibliography on Values, Ethics, and Esthetics in the Behavioral Sciences and Philosophy, 1920-1958. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Allport, Gordon W. 1959 Normative Compatibility in the Light of Social Science. Pages 137-150 in Abraham H. Maslow (editor), New Knowledge in Human Values. New York: Harper.

Allport, Gordon W.; Vernon, Philip E.; and Lindzey, Gardner (1931) 1960 A Study of Values. 3d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → Allport and Vernon were the authors of the 1931 edition.

Arrow, Kenneth J. 1951 Social Choice and Individual Values. New York: Wiley.

Asch, Solomon E. (1952)1959 Social Psychology. En-glewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Brandt, Richard B. 1961 Value and Obligation: Systematic Readings in Ethics. New York: Harcourt.

Caudill, William; and Scarr, Harry A. 1962 Japanese Value Orientations and Culture Change. Ethnology 1:53-91.

Du Wors, Richard E. 1952 Persistence and Change in Local Values of Two New England Communities. Rural Sociology 17:207-217.

Kluckhohn, Clyde 1951 Values and Value-orientations in the Theory of Action: An Exploration in Definition and Classification. Pages 388-433 in Talcott Parsons and Edward Shils (editors), Toward a General Theory of Action. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Kluckhohn, Florence R.; and Strodtbeck, Fred L. 1961 Variations in Value Orientations. Evanston, 111.: Row, Peterson.

Kohler, Wolfgang 1938 The Place of Value in a World of Facts. New York: Liveright.

Kuhn, Alfred 1963 The Study of Society: A Unified Approach. Homewood, 111.: Irwin.

Mcdougall, William (1908)1950 An Introduction to Social Psychology. 30th ed. London: Methuen. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Barnes and Noble.

Morris, Charles W. 1956 Varieties of Human Value. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Mukerjee, Radhakamal 1949 The Social Structure of Values. London: Macmillan.

Opler, Morris E. 1948 Some Recently Developed Concepts Relating to Culture. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 4:107-122.

Opler, Morris E. 1959 Component, Assemblage, and Theme in Cultural Integration and Differentiation. American Anthropologist New Series 61:955-964.

Parsons, Talcott 1964 Social Structure and Personality. New York: Free Press. -” A collection of previously published essays.

Pepper, Stephen C. 1958 The Sources of Value. Berkeley : Univ. of California Press.

Perry, Ralph B. 1954 Realms of Value: A Critique of Human Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Smith, M. Brewster 1963 Personal Values in the Study of Lives. Pages 324-347 in Robert W. White (editor), The Study of Lives: Essays on Personality in Honor of Henry A. Murray. New York: Atherton.

Thomas, William I.; and Znaniecki, Florian (1918) 1958 The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Vol. 1. 2d ed. New York: Dover.

White, Ralph K. 1951 Value Analysis: The Nature and Use of the Method. Glen Gardner, N.J.: Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

Williams, Robin M. Jr. (1951) 1960 American Society: A Sociological Interpretation. 2d ed., rev. New York: Knopf.

Wright, Georg H. Von 1963a The Logic of Preference: An Essay. Edinburgh Univ. Press.

Wright, Georg H. Von 1963b The Varieties of Goodness. London: Routledge; New York: Humanities.


In the study of cultural value systems, diverse conceptions of values may be converted from competing alternatives into indices of the kinds of values that should be included in a comprehensive model for descriptive and comparative study. The assumption that different kinds and levels of values —specific and general rules, goals, norms, and other criteria that govern conduct, evaluation, and sanctions—compose a cultural value system is complex. In addition to categories for naming and classifying values, the theory of value systems requires a means of specifying the relations among them. Values may be embedded in verbal, actional, and situational contexts. Each involves different types of relation and structure, logical, or behavioral, or social. Hence, values may appear as variables in systems of personality or society as well as in culture.

The hypothesis that each culture has a distinctive value system can be explored through examination of relevant observation data, concepts, and methods. The basic data from which a cultural value system can be constructed are abundant in verbal and nonverbal behavior. The data include explicit value judgments and such indices of values as verbal and actional reward and punishment, blame and praise, approval and disapproval, appreciation and rejection, encouragement and suppression. The differential expenditure of resources— time, energy, and the natural environment, for example—provides another clue to values. Behavior in situations of conflict and choice is relevant. Both positive and negative values belong in a value system. Thus, the value system organizes explicit and implicit values—those given directly in value judgments and those that can be inferred from value-relevant verbal and nonverbal behaviors.

