A Revaluation of Values
What are ‘values’ and why do they influence our lives?
Values are deeply internalized attitudes that reflect what you want out of life. Since people are goal-seeking creatures, their values have a huge influence on their lives. This is a very good guide of what people would do and a real reflection of what they want. And if I knew exactly what you wanted, I could learn a lot about you and predict what you will do. We found huge – just enormous – variation of values around the world, and if we know the value system of one country, we can predict a lot of things about it. Knowing values, for example, can predict how likely this country is to be democratic or if it is possible to have women in parliament and so on.
What types of values exist in the world nowadays?
The WVS has hundreds of specific values, but when we analyzed the data, we found that many basic values are closely correlated and can be depicted in two main dimensions of cross cultural variation. The first major dimension is from traditional values to secular-rational. It reflects the contrast between societies where religion is very important and those where it is not. Societies near the traditional pole emphasize the importance of parent-child ties, deference to authority, and traditional family values (rejecting divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide). These societies have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook. Societies with secular-rational values have the opposite preferences. In nearly all industrial societies, worldviews have shifted from traditional toward secular-rational values.
The other big dimension involves the difference between survival and self-expression values. As long as life is insecure, safety dominates your life strategy. When survival is uncertain, people will do anything to stay alive: fight, kill each other for food, and so on. When people take survival for granted, they become much more peaceful. Their priorities change from an overwhelming emphasis on economic and physical security toward an increasing emphasis on subjective well-being, self-expression, and quality of life. Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection; tolerance of foreigners, gays, and lesbians; gender equality; and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life. The shift from survival values to self-expression values also includes a shift in child-rearing values, from emphasis on hard work toward emphasis on imagination and tolerance as important values to inculcate in a child. And it is connected to a rising sense of subjective well-being that is conducive to an atmosphere of tolerance, trust, and political moderation. This produces a culture in which people place relatively high value on individual freedom and self-expression, and have activist political orientations.
You once said that a developed economy makes a country’s citizens calmer and healthier. How does that work?
For example, today the world has very little starvation. There are still some places where this problem exists, but in countries like Russia, Sweden, Germany, Japan, and the US, hardly anyone starves to death. Of course, historically, this used to be very widespread. People lived with starvation; when the crops failed, people would starve to death. Now, in the developed world, being at the edge of starvation is quite rare.
If we go back to the 1950s and 1960s, we see that people’s values were much more traditional – women belonged in the home, men were the only ones in the family who should work, and so on. All of these things changed a lot. Women are now pursuing higher education and making careers for themselves. So, while examining the values of one country, if you see a difference between the values of the young and old people, you can predict which way things are moving
I mention that people are becoming healthier, more peaceful, and less threatened. In the relatively developed world, the level of violence has come down a lot. This may sound surprising as the mass media reports every murder and tends to emphasize it, so people are very well informed about scary things like violence. But, historically, there was a huge decline in violence in all countries. Generally speaking, all forms of violence (including war) have become more unusual. Developed countries rarely fight each other anymore. Since World War II, no two major powers have fought each other. There have been a lot of wars, but those were wars involving less developed countries, where there is still a readiness to fight and die for your country, and violence rates are relatively high. In developed countries, internal violence is quite low.
Are things changing now?
Right now, we are in a period that can be called ‘alarming.’ The tension between Russia and the West is getting high. I don’t think it’s normal – it’s really dangerous, but neither side is determined to have a real war and there is a good reason for that. People grew up in relatively secure conditions, which spread from one country to another – from Europe and the US to a lot of countries in the world, including China and India, which are rapidly transitioning from desperately poor to prosperous countries. In the long run, these values change people’s characters. And so, as I said, survival is taken for granted – people are more peaceful and the possibility of war is much lower.
But we are going through difficult times. Just four years ago, when I first began spending time in Russia, I liked it very much – people were much friendlier than they are now. Today I see a lot of tension between Russia and the West. I am very sorry to see this because I like this country.
Have Russian people’s values changed since your last visit?
Values change very slowly – it doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t think that Russia’s major values have changed a lot over the last couple of years. People tend to grow up in a certain world, and they tend to have formed their values by the time they are adults, and they pretty much preserve those values. I think if we had tension under certain conditions that lasted for a couple of decades, then the values would change; in the long run, there could be a new generation with new values. But I don’t think that will happen, because that’s irrational.
