Values are fundamental beliefs or principles that guide our attitudes and actions. They serve as a guiding force in our lives, shaping our decision-making processes, behaviors, attitudes, choices, and our conceptions of fairness and justice.
Values are developed from a range of sources, including our families, cultures, society, religion, and personal experiences.
Scholars – and particularly sociologists – have found multiple ways to categorize and explore the notion of values and where they come from. The main typologies of values are provided below.
Types of Values
1. Instrumental Values
One key way in which we approach values from a sociological perspective is to separate them in the dichotomy of instrumental vs terminal values (Rokeach, 1973).
Instrumental values are values that are a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Take, for example, honesty. Honesty may be a value that someone holds dear. But if we were to ask “why do you value honesty?”, we may get to a deeper answer: well, it ensures I have a positive relationship with my wife, or it establishes trust.
Here, we can see that many of our values are tools – or instruments – for achieving something else (Rokeach, 1973). These types of values are called instrumental values.
2. Terminal Values
While many of our values are instrumental (they help us achieve a deeper goal), others represent an end-goal. We call these terminal values (Rokeach, 1973).
A good example of terminal values is happiness. If we dig deeper below many of the things we claim to value – quality time with our partners, work-life balance, etc. – what we’re really saying is that we value happiness.
Another very common terminal value is freedom. Many of us orient our lives and politics around this core idea of freedom, so that’s our terminal values (note: this is very similar to the concept of core values).
- Inner Harmony
- Financial Security
3. Cultural Values
Sociologists recognize that values tend to be spread, maintained, and reproduced within cultural groups (Spillman, 2020; Stewart, 2014).
For example, I was raised in a particular culture – primarily, a liberal-western culture built on Christian morality and the dominant Australian national identity. Each of those factors were key parts of my socialization.
Over time, I began to internalize many of the values of my culture – the liberal idea of democracy, the Christian idea of forgiveness, and the Australian idea of the ‘fair go’.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t reject a lot of the values of my culture, but it is to say they influenced me during my upbringing.
Cultures contain, spread, maintain, and reproduce values.
- Respect for Elders
- Religious Faith
4. Social Values
Societies are not cultures. A society is a group of people who are brought together in order to be more organized (Stewart, 2014).
A clear example of a society is a nation-state. In a nation-state, multiple people from various cultural backgrounds are brought together, reliant on each other, and organized under a range of laws and institutions that keep the society running.
But social values often overlap with cultural values.
For example, a key social value in Canada is diversity and inclusion. Everyone in society is expected – and often compelled by law – to be inclusive, such as through laws protecting us from discrimination. This social value is based upon a western-liberal cultural value, but is imposed on a social and organizational level.
- Respect for Diversity
- Community Service
- Human Rights
See Also: Society vs Culture
3. Personal Values
Of course, our personal values will often vary from our cultural values in multiple ways (Stewart, 2014).
For example, while at the core I have very similar values to my parents, I still have certain moral, political, and social beliefs that differ from theirs. After all, I’m also a product of my own culture, and I also have free will and individuality.
So, who we are individually and uniquely is often influenced by social and cultural values but personalized based on individual experiences and beliefs.
4. Moral Values
Moral values are related to our notions of justice, right and wrong, and ethics (Almila & Inglis, 2016).
These are the values that guide us in decision-making, help us to behave in prosocial ways, and ensure we make decisions consistent with our sense of fairness.
While it is contested where morality comes from, religion functions as a key institution that works to maintain and pass on specific approaches to morality based upon spiritual teachings (Almila & Inglis, 2016).
Other people’s morality may emerge in secular contexts, such as through experience, reading literature, and by observing the behaviors of our parents.
5. Aesthetic Values
These are values associated with beauty and artistic taste. They guide individuals’ preferences for, attitudes towards, and appreciation of art, music, nature, etc (Wolff, 2021).
Aesthetic values guide and influence our perceptions and attitudes towards things that we perceive through our senses – sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.
