Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The readiness to respond to a certain object in a favorable or unfavorable fashion; every attitude has both an intrinsic belief and a behavioral disposition. Attitudes are a permanent system of evaluations, emotions, and direct behavioral tendencies for or against an object.

Individuals develop their attitudes through a continuous process of adaptation to the social environment. Attitudes are organized ways of thinking and acting in relation to facts and people in our environment, and they help influence our overall way of life.

To understand the development of attitudes in the individual, it is necessary to study the latter's membership in groups and his or her self-identifications. At the basis of attitudes lie evaluative convictions, and when these change, so do the attitudes. Attitudes connect individuals to other individuals, groups, and institutions. Each person has hundreds of attitudes, presumably one for each object in his or her environment; for example, there are attitudes toward work, school, the church, and various types of groups. Socialization through one's parents, religious and educational instruction, and relations with friends are important sources of attitudes.

Social institutions influence attitudes in different ways. For example, membership in religious organizations or ethnic groups influences the attitudes that adults adopt toward their children. Instruction received at school influences attitudes toward the economic and political institutions of society.

In sociology, a substantial contribution to the concept of attitude and its study was made by William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920). They introduced an element of cognitive and emotional intermediation between a person's situation and his or her behavior. They used the concept of personality as a locution referring to a "structured attitude." Attitudes are not innate but stem from a process of acculturation. According to Thomas and Znaniecki, the terms needed to explain an action that has social importance are (1) the objective situation within which the subject has to act and (2) his or her attitude as a manifestation of previous social and cultural experience. However, the distinction between the two terms proposed by Thomas and Znaniecki do not always seem clear because, according to them, the situation includes the preexisting attitudes of the individual or group as well as the objective conditions that the individual encounters. The terms are based on the "four wishes" of Thomas's theory, which he developed before The Polish Peasant ; these four wishes are the desire for new experiences, the desire for recognition, the desire for domination, and the desire for security. Combined with the values of a preexisting situation, the four wishes give rise to certain attitudes.

The root of new attitudes is to be sought in the establishment of new relationships between the person and the world outside the community. The emergence of economics as an independent sphere reflects the tendency to reduce quality to a quantity that typifies the productive technology, of which the clearest representative is, of course, money.

Of all the methods of measuring attitudes, the most widely used are "attitudes scales," which differ from one another mainly in their type and method of construction and in the attitude "objects" that are the focus of study. An attitude scale consists of a series of statements to which subjects typically respond in terms of fixed-choice options, and their answers enable sociologists to make inferences about the subjects' attitudes. The objective typically is to assign to each respondent a numerical score along a continuum, a score that is taken to measure the valence of an attitude toward a particular object. The most important scales include those developed by Emory Bogardus (1925) and Louis Thurstone (Thurstone and Chave 1929).

Today a further source for attitudes is the mass media. Television in particular with its varied programs influences, often in a decisive manner, individuals' attitudes, which may be affected by various events and social groups on a large-scale basis throughout society. As time passes, the influence of the flow of information may bring about a change in individuals' attitudes.

However, the earlier that attitudes are learned, the more they are resistant to change—and this is particularly true if their internalization has come about in the first years of life and if they contribute to the satisfaction of basic needs.

Attitudes toward various aspects of religion also may be analyzed by this line of reasoning; while they reflect one's personal beliefs and experiences, they are always subject to influence by one's immediate social environment as well as by the larger climate of opinion that results from the mass media as they reflect the social processes of a complex society undergoing continuous change.

Luigi Tomasi


L. Allen, Techniques of Attitude Scale Construction (New York: Appleton-Century, 1957)

E. S. Bogardus, "Measuring Social Distance" Journal of Applied Sociology 9(1925):299-308

M. L. DeFleur and R. W. Catton, Jr., "The Limits of Determinacy in Attitude Measurement," Social Forces 4(1957):295-300

M. L. DeFleur and F. R. Westie, "Attitude as a Scientific Concept," Social Forces 3(1963):17-31

J. D. Delamater, "Attitude," Encyclopedia of Sociology , ed. E. F. Borgatta and M. L. Borgatta (New York: Macmillan, 1992):117-124

L. Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1962)

K. J. Kiecolt, "Recent Developments in Attitudes and Social Structure," Annual Review of Sociology 14(1988):381-403

M. Rosenberg et al., Attitude Organization (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960)

W. I. Thomas and F. Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918-1920)

L. L. Thurstone and E. J. Chave, The Measurement of Attitude (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929)

W. W. Torgeson, Theory and Methods of Scaling (New York: Wiley, 1958).

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