Culture and the Dominant Ideology in the U.S.

An Overview of U.S. Values

Despite certain consistent values (e.g. individualism, egalitarianism, freedom, democracy), American culture has a variety of expressions.

Learning Objectives

Defend the notion that America has both consistent values and a variety of expressions

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms. Norms are rules for behavior in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as good or evil.
  • American culture includes both conservative and liberal elements, scientific and religious competitiveness, political structures, risk taking and free expression, materialist and moral elements.
  • American culture has a variety of expressions due to its geographical scale and demographic diversity.
  • Since the late 1970’s, the term ” traditional values ” has become synonymous with ” family values” in the U.S., and implies a congruence with mainstream Christianity. However “family values” is arguably a modern politicized subset of traditional values, which is a larger concept.

Key Terms

  • traditional: Of or pertaining to tradition; derived from tradition; communicated from ancestors to descendants by word only; transmitted from age to age without writing; as, traditional opinions; traditional customs; traditional expositions of the Scriptures.
  • liberal: Open to political or social changes and reforms associated with either classical or modern liberalism.
  • conservative: A person who favors maintenance of the status quo or reversion to some earlier status.

Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members. The values of a society can often be identified by noting that which people receive, honor or respect.

Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms. Norms are rules for behavior in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as either good or evil. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it reflects the value of patriotism. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral; in certain cultures, they reflect the values of respect and support for friends and family.

image

The Statue of Liberty: The Statue of Liberty symbolizes freedom, a fundamental American value.

Different cultures reflect different values. American culture includes both conservative and liberal elements, such as scientific and religious competitiveness, political structures, risk taking and free expression, materialist and moral elements. Aside from certain consistent ideological principles (e.g. individualism, egalitarianism and faith in freedom and democracy ), American culture’s geographical scale and demographic diversity has spawned a variety of expressions. The flexibility of U.S. culture and its highly symbolic nature lead some researchers to categorize American culture as a mythic identity, while others recognize it as American exceptionalism.

image

Declaration of Independence: Many fundamental American values are derived from the Declaration of Independence.

Since the late 1970’s, the terms “traditional values” and”family values” have become synonymous in the U.S., and imply a congruence with mainstream Christianity. However, the term “family values” is arguably a modern politicized subset of traditional values, which is a larger concept, anthropologically speaking. Although It is also not necessarily a political idea, it has become associated with both the particular correlation between Evangelicalism and politics (as embodied by American politicians such as Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle and George W. Bush), as well as the broader Christianity movement (as exemplified by Pat Robertson).

image

Traditional values as “family values”?: “Family values” is arguably a modern politicized subset of traditional values.

Value Clusters

People from different backgrounds tend to have different value systems, which cluster together into a more or less consistent system.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the separation of world values into the categories of ‘self-expression’ and ‘survival’

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The World Values Survey is used to identify different clusters of values around the world.
  • Traditional and survival values tend to cluster in developing countries.
  • With industrialization, countries shift from traditional to secular values.
  • With the rise of knowledge economies, countries tend to shift from survival to self-expression values.
  • With the rise of knowledge economies, countries tend to shift from survival to self-expression values.

Key Terms

  • Secular Values: Secular values, as opposed to traditional values, base morality on human faculties such as logic, reason, or moral intuition, rather than on purported supernatural revelation or guidance (which is the source of religious ethics).
  • Traditional Values: Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook.

People from different backgrounds tend to have different sets of values, or value systems. Certain values may cluster together into a more or less consistent system. A communal or cultural value system is held by and applied to a community, group, or society. Some communal value systems are reflected in legal codes and laws.

World Values Survey

Some sociologists are interested in better defining and measuring value clusters in different countries. To do so, they have developed what is called the World Values Survey, a survey of questions given to people around the world and used to identify different clusters of values in different regions. Over the years, the World Values Survey has demonstrated that people’s beliefs play a key role in defining life in different countries—defining anything from a nation’s economic development to the emergence of democratic institutions to the rise of gender equality.

image

World Values Survey: The World Values Survey is administered to people around the world. Their responses are aggregated and can be used to reveal regional value clusters, like those displayed in this map.