This tension is damaging both East and West, and has an influence on both economies. It’s also extremely dangerous. We haven’t had war in Europe for the last 70 years. This is a monumental achievement, and it serves as a reminder that things are better when Russia and the West are on the same side. We recently had a great Victory Day, celebrating the era when the East and West were cooperating together against fascism, but later we had the Cold War, which was horribly dangerous. It could have been a real war, and that would have been a cataclysmic disaster. We could have had hundreds of millions of deaths, and even blown up our planet, but we avoided that. Now I think we are not even close to war or the stage we were in earlier, but it is still dangerous. The revival of a Cold War is extremely undesirable for both sides; it is not in anyone’s interest.
WVS is the main research project that the majority of social scientists have relied on for more than 30 years. What have been the major shifts in world values in this timeframe?
We started the project in 1981 because even then it was obvious that some basic values were changing. For example, in Western countries, people were becoming much less religious – to the point that churches were closing down, becoming hotels, and so on. We found that there are two major dimensions, which I spoke of earlier, that shape and describe hundreds of values.
In our first survey, we found very big differences between the values of the young and the old in developed countries (which includes highly industrialized cities from Seattle to Vladivostok), but we didn’t find it in countries that were not developed. Values in the majority of those countries were pretty much the same; in some ways, the young were even more traditional. It gave us the ability to foresee changes, and we actually made various predictions, such as the decline of class-conflict and a rise of interest in non-economic issues like environmental protection and so on.
If we go back to the 1950s and 1960s, we see that people’s values were much more traditional – women belonged in the home, men were the only ones in the family who should work, and so on. All of these things changed a lot. Women are now pursuing higher education and making careers for themselves. In most countries, there are more educated women than men. Even when I was a student and studied political science, there were no women at all; they were less likely to pursue higher education than men. So, while examining the values of one country, if you see a difference between the values of the young and old people, you can predict which way things are moving.
We developed a theory that combines some of the key concepts of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Karl Marx was wrong about many things, but he was right in arguing that industrialization and getting rich change things. But Max Weber was also right. He said that life is not just simple economic development, but a combination of history, religion, culture, and so on. And it changes, but the changes are shaped by the point from which you start. So if you started out as a Roman Catholic country, then that is still visible in your values today.
You have also mentioned that traditional religious values hinder economic development because they make citizens care about survival values instead of self-expression values. Religiosity in Russia, for example, is on the rise. Does that mean we are regressing?
Russia is moving back toward more traditional values. Russia was getting nearer to secular-rational values for a long time, and now the country has changed direction. I think the increase of religion reflects the fact that values are important and people need a belief system. All societies have a belief system that makes life meaningful; it gives people a reason to accept the social order and to understand what is good and evil. Many in the West, for example, believe in human rights, gender equality, and environmental protection.
In Russia, an interesting paradox can be observed. Your country is quite secular, but in contrast to Western countries, there is growing religiosity. We are seeing a renaissance of Orthodox Christianity and Islam, which our findings in Tatarstan support. That is understandable – the collapse of communist ideology created a spiritual vacuum that had to be filled, so religion is coming back to fill this vacuum. I think it was rather predictable. But in comparison to Saudi Arabia, Russia is still a secular-rational country.
Russia has a strong history of religion. Let’s talk about other countries where religion plays an important role. For example, Brazil is known to be very religious. And earlier, you said that even in the US, which shows positive economic growth, people are more religious than in Russia. So how does religion influence the development of the country?
The global cultural map shows how scores of societies are located along these two dimensions: moving from south to north reflects the shift from ‘Traditional’ to ‘Secular-rational’ values; moving from west to east reflects the shift from ‘Survival’ values to ‘Self-expressional’ values. Brazil and Latin America are above the mid-point of self-expression values. Ironically, Sweden has moved both to self-expression and secular-rational values. The US is at the top of self-expression values, but is still pretty religious.
Brazil has been getting richer and, of course, as a society gets richer, it tends to move both towards secular-rational and self-expression values. It takes decades, but Brazil is moving towards self-expression (as are most countries nowadays), which is linked with democracy. And in the long run, this is encouraging. Every country will move nearer to democracy because people like freedom. Democracy gives people more autonomy than any other system – it gives them choice. I think it’s the reason that people from all countries tend to like democracy if given the chance. If they are starving, they might want a tough leader who will feed them or a powerful ruler who will ensure that they are safe, but as they get more secure, they tend to like more freedom. And a human’s desire to live his own life is natural.