As raw data of observation, evaluative behavior may appear random. Analysis discloses patterning in the evaluations of members of any sociocultural community. There is consistency in responses to recurrent situations among individuals who speak the same language, inhabit the same geographic area, and interact in the same social system. Intra-cultural variation occurs in even the simplest society. Part of the pattern is the systematic variation in values according to sex, age, personality, and social role. Hence, a cultural value system does not describe the values of any individual. It is a summative construct in which the diverse value sets of individuals and groups are related as complementary elements of a single system.

Values are by definition distinct from conduct. The stipulation of positive and negative sanctions presupposes the possibility of departures from norms and failures to achieve goals. A value system, then, represents what is expected or hoped for, required or forbidden. It is not a report of actual conduct but is the system of criteria by which conduct is judged and sanctions applied.

In sum, operationally, a cultural value system is the inductively based, logically ordered set of criteria of evaluations, constructed from explicit value judgments and inferences from inexplicit, value-related behaviors. Theoretically, it is the patterned or structured criteria, explicit and implicit, by reference to which evaluative behavior becomes intelligible. Functionally, it is the set of principles whereby conduct is directed and regulated and a guide for individuals and the social group.

Problems of definition, method, and theory . Still in an exploratory stage, the study of cultural value systems is part of a general trend toward the view that subjective and humanistic subject matter is a suitable object of rigorous inquiry. The transition from the traditional preoccupations of value theory entails redirecting definitions, methods, and theory toward observational data and operations and away from purely verbal formulations. The question whether values are “real” and have “causal influence” is being recast as specific, verifiable hypotheses in which values figure as an independent variable. The question whether values are “emotive” or “cognitive” is being translated into studies of the nature and functions of evaluation and its relation to cognition. Constructing value systems from existing materials remains problematic.

The literature on values includes several thousand studies, of varying length, of ethics, law, religion, politics, art, social values, child rearing, and more. The values of many different societies, social groups, and personalities have been described. Interdisciplinary research combines data, concepts, and methods from many social-behavioral sciences, and relevant research is done on such topics as attitudes, motivations, sentiments, socialization, social control, and ideology.

Utilization of the abundant, diversified research resources is hampered by side effects familiar in other social-behavioral specializations. Descriptive studies do not employ parallel categories; theories tend to be overextended or monocausal and to overlap or conflict; methods, models, and hypotheses are often of narrow scope and in need of refinement. Within and among the social-behavioral sciences, moreover, the benefits of a plurality of viewpoints and procedures are often neutralized by the difficulties of communication. For the foreseeable future, it is doubtful whether a definition of values can be produced that embraces all the meanings assigned the term and its cognates or that would be acceptable to all investigators. The diverse lines of approach are not likely to converge with ease in a unified theory and methodology.

Recognition of the fluid state of value studies may be used as a safeguard against the dangers inherent in the ambiguity of the term “value” and in a premature commitment to a method or theory. The selection of research objectives and of the definitions, methods, and theory appropriate to their realization continues on a trial-and-error basis. With these strictures in mind, we may examine several alternative modes of describing cultural value systems.

Descriptive-comparative models

Assembling diverse value-relevant data in a single system effects a great simplification. Evaluative discourse and conduct relative to goals, ideals, ethics, aesthetics, kinship, politics, religion, law, socialization, social control, etc. can be logically and economically ordered by drawing out the underlying general criteria. Formal and functional similarities in value judgments, evaluations, and sanctions, as well as systematic interdependences among them, tend to be obscured by the apparent heterogeneity of special categories of values. Thus, in a number of societies as remote from each other as imperial China and the central African kingdom of Burundi, the model of filial piety, associated with a rigidly hierarchal ordering of all social relations, draws together in a single formula masses of verbal and behavioral data. In parent-child relations, husband-wife relations, politics, religion, and economics, the same superordinate-subordinate pattern applies. “Cattle” as a prized object among the herding peoples of Africa draws into a unified value cluster such seemingly diverse elements as economic, political, and military patronage; patrilineal inheritance rules; ideas about the nutritive value of milk, blood, and beef; the aesthetic appreciation of minutely detailed bovine charms; and bride-wealth in marriage. An additional methodological gain from following specific cultural lines to generalized values is diminution of culture-bound distortion from Western conceptions of values in the study of non-Western cultures.

