Cultural values are the key principles or morals that underpin a cultural group. They may be based on religion, tradition, philosophy, and custom. Examples of cultural values include respect for elders, family values, individualism, and egalitarianism.
Cultural values are passed on from one generation to another, which ensures continuity of traditions within a group of people. They may also be passed on through media.
Acquisition of a culture and its values occurs through socialization. In other words, by growing up in a culture, we often come to internalize our culture’s values.
Cultural Values Definition
The primary definition of cultural values and value theory used in sociology is the one by Clyde Kluckhohn:
“A value is a conception, explicit or implicit, distinctive of an individual or characteristic of a group, of the desirable, which influences the selection from available modes, means, and ends of action” (Kluckhohn 1951, p. 395).
Sanctions as a system of rewards and punishments that encourage or demand people to live according to their society’s ideas about what is good and just.
Examples of Cultural Values
- Individualism – The United States of America is famous for valuing individualism and individual rights above those of the collective or the government.
- Freedom – The USA’s mantra is: “Freedom!” It’s a nation that believes that you should be free from coercion so you can pursue your own happiness in life.
- Meritocracy – The dominant American culture, perhaps above all other cultures, a culture that believes people should be rewarded for their hard work and judged based on their skills and abilities, not based on an ascribed status.
- Christianity – To this day, Christian values are a dominant force that influences hundreds of millions of Americans and is a driving force behind their actions.
- Limited Government – The United States was built upon the ideas of the pioneers who were fleeing the government oppression in Britain. From the early days of colonial America, limited government was a central philosophy.
Dominant Australian culture (where I grew up) holds the following as core values:
- The Weekend – Aussies love the weekend – to the point that it’s become a part of our mythology. In 2019, there was even a scare campaign by the government who said that the opposition party was waging “war on the weekend” for having policies that would supposedly increase the price of cars!
- A Fair Go – A core Australian cultural value is the idea of the fair go – or in other words, an egalitarian ideal that everyone deserves a chance at life and shouldn’t be discriminated against.
- Freedom – Like the United States of America, Australia loves its freedom and upholds it as a sacred feature of the culture.
- Mateship – ‘Mateship’ is a uniquely Australian term used to refer to the importance of sticking by one another through tough times.
- Sporting Spirit – Australia considers sports to be one of its central pastimes and fancies itself as a “sporting nation”.
- Sarcasm – The dominant culture of Australia values sarcastic humor. Compare this to American slapstick comedy and British dark humor.
- Informality – While in the United States, you would refer to the president as “Mr President”, Aussies don’t think anyone is better than anyone else, so they call their Prime Minister by his or her first name – Scotty – or even an affectionate nickname, like “Albo”!
- Authenticity – Australians value authenticity highly, and are often highly critical of people who come across as inauthentic.
British Cultural Values
- Politeness – There are few nations that are as polite as the British. Sure, there are rude sub-cultures, but they’re well-known for being polite, even to the extent that they say ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ two or three times when greeting and saying goodbye.
- Tolerance – Tolerance is one of the five official British values. It refers to the importance of accepting difference – so long as we all treat each other with respect, we can be different.
- Waiting your Turn – In British culture, it is considered very rude to push through a queue. Waiting in line is highly valued.
- The “Stiff Upper Lip” – Based upon the resilience developed during WWII, Britain has come to see themselves as a nation of stoic people.
- National Healthcare – During the London Olympics opening ceremony, it was telling that they decided to highlight the British National Healthcare System (NHS) as a feature of Britain that was worth celebrating.
- British Banter – British humor (as seen in famed British comedies like Monty Python) is ironic, tongue-in-cheek and highly satirical.
French Cultural Values
France is another nation that has some core cultural values that it very explicitly highlights:
- Liberty – France overthrew its monarchy and, ever since, has been a key proponent of liberty and democracy worldwide.
- Equality – When comparing French-European values to those of North America, we see a stronger focus on equality, leading to a more interventionist state that aims to redistribute wealth to strive for equality.
- Fraternity – The idea behind this phrase is that the French people are bound together in solidarity, standing together for their free republic.
If you grew up in a liberal culture or even sub-culture within a society, you’re more likely to hold some of the following things as your core cultural values:
- Egalitarianism – Liberals are more inclined to strive toward egalitarianism, meaning a sense that all people are equal, including marginalized communities.
- Equality of Opportunity – You’ll find that liberal societies also aim for equal opportunity, meaning they want to ensure the poor also have good education, healthcare, and so on.
- Gender Equality – Progress on gender equality is very important to liberals, including things like trying to break the glass ceiling and achieve gender parity in politics.
- Racial Equality – Liberals will often cite racial and ethnic rights, especially the rights of minority groups, as a core cultural value.
- Workers’ Rights – Left-leaning liberals have for centuries stood for workers’ rights, under the banner of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”.
- Freedom of Thought – Classical liberalism, advocated by people like John Locke, emphasizes individual freedom, including the freedom to believe and think what you want to believe.
If you grew up in a liberal culture or sub-culture, you’re more likely to hold some of the following things as your core cultural values:
- Family – Conservative communities tend to hold family and commitment to family at the core of their sense of self. This is because a conservative worldview sees the family as the fundamental building block of a functioning and moral society.
- Religion – Organized religions have historically upheld conservative values, like tradition and deference to elders. (This is not to discount the fact that some religious sub-groups are quire liberal).
- Tradition – Conservative cultures tend to revere tradition and carrying-on traditions and customs.
- Entrepreneurialism – Throughout the 20th Century, conservative movements have been the strongest proponents of free markets and capitalism.
- Meritocracy – Conservative values tend to emphasize the importance of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, working hard, and reaping the rewards of your hard work through merit.
There’s also an idea that there are some cultural values that cross all – or most – cultures. Examples include:
- Do unto others (the golden rule) – Most cultures and religions have a core rule, called the golden rule, which emphasizes the fact you should not do anything to anyone else that you wouldn’t want done to yourself.
- Respect your elders – Most cultures have implicit rules about respecting elders, and particularly parents.
- The family unit – Nearly all cultures are built upon family units, although there are different types of family units accepted around the world.
- Rites of passage – Most cultures have rites of passage. These can be religious rites, marriage, initiations, etc.
- Rule of law – Nearly all cultures develop a rule of law. While the laws may change, respect for the concept of rule of law appears nearly universal.
Go Deeper: What is Cultural Universalism?
Cultural values are the key principles society is based around. These values include a society’s traditions, language, beliefs, customs, arts, literature, and laws.
Cultural values are important for individuals and groups to be included into society. Without knowing the language or participating in traditions one is easily left aside.
Values implies how people should behave, but they don’t necessarily reflect how people really behave. In real culture, police officers, lawmakers, educators, and social workers constantly strive to prevent or repair accidents, crimes, and injustices provoked by people not following the core cultural values of the society.
Furthermore, societies strive to put values into action through different methods, for example sanctions, in order to create good and well-being for its members. Hence cultural values provide important social and economic benefits. With improved learning, increased tolerance, and opportunities to come together with others, culture improves people’s quality of life and benefits both individuals and communities.
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Crossick, G. & Kaszynska, P. (2016). Understanding the value of arts & culture – The AHRC Cultural Value Project G., Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Graburn, N.H. (2008). What is Tradition?, Museum Anthropology 24(2‐3):6 – 11
J. L. Spates (1983). The Sociology of Values. Annual Review of Sociology, 9(1).
Kluckhohn, C. K. (1951). Values and value orientations in the theory of action, Harvard University Press.
Langer, S.K. (1966). The Cultural Importance of the Arts. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1966), pp. 5-12.
Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways.Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.