Environics Social Values Research

An Overview

Section 1

The Theoretical Foundations of Social Values Research

The Environics social values measurement system seeks to understand the structure of social values in a society and monitor changes in those values over time. The roots of the method go back more than a century and a half to a curious young Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville. De Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s in order to examine, first-hand, the social and political life of the world’s “first new nation.” His Democracy in America is to social values research what Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is to the understanding of economics. Later in the nineteenth century, economist Thorstein Veblen took another giant step forward in the description and understanding of changes to human social values with his Theory of the Leisure Class.

A generation ago, academic social scientists such as Maslow, Riesman, Bell, Rokeach, and Thurstone began to describe and measure social values, and to explore their dynamics and manifestations in contemporary societies. They also identified a hierarchy of social values. For example, Maslow saw a structure and evolution of values from those associated with physical survival at the base level of human needs to those associated with self-actualization at the highest intellectual and moral levels of motivation. Individuals, and even whole societies, could be roughly characterized according to this values hierarchy depending on the beliefs and concerns they displayed most strongly.

In everyday parlance, the term “values” has come to take on a rich panoply of meanings and connotations. Take, for instance, the ubiquitous “family values,” whose precise nature is often assumed without articulation. However, in the 1960s psychologist Milton Rokeach first theorized about and defined social values in more precise and scientific terms as having the following properties:

  • They are beliefs;
  • They are conceptions of, preferences for, and prescriptions about de-sirable modes of conduct or established orientations toward living and existence (in other words, the means of living);
  • They are conceptions of, preferences for, and prescriptions about de-sirable end-states of existence and social ideals (in other words, the ends of living).

Examples of the first type of beliefs, the means of living, include such values as honesty, hard work, or even “playing the system.” Examples of the second type, the ends of living, include such values as status, health, peace, enlightenment, and power and influence.

Such formative and fundamental beliefs about the desirable means and ends of human conduct and existence are thought to be largely moulded in adolescence and early adulthood experience. Social values are informed by a person’s prevalent perceptions and learning provided both in the family and in his or her close kinship group, and by exposure to the predominant socio-historical environment and influences of the times into which he or she is born, is being raised, and comes of age (by which we mean “reaches sentient awareness of the world”). Once massively defined by institutions such as the church and state, values have never been as idealistic or ideological as they were cast in Rokeach’s view, but rather can also serve, quite pragmatically, as a person’s or society’s adaptation to, and justification of, current personal or cultural practices. Those practices—from interpersonal honesty to Machiavellianism, and from social assistance to genocide—are more often than not framed, or even “spun,” in terms of the higher-order values they serve.

In terms of today’s social scientific jargon, at Environics we consider values also to be evidence of “motivated cognition.” These are beliefs that both determine and reflect our responses to the world as we struggle to meet such basic psychological and sociological needs as biological survival, connection with our close kinship groups, and our species’ predilection toward organizing socially in hierarchical and status-defined groups. So, beyond their definition as desirable or prescribed means and ends of living, the term “values” has come to capture the deeper motivations behind human behaviour, tendencies of thought and feelings—unconscious as well as conscious—and the intra- and interpersonal dynamics related to them.

As we peel the onion of human motivation, we see that a host of different aspects of people’s worldviews are well captured by an assessment of their “values,” so defined. These aspects include assumptions, perceptions, and habits of thought; attitudes, judgments, and opinions; and intentions, tendencies, and actions. Values stand in, then, as a good description for a multitude of mental, emotional, and motivational postures with which we conduct our transactions with others and ourselves. What our research really attempts, then, is a rather broadband analysis of the worldviews of individuals and of collectives, big and small.

Section 2

The Evolution of Social Values

For most of history, the pace of change for us humans culturally and technologically, and certainly spiritually, can only be described as glacial. A paradigm shift in worldviews happened rarely (think agriculture, iron, Christ, Galileo, Gutenberg, etc.), and its effects played out over generations of adaptation to the new invention of things or ideas. Not so in today’s rapid world of invention and cultural convergence, where knowledge is discovered so rapidly that it can double within half a single generation. Now, the main mechanism for values change at a societal level is generational replacement. Youth are a constant source of new ideas and beliefs that infuse the culture and become predominant as the values of older generations die with their cohort.

Although they are shaped by the world one experiences in one’s youth, values are not unchanging things set immutably in stone. Rather, they evolve through one’s lifetime, albeit usually slowly. At the psychological level, they change somewhat as a function of a person’s life stage, life challenges, and experience. Which parents among us can deny an uncharacteristic but extreme authoritarian impulse or two when confronting a raging child? Moreover, values can change somewhat in response to major socio-historical events as they occur throughout people’s life spans, for example in reaction to the spread of a technology like the PC or a disease like AIDS, or as the result of insecurity born of a deep recession, the trauma of face-to-face combat in war, or the chilling aftermath of an act of terror.