Impetus and direction for the study of cultural values have come from the work of Alfred L. Kroe-ber, Clyde Kluckhohn, Talcott Parsons, Charles W. Morris, Robert Redfield, Ralph Lin ton, Raymond Firth, A. I. Hallowell, and many others in anthropology and allied fields. Models and techniques have been pressed into service from linguistics, logic, philosophy, and other fields. Adequate description of cultural value systems is closely bound up with comparative, cross-cultural study. Comparison, methodologically significant in its own right, is virtually indispensable for constructing descriptive models that transcend the cultural boundaries of individual investigators. Several models for the description of cultural value systems have been devised in the course of comparative, cross-cultural study. Clyde Kluckhohn, in 1949, initiated a comprehensive, long-term project for the comparative study of values. Guided by his writing and thinking, the project utilized field-work research and the extensive resources of value theories in the social sciences and philosophy. [See Kroeber; Redfield; World view.]

Diversity and comparability

From the above project emerged the theory of value orientations of Florence Kluckhohn (Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck 1961, chapter 1). Intracultural and cross-cultural variations were comprehended in the schema used for comparative statistical analysis of five cultures in New Mexico. Differential preferences, within different societies, are assumed, with respect to variations of a set of basic value orientations: (1) conceptions of the character of innate human nature: evil, neutral or mixed, good; and mutable or immutable; (2) the relation of man to nature and supernature: subjugation, harmony, mastery; (3) temporal focus of human life: past, present, future; (4) modality of human activity: being, being-in-becoming, doing; and (5) the modality of man’s relationship to other men: lineality, collaterally, individualism. Internal and cross-cultural variation is exemplified by the rank-ordering of the “time orientations” of the five cultures: for the Spanish-Americans, present, future, past; for the two Anglo-American groups (Texans, Mormons), future, present, past; for the Zuni and the Navajo Indians, present, past, future. The value-orientation schema has been used in studies of Japanese and other cultures.

In the same comparative study and drawing extensively on the research and theory of Clyde Kluckhohn and others, a model for description and comparison was devised by the author, with a view to maximum comprehensiveness and detail (Albert 1956, pp. 221-226). The principle of organization is logico-semantic. Positive and negative values are classified and related according to their level of generalization and function in discourse and conduct. At the lowest level of generality, “valued entities” are the numerous specific events, states of feeling, and other objects of explicit everyday evaluation. Categories of specific value qualities may be directly derived by classifying such evaluations. They also identify the basic vocabulary of values and its range of reference. At the next higher level of generality are normative value qualities. These are derived from culturally defined character qualities—virtues and vices, ideal models for kinship, political and other roles—and from directives for conduct, usually accompanied by stipulations of positive and negative sanctions. Specific normative value qualities, fitted into a pyramid of ascending generalization, are instrumental to central or focal cultural values. These are usually few in number: they constitute a mutually interdependent set that defines the “good life.” Positive focal values are usually rewards for respecting normative values, and negative focal values are usually punishments for failure to do so. Finally, at the highest level of abstraction and generality are the “first principles” or logical foundation of the value system. These include the unquestioned, self-justifying premises of the value system; definitions of basic, general value terms, for example, happiness, virtue, beauty; and value orientations that define man as a moral agent and judge of values.

Conceived as a skeletal structure, the logico-semantic model for a value system is a relatively neutral frame of reference for describing and comparing the specific contents and the relational and structural dynamics of diverse cultural value systems. Several examples will suggest the range and content of cross-cultural diversity.

For the Navajo Indians, the value system is oriented to this-worldly happiness. Its language is specific, empirical, situationally relative, and pragmatic. Consequences are the principal point of reference for value judgments. Preservation or restoration of harmonious order in the universe is the central focus, and correction, compensation, and neutralization of evils dominate the operation of the value system. For the Zuni Indians, the overall goals of the value system are ethnocentric stability and well-being. Control, orderliness, and integration are the principal means to realizing values. Ceremonialism, formalism, materialism and hedonism, confidence, and conservatism support the operation of the value system. Value judgments are directed primarily to actions and consequences. For the Spanish-Americans, religion, custom, and fatalism are combined in a value system conceived in intensely personalistic, aesthetic-emotive terms. Rigid hierarchy differentiates the applications of value judgments. Duty, authority, and fixed, abstract, ideal values are accepted bases of evaluation. For the Anglo-American Texan community, secularized, individualistic idealism and practicality are primary in the value system. High ideals are recognized as an incentive and guide for the good life, but are assumed to be unattainable. Alternative levels of evaluation and compartmentalization of value categories characterize value judgments that are closely related to the concrete conditions of existence [see Kluckhohn].

