Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A value is a normative proposition; it meets a need that seeks to satisfy or that finds its meaning in a universal truth, accepted by the subject. At the same time, it is made up either of an object of particular importance for the subject agent or of a higher truth; it has a prescriptive nature, and a person is subject to a continuous effort to assert the value in which he or she believes.

A value is subordinated to the existential context, and it is always verified by social events. It is the sphere of existence that founds and circumscribes that of values. As an orientation toward a person's actions with respect to an end, a value also can be a reference point for several norms, even as one norm may constitute the reference for a plurality of values.

In sociology, the concept of the value acquired importance in the twentieth century in a cultural context of reaction against the preceding culture. According to Luciano Gallino (1988:722-724), in this period the independent emergence of the term value was characterized by a high level of generalization. It marked the manifestation of a profound change in modern culture that occurred in particular on the social side. It was in this period that the concept of the value became an object of analysis by sociologists who offered various interpretations.

Values in Sociological Interpretation

In American sociology, the cultural change of the twentieth century led to the decline of the instinctual categories of behavior that encouraged social scholars to consider instincts, interests, and needs as the causes of behavior. It began to be accepted that the organic factor was not the cause of behavior in its rough form but only in the form that it assumes as the product of experience.

The first systematic discussion of the concept of values appeared in "Methodological Note" in the book by William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (University of Chicago Press 1918-1920). Here values were defined in connection with the psychological concept of "attitude." According to Thomas and Znaniecki, while "the value" is an object that has an accessible content and meaning for the members of the social group, "the attitude" is a subjective orientation of the members of the group toward values.

These authors intended the definition of value and attitude only to be a starting point for the development of social theory. Roles are objects and not part of the orientation of the actors; social roles do not only refer to attitudes, they also express them. In Thomas and Znaniecki's opinion, the scientific value of an event depends on its connection to other events and, in this connection, the most common factors are precisely those that have the greatest value.

By social value , Thomas and Znaniecki meant each datum that has an empirical content that is accessible to the members of a social group and a meaning in reference to which it is or it can be the object of activity. Social values contrast with natural things; they have no meaning for human activity and they are treated as valueless: When natural things assume a meaning, they become social values.

This interpretation by Thomas and Znaniecki acted as a spur to further studies and theories that have continued up until the present day. An important contribution was made by Clyde Kluckhohn in his article "Values and Value-Orientations in the Theory of Action" (1951), where he stated that "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." Here the cognitive element is the decisive criterion between the values and the subjective quantities such as feelings, emotions, attitudes, and needs as well as values and preferences.

In Kluckhohn's opinion, a value is expressed in the long term and becomes desirable when it is interiorized by the subject and integrated into his or her personality system. The action is thus motivated by the "needs-orientations," which are the objective conditions, and by the "values-orientations," which correspond to the choices made by the person on the basis of interiorized values.

Values explain their prescriptive nature, by fixing limits within which the example of the affective faculty is admitted; they depend on the hierarchy and configuration of the ends of the personality and on the situation and requirements of the cultural system. The integration of values in an evaluative system that contributes to a large extent to identifying individual cultures is a condition for the integration of motivations in a certain system that identifies individual personalities.

Other important American approaches include Pitirim Sorokin's Society, Culture and Personality (Harper 1947) and Paul Hanly Furfey's The Scope and Method of Sociology (Harper 1953). Sorokin defined a value as follows: "Any meaning in a narrow sense is a value. Any value presupposes a norm of conduct with reference to its realization or rejection." Furfey's definition is also useful: "The quality of recognized desirability founded on goodness."

Howard Paul Becker, in his work Through Values to Social Interpretation (Duke University Press 1950), stated that a value is "any object of any need." Intrinsic to his work is the theory that values must be discovered in phenomena as well as in the object itself; a value is created in the object when it becomes the result of necessity or desire. In other words, as Franz Adler stated in "The Value Concept of Sociology" (1956), "a value is what is valued." Ideally, this approach should move from static considerations of definitional abstractions to research on the process of valuing.

A further definition sees values as placed in humans and deriving from their biological necessities or from their "mind." The following is, for example, the definition of a value that Kimball Young gave in Sociology: A Study of Society and Culture (American Book Company 1949): "A combination of ideas and attitudes which gives a scale of preference or priority to motives and goals as well as to a course of action from motive to goal."

The theories of Robert E. Park, William E. Burgess, Ellsworth Faris, and George Herbert Mead are also of note. The definition given by Park and Burgess in Introduction to the Science of Sociology (University of Chicago Press 1924)—"anything capable of being appreciated (wished for) is a 'value' "—considers values as things that arise in the object where and when desire or need call upon it. Faris and G. H. Mead can be considered two sociologists who formulated a new conceptualization of values as elements of the personality.

Faris, in his two essays "Social Attitudes" and "The Concept of Social Attitudes" in The Nature of Human Nature (McGraw-Hill 1937), stated that values have an objective dimension toward which actors can direct their attitudes and actions and an attitudinal dimension that constitutes an element of orientation. Mead, in Mind, Self and Society (University of Chicago Press 1934), formulated principles according to which normative attitudes become the central part of the human personality.

Also worthy of mention is the interpretation of a value given by Milton Rokeach in his book The Nature of Human Values (Free Press 1973):

A value is an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or end-state of existence is personally or socially preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct or end-state of existence. A value system is an enduring organization of beliefs concerning desirable modes of conduct or end-states of existence along a continuum of relative importance.

The 1930s saw the return of the European theorists, in particular Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, and a wealth of theoretical and methodological concepts were published concerning, among others, the concept of values. It can be said that the relaunch of the notion of values in contemporary sociology can be attributed to Talcott Parsons's work The Social System (Free Press 1951), which is perhaps the most complete expression of the structural-functionalist current of thought. It is a work that starts from the presupposition of the rejection of the positivistic conception of conduct as predetermined by the situation.

Luigi Tomasi


F. Alder, "The Value Concept in Sociology," American Journal of Sociology 27(1956):272-279

L. Gallino, Dizionario di Sociologia (Turin: Utet, 1988)

C. Kluckhohn, "Values and Value-Orientations in the Theory of Action," in Towards a General Theory of Action , ed. T. Parsons and E. Shils (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951): 388-433.

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