Values, norms, and beliefs: units of analysis in research on culture

by Sebastian Benthall

Much of the contemporary critical discussion about technology in society and ethical design hinges on the term “values”. Privacy is one such value, according to Mulligan, Koopman, and Doty (2016), drawing on Westin and Post. Contextual Integrity (Nissenbaum, 2009) argues that privacy is a function of norms, and that norms get their legitimacy from, among other sources, societal values. The Data and Society Research Institute lists “values” as one of the cross-cutting themes of its research. Richmond Wong (2017) has been working on eliciting values reflections as a tool in privacy by design. And so on.

As much as ‘values’ get emphasis in this literary corner, I have been unsatisfied with how these literatures represent values as either sociological or philosophical phenomena. How are values distributed in society? Are they stable under different methods of measurement? Do they really have ethical entailments, or are they really just a kind of emotive expression?

For only distantly related reasons, I’ve been looking into the literature on quantitative measurement of culture. I’m doing a bit of a literature review and need your recommendations! But an early hit is Marsden and Swingle’s is a “Conceptualizing and measuring culture in surveys: Values, strategies, and symbols” (1994), which is a straightforward social science methods piece apparently written before either rejections of positivism or Internet-based research became so destructively fashionable.

A useful passage comes early:

To frame our discussion of the content of the culture module, we have drawn on distinctions made in Peterson’s (1979: 137-138) review of cultural research in sociology. Peterson observes that sociological work published in the late 1940s and 1950s treated values – conceptualizations of desirable end-states – and the behavioral norms they specify as the principal explanatory elements of culture. Talcott Parsons (19.51) figured prominently in this school of thought, and more recent survey studies of culture and cultural change in both the United States (Rokeach, 1973) and Europe (Inglehart, 1977) continue the Parsonsian tradition of examining values as a core concept.

This was a surprise! Talcott Parsons is not a name you hear every day in the world of sociology of technology. That’s odd, because as far as I can tell he’s one of these robust and straightforwardly scientific sociologists. The main complaint against him, if I’ve heard any, is that he’s dry. I’ve never heard, despite his being tied to structural functionalism, that his ideas have been substantively empirically refuted (unlike Durkheim, say).

So the mystery is…whatever happened to the legacy of Talcott Parsons? And how is it represented, if at all, in contemporary sociological research today?

One reason why we don’t hear much about Parsons may be because the sociological community moved from measuring “values” to measuring “beliefs”. Marsden and Swingle go on:

Cultural sociologists writing since the late 1970s however, have accented other elements of culture. These include, especially, beliefs and expressive symbols. Peterson’s (1979: 138) usage of “beliefs” refers to “existential statements about how the world operates that often serve to justify value and norms”. As such, they are less to be understood as desirable end-states in and of themselves, but instead as habits or styles of thought that people draw upon, especially in unstructured situations (Swidler, 1986).

Intuitively, this makes sense. When we look at the contemporary seemingly mortal combat of partisan rhetoric and tribalist propaganda, a lot of what we encounter are beliefs and differences in beliefs. As suggested in this text, beliefs justify values and norms, meaning that even values (which you might have thought are the source of all justification) get their meaning from a kind of world-view, rather than being held in a simple way.

That makes a lot of sense. There’s often a lot more commonality in values than in ways those values should be interpreted or applied. Everybody cares about fairness, for example. What people disagree about, often vehemently, is what is fair, and that’s because (I’ll argue here) people have widely varying beliefs about the world and what’s important.

To put it another way, the Humean model where we have beliefs and values separately and then combine the two in an instrumental calculus is wrong, and we’ve known it’s wrong since the 70’s. Instead, we have complexes of normatively thick beliefs that reinforce each other into a worldview. When we we’re asked about our values, we are abstracting in a derivative way from this complex of frames, rather than getting at a more core feature of personality or culture.

A great book on this topic is Hilary Putnam’s The collapse of the fact/value dichotomy (2002), just for example. It would be nice if more of this metaethical theory and sociology of values surfaced in the values in design literature, despite it’s being distinctly off-trend.


Marsden, Peter V., and Joseph F. Swingle. “Conceptualizing and measuring culture in surveys: Values, strategies, and symbols.” Poetics 22.4 (1994): 269-289.

Mulligan, Deirdre K., Colin Koopman, and Nick Doty. “Privacy is an essentially contested concept: a multi-dimensional analytic for mapping privacy.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 374.2083 (2016): 20160118.

Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press, 2009.

Putnam, Hilary. The collapse of the fact/value dichotomy and other essays. Harvard University Press, 2002.

Wong, Richmond Y., et al. “Eliciting Values Reflections by Engaging Privacy Futures Using Design Workbooks.” (2017).