Trends

In general, the World Values Survey has revealed two major axes along which values cluster: (1) a continuum from traditional to secular values and (2) a continuum from survival to self-expression. Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority, and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook. Secular values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values, and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable. Industrialization tends to bring a shift from traditional values to secular ones.

With the rise of the knowledge society, cultural change moves in a new direction. The transition from industrial society to knowledge society is linked to a shift from survival values to self-expression values. In knowledge societies, such as the United States, an increasing share of the population has grown up taking survival for granted. Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance. Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection; tolerance of foreigners, gays, and lesbians; gender equality; and participation in decision-making as it relates to economic and political life.

Value Contradictions

Although various values often reinforce one another, these clusters of values may also include values that contradict one another.

Learning Objectives

Analyze a scenario in which a value system, either individual or collective, is shown to be internally inconsistent, and then resolve the conflict

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Value systems may contain value contradictions. A value system by itself is internally inconsistent if its values contradict each other, and its exceptions are highly situational and inconsistently applied.
  • Value contradictions can also arise within systems of personal or communal values.
  • Often, conflicts arise due to value systems contradictions. Society tries to resolve value contradictions in order to reduce conflict.
  • Society tries to resolve value contradictions.

Key Terms

  • Value Contradictions: A value system by itself is internally inconsistent or contradictory if its values contradict each other, and its exceptions are highly situational and inconsistently applied.
  • Value Consistency: A value system in its own right is internally consistent when its values do not contradict each other, and its exceptions are abstract enough to be used in all situations and consistently applied.
  • Communal Values: A communal or cultural value system is held by and applied to a community/ group/society. Some communal value systems are reflected in the form of legal codes or law.

Although value clusters generally work together so that various values reinforce one another, at times, these clusters of values may also include values that contradict one another. Value contradictions can arise between individual and communal value systems. That is, as a member of a society, group, or community, an individual can hold both a personal value system and a communal value system at the same time. In this case, the two value systems (one personal and one communal) are externally consistent provided they bear no contradictions or situational exceptions between them.

Value contradictions can also arise within individual or communal value systems. A value system is internally consistent (value consistency) when its values do not contradict each other and its exceptions are abstract enough to be used in all situations and consistently applied. Conversely, a value system by itself is internally inconsistent if its values contradict each other and its exceptions are highly situational and inconsistently applied. A value contradiction could be based on a difference in how people rank the value of things, or on fundamental value conflict. For example, although sharing a set of common values, such as hockey is better than baseball or ice cream is better than fruit, two different parties might not rank those values equally. Also, two parties might disagree as to whether certain actions are right or wrong, both in theory and in practice, and find themselves in an ideological or physical conflict.

Personal value contradictions: Individuals may have inconsistent personal values. For example, Donald Trump claims to be pro-life and also an avid supporter of the death penalty.

Conflicts are often a result of differing value systems. An example conflict would be a value system based on individualism pitted against a value system based on collectivism. A rational value system organized to resolve the conflict between two such value systems might take this form: Individuals may act freely unless their actions harm others or interfere with others’ freedom or with functions of society that individuals need, provided those functions do not themselves interfere with these proscribed individual rights and were agreed to by a majority of the individuals.

image

Protestors clash with police at the 1999 WTO summit in Seattle: People whose personal values conflict with communal values may try to change communal values through protest.

image

Life of George Washington–The farmer: This picture, by French artist Régnier, shows George Washington standing among African American field workers. The practice of slavery represents a value contradiction between wealth and liberty.

Emerging Values

Values tend to change over time, and the dominant values in a country might shift as that country undergoes economic and social change.

