National Value Differences: Modernization or Institutionalization?

By Gundelach, Peter | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, January-April 1994 | Go to article overview

National Value Differences: Modernization or Institutionalization?


Gundelach, Peter, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


1. Determinants of values

STUDIES OF VALUES have been successful in establishing strong explanatory models of the relation between socio-economic data and values at the individual level. At the national level, however, the results have been much less clear. Analyses with countries as the unit often conclude that there are major national differences which cannot be explained. The European Values Surveys Group (EVSG) had conducted surveys in many European countries around 1981 and in almost all European countries in 1990. These data sets offer interesting possibilities for a closer analysis of differences in values on a national level but the general results have been rather confusing. It has not been possible to produce evidence for simple theoretical explanations and there is, for example, no indication that the economic and political ties which bind the EU countries together have resulted in greater similarity among these countries. On the contrary, an analysis of the EVSG data in the EEC countries conclude that "national culture and opinion in Europe remain robustly diverse" (Ashford and Timms, 1992:112).

Much of the research in which countries have been compared has been governed by a more or less explicit use of modernization theory. It is supposed that countries can be ranked as more or less modern and that the modernization process results in lesser emphasis on traditional values and value differentiation. Based on a comparison of the 1981 and 1990 EVSG data Estes, Halman and de Moor (1993) have tried to use modernization theory but have concluded that such a theory could not adequately describe the changes.

This may be due to large cultural differences, but the same disappointing picture appears when relatively culturally identical countries are studied. Comparisons among the Scandinavian countries for instance show that a high level of life satisfaction and weak religiosity is found in all countries (Listhaug, 1990). It is tempting to explain such common values with a similar economic development and a somewhat identical culture, but a closer investigation of Scandinavian values concludes that "there is no uniform pattern of values in the Scandinavian countries.... As far as values are concerned Scandinavia is heterogeneous" (Halman, 1992:21).

This article tackles the problem by a different method. Countries are characterized by different institutional characteristics and these institutional characteristics have impact on the values of the population. Some of the social institutions are relatively similar in several countries (e.g. family or religious structures) and others may be specific to only one nation. This suggests hypotheses that social institutional factors may explain differences in values, i.e., that the value differences can be explained not by nation which is a theoretically weak variable--but by institutions which exist in several nations. Some countries may have several identical institutions while other institutions may be specific to a given country.

The research strategy of this article is to analyze the institutional characteristics of the European countries and show the impact of such characteristics on values. Three types of institutional arrangements have been selected: family, the welfare slate and the nation. In all cases there are institutional structures which have existed for many years, but the character of these institutions do not have a one-to-one relationship to the economic development of the European societies. This gives an opportunity to test two kinds of general assumptions: modernization approach and the social institution approach. The tests are conducted on EVSG 1990 data which are the most comprehensive and recent data set. The first part of the article outlines the two general approaches in order to be able to formulate two alternative hypotheses on values. Based on this the relation between values and modernization on the one hand and institutional arrangements on the other is carried out for the three above-mentioned values.

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