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3.1: The American Value System

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    • Analyze the basic values that form the foundation of American culture.
    • Describe and explain new values that have developed in the United States since the 1970’s.

    Universal Generalizations

    • A nation’s history, political and economic systems contribute to the nation’s value system.
    • A society’s values change over time and new values emerge.

    Guiding Questions

    • What are the basic values that form the foundation of American culture?
    • What new values have developed in the U.S. since the 1970’s?
    • How does a country’s history play a role in the values it develops?
    • Why might a country’s values change over time?

    Core American Values

    The United States, a pluralistic society, is made up of many different groups. They represent different political and social ideologies, religions and racial-ethnic groups, as well as countless thousands of interest groups that center around such divergent activities as collecting Barbie dolls and hunting quail.

    But we do share core values (macro-level non-material culture). These values are generally assumed to be “the American way” and are taught to school children as morality and signs of good character. We are all socialized to believe in them through media presentations, political speeches, and in the workplace. Sociologist Robin Williams (no, not him) first identified these values in 1965.

    1. Individualism (“Consistent Persistence”) Americans have traditionally prized success that comes from individual effort and initiative. They cherish the ideal that an individual can rise from the bottom of society to its very top. If someone fails to “get ahead,” Americans generally find fault with that individual, rather than with the social system for placing roadblocks in his or her path.
    2. Achievement and Success (“Success Emphasis”) Americans place a high value on personal achievement, especially outdoing others. This value includes getting ahead at work and school, and attaining wealth, power, and prestige.
    3. Activity and Work (“Work for Work’s Sake”) Americans expect people to work hard and to be busily engaged in some activity even when not at work.
    4. Efficiency and Practicality Americans award high marks for getting things done efficiently. Even in everyday life, Americans consider it important to do things fast, and they constantly seek ways to increase efficiency.
    5. Science and Technology Americans have a passion for applied science, for using science to control nature – to tame rivers and harness wind – and to develop new technology, from motorized scooters to talking computers.
    6. Progress Americans expect rapid technological change. They believe that they should constantly build “more and better” gadgets that will help them move toward that vague goal called “progress.”
    7. Material Comfort Americans expect a high level of material comfort. This comfort includes not only good nutrition, medical care, and housing, but also late-model cars and recreational playthings – from boats o computer games.
    8. Humanitarianism Americans emphasize helpfulness, personal kindness, aid in mass disasters, and organized philanthropy.
    9. Freedom This core value pervades U.S. life. It underscored the American Revolution, and Americans pride themselves on their personal freedom.
    10. Democracy By this term, Americans refer to majority rule, to the right of everyone to express an opinion, and to representative government.
    11. Equality It is impossible to understand Americans without being aware of the central role that the value of equality plays in their lives. Equality of opportunity has significantly influenced U.S. history and continues to mark relations between groups that make up U.S. society.
    12. Racism and Group Superiority Although it contradicts freedom, democracy, and equality, Americans value some groups more than others and have done so throughout their history. The slaughter of Native Americans and the enslaving of Africans are the most notorious examples.

    In 1975, Sociologist James Henslin updated Williams’ analysis be adding three values.

    1. Education Americans are expected to go as far in school as their abilities and finances allow. Over the years, the definition of an “adequate” education has changed, and today a college education is considered an appropriate goal for most Americans. Those who have an opportunity for higher education and do not take it are sometimes viewed as doing something “wrong” – not merely as making a bad choice, but as somehow being involved in an immoral act.
    2. Religiosity There is a feeling that “every true American ought to be religious.” This does not mean that everyone is expected to join a church, synagogue, or mosque, but that everyone ought to acknowledge a belief in a Supreme Being and follow some set of matching precepts. This value is so pervasive that Americans stamp “In God We Trust” on their money and declare in their national pledge of allegiance that they are “one nation under God.”
    3. Romantic Love Americans feel that the only proper basis for marriage is romantic love. Songs, literature, mass media, and “folk beliefs” all stress this value. They especially love the theme that “love conquers all.”

