Strengths and Weaknesses of the Value Change Thesis. About "Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society" by Ronald Inglehart

Literature Review, 2008

8 Pages, Grade: A-



1. Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Societies: Overview of the Principal Argument

2. Clarifying Inglehart’s Conceptual Framework

3. Measuring Postmaterialism

4. Concluding Remarks: Strengths and Weaknesses of the Value Change Thesis


1. Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Societies: Overview of the Principal Argument

In his book Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society (1989) Ronald Inglehart expands his research on political culture and value change through the concepts of materialism and postmaterialism. Using a large body of timeseries survey data (1970-1988), Inglehart analyzes the trends that occurring within the attitudinal structure of various populations as new generations replace older ones over time. The study utilizes data from around twentysix nations, including countries in Eastern and Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and Japan, Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China. Through the cohort analysis of survey data from 1970 to 1988, the author calculates the effects of population replacement confirming the existence of an intergenerational value change.

The dichotomy between materialism and postmaterialism concepts developed by Inglehart is based on the Maslow`s psychological needs theory (1954) which distinguishes between psychological needs and social/selfactualization needs. In this framework, materialists are considered to hold values associated with the need for security and stability, as opposed by the postmaterialist value structure incorporating social bonds, selfesteem and selfactualization.

Inglehart conceptualizes cultural shift as a gradual move from one set of values to another. As long as one economic mode of production persists, value structures remain stable. On the contrary, economic developments of any kind lead to a gradual transformation of individual world views and ideas. Inglehart argues that postindustrial society affects individual value structure – particularly among the younger cohorts who appear to be less exposed to the fundamental survival challenges as the motivational source of individual behaviour.

Postmaterialism is conceived of as a continuum incorporating materialists, postmaterialists and the so called ‘mixed types’. The rigidity of the proposed framework has been challenged by Flanagan (1987), Hellevik (1993), Van Deth (1983) and others who concluded that materialist and postmaterialist values are by no means mutually exclusive. In this respect, I would agree with most scholars who consider that Inglehart’s approach is excessively rigid and that it might not reflect all possible dimensions of cultural change in postindustrial society.

This paper will scrutinize Inglehart’s theoretical framework, arguing that the dichotomy between materialism and postmaterialism represents a useful analytical tool that is applicable to the advanced industrial societies. It will be also argued that the framework is by no means comprehensive and has to be developed further so as to fit a complex reality of the postpost-industrial world. The model suggested by Inglehart suffers from several theoretical and methodological problems that will be addressed in the following sections.

2. Clarifying Inglehart’s Conceptual Framework

Most scholars agree that postindustrialism is associated with a fundamental shift toward postmodern values. However, the conceptualization and measurement of this phenomenon is subject to heated debate. Given the importance of Inglehart’s work in the area of cultural change, clarifying basic concepts of culture, postindustrialism and postmaterialism is of particular importance.

Using Barnes’ notion of culture as a set of beliefs and assumptions developed by specific population groups, Inglehart states that any culture represents a people’s strategy for adaptation. In the long run, these strategies generally respond to economic, technological, and political changes. Those that fail to do so are unlikely to flourish, and are unlikely to be dominant for a long period of time (p.3). This has important implications, since culture that is influenced by economic factors, tends to shape economic growth and the kind of economic development as well.

Many scholars have criticized Inglehart for the fact that he gives excessively loose definition to the basic concepts of his study. Culture is interpreted by the author as a set of values. Values, in turn, are equated with attitudes toward specific social, political and economic issues. The lack of theoretical and operational distinction between culture and values, values and attitudes represents one of the most serious imperfections in the study of materialism and postmaterialism. To date, scholars working in the field of individual psychology assert that values and attitudes represent distinct though overlapping phenomena. Similarly, sociologists oppose the equation between culture and social values. If the meaning of culture, values and attitudes appear to be confused, the findings of Inglehart`s statistical study are most likely to be blurred as well.

Having said this, I should note that Inglehart recognized the limits of his approach suggesting that value change is only one aspect of a much broader syndrome of cultural change, involving the decline of traditional religious orientations and conventional social and sexual norms – along with the emergence of distinctive patterns of economic and political behaviour (p.7). However, no attempt was made by the author to operationalize the notion of cultural change in subsequent chapters.