The complexity of value systems

Even in a more extended sample, similarities and differences in the contents of cultural value systems would appear but each cultural combination would be unique. For this, as for other descriptive-comparative generalizations, however, refinement of concepts and methods and additional research are needed. Increasing the geographic range of systematic descriptions of value systems would broaden the base of comparative inquiry. Comparative techniques have advanced only a little beyond simple, parallel descriptions, toward consideration of functional equivalences and hypotheses relating values to other phenomena. Improvements in descriptive models are needed to relate the values of individuals and subcultural groups to the larger cultural system and to serve for the study of societies of such different orders of complexity as the small tribe, the small nation, and the heterogeneous, heavily populated large state. For the collection of data, increasingly refined instruments are being sought to supplement conventional field-work study, interviews, and questionnaires. The inverse ratio of precision of techniques to comprehensiveness of results is an unsolved problem not only in data gathering but also in analysis and interpretation.

Experience with comparative study suggests some guidelines for collecting culturally valid values data. Identification of the value vocabulary of a people is an obvious first step in the process of constructing their value system. Any anthropologist is prepared for nonequivalence between the set of value terms in his own language and in that of the culture being studied. The appropriate techniques transcend routine translation problems. Few languages have a general term equivalent to “value.” Not a few languages combine ethical and aesthetic value in a single word. An extreme case, the single Navajo word hozoni refers to what in English are differentiated as aesthetic, practical, spiritual, he-donic, and ethical values. Combining such features in a single word makes a denotative difference. It also eliminates familiar connotations, for example, of the incompatibility in most Western thinking of “spiritual” and “hedonic” or “aesthetic” and “practical.” Unfamiliar connotative associations to seemingly familiar words can effectively block comprehension of a value system. In Mediterranean fatalism, the ethical and aesthetic are conjoined, not conflictual; resignation is heroic acceptance of adversity and of humility in prosperity, not passive submission; paradox and contradiction reveal the nature of the universe, not carelessness of logic.

Contextual analysis is a necessary corrective in comparisons. Health, security, wealth, enjoyment, faith in the supernatural, knowledge, and other values that figure prominently in the value systems of many cultures are similar in name only. In different cultures, knowledge refers to such diverse contents as revealed religious doctrine, traditional formulas, and modern science. Context is needed also to locate value judgments that do not contain explicit value terms, the counterparts in other languages of the English “That simply is not done!” Verbal explanation as well as context is needed to understand nonlinguistic signs of evaluation, including sanctions. Not every spanking is a punishment: it may only express parental ill temper. Not every smile is a sign of joy: it may only express incomprehension. Silent approvals and disapprovals have observable cues: “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” are specific examples. Distinctively different meanings of a single nonlinguistic form, for example, hissing, have also to be mastered. Extracting a cultural value system from the flow of discourse and actions requires a method not unlike Socratic midwifery. By questioning and observing individuals and subjecting their responses to logical analysis, we discover not only what is commonly expressed but also what is commonly believed but left inexplicit, because it is “taken for granted” by everyone in the culture. To avoid oversimplifications, inquiry must be directed to discovering the relativity of values to situations: solemnity is right in church, gaiety at weddings or funerals— depending on the culture. Since no value system is a perfect fit to life conditions, each contains socially acceptable alternatives to formally established principles. These secondary rules and norms permit individuals to come to terms with reality without running afoul of society. Even where truth is sovereign, a falsehood that saves lives or prevents gratuitous suffering is generally applauded. At the other end of the values continuum, in a strict, patriarchal society, the strong-willed wife of a weakling may run the household without causing scandal. Complex and varied, cultural value systems encompass the culturally unique and the universally human.

Progressive refinement of every aspect of the endeavor is the goal of continuing research in the comparative study of cultural value systems. Interdependence among the social-behavioral sciences often makes progress in one dependent on progress in others. As research in values moves toward exploration of their relations to other phenomena, it becomes increasingly interdependent with other research interests—notably study of the nature of culture and definition of its constituent features and dynamics and research in verbal behavior, cognitive mapping, linguistics, systematics, and descriptive semantics. Scholars from many different cultures increasingly participate in social-behavioral inquiry. Cross-cultural perspective is perhaps the most promising single factor for refining and enriching our comprehension of cultural value systems.

