Social values refer to the values of a society or social group. These are the values that keep the society functioning and cohesive.
Often, social values are inherent in a society’s social contract – a set of agreed-upon values and virtues that make the members of the society feel as if fairness and justice are delivered.
Social values tend to be confused with cultural values. While the two overlap, social values are usually more related to a set of expectations around citizenship or group membership (such as ‘obey the law’ or ‘be polite’) while cultural values represent the customs and traditions of your cultural group (such as ‘modesty’ or ‘honor thy father’).
Social Values Examples
Harmony is a social value because it represents a fundamental value necessary in order for a society to remain functional and cohesive. Without it, we may experience some degree of anarchy.
With harmony, we can maintain a peaceful and cooperative social environment where people can get on their lives unimpeded, so long as everyone adheres to this value.
To achieve and maintain social harmony, there is often both a right and responsibility: a right to live in peace, but also a responsibility to be peaceful yourself, so you don’t break the social harmony.
Example of Harmony
In a workplace, harmony could be achieved by promoting open communication, resolving conflicts in a respectful and fair manner, and creating a culture that values each individual’s contribution.
To be fair is to try to be impartial in the way you treat other people, trying to avoid prejudice, bias, or discrimination against or toward any individual.
The benefit of fairness is that it will lead to other key values of a society, like harmony and democracy. As a result, we often see fairness as what sociologists call an instrumental value – a value that helps unlock other deeper values that are important to us. greater social harmony and a general sense of justice in the world.
On a social level, fairness might mean that everyone gets a fair trial rather than being persecuted without a chance to defend your innocence.
On a personal level, fairness can look like taking turns in a game, sharing with others, or obeying the rules even when you lose.
Example of Fairness
A judge who acts with fairness will make decisions in the court room based on facts and evidence. They may be required to distribute resources in a way that they judge to be most fair to the most people (such as in a divorce dispute) or they may have to decide what is a fair punishment for a crime.
3. Civic Duty
Civic Duty is the responsibility of a citizen to contribute to their society. This social value is exercised when someone volunteers, votes, or sits on a jury duty.
In democracies, civic duty is a core feature of active citizenship. It requires us to participate in public affairs such as voting and following the law. But some particularly patriotic members of a society may go above and beyond in their civic duty by serving as a police officer, nurse, firefighter, or soldier. Standing for public office is also considered an act of civic duty.
However, in most societies, the core civic duty which is often unavoidable (if called up) is jury duty.
Civic Duty Example
Serving on a jury is one of the most important patriotic civic duties that a citizen can perform. It is an opportunity to help ensure that justice is served, and to play a role in upholding the rule of law.
4. Privacy and Property Rights
Respecting the privacy and property of others is a value in most societies. It refers to the importance of not intervening in others’ lives and restricting their rights as a private citizen.
The right to privacy, for example, can be reflected in the social responsibility we have to not pry or interrupt, and even on an individual level, not gossip about others.
Respecting private property would be reflected in the responsibility not to steal or trespass, but it is also a moral value in the sense that when we find something like a wallet on the street, we should continue to respect the fact that this is not ours and we should return it to the owner.
Private property rights are generally a social value in most societies, perhaps with the exception of a pure communist world.
Example of Respect for Privacy
An instance of respecting privacy could be refraining from reading someone else’s personal messages or emails without their consent, even if you have access to them.
Democratic values are a wide range of values that cohere around the idea that a society should be governed by consent of the people – genreally reflected by a ballot in which people vote on issues or select representatives.
While there are many forms of democracy, democratic values are underpinned by this sense that there should be no ‘ruler for life’. Rather, we all get an equal say in whether something should or should not happen.
Democratic values can also extend to social concepts like liberty (all people are free to live their lives without undue influence from others), equality (nobody is better than anyone else), and justice (everyone should follow the law, and lawbreakers should face fair judgment).
Example of Democracy
The most obvious example example of democracy is voting. But another example could be being allowed to stand up and say what you believe even if it’s a minority viewpoint.
6. Respect for Others
Respect refers to treating everyone with dignity, even if you don’t agree with them.
To be respectful, we would aim to treat people the way we would want to be treated and not violate their rights, interests, or personal space.
Being respectful is often most important when we disagree with someone else or are in conflict with them. In those situations, we need to remember that we need to always treat everyone – no matter who they are – with respect. Here, we can see that respect is also a moral value.
Example of Respect
A simple everyday example of respect is waiting your turn in a line. This, generally, is a western conception of respectfulness. For example, I recall in Thailand getting very mad at all the loclas pushing in-front in a line-up to get tickes, and I realized they didn’t consider this to be disrespectful in their society – each society has different values!