Learning Objectives

Criticize materialist values for the sake of argument

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Millennials and Baby Boomers grew up under different conditions and therefore have different values.
  • People who grow up worrying about meeting their basic material needs will tend to have materialist values that emphasize survival and meeting basic needs.
  • People who grow up without having to worry about meeting basic material needs will tend to have post-materialist values such as self-expression.

Key Terms

  • autonomy: Self-government; freedom to act or function independently.
  • values: A collection of guiding principles; what one deems to be correct and desirable in life, especially regarding personal conduct.

Values tend to change over time. The dominant values in a country may shift as that country undergoes economic and social change. Often, such value change can be observed in generational differences. For example, most young adults today share similar values. They are sometimes referred to as Generation Y or Milliennials. This generation was born in the 1980s and 1990s, and raised in a much more technologically advanced environment.

image

Millennials (Generation Y): This generation was born in the 1980s and 1990s, a time of major technological advancement.

Milliennials tend to have different values than the previous generation. Some common, notable tendencies are:

  • wanting to “make a difference” or have purpose
  • wanting to balance work with the rest of life
  • excessive seeking of fun and variety
  • questioning authority or refusal to respond to authority without “good reason”
  • unlimited ambition coupled with overly demanding, confrontational personality
  • lack of commitment in the face of unmet expectations
  • extreme sense of loyalty to family, friends, and self

By contrast, their parents or grandparents tend to belong to the Baby Boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964. Baby Boomers did not grow up with the same technologies as today’s youth. Instead, they came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, and their values were often formed in support of or reaction to the political and social issues of the time. Whereas the generation before the Baby Boom was concerned with economic and physical security, Boomers tend to have what are referred to as post-materialist values.

image

Civil Rights Movement: The right to assembly protects citizens’ rights to gather together to peacefully protest. This right was frequently exercised during the Civil Rights Movement (depicted here).

Post-materialist values emphasize non-material values like freedom and the ability to express oneself. The rising prosperity of the post-WWII years fostered these values by liberating people from the overriding concern for material security. Sociologists explain the rise of post-materialist values in two ways. First, they argue that individuals pursue various goals in order of basic necessity. While people may universally aspire to freedom and autonomy, the most pressing material needs like hunger, thirst, and physical security have to be satisfied first, since they are immediately linked with survival. These materialistic goals will have priority over post-materialist goals like belonging, esteem, and aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction. Once satisfaction has been achieved from these material survival needs, focus will gradually shift to the nonmaterial.

Second, sociologists suggest that people’s basic values are largely fixed when they reach adulthood, and change relatively little thereafter. For example, those who experience economic scarcity in childhood may as adults place a high value on meeting economic needs (such as valuing economic growth above protecting the environment) and on safety needs (such as supporting more authoritarian styles of leadership or exhibiting strong feelings of national pride—e.g., maintaining a strong army or willingness to sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of law and order). On the other hand, those who mainly experienced sustained material affluence during youth might give high priority to values such as individual improvement, personal freedom, citizen input in government decisions, the ideal of a society based on humanism, and maintaining a clean and healthy environment. Because values are set when people are young, value change can be slow. The values we see emerging today may depend on material conditions nearly a generation ago.

Culture Wars

In American usage, “culture war” refers to the claim that there is a conflict between those conservative and liberal values.

Learning Objectives

Support the notion of a culture war by giving an example from your own contemporary society

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A culture war is a struggle between two sets of conflicting cultural values.
  • Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued for a culture war in which anti-capitalist elements seek to gain a dominant voice in the mass media, education, and other mass institutions.
  • Members of the religious right accused their political opponents of undermining tradition, Western civilization, and family values.
  • James Davison Hunter argued that on an increasing number of “hot-button” defining issues, such as abortion, gun politics, separation of church and state, privacy, recreational drug use, homosexuality, and censorship issues, there existed two definable polarities.
  • James Davison Hunter argued that on an increasing number of “hot-button” defining issues — abortion, gun politics, separation of church and state, privacy, recreational drug use, homosexuality, censorship issues — there existed two definable polarities.

