Cultural Values: Definition, Examples & Importance

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Juli Yelnick

Juli has traveled the world engaging in cultural immersion experiences that bring her Master of Liberal Studies findings to light.

Think about your favorite family or religious celebration. Chances are that your traditions are directly connected to the cultural values that your community has been passing down for generations.

We also recommend watching Feminism Types and Definitions: Liberal, Socialist, Culture & Radical and What Is Culture? - Material and Nonmaterial Culture

What are Cultural Values?

A hungry Hindu man will let himself starve rather than slaughtering and eating a cow, despite the fact that there are old cows roaming all over his village, blocking the streets for cars to pass. To the average adult American man, who eats over 50 pounds of beef each year, this seems illogical. If you have been hungry for months, then you should eat the cow! There are old cows roaming all over India, no one else owns the cows, and you know how to slaughter a cow! What's stopping the Hindu man from killing the cow?

Sacred Cows Blocking Traffic
Sacred Cow in India

The answer to that question is simple, if you understand his cultural values. The Hindus, who make up over 80% of India's population, believe that cows are sacred and should not be slaughtered. From the outside, a group's cultural values are often difficult to understand. For members inside the group, cultural values are the core principles and ideals upon which the entire community exists.

Relating Values, Customs, and Culture

While the terms 'culture,' 'values,' and 'customs' are often used interchangeably, each is actually a distinct piece of the bigger picture. A custom is a ritual or other tradition that is an outward sign of the group's cultural values. The group's values aren't always obvious right away--they run deep! Cultural values can be pieced together by observing the various customs that the people have passed down for generations.

Culture is defined as all of a group's guiding values and outward signs and symbols taken together as one big whole. In our example, the cultural value that the Hindu man believes is to respect your ancestors and your gods. One of the customs that acts as an outward sign of this value is to allow cows to have a natural death, rather than slaughtering them. This custom, taken with all of the other customs that his community practices, represents a larger picture of Hindu culture.

Do Cultural Values Change?

Culture does adapt and evolve along with the group members' needs, wants, and opportunities. Change can be the result of the group moving to a new geographic location, or simply be due to the passage of time. Technological advances have commonly been the driving forces behind changes in daily practices, shifting the framework inside which humans operate.

Historically, many cultural values changed in response to the Agricultural Revolution (when human groups became sedentary farmers), and the Industrial Revolution (when we moved from the farm to the city).

See Your Own Cultural Values at Work

More recently, the Technological Revolution (also called the Age of Information) has been changing daily rituals; over time, this changes the underlying cultural values. Think about the average American office culture. As recently as ten years ago, employees observed a cultural value of respecting the boss' superior rank by following a custom of scheduling a meeting in advance whenever they needed to discuss business with him or her. This often involved a call to the boss' secretary and a week-long wait, but it was worth it. People tend to follow their cultural values without question.

Today, the average American office culture may have shifted away from this custom. Instead, we see employees sending the boss an instant message on the computer or a text message on the cell phone. The custom of calling the boss' secretary and scheduling a meeting is falling by the wayside. Customs change in response to new technology and people's demands, but the underlying values take longer to adapt. Though the outward sign has changed, the cultural value of respecting the boss' rank hasn't really changed. People might adapt new customs, such as only texting the boss during business hours, to demonstrate their adherence to the long-term value.

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