There is a long-term turn to democracy. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were a handful of countries that could be called democratic – Great Britain, the United States, Canada, and France. Even then, women were not allowed to vote, they were not likely to receive higher education, and discrimination was high. Today, it depends on the method of counting, but there are about 60 countries that can be called democratic. But it doesn’t happen in a way where every year you have one more democratic country – it comes in waves.
The last big wave was in the 1990s, when so many countries went from authoritarian systems to democracies. Since then, we have had a recession and it is typical to experience a decline of democracy, which we are experiencing now. Every time, people think democracy is finished. But I don’t think democracy wins automatically. The rules are complicated; there are hard times, when democracy tends to decline, and good times. The long-term trend is very clear: growing democracy. The world is getting richer, technology tends to advance economics, starvation is rather low, and so on. China, India, and Singapore – all eastern countries – made a great shift and are now moving rapidly. China has become dramatically, impressively rich, India has been making strides for the last few decades, and even Africa is moving toward development.
You mentioned earlier that Africa is a region where it is quite difficult to conduct a survey. Why?
Africa is the least developed part of the world; most of the continent is extremely poor. They don’t have a market economy and they don’t have accurate social records. In Nigeria, no one even knows how many people live there. Infrastructure is absent in many ways – survey organizations don’t exist in some countries, the roads are poor, and many areas may even be unsafe. For these reasons, it is very hard to work in Africa. We’ve done surveys in 20 African countries, but there are still 35 that we didn’t cover. Moreover, the funding there is lacking.
How do people from different countries and with different values cooperate with each other? Do values have an influence on such cooperation?
Sure. I would say having different values doesn’t necessarily create conflict. But the situation between the West and the Islamic countries is now happening because of values. That reflects the fact that values in developed countries have changed very rapidly. Things that would have been considered ‘wrong’ 50 years ago are now accepted as the norm in countries like the United States, Canada, Sweden, and many others. For example, same-sex marriage. When I was a kid, this concept didn’t exist. Nobody even dreamed about it; it didn’t even cross people’s minds. Today, it is very controversial, but it is being accepted because many of these countries are on the road of rapid change.
It is shocking for the Islamic people now, but it would have been shocking for the United States 50 years ago, too. We have changed a lot – opening up a gap between what is considered normal and moral.
These are things that can be handled. Clever people are capable of getting along with people who hold completely different values. But I think it requires tolerance – different people have different values, and things are not going to change quickly.
Talking about organizations, could the differing values of BRICS and SCO countries damage their work?
No. They don’t have to. I think that the conflict between the Islamic world and the West is probably the most intense now because Islamic countries tend to be very traditional in their values and tend to have survival values. The gap between, for example, Sweden and Saudi Arabia is very great.
Accepting that different people have different values is very important. Luckily, we are becoming more tolerant. Values can cause conflicts, but on the other hand, China and the US have very different values, and they are huge trade partners. There is a myth that China will replace the US as the world’s largest economy in a few years. A lot of people are talking about that today, but it won’t significantly change life in those countries. China is getting rich, which is very good for the US, because they are major trading partners. They have every reason to be friends, though they have different values.
BRICS values are not so different as to cause problems. South Africa is the most traditional country in the group, but it is also the least traditional country in Africa.
Nowadays, a new mode of development is often discussed in Russia. We are talking about a pivot to the East, meaning cooperation with China. How can our values help us with this new course?
Trading with China is a logical thing. It makes a lot of sense, I think, because China is an efficient trading partner. I see nothing wrong with it. Russia is a huge country, but the Russian economy by itself is not on a competitive basis with the European Union or China, and I think it needs to join with a bigger economic force in order to grow. Allying with Kazakhstan or Belarus is not going to make much difference.
I think Russian values are European; it is basically a European country, in terms of religion, culture, and so on. Cooperating with China is a long-term choice, and it is probably a choice between a democratic or authoritarian regime. Russia can take either of these paths, but I think that by nature, Russia is more European than Eastern. I believe that in the long run, Russia and Europe will cooperate. It is going to be a huge and very resourceful bloc, and Russia will be the biggest component of Europe by far. Allying with China, Russia will be in a minority of about 10%, and it is going to be a minor component of China. In the medium term, I think the prospects of a democracy will be better if Russia allies itself with Europe, but that is obviously not the direction things are moving at the moment.