Key Terms

  • progressive: Favoring or promoting progress; advanced.
  • religious right: The religious or Christian right is a term used in the United States to describe right-wing Christian political groups that are characterized by their strong support of socially conservative policies. Christian conservatives principally seek to apply their understanding of the teachings of Christianity to politics and public policy by proclaiming the value of those teachings and/or by seeking to use those teachings to influence law and public policy.
  • kulturkampf: A conflict between secular and religious authorities, especially the struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the German government under Bismarck.

A culture war is a struggle between two sets of conflicting cultural values. This can be framed to describe west versus east, rural versus urban, or traditional values versus progressive secularism. The concept of a culture war has been in use in English since at least its adoption as a calque (loan translation) to refer to the German “Kulturkampf.”

Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci presented in the 1920s a theory of cultural hegemony. He stated that a culturally diverse society can be dominated by one class who has a monopoly over the mass media and popular culture, and Gramsci argued for a culture war in which anti-capitalist elements seek to gain a dominant voice in the mass media, education, and other mass institutions.

As an American phenomenon, it originated in the 1920s when urban and rural American values came into clear conflict. In American usage, the term culture war is used to claim that there is a conflict between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal. In the 1980s, the culture war in America was characterized by the conservative climate during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Members of the religious right often criticized academics and artists, and their works, in a struggle against what they considered indecent, subversive, and blasphemous. They often accused their political opponents of undermining tradition, Western civilization and family values.

The expression was introduced again by the 1991 publication of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America by James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. Hunter described what he saw as a dramatic realignment and polarization that had transformed American politics and culture. He argued that on an increasing number of “hot-button” defining issues, such as abortion, gun politics, separation of church and state, privacy, recreational drug use, homosexuality, and censorship issues, there existed two definable polarities. Furthermore, not only were there a number of divisive issues, but society had divided along essentially the same lines on these issues, so as to constitute two warring groups, defined primarily not by religion, ethnicity, social class, or even political affiliation, but rather by ideological world views.

image

Culture Wars: So-called red state/blue state maps have become popular for showing election results. Some suggest that the red state/blue state divide maps the battle lines in the culture wars.

Values as Binders

Cultures hold values that are largely shared by their members, thereby binding members together.

Learning Objectives

Compose a scenario which illustrates a potential clash between personal and cultural/societal values

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Values and value systems are guidelines that determine what is important in a society, reflecting a person’s sense of right and wrong, or what “ought” to be.
  • Types of values include ethical/moral value, doctrinal/ideological (religious or political) values, social values, and aesthetic values.
  • While a personal value system is held by and applied to one individual only, a communal or cultural value system is held by and applied to a community / group /society.
  • Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members, thereby binding members together. Members take part in a culture even if each member’s personal values do not entirely agree with some of the normative values sanctioned in the culture.
  • Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms.
  • Values can act as blinders if people take their own personal values (or their society’s values) as universal truths and fail to recognize the diversity of values held across people and societies.

Key Terms

  • value system: a set of consistent personal and cultural values used for the purpose of ethical or ideological integrity.
  • value: The degree of importance given to something.

Values and value systems are guidelines that determine what is important in a society. They can be defined as broad preferences concerning appropriate courses of action or outcomes. Values reflect a person’s sense of right and wrong, or what “ought” to be. “Equal rights for all,” “Excellence deserves admiration,” and “People should be treated with respect and dignity” are representative of values. Types of values include ethical/moral value, doctrinal/ideological (religious, political, etc.) values, social values, and aesthetic values.