Ethel M. Albert


Albert, Ethel M. 1956 The Classification of Values: A Method and Illustration. American Anthropologist New Series 58:221-248.

Albert, Ethel M.; and Kluckhohn, Clyde 1959 A Selected Bibliography on Values, Ethics, and Esthetics in the Behavioral Sciences and Philosophy, 1920-1958. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

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Firth, Raymond 1953 The Study of Values by Social Anthropologists. Man 53:146-153.

Gillin, John P. 1948 The Ways of Men: An Introduction to Anthropology. New York: Appleton.

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Hall, Edward T. 1959 The Silent Language. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Fawcett.

Herskovits, Melville J. 1955 Cultural Relativism and Cultural Values. Pages 348-366 in Melville J. Herskovits, Cultural Anthropology. New York: Knopf.

Kluckhohn, Clyde 1951 Values and Value-orientations in the Theory of Action: An Exploration in Definition and Classification. Pages 388-433 in Talcott Parsons and Edward A. Shils (editors), Toward a General Theory of Action. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Kluckhohn, Clyde 1956 Toward a Comparison of Value-emphases in Different Cultures. Pages 116-132 in Leonard D. White (editor), The State of the Social Sciences. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Kluckhohn, Florence R.; and Strodtbeck, Fred L. 1961 Variations in Value Orientations. Evanston, 111.: Row, Peterson.

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The word value appears in two forms. The first is as a noun meaning core ideals and norms, as in, for example, independence is a core value in contemporary U.S. society. The second form of value is a verb meaning the process by which things acquire importance or economic price, which is sometimes understood as valuation, as in, for example, the ball was valued at $1.29 for quick resale or group members value her participation. Most social theory has focused on values as nouns that represent key ideas for a given culture, perform certain functions for society, or figure in ideological systems of power. However, an additional consideration of valuation can bring into focus issues of value change and the relationships between cultural and economic values.

Émile Durkheim (18581917) articulated a model of society in which social norms and values arose from the increasing specialization of social roles and labor in the emerging industrial societies of the time. Values and norms of behavior provide the social integration that allows individuals to function in society (Durkheim [1893] 1997), providing cohesiveness, trust, and stability. Durkheims model of integration provided the background for Talcott Parsonss mid-twentieth century theory of society, which emphasized the functionality of values and rules, particularly in maintaining the equilibrium and stability of society (see especially Parsons 1951). Culture and a system of values form one of four dimensions of society, the others being social structure, relation to environment, and achievement of goals. For Parsons, the value system must be integrated into peoples personalities and will then guide appropriate behavior. For example, competitiveness and autonomy, or individualism, are key values that are important for people to adopt to be successful in a capitalist economy, and much effort in schooling and media is spent on inculcating those ideals.

This view of values is easily critiqued for its prioritization of system stability over the possibility of social change, and for reducing the scope of agency for individuals who are seemingly programmed by social institutions to adhere to norms and uphold values. While Durkheims work on values clearly contributed to the functionalism of Parsons, Durkheim took a view of crime and criminality (On the Normality of Crime, 1895) that prefigures more critical approaches to values and norms, particularly what has been known as labeling theory (Becker [1963] 1997), and also critical approaches to deviance, such as those of Michel Foucault (1977). Labeling theory argues that acts are not inherently deviant but are labeled deviant by others, particularly powerful groups that articulate normative systems to protect social stability and their interests. For example, civic unrest may be treated by the state as sign of the deviance of protestors. But unrest may nonetheless hold value as a release for social tension and further may indicate that systematic injustice on the part of the state requires response and remediation and that alternative or neglected values should be given consideration.

Values are thus a part of systems of social power, providing the ideological frame that shapes public discourse about how the social world is operating and how it should operate. For example, when individualism as a value is prevalent, explanations for social troubles are often laid upon the shoulders of individuals: Joblessness is taken as a sign of individual lack of effort rather than diminished regional economy; mental illness as weakness or individual pathology rather than as outcome of stress and conflicting social expectations. Values are associated with and defined by those with the greatest social power. For example, in Western contexts rationality and authority are associated with masculinity, while emotionality and dependence are stereotypically associated with femininity. This means that, for example, female professors may have more difficulty in establishing authority in a classroom: If they engage in conduct considered normal for a male professor, they are seen as breaking gender norms and dismissed as cold or shrill, whereas if their behavior adheres to stereotypically feminine norms of conduct, they are not taken seriously as experts. Other social stereotypes and the values attributed to ascribed characteristics such as race, gender, or attractiveness lead to forms of discrimination both subtle and obvious.

