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Values represent beliefs and ideals which form the basis for choices and preferences, both at an individual and collective level; generally speaking, a value is defined as that which is ”good” and which is desired and is able to make one happy. Long-lasting and immaterial ideas regard both current conduct and one’s ultimate objective in life: they are different from simple interests which are not particularly characterized by duration and also from moral laws which indicate what is the ”right thing to do”; values propose a certain lifestyle and ”how to be” rather than purely concrete rules of behavior.
The utilization of the concept in the sociological ambit has been, in the last decades, the object of lively debate, owing to the difficulty of clearly defining what is meant by ”values”. Sociologists often put in evidence how difficult it is to provide a definition that is usable in empirical research and, on the other hand, they underline the relativity and subjectivity of the definition itself. All the researchers in any case unanimously highlight the connection between the values, the social structure and the actual behavior of the social subjects. Hechter (1993) identifies some difficulties in the study of values: first, they are not visible; second, there are no theories capable of satisfactorily explaining the connection between the values and the behaviors both at individual and at collective levels: besides we lack theories explaining how values are formed and, lastly, they are not easily measurable.
Values are not to be confused with attitudes, norms, needs and with the peculiarities of personal traits. Values are centered on ideals, hence they have an abstract role in building self identity, while attitudes are directly referred to the actual behavior of the individuals. Compared to norms, then, values are perceived by the individuals not as imposed from outside, but rather as outcomes of free personal choice. Besides, while needs refer to the biological sphere, values highlight the various cultural responses that can be given to such needs. The need for food or sex meets different responses according to the values of the different cultures where such needs are felt. Finally values differ from traits because, while these refer to the actual fixed aspects of personality, the former are abstract judgment criteria constantly inclined towards self transcendentalism.
Although the search is highly personal, the values of the individual are part of his/her social and cultural context. From a sociocultural point of view, values constitute a specific element of every culture: they are closely linked to the symbols, laws and rituals which regulate the various dimensions of collective life. Thus it is clear that values have the function of uniting individual and social praxis and it is this unity which coherently guarantees the link between the individual and society. From a sociological point of view, it is the complex mechanism of the transfer of values from one generation to another which constitutes the socialization process: via this there is the interaction between society and the individual and thus various aspects of culture become important for the individual.
Values, seen from the perspective of social sciences, do not regard the dimension of absoluteness and the transcendent of the philosophical context but are linked to precise historical, geographical and social contexts which are related to various economic, political and religious structures.
- Hechter, M., Nadel, L., & Michod, R. E. (eds.) (1993) The Origin of Values, de Gruyter, New York.
- Hitlin, S. & Piliavin, J. A. (2004) Values: reviving a dormant concept. Annual Review of Sociology 30: 359-93.