Values tend to influence attitudes and behavior. For example, if you value equal rights for all and you work for an organization that treats some employees markedly better than others, this may cause internal conflict. A value system is a set of consistent personal and cultural values used for the purpose of ethical or ideological integrity. While a personal value system is held by and applied to one individual only, a communal or cultural value system is held by and applied to a community/group/society. Some communal value systems are reflected in the form of legal codes or law. As a member of a society, group, or community, an individual can hold both a personal value system and a communal value system at the same time. In this case, the two value systems (one personal and one communal) are externally consistent provided they bear no contradictions or situational exceptions between them.

Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members, thereby binding members together. Members take part in a culture even if each member’s personal values do not entirely agree with some of the normative values sanctioned in the culture. This reflects an individual’s ability to synthesize and extract aspects valuable to them from the multiple subcultures to which they belong. Values vary across individuals and cultures, and change over time; in many ways, they are aligned with belief and belief systems. Noting which people receive honor or respect can often identify the values of a society. In the US, for example, professional athletes at the top levels in some sports are honored (in the form of monetary payment) more than college professors. Surveys show that voters in the United States would be reluctant to elect an atheist as a president, suggesting that belief in God is a value.

Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms. Normsare rules for behavior in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as right or wrong. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it reflects the value of patriotism. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral. In certain cultures, they reflect the values of respect and support of friends and family. If a group member expresses a value that is in serious conflict with the group’s norms, the group’s authority may carry out various ways of encouraging conformity or stigmatizing the non-conforming behavior of its members. For example, transgender individuals hold the value of freedom to identify and express their gender as they choose; however this value is not shared by much of society, and discriminatory laws and practices prevent this freedom.

Values can act as blinders if people take their own personal values (or their society’s values) as universal truths and fail to recognize the diversity of values held across people and societies. They may believe their values determine the only way to understand and act in the world, when, in fact, different people and different societies may have widely divergent values.

image

Blinders: Values can act as blinders if people fail to recognize the diversity of values held across people and cultures, and assume their own society’s values are universal truths.

Ideal vs. Real Culture

Any given culture contains a set of values that determine what is important to the society; these values can be idealized or realized.

Learning Objectives

Compare the idea of an idealized and a realized value system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Ideal values are absolute; they bear no exceptions. These values can be codified as a strict set of proscriptions on behavior.
  • A realized value system contains exceptions to resolve the contradictions between ideal values and practical realities in everyday circumstances.
  • Whereas we might refer to ideal values when listing American values (or even our own values), the values that we uphold in daily life tend to be real values.

Key Terms

  • real values: values that contain exceptions to resolve the contradictions inherent between ideal values and practical realities.
  • ideal values: absolute values that bear no exceptions and can be codified as a strict set of proscriptions on behavior.

Any given culture contains a set of values and value systems that determine what is important to the society as a whole. When we talk about American values, we often have in mind a set of ideal values. Ideal values are absolute; they bear no exceptions. These values can be codified as a strict set of proscriptions on behavior, and those who hold to their idealized value system and claim no exceptions are often referred to as absolutists.

An example of an ideal value is the idea of marriage and monogamy based on romantic love. In reality, many marriages are based on things other than romantic love (such as money, convenience, or social expectation), and many end in divorce. While monogamous marriages based on romantic love certainly do exist, such marriages are not universal, despite our value ideals.

image

The Ideal Marriage?: In ideal culture, marriage is forever, but in real culture, many marriages end in divorce.

Few things in life exist without exception. Along with every value system comes exceptions to those values. Abstract exceptions serve to reinforce the ranking of values; their definitions are generalized enough to be relevant to any and all situations. Situational exceptions, on the other hand, are ad hoc and pertain only to specific situations. With these exceptions, real values emerge. A realized value system, as opposed to an ideal value system, contains exceptions to resolve the contradictions between ideal values and practical realities in everyday circumstances.

Whereas we might refer to ideal values when listing American values (or even our own values), the values that we uphold in daily life tend to be real values. The difference between these two types of systems can be seen when people state that they hold one value system, yet in practice deviate from it, thus holding a different value system. For example, a religion lists an absolute set of values, while the practice of that religion may include exceptions.