In essence, aesthetic values are about the appreciation of what we perceive as beautiful, harmonious, or pleasing to the senses (Wolff, 2021).
Aesthetic values can cover a wide range of elements, including visual aesthetics (relating to things such as symmetry, color harmony, balance, or simplicity), aural aesthetics (referring to sound features like melody, harmony, rhythm, tone, and timbre), literary aesthetics (appreciation of different approaches to storytelling, etc.), culinary aesthetics, and performative aesthetics (e.g. choreography, acting ability, etc.).
Aesthetic values are subjective and can vary widely between individuals, cultures, and time periods. What one person or culture considers aesthetically pleasing, another might not.
Examples of Aesthetic Values
6. Economic and Political Values
There is always debate and contestation about how a society organizes its economic and political life (Singh, 2020).
Such values are often related to our deeper sense of morality, such as whether we value freedom or distributive justice more, when the two concepts come into conflict (Singh, 2020).
Most of us would be able to point to some of these values – how much we want to regulate business, how much responsibility we have to the poor and needy, whether we should be compelled to pay taxes, and so forth.
Other examples of economic and political values might include democracy, freedom of speech, equality, justice, and patriotism.
7. Family Values
This term often refers to a belief in the family as the core organizing unit of a society (Spillman, 2020).
When someone says they have “family values”, they typically mean that they put their family above all else.
Sometimes, family values is often also coopted as a political statement that tends to refer to conservative ideological perspectives, such as endorsement of the nuclear family and rejection of alternative lifestyle choices (e.g. LGBT, atheism).
Of course, others would embrace their own version of family values that are decidedly liberal, making this term incredibly vague and hard to define. I discuss this extensively in my article about family values.
Family values – however you define them – are often seen as guiding our choice in who to have a relationship with (the idea being that we seek someone else whose personal values will fit within our idea of a future family).
Examples of Family Values
- Mutual Respect
8. Organizational Values
Organizational values are the fundamental beliefs upon which a business or organization operates (Bourne & Jenkins, 2013).
For example, we might regularly find them within an organization’s vision and mission statements, which are supposed to act as a bedrock for the organization’s decision-making and strategic direction.
However, they’re most likely to be seen within the organization’s culture, including everyday interactions between supervisors and staff (Bourne & Jenkins, 2013).
Organizational values might include things like integrity, teamwork, innovation, or sustainability. For example, Google’s organizational value used to be “don’t be evil.” I’ll leave it to you to decide if they lived up to that value!
Generally, we see that organizational values are set from above. Good leaders who have strong leadership skills will set the tone for the rest of the organization.
Examples of Organizational Values
- Work Ethic
- Serve the Community
- Customer Service
The many different types of values can help us to better conceptualize how values are formed, where they come from, and what purpose they serve in life. When developing your own value set, you might want to reflect on each of these different types and come up with your own worldview and value set in regard to each category.
Almila, A. & Inglis, D. (2016). The SAGE Handbook of Cultural Sociology. India: SAGE Publications.
Boudon, R. (2017). The origin of values: Sociology and philosophy of beliefs. New York: Routledge.
Bourne, H., & Jenkins, M. (2013). Organizational values: A dynamic perspective. Organization studies, 34(4), 495-514.
Delaney, T. (2015). Connecting sociology to our lives: An introduction to sociology. New York: Routledge.
Denzin, N. K. (2008). Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies: The Politics of Interpretation. Germany: Wiley.
Holmwood, J. (2005). Functionalism and its critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press EBooks. https://www.eolss.net/Sample-Chapters/C04/E6-99A-26.pdf
Ritzer, G., & Stepnisky, J. (2021). Modern sociological theory. London: Sage publications.
Rokeach, M. (1973). The nature of human values. New York, NY: Free Press.
Singh, J. P. (2020). Cultural Values in Political Economy. United States: Stanford University Press.
Spillman, L. (2020). What is cultural sociology?. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Stewart, S. (2014). A Sociology of Culture, Taste and Value. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wolff, J. (2021). Aesthetics and the Sociology of Art. London: Routledge.
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]