With the development of democracy and pluralism, and the corresponding decline in unbending institutional regulation of people’s worldviews in many parts of the world, the character of values has changed from one of imposed stability and homogeneity within a culture and across time to one of flux and variability. And with the accelerated pace of change in most aspects of our world, this trend has been further enhanced in our own time.

Section 3

Social Values Methodology

The social values assessment methodology we employ, which was first developed in the 1960s by Alain de Vulpian and our French colleagues at his company Cofremca in Paris, was invented in response to a wish to understand the evolution and meaning of the spontaneous rejection of traditional values and institutions evident among many young people in French society at that time. Like their North American colleagues in this enterprise, such as Daniel Yankelovich, the French social scientists took their initial understanding of the societal structuring and evolution of social values from extensive qualitative research, primarily in-depth, one-on-one interviews. This research revealed new attitudes toward order, religious and secular authority, success, social status, the role of the sexes, and the place of youth in society, as well as a growing orientation of individuals toward personal autonomy, informality, and immediate gratification.

In the early 1970s, the knowledge gained from this qualitative research was used to create questions and scales designed to measure the diffusion of these new values within the French culture. This was accomplished through annual quantitative surveys of representative samples of the population. Thus was born the study of “socio-cultural currents”—the evolution of social values in a culture—and the resulting “Système Cofremca de Suivi des Courants Socio-Culturels” (“3SC”). The system was subsequently extended beyond France into more than twenty countries in Europe and the Americas. On this side of the Atlantic, the polling firm CROP, based in Quebec, imported 3SC to Canada in 1983, and with the help of Environics Research Group and Kaagan Research Associates, into the United States in the 1990s.

Section 4

A Technical Look at the Social Values Map

Each new social values map we create for a culture requires about ten steps of detailed methodology leading up to a “trackable” quantitative analysis. While we will neither go into the reasons why all these steps are necessary, nor how they are conducted statistically with the specific software algorithms employed, we will describe the most important facets in detail here.

The goal of the first quantitative study in a new country is to understand the major structural relations among the values in evidence there. As more data come in, we begin to explore the currents and trajectories of values evolution in that society. Here are the necessary steps in the workup of a full-bodied socio-cultural profile of a society.

Values Consultation and Sensing

The key to the development of a socio-cultural analysis for any country is the first step, value sensing, for this is where we discover what is existing and prevalent, as well as in later researches what is new, in a society. Through the qualitative research we routinely conduct in a given culture for a wide array of clients, we constantly seek to extract and abstract what is novel and potentially important in socio-cultural values terms in relation to that which has come before. We ask what is bubbling up from the many generative groups in the culture, from youth and new immigrant groups to emerging political or religious movements. We try to sniff out what is developing in terms of political counterculture, new ideologies, technology uptake and resistance, new social forms in the family, changing attitudes toward work, trends in popular culture and entertainment, evolving patterns of consumption, emerging preferences for travel and leisure, new aesthetic and design sensibilities, evolving food and drink preferences, and so forth.

In addition to our ongoing research, we conduct special studies just for this purpose of values sensing, by finding the opinion leaders, local experts, and market mavens at the sharp edge of the values change wedge in these various topical areas, and then interviewing them in depth. As part of this values trend identification methodology, we do detailed interviews, web-based research, anthropological studies called everyday life researches (EDLs), and countless focus groups with both average and exceptional people. And importantly, we also interview local cultural experts, commentators, and interpreters and lean on our international colleagues, who also conduct this type of research worldwide, for their experiences and insights. When our preparation is complete, we sift through the trends collaboratively as a research team, through the benefits and biases of our training individually as sociologists and semioticians, psychologists and market researchers, prognosticators and communicators.

In doing this work, this “search for the new,” we look for what is likely to be enduring rather than faddish in cultural evolution; current fashion and hot-this-season children’s toys, for example, are not something that are best viewed as constituting what we take to be values. Plus, we look for things that are likely to have multiple manifestations in people’s lives. In recent years, for example the perceived invasiveness of employers, governments, and e-commerce marketers has led to a concern for privacy that is likely to have diverse manifestations as people assert their rights to privacy across a wider spectrum of their lives. We might hypothesize about whether privacy will become more precious—or completely meaningless—as technology enhances our ability to connect with (and keep watch over) one another. Only time and empirical data will tell if, or under what conditions, people will accept or reject mandatory drug testing, workplace video monitoring, or e-commerce “leave behinds.” To find out which way the cookie crumbles, indeed if it does at all, we need a quantitative survey to assess our hunches, heuristics, and hypotheses about the supposed multiple manifestations of each value.

Questionnaires and Data Collection

To fully understand the Environics socio-cultural system, one must understand how we create operational measures of each value identified in the qualitative phase and then analyze these together in “multivariate” (multiple variable) space. Again, we draw on both the work of other social scientists and our own empirical research to understand how best to assess each value and to explore the meaning of these values working in concert in each culture.

