In sociology, values refer to the standards people use to assess desirability, goodness, and beauty.
Sociologists acknowledge that values are culturally-defined and vary within and between cultures (Boudon, 2017). Because values emerge within cultural groups, we tend to study them as shared conceptions of what is considered good, desirable, and proper; or bad, undesirable, and improper.
Many sociologists, particularly the functionalists such as Durkheim and Merton, believe that values have a key purpose for functioning societies. They can shape moral norms, influence social structure, and help individuals to form their personal beliefs and behavior.
Values can range from concepts such as honesty and integrity to social equality, freedom, and social justice.
Types of Values in Sociology
We can dissect values into various different types in sociology. Let’s start with Rokeach’s (1973) famous dichotomy between instrumental and terminal values.
1. Instrumental Values
Instrumental values refer to the values we hold that are a means to an end rather than values worth aspiring toward for their own sake (Rokeach, 1973).
For example, we may have kindness as a personal value, but we might also ask “why do you aspire to be kind?”, and this gets us to a deeper core value: we like to be kind because we actually value something deeper – respect for others. This may be a core value (see below).
2. Terminal Values
While instrumental values are a means to an end, terminal values are our end-goal. They’re the deepest core values (Rokeach, 1973).
For example, many people have happiness as a core value. Many other things we value – free time, work-life balance, etc. – are instrumental and point to that deeper value if happiness which is the end-goal.
- Inner Harmony
- Financial Security
3. Cultural Values
Sociologists recognize that values tend to be spread, maintained, and reproduced within cultural groups (Stewart, 2014).
For example, western culture tends to value individuality and freedom of expression highly, while collectivist cultures in Asia may value integration and social responsibility more highly (Spillman, 2020).
- Respect for Elders
- Religious Faith
4. Social Values
A society is an organized group of people, regardless of whether they have different cultural backgrounds (Stewart, 2014). For example, a multicultural society is a collective of people with many different cultural backgrounds.
A clear example of a society is a nation-state. In a nation-state, there are often many different ethnic groups all under the same organizational banner of the nation. Social values might include inclusion, modesty, or freedom, and tend to be closely tied to the values of the dominant culture within the society.
- Respect for Diversity
- Community Service
- Human Rights
See Also: Society vs Culture
3. Personal Values
Your personal values are unique to you, your experiences, and your opinions are formed through free will (Stewart, 2014).
Of course, our personal values are often closely tied to our upbringing and our cultural and social values but even within societies and cultures, everybody has their own personal viewpoints that inform their beliefs.
4. Moral Values
Moral values refer to ideas about justice, right and wrong, fair and unfair (Almila & Inglis, 2016).
We tend to think of moral values as the perspectives that guide us in decision-making and our social conscience. These valus may come from religion, parents, personal experiences of injustice, and personal observations.
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.
Examples of Aesthetic Values
6. Economic and Political Values
Economic and political values are the values we hold about how a society should be organized, particularly in relation to economic and social issues (Singh, 2020).
These are often tied to our sense of morality, such as whether we value distributive justice (i.e. tax the rich to help the poor), freedom, democracy, equality, and so on.
7. Family Values
This term often refers to a belief in the family as the core organizing unit of a society, and is often explored and even endorsed by functionalist sociologists.
Family values can include a sense that the family comes before all else, belief in how to behave around children, and how to raise children (Spillman, 2020).
- Mutual Respect
Sociological Function of Values
Below are explanations of how each of the three sociological paradigms approach values and their role in society.
For functionalist sociologists, social and cultural values are essential for the maintenance of social stability and order (Holmwood, 2005). We develop shared values as a way to maintain order and cohesion.
Functionalism is one of the central theoretical perspectives in sociology, promoted by giants in sociology like Durkheim and Merton.
These theorists hold that society is a complex system where each component serves a key purpose for promoting overall stability and solidarity.
For example, the police are a social institution necessary for maintaining order, while families are a social institution necessary for raising children in a safe environment (see more examples of functionalism here).
When it comes to values, the functionalist perspective holds that social values are also a key component of society.
Values exist for a reason – in other words, they have a function (Holmwood, 2005). Their reason is clear: it is to maintain social cohesion and societal continuity.
For example, values are instrumental because they:
- Promote Social Order: Shared values provide a collective conscience that guides and influences individual behavior (Delaney, 2015). This helps to maintain order and stability in society. For example, most societies value honesty, which promotes trust and cooperation among its members.
- Define Social Expectations: Values serve as benchmarks or standards that define what is acceptable behavior within a group or society (Holmwood, 2005). They set social norms and expectations, helping individuals to understand how they should behave in different situations.
- Unite Members of Society: Shared values create a sense of community, belonging, and identity among the members of a society or group (Delaney, 2015). They provide a common ground that unites individuals and fosters solidarity.
However, while recognizing the importance of shared values, functionalism might be criticized for not adequately addressing social inequality and the potential for values to serve the interests of some societal members over others.
These points are often addressed by other sociological perspectives, like conflict theory, explored below.
2. Conflict Theory and Values
For conflict theorists, like Karl Marx, values are fabricated and imposed by the powerful to control and oppress everyone else (Delaney, 2015).
Conflict theorists in many ways see society in the opposite way to functionalists. Where the functionalists see order and structure, conflict theorists see a power balance, where those in power oppress everyone else (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2021).
The core question for conflict theorists is:
“What are the dominant values of a society, and whose interests do they serve? “
For example, many feminists are conflict theorists. They will see that the values of patriarchal societies – which laud men as the leaders and women as the domestic workers, and often devalue women’s rights in the court of law – have set up a value system designed to oppress women and keep men in power.
