Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Values are datum having an empirical content accessible to members of some social group and a meaning with regard to which it is or may be an object of activity.

explanatory context

Social values are different from objects in as much as the latter have no meaning for human activity.

analytical review

Changing Minds (2002–2012) states:

Values is a confusing word that often gets confused with 'value' as in the value you get from buying a cheap, but well-built house. Values are, in fact powerful drivers of how we think and behave.....Values are also often a significant element of culture, where they form a part of the shared ruleset of a group. When I break my values, I will feel shame and guilt. If you break my values, I will feel repulsed. If I maintain my values when tempted to break them, I will feel pride.

Marini (undated) discusses the concept of value as follows:

A value is a belief about the desirability of a mode, means, or end of action (Kluckhohn 1951; Schwartz and Bilsky 1987). It indicates the degree to which something is regarded as good versus bad. A value tends to be general rather than specific, transcending particular types of action and situations. As a general evaluative criterion, it is used to assess specific behaviors in specific situations.

The evaluative criteria represented by values derive from conceptions of morality, aesthetics, and achievement. That is, a mode, means, or end of action can be regarded as good or bad for moral, aesthetic, or cognitive reasons and often for a combination of those reasons (Kluckhohn 1951; Parsons and Shils 1951). For example, being considerate of others may be valued positively (i.e., be viewed as desirable or good) for moral reasons, neatness may be valued positively for aesthetic reasons, and intelligence may be valued positively for cognitive reasons. Since the distinguishing characteristic of a value is evaluation as good or bad, a value that has a cognitive basis is a function of cognitive appraisal based on competency and achievement rather than on scientific or utilitarian grounds. For example, the choice of steel rather than iron to construct a building is a decision based on scientific or utilitarian criteria rather than on values.

The concept of a value must be differentiated from other concepts that appear to be similar. One of those concepts is a preference. A value may be thought of as a type of preference, but not all preferences are values. The distinctive characteristic of a value is that it is based on a belief about what is desirable rather than on mere liking. A preference for an equitable rather than inequitable distribution of rewards is a value, but a preference for vanilla rather than chocolate ice cream is not.

The concept of a value also bears some similarity to the concept of an attitude. Some analysts have suggested that a value is a type of attitude (Fishbein and Ajzen 1975; Glenn 1980), but there are differences between the two concepts. An attitude refers to an organization of several beliefs around a specific object or situation, whereas a value refers to a single belief of a specific kind: a belief about desirability that is based in conceptions of morality, aesthetics, or achievement and transcends specific behaviors and situations. Because of its generality, a value occupies a more central and hierarchically important place in human personality and cognitive structure than does an attitude. It is a determinant of attitudes as well as behavior. Thus, evaluations of numerous attitude objects and situations are based on a relatively small number of values. Not all attitudes, however, derive from values. For example, an attitude toward skiing may be based on the extent to which that sport is found to be enjoyable rather than on a value. The concept of a value also differs from the concept of an interest in much the same way that it differs from the concept of an attitude, since an interest is a type of attitude that results in the directing of one’s attention and action toward a focal object or situation. As is true of attitudes more broadly, some interests derive from values but others do not.

The concept of a value also can be distinguished from the related concept of a motive. The basic property of a motive is the ability to induce valences (incentives) that may be positive or negative. A value has a motive property, involving a predisposition to act in a certain way, because it affects the evaluation of the expected consequences of an action and therefore the choice among possible alternatives; however, it is a less person-centered concept than a motive, which also encompasses emotions and drives. A value is a particular type of motive involving a belief about the desirability of an action that derives from an evaluation of that action’s expected consequences in a situation. A value is a distinctively human motive, unlike motives that operate at both the human and the infrahuman levels.

A value also differs from a need. Although both function as motives because of their ability to induce valences, a need is distinctive in being a requirement for the continued performance of an activity and the attainment of other valued outcomes (Emerson 1987). Some needs have a biological basis; others are psychological, often deriving from the persistent frustration of important goals. Although a value may arise from a need, becoming a cognitive transformation of that need, not all needs are transformed into values and not all values derive from needs. Needs also may derive from the structure of a situation, having a social or economic basis rather than a personcentered biological or psychological basis. For example, a need for income may cause an actor to behave in ways that conflict with his or her values. A need differs from a value in that the continued functioning of the actor and the acquisitions of other valued outcomes are contingent on its being met. A need also differs from a value in that it implies a deficit that imposes a requirement, whereas a value implies motivation that is based on a belief about desirability.

Finally, a value can be differentiated from a goal. A value sometimes is thought of as a goal because goals are selected on the basis of values. However, some values focus on modes of action that are personal attributes, such as intelligence, rather than ends of action, or goals. Values are not goals of behavior. They are evaluative criteria that are used to select goals and appraise the implications of action.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines values as:

Culturally defined standards held by human individuals or groups about what is desirable, proper, beautiful, good or bad that serve as broad guidelines for social life.

associated issues


related areas

See also


Chicago School


Researching the Real World Section 1


Changing Minds, 2002–2012, 'Values', available at, accessed 29 January 2013, still available 29 December 2016.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, ©Frank Elwell, last updated January 1998, page not available 20 December 2016.

Emerson, R., 1987, 'Toward a theory of value in social exchange', in Cook, K (Ed.), Social Exchange Theory. Newbury Park, CA: Sage

Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I., 1975, Belief, Attitude, Intention, and Behavior: An introduction to theory and research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Glenn, N. D., 1980, 'Values, attitudes, and beliefs' in Brim, O.G. & Kagan, J. (Eds.), Constancy and Change in Human Development (pp. 596-640). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kluckhohn, C., 1951, 'Values and value-orientations in the theory of action: an exploration in definition and classificatio', in Parsons, T. & Shils, E. (Eds.), Toward a General Theory of Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Marini, M.M., undated, 'Values and norms' in Borgatta, W.F. and Montgomery, R.J.V, (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Sociology, Second edition, articel available at, accessed 16 March 2013, still available 29 December 2016.

Parsons, T. & Shils, E. (Eds.), Toward a General Theory of Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schwartz, S. H. and Bilsky, W., 198, 'Toward a universal psychological structure of human values', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, pp. 550–62.

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