The differential effects of values are thus an issue for formal politics and public policy as well as informal arrangements of social power. While technocracy (rule by experts) has its appeal as a seemingly neutral form of governance, it cannot itself define social priorities and thus still relies upon values to direct the efforts of the state. For example, while scientists may be able to describe the phenomenon known as global warming with mathematical tools with no obvious bias or values, it is still a matter of values to identify the potential social and environmental changes as harmful to human objectives.

Values also intersect with public policy in that negative values used to portray social groups may lead to discrimination and impede more useful ways of addressing problems. For example, groups that value social solidarity and tradition over competitiveness (whether Native American, Amish, or urban African American) come to be seen as having a culture of poverty and are blamed for their backwardness and lack of economic achievement. Recent research suggests that while values and attitudes are relevant factors, socioeconomic or class background is far more important in shaping potential success in education and work. Specifically, African American families do not possess some pathological set of values that prevents their economic achievement: Income and educational disparities can be attributed to both mechanisms of social reproduction that make it difficult for poor people of any race to achieve intergenerational social mobility and to ongoing processes of racial discrimination that result in lower wages for persons with similar qualifications (Mason 2007).

Because the media continues to circulate social stereotypes and uncritically reflects normative ideologies of value, it has a large role in supporting existing structures of power at the expense of productive social and value change. Whether relying on racial stereotypes or on common narratives of the self-made man, television programming reinforces value systems. Media may use representations of deviance to titillate and sell, but this is done with the sense that the actions or characters represented are not normal, and sometimes to make specific points about morality. Most police dramas, whether fictional or reality-based, play on this process. Of course, advertisements sell products based on their value, both in the sense of monetary cost and utility, and as representations of larger ideas: Car commercials sell freedom and individualism, household cleaners sell cleanliness and domestic harmony. People in the United States will apparently buy anything that is marketed as convenient even if it really is not, or even if it undermines other values such as environmental sustainability or community (Tierney 1993).

As markets continue to globalize, both products and values will travel to new areas. To do this, products need to be legible to consumers. John Evans (1998) argues that processes that simplify and standardize everything, from units of land and property laws, to sizes of clothing and other units of measure, can either be products of state regulation or of capitalist needs for stability and regularity. Values, too, will travel as people learn to want to participate in global economies as producers and consumers. George Ritzer (2004) argues that the need to remove anything controversial and to reduce the identity of consumer products to their lowest common denominator to ensure the widest possible sales will strip away all but the most trivial of meanings from commodities and cultural products.

Legibility is a property of things to be read and measured. Its establishment involves a set of processes by which units and systems of notation are formulated and provide metrics for the evaluation of things. These processes also connect issues of law and custom as the economic values of things interact with moral or cultural values. What is the value of a human life and how is it to be measured? Or of a sacred site, or an animal species? Legibility is a form of valuation, which may be tied to economic scales of value established by assessing costs and profits, but also to processes whereby variations in human lifestyles are labeled worthwhile, normal, or deviant. Alternative lifestyles are illegible and perceived as deviant by the mainstream, as unable to be understood or valued, and are not protected by law (Butler 1993). Legibility and economic valuation are ways of establishing and reading value and measure and are closely intertwined, suggesting that production and consumption and social or cultural reproduction and economic reproduction are more closely intertwined than traditional theories of political economy have suggested (Joseph 1998).


Becker, Howard Saul. [1963] 1997. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge.

Durkheim, Émile. [1893] 1997. The Division of Labor in Society. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: Free Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon.

Joseph, Miranda. 1998. The Performance of Production and Consumption. Social Text 16 (1): 2561.

Mason, Patrick L. 2007. Intergenerational Mobility and Interracial Inequality: The Return to Family Values. Industrial Relations 46 (1): 5180.

Parsons, Talcott. 1951. The Social System. New York: Free Press.

Ritzer, George. 2004. The Globalization of Nothing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Tierney, Thomas F. 1993. The Value of Convenience: A Genealogy of Technical Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jennifer L. Croissant

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407. Values

See also 145. ETHICS ; 312. PHILOSOPHY

Philosophy. the study of values, as those of aesthetics, ethics, or religion. axiologist, n. axiological, adj.
the categorizing of something as valueless trivia.
the theory or doctrine of values.

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