    13 Commonly Held American Values

    By L. Robert Kohls

    1. Personal control over the environment - Americans do not generally believe in the power of fate; they see this as superstitious and reflective of an unwillingness to take initiative. Life’s problems tend to be viewed as coming from one’s laziness or unwillingness to take responsibility, rather than from bad luck.
    2. Change - Americans tend to see change as good, leading to development, improvement, and progress. More traditional cultures see change as destructive; they value stability and tradition.
    3. Time - Time is of utmost importance to Americans. Time is something to be on, kept, filled, saved, lost, wasted, and even killed. Americans tend to be more concerned with getting things done on time than they are with interpersonal relationships. Americans stop discussions abruptly in order to make appointments on time and to be productive.
    4. Equality and fairness - Equality is so valued in American culture that it is seen as having a religious basis. At least in theory, Americans believe that all people are created equal and that everyone should have equal opportunities.
    5. Individualism and interdependence - Americans tend to view themselves as highly individualistic and resist being thought of as part of any homogenous group. Individualism leads to privacy, which most Americans highly value. It is interesting to note that the word for “privacy” does not even exist in many non- Western languages.
    6. Self-help and initiative - Americans tend to take credit for accomplishments as individuals, and they tend to value the “self-made” man or woman.
    7. Competition - Americans tend to believe that competition brings out the best in people, and “free enterprise” is valued in many areas of life.
    8. Future orientation - Americans tend to value the future, devalue the past, and to an extent, are unaware of the present. Many Americans work so hard and think so much about their future that a perfectly happy present often goes unnoticed.
    9. Action/work orientation - Americans tend to see any action as superior to inaction. Americans tend to schedule an active life and schedule in time for relaxation. Often the first question people ask each other when meeting is, “What do you do?” meaning what is their profession.
    10. Informality - Americans are more informal than many other cultures. For example, many Americans call their bosses by their first names, dress is more casual attire, even at formal events, and even greetings are casual (e.g., “Hi” rather than, “Hello, how are you?”).
    11. Directness, openness, and honesty - Americans tend to prefer the direct approach to delivering information, no matter how unpleasant. Americans tend to see honesty as most important, and anyone who uses an intermediary to deliver unpleasant information is seen as manipulative and untrustworthy.
    12. Practicality and efficiency - The reputation of Americans is practical and efficient. They tend to value rational and objective decisions over emotional and subjective ones, and the pragmatic approach is the overwhelming philosophy.
    13. Materialism and acquisitiveness - Foreigners tend to consider Americans to be very materialistic. Americans tend to give high priority to obtaining, maintaining, and protecting material objects, and they value newness and innovation.

    Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members. The values of a society can often be identified by noting that which people receive, honor or respect.

    Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms. Norms are rules for behavior in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as either good or evil. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it reflects the value of patriotism. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral; in certain cultures, they reflect the values of respect and support for friends and family.

    Different cultures reflect different values. American culture includes both conservative and liberal elements, such as scientific and religious competitiveness, political structures, risk taking and free expression, materialist and moral elements. Aside from certain consistent ideological principles (e.g. individualism, egalitarianism and faith in freedom and democracy), American culture's geographical scale and demographic diversity has spawned a variety of expressions. The flexibility of U.S. culture and its highly symbolic nature lead some researchers to categorize American culture as a mythic identity, while others recognize it as American exceptionalism.

    The Statue of Liberty

    The Statue of Liberty symbolizes freedom, a fundamental American value.

    Typical American values include achievement, success, equality, individualism, activity, work, education, efficiency, practicality, religiosity, progress, romance, monogamy, science and technology, equal opportunity, materialism, nationalism and patriotism, humanitarianism, external conformity, freedom, democracy and free enterprise. These values are embraced by most Americans and enshrined in American institutions.

    Declaration of Independence

    Many fundamental American values are derived from the Declaration of Independence

    Since the late 1970's, the terms "traditional values" and"family values" have become synonymous in the U.S., and imply a congruence with mainstream Christianity . However, the term "family values" is arguably a modern politicized subset of traditional values, which is a larger concept, anthropologically speaking. Although It is also not necessarily a political idea, it has become associated with both the particular correlation between Evangelicalism and politics (as embodied by American politicians such as Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle and George W. Bush), as well as the broader Christianity movement (as exemplified by Pat Robertson).

    Edward Kain. Innovative Techniques for Teaching Sociological Concepts. American Sociological Association, Washington, DC, 1993.

    Rushworth Kidder. Shared Values for a Troubled World.

    Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues he considered important for America

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