The first quantitative stage in the analysis is a familiar one in survey research: to develop and administer a high-quality survey to a representative sampling of the society’s population so that valid inferences can be drawn, robust data patterns can be replicated, and confident generalizations can be made about various subgroups in the population. The goal is to translate the subtle and not-so-subtle values and mental postures we have sensed in the first step into a set of empirical measures that are valid and reliable, replicable, and defensible. This is where science and art really begin to co-mingle in our work, and where if we are any good at what we do, the solid scientific methodology underlying our values measurement system will be artfully conceived, crafted, and carried off.

Values Construction

This represents the heart of the analysis, and it is here that we both validate our hypothesized social values and discover new values that emerge from the data, using a multivariate statistical technique called principle components analysis (PCA), combined with Cronbach alpha reliability analysis. At the end of this step, we hope to have articulated a set of social values that adequately describes the culture under investigation, and from which meaningful and interesting insights can be drawn. In Canada, we typically assess and track eighty-seven such values, from those with grand and enduring sociological stature, such as the Need for Status Recognition, Rejection of Authority, and Ethnic Intolerance, to those that describe the subtleties of everyday life, such as the trends we call Concern for Appearance, Effort for Health, and Personal Creativity. Through such disparate content, we are better able to capture people’s mental, emotional, spiritual, and behavioural expectations and response tendencies, and thus discern the phenomena of their everyday lives.

Each value comprises the measurement and combination of several survey items in its construction. For example, the value Social Learning is defined in part as “attraction to and interest in diversity” and the sense that “diversity is perceived as a source of personal enrichment.” This idea is measured by having respondents agree or disagree on a four-point scale with several items in the survey, such as the item “If you want to learn and grow in life, it is essential to meet and converse with different kinds of people, who come from all kinds of backgrounds.” Another item that constitutes the value Social Learning is “I learn a great deal from meeting people who are different from me.” The items are combined mathematically to create this value measure, scores are assigned to each respondent on this and all other values, and those respondents scoring highest (or sometimes lowest) on a value are classified as strong (or weak) on the value.

Perceptual Mapping

We again use principal components analysis (PCA), or sometimes factor analysis of correspondence (FAC), to explore the associations between individuals’ standing on their many social values. From this analysis emerges a “map-space solution,” a set of axes or dimensions that more generally underlie, differentiate, and explain the collection of values we have assessed among our respondents. Many such solutions are possible and considered. The axes chosen should allow us to interpret the values together on one common “map,” to explore their positions relative to other values, and to track change over time in a compelling way. The axes are named to capture the main themes of the values and mental postures that define them. While there are typically three to seven axes that best describe the inter-relations among the eighty-five-plus values we have assessed in our respondents, we often depict the data in only the two most explanatory and interesting dimensions when explicating and communicating our findings. (This is why our “maps” almost always look like flat rectangles with four quadrants, instead of three-dimensional galaxies with values instead of stars.)

It is important to remember that our map is about the people who are plotted there. Individuals are assigned a set of axis coordinates on the various dimensions, and we use these to plot each individual, or the average positions of subgroups of respondents, or indeed the entire population average of a culture, or of that culture at a specific point in time. The axes are chosen, in part, if the anchorings provided by plotting major demographic subgroups make fundamental sense across the values space. For example, older age groups are generally associated with greater conformity, and higher education is often associated with autonomy, so we use these basic markers as tests for whether the map makes sense. But these are not our only criteria for selecting the axes.

It’s worth keeping in mind that any type of group, demographic or not, can be defined and plotted on the map, as for example

  • Teenagers;
  • Working women;
  • High household income earners;
  • Midwesterners;
  • Generational cohorts, such as Baby Boomers;
  • Supporters of a political party or position;
  • Early adopters of a technology;
  • Heavy Brand X users;
  • “Somewhat satisfied” customers;
  • Dog owners;
  • Particularly strong believers in the value of Ethical Consumerism.

The last example is of particular interest. In order to create the map that positions the eighty-seven social values in the map space, we adopt the following convention. We place the name of each value we assess at the point on the map where its strongest proponents reside. We define “strongest proponents” as approximately the top one-fifth of people who report that they agree with the value (as assessed by all its items combined). In other words, the label “Ethical Consumerism” is positioned on the map by proxy, at the average axes position points of those 20 percent of individuals strongest in their orientation toward this value, which we measure by asking how much they monitor their consumption and buy from companies with good track records in environmental and employee practices.

Each of the groups listed above can also be profiled in detail in terms of all their values to see what their particularly strong and weak value orientations are among the eighty-seven we assess. It’s usually the case that a complex array of value standings characterizes any one group, such as the highly educated, but in total they must combine to give the average position for the group we show on our two major values axes. In our proprietary work, we compute a set of scores for all the values that indexes how much stronger or weaker a chosen group is compared to the national average (or any other particular comparison group of interest). The resulting “gestalt” of correlated value orientations for that group provides a rich portrait that can be used for understanding and communicating with them.

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