Theoretical framework developed by Inglehart for the studying of the rise of postmaterialist values is based on two hypotheses: (1) scarcity hypothesis suggesting that one places the greatest subjective value on those things that are in relatively short supply (individual’s priorities reflect the socioeconomic environment) and (2) a socialization hypothesis suggesting that the relationship between socioeconomic environment and value priorities include substantial time lag because one`s basic values reflect the conditions that prevailed in one`s adult years. The author puts forward the so called ‘cohort replacement model’ accounting for the relative size of cohort, lifecycle, and period effects as exerting particular influence over the changes in social and political values across nations.

The fundamental thesis of the book is based on controversial premises. On the one hand, Inglehart asserts that a culture shift occurred in developed societies should not be relegated to economic conditions only. On the other hand, the rise of postmaterialist values is associated by him with the postindustrial economic structure characterized by the economic dominance of the tertiary sector over that of manufacturing, a high degree of public mobilization in society and an unprecedented affluence. Inglehart argues that the fundamental value priorities in western countries have been transformed throughout the decades of material wellbeing and physical security that brought to the fore values of freedom, belonging, beauty and selfactualization. More recently, Inglehart attempted to link the psychological notion of progression on a need hierarchy with ‘a principle that might be called the diminishing marginal utility’ (DMU) of economic determinism. Within this framework, economic factors tend to play a decisive role under conditions of economic scarcity, but as scarcity diminishes, other factors shape society to an increasing degree. What particular factors trigger the shift toward postmaterialist values remain unclear.

3. Measuring Postmaterialism

The concept of postmaterialism in Inglehart`s study is unidimensional, different from the political belief system (leftright axis) and the social belief system (modernpostmodern axis). Sometimes, it is associated with the notion of postmodernism, though the latter incorporates nearly all values (both materialist and nonmaterialist) that emphasize personal freedom, individual responsibility and the quality of life. De Graaf asserts that postmodern values concern a much broader process of cultural change, including the trend toward postmaterialism that can also be interpreted as a shift toward liberal values. Thus by focusing on postmaterialism, Inglehart reduces his analysis to only one aspect of a huge wave of systematic transformation.

In response to Inglehart, Flanagan argues that `materialistpostmaterialist` value change dimension should be complemented by the `authoritarianlibertarian` one symbolized by the ‘new left’ and ‘new right’. In his view, the nonmaterialist (‘new politics’) issue agenda includes liberalizing abortion, women`s lib, gay rights and other new morality issues. On the other side, the authoritarians endorse the New Right agenda which includes rightto-life, antiwomen liberation, creationism, antipornography and support for traditional religious views. Inglehart himself opposed this view arguing that the rise of neoconservatism is consequent to the value change and cultural liberalization. Thus neoconservatism, in his opinion, represents a reaction of materialists to the value change and cultural liberalization that obscures traditional boundaries of sociopolitical division.

Some scholars are criticizing Inglehart for the fact that he disregards some alternative explanations of the postmaterialist shift occurred in advanced industrial societies. For instance, Inglehart finds that the more highly educated one is the more likely he is to be a postmaterialist. The author maintains that an opportunity to get a good education depends on whether one’s parents were well to do and whether they could create the conditions for the ‘formative security’ of their children. Alternative explanations for these clusters of attitudes are not addressed, which means that the author limits his analysis to a narrow set of cases which may not apply in various national contexts.

Flanagan and others argue that there are many factors exerting an impact upon societal value orientations and that Inglehart’s exclusive focus upon postmaterialist values tends to obscure other factors. Flanagan suggests that among the most important factors exerting significant influence over the value change are educational attainment, socioeconomic class, and crossnational cultural differences. In this respect, the postmaterial and libertarian dimensions appear to overlap and diverge on some important issues.

Addressing the problem of economic scarcity versus formative security, Handelman asserts that the latter might not be as overwhelming in Europe in 1970-1980s as it was suggested by Inglehart. Given the fact that some countries faced numerous problems associated with the need to revitalize their economies during the post-War era, the majority was very much concerned with the stagflation and economic growth, rather than with ecology and disarmament. The hypothesis of economic scarcity tends to obscure national variations and an important issue of human agency that is related to the human capacity for independent action and resistance contrary to the demands of social convention. Given the fact that most of individual biographies are inconsistent, indeterminate and controversial, one can hardly predict which goals would become a priority for particular people during their lifetime.


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Strengths and Weaknesses of the Value Change Thesis. About "Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society" by Ronald Inglehart
University of Toronto
Comparative Politics of Industrial Society
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strengths, weaknesses, value, change, thesis, about, culture, shift, advanced, industrial, society, ronald, inglehart
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Svetlana Inkina (Author), 2008, Strengths and Weaknesses of the Value Change Thesis. About "Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society" by Ronald Inglehart, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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