Honesty is the virtue of truthfulness, sincerity, and straightforwardness. Most societies see this as an important value that maintains decorum within a society.
For example, by expecting everyone in society to speak the truth to one another, we can then engage in trade and social interactions with a degree of security and safety that we wouldn’t have if this were not a core value of the society.
As with many values, this differs from one society to another. For example, societies rife with corruption cannot trust the police to behave honestly and impartially, and they may even expect you to give them money to make the problem go away.
Example of Honesty
If you accidentally break an item in a shop, honesty would entail you admitting your mistake to the shopkeeper and offering to pay for the damage, rather than hiding it or blaming someone else.
Compassion occurs when we feel sympathy for people when they are struggling or hurt, and often, it means we will be inclined to help out others in our society.
This is a social value because a compassionate society will take care of other members of our social group. This may mean as a society agreeing to provide aid and housing to the homeless, healthcare to the sick, and so on, even if those people cannot afford it.
On a personal level, it may mean donating to an important cause or helping your neighbor when they are in need.
The more compassionate a society, the more likely we’ll find that either the individuals or social organizations will care for those in need.
Example of Compassion
If you see someone crying, you may feel a reflexive feeling that you want to give that person a hug. Here, you’re expressing a base feeling of compassion for your fellow citizen.
Justice refers to fairness based on a moral, political, or ideological worldview.
But there are many different ways of thinking about justice and how it can be delivered in a society, meaning it’s a value that differs across different societies.
For example, some societies highly value retributive justice, which involves taking vengeance on offenders and punishing them harshly to both harm the offender and deter others from also offending.
Other societies value restorative justice, where the offender must make amends to the victims and community, and may have to go through rehabilitation before being returned to the community.
Of course, on an individual level, justice may look a lot like fairness – e.g. ensuring everyone gets equal turns on the sports pitch.
Example of Justice
In a sports team, a coach showing justice would give all players an equal opportunity to demonstrate their skills and contribute to the game, rather than favoring a select few. If a rule is broken, the coach would take appropriate action regardless of who broke it.
Cooperation is the process of working together respectfully with common interests or goals.
On a broad social level, cooperation is important because it ensures society is harmonious and social interactions go smoothly.
Societies of all stripes generally value cooperation out of acknowledgment that by working together, we all benefit – such as by finishing a job faster or ensuring an event is run smoothly.
Example of Cooperation
As a cooperative citizen, you might offer to pitch in and help people if you see that a car is attempting to get out if a tight parking spot.
List of Social Values (A to Z)
Remember that different societies have different social values.
Social vs Cultural vs Moral Values
Social, cultural, and moral values are overlapping concepts and you’ll find that one value could fit under all three categories.
However, there are some key differences:
- Social values: Social values represent the values of a social group – an organized group of individuals brought together by shared interests.
- Cultural values: A society has many cultures in it – e.g Canada is a multicultural society. So, cultural values are more specific to a group of people with shared customs, traditions, and belief systems – i.e. western culture or Aboriginal culture.
- Moral values: are any values that represent right and wrong, good and bad. They are often based upon a coherent moral framework that stems from religious texts, philosophy, or cultural lore.
(Go deeper: Society vs Culture)
Here is a table that compares these three types of values:
|Social Values||Cultural Values||Moral Values|
|Definition||Principles or standards that society deems important.||Beliefs or standards that a cultural group holds as important.||Values related to notions of right and wrong, usually guided by religious, philosophical, or cultural beliefs.|
|Guidance||Guides behavior and interactions within society.||Guides behavior, attitudes, and norms within a culture.||Guides an individual’s behavior and choices.|
|Basis||Often form the basis of social norms and laws.||Embedded within a culture’s traditions, practices, and rituals.||Often stem from religious, philosophical, or cultural beliefs.|
|Examples||Respect for others, honesty, cooperation.||Emphasis on family (Latin cultures), value of modesty (Middle Eastern cultures).||Honesty, respect, compassion, integrity.|
Of course, these categories can and do overlap significantly – a bit like a venn diagram. For example, the dominant culture in a society tends to shape social values. Similarly, many cultures are oriented around a specific religious tradition, so the culture itself has its own set of moral values.
Social values refer to the set of values that a specific society (distinct from a culture) generally agrees upon. Different societies will have different values, although some values do tend to be shared by most societies – such as cooperation and fairness.
One interesting way to differentiate between different societies with different values is to compare western and eastern societies, which are often differentiated by differing foci – for more on this, I recommend reading my piece on individualism versus collectivism next.
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. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]