Conflict theorists would argue the following about values:
- Values as a Reflection of Power Dynamics: Conflict theorists argue that societal values often reflect the interests of those in power (Delaney, 2015). Those who hold power in society can shape and manipulate societal values to benefit their own interests, often maintaining their power and reinforcing social inequalities.
- Values are a Source of Conflict: Different groups within a society may have different, and sometimes opposing, values (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2021). This difference can lead to conflict, as each group seeks to have its values recognized and validated. Conflict theory highlights how these value conflicts can lead to social change.
- Values can Compound Social Inequality: Societal values can play a role in justifying social inequalities. For example, a society that highly values hard work might blame individuals for their poverty, asserting that if they worked harder, they would not be poor. This can be a way of legitimizing and maintaining existing power structures and inequalities (Delaney, 2015).
- Values can be Tools for Social Change: Conflict theorists also view values as a potential tool for social change (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2021). If individuals or groups can challenge and change societal values, they can begin to change the social structure itself. This is often a focus in movements for social justice and equality.
In contrast to functionalism, which emphasizes harmony and stability, conflict theory highlights how societal values can be a source of conflict and change. It is more critical and focused on issues of power and inequality, something functionalism fundamentally fails to achieve.
3. Symbolic Interactionism and Values
Symbolic interactionism is an approach to sociology that focuses on how people create meaning – and, of course, values – through:
- Symbols: Including signs and language, and
- Interactions: Communicating with others (Denzin, 2008; Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2021).
The theory’s unique contribution is that it focuses on the individual (i.e. micro-level analysis, known as microsociology) rather than the functionalist approach to institutions.
Key symbolic interaction theorists include George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer.
So, from this theoretical perspective, values are seen in the following ways:
- Values are Created and Transmitted through Social Interaction: The symbolic interactionist perspective emphasizes the role of social interactions and communication in creating and transmitting values (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2021). It is through interactions in social settings that individuals learn societal values (through a process canned socialization) and come to believe them (in a process called internalization).
- Values Develop and Change with Experience: Symbolic interactionism posits that values are not inherent or static; instead, each of us develop, change, and evolve our values through everyday interactions. In this view, values are fluid and changeable, not fixed (Delaney, 2015).
- Role of Values in Identity Formation: The values we adopt and internalize are integral to our formation of a sense of self and the social roles we assume (e.g. good mother, good father, incorruptible police officer, etc.).
- Our Values help us Interpret the World: Values serve as a lens through which we interpret our social world. They help us make sense of others’ behaviors and guide our own actions in social situations (Denzin, 2008).
Symbolic interactionism offers a unique viewpoint on values, focusing on the ways in which they are socially constructed, transmitted, and transformed through everyday interactions.
Examples of Values
A central value to many people, honesty helps us to navigate social interactions in a way that is consistent with our sense of self as a good person within a culture that holds honesty in high regard. Honesty is generally seen as an instrumental value because it serves the purpose of fostering trust and building positive relationships.
See More: Examples of Honesty
Justice is a complex concept, and as I’ve demonstrated in my types of justice article, there are many ways of perceiving it.
Each different approach to justice will lead to different ideas about how to interact with others. For example, a person who believes in personal retributive justice (revenge for misdeeds), your value framework would allow you to harm someone who harmed you. But if you believe in procedural justice, you would believe that a person should only be punished by a court of law.
Respect is about treating others with dignity. It might involve listening to someone’s opinion without interruption or disparagement, even if you disagree with their viewpoint. On a societal level, it might involve laws and policies that uphold the dignity of all individuals, like those against discrimination and hate speech.
See More: Examples of Respect
This refers to treating all your friends with the same regard and kindness, regardless of their background, ethnicity, religion, or gender. On a social level, it might require legislation that guarantees equal rights for all citizens, such as equal voting rights, equal opportunity employment laws, or laws ensuring equal access to education.
Equality could be seen as a terminal value if it’s core to your aspirations for society, or an instrumental value if you value equality because greater social equality would help you personally to gain more social status, wealth, or power.
Freedom is generally seen as a terminal value and something most people aspire toward. It’s also a core value in liberalism, and in the American Dream concept. On a personal level, it might refer to choosing your career path based on your interests and passion, rather than societal or familial expectations. On a societal level, it might refer to a fundamental belief in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly.
Values vs Norms
Values are broad principles or standards that guide behavior and judgments about what is important in life, while norms are the social rules that dictate what is acceptable and unacceptable in a social context (Boudon, 2017).
Values tend to be abstract ideals, while norms tend to refer to specific behavioral standards.
Values serve as the criteria for determining what is good and bad, right and wrong. They are abstract notions of what is desirable and worthy. For example, a society might value honesty, education, or equality.
Norms, on the other hand, are concrete and specific behavioral expectations or prohibitions that are socially enforced (Delaney, 2015).
For instance, a norm might be that you should not lie (linked to the value of honesty), you should attend school (linked to the value of education), or that you should treat everyone equally (linked to the value of equality).
Norms are often directly derived from society’s values, serving as the practical application of these ideals.
In sociology, values are studies to explore how individuals, cultures, and societies develop, use, and reproduce their ideas about right and wrong, fair and unfair. Through an exploration of values, we can understand what is held dear to people and groups, and we can learn about their orientation toward fairness, freedom, equality, and so forth. While different sociologists and sociological paradigms have differing ideas about the function of values in society (e.g. functionalism and conflict theory deeply disagree), all sociologists tend to understand that developing a value set is central to any functioning social or cultural group.
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.
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]