Values are a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society. Values are deeply embedded and critical for transmitting and teaching a culture’s beliefs. Beliefs are the tenets or convictions that people hold to be true. Individuals in a society have specific beliefs, but they also share collective values. To illustrate the difference, some communities of Americans commonly believe in the American Dream, which is the name for the belief that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. That they believe in this idea does not make it true or false. The thing that makes it sociologically important is that many people believe it to be true. Underlying this belief, however, is an American value which holds that the accumulation of wealth and property is good and important.
Values help shape a society by suggesting what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, to be sought or avoided. Consider the value commonly held in the United States that attaches positive attributes to youth and youthful appearance, and negative attributes to age and aged appearance. Shaped by this value -- and by marketing campaigns promoting this value -- Americans spend millions of dollars each year on cosmetic products and surgeries to look young and beautiful. The United States also has an individualistic culture, which means that Americans generally place a high value on individuality and independence. In contrast, many other cultures are collectivist, meaning the welfare of the group and group relationships is a primary value.
Values are not static; they vary across time and between groups as people evaluate, debate, and change collective societal beliefs. Many Americans used to value abstention from alcohol. The value attached to sobriety was once so widespread that for a few years in the 1920s, alcohol was illegal across the country, in the era now known as Prohibition. Now, Americans more commonly value moderation in alcohol use over total abstention; for most communities, alcohol is okay to use in certain amounts and at certain times.
Values also vary from culture to culture. While we just said that most American communities adopted a new value of moderation in alcohol use after the Prohibition era, this is certainly not true of all American communities. Several religious communities, including many Muslims and Mormons, abstain from alcohol completely, while the recovery community of people who have a challenging relationship with alcohol also abstain for reasons of safety. An example of nonmaterial culture, any given individual’s relationship with alcohol carries great symbolic differences across time, place, or community.
Living up to a culture’s values can be difficult. Values often suggest how people should behave, but they don’t accurately reflect how people actually do behave. Values portray an ideal culture, the standards society would like to embrace and live up to. But ideal culture differs from real culture, the way society actually is, based on what occurs and exists. In an ideal culture, there would be no traffic accidents, murders, poverty, or racial tension. But in real culture, activists, lawmakers, educators, and social workers constantly strive to prevent or repair those accidents, crimes, and injustices. Cultural diversity and equal opportunities for all people are valued by many in the United States, yet the country’s highest political offices have been almost exclusively dominated by wealthy white men for the country’s entire history.