• Peter Chai

The Postmaterialist Trend: Making Sense Of Value Changes Through Data

In the book Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies, Ronald Inglehart (1997) makes use of the World Values Survey (WVS) to explain that with industrialization and economic development, societies have tended to move toward the direction of postmaterialism, as opposed to materialism. Behind the empirical evidence he provides across time periods and countries, his thesis builds on anthropological and psychological explanations. From the perspective of anthropology, human societies have transformed to a direction that emphasizes more “self-expression values” over “survival values”, and with the advancement of science, technology, and productivity, human societies have been able to break out of the Malthusian trap and grasp more control over their own destinies.

For example, before human societies transformed into industrial stages, agriculture, farming, and hunting and gathering were more likely to be impacted by the weather, natural disasters, and diseases such as flu and epidemics so that economic outputs seemed to be restricted to natural constraints. However, when machinery, factories, and standardized manufacturing procedures were invented and developed, labor productivity was raised, and nutrition and economic outputs tended to be more easily maintained and controlled. With the advent of the postindustrial eras, humans’ hands became even freer from economic activities, and more room was left to more diversified and non-materialist activities.

Fig. 1: Stages of Anthropological Development

From the perspective of psychology, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, humans move onto the next levels of needs when their more basic and physiological demands are satisfied. The bottom levels of biological needs include water, food, rest, shelter, sex, safety, and hygiene, and the top levels of emotional needs include self-actualization and self-esteem needs which focus on voicing opinions and ideas, contributing to human interactions and communities, and unlocking one’s own potentials and creativity.

Fig. 2: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

On the other hand, formative experiences and preadult socialization during childhood and adolescence seem to play important roles in deciding what kind of people children would become, especially the familial and educational environments they were born into and had access to. This is based on the observations made by Sigmund Freud, who originated the psychoanalytical approach. Therefore, the concept of postmaterialism, on the social level, is embedded in the anthropological development of economic arrangements, and on the individual level, is pertaining to the psychological orientation of human desires. The stage of economic development and degree of industrialization of the societies where children grew up tend to have strong implications on their values as later adults.

Based on Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris (2019)’s book Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism, citizens with a more postmaterialist mindset tend to be more interested in the discussions regarding some New Left issues such as gender equality, environmentalism and biodiversity, minority rights, and cosmopolitanism over traditional materialist issues such as maintaining social order, control of crime, economic growth, welfare, and inflation. They seem to have a more tolerant and positive perception toward feminists, environmentalists, LGBTQ+ groups, immigrants and asylum-seekers, and some topics related to sexual and reproductive freedoms.

Fig. 3: Some Postmaterialist Issues

Inglehart and Norris explain how such postmaterialist topics have created political and party cleavages reflected in the rise of authoritarian populism and the authoritarian populist leaders’ rhetoric, in other words, the “authoritarian reflex,” leading to the “us” and “them” divide and create new possible spaces for party competition to take place around the dimension of “culture,” “value,” or “national identity.” To sum, postmaterialism seems to be related to the libertarian and pluralist dimensions of party competition, as opposed to the authoritarian and populist dimensions, as shown in the figure below extracted from Chapter 3 of the book. The libertarian left and the populist right have recently been playing increasingly important roles in some advanced industrial societies as represented by the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the election of Donald Trump in 2017.

Fig. 4: Dimensions of Party Competition (Inglehart and Norris, 2019)

Although postmaterialism is related to topics such as environmentalism and immigration and pertains to some political beliefs, it could also be reflected in daily-life interactions with family members, friends, colleagues, and employers, which are related to day-to-day personal tasks and connections. They could be seen as “first-order” elements that constitute postmaterialist values and could be classified into “libertarian” and “authoritarian” items as polar opposites. Libertarian items focus on freedom of speech, independence, imagination, and having a say in the family, workplace, and government whereas authoritarian items focus on obedience, order, tradition, and status quo.

To be more precise, the authoritarian values surrounding the “authoritarian syndrome” were originally defined by Theodor Adorno and colleagues (1950) in their book Authoritarian Personality as made up of authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission, support for conventional values, mental rigidity and a proclivity to engage in stereotypical thinking, a preoccupation with toughness and power, cynicism about human nature, sexual inhibition, a reluctance to engage in introspection, and a tendency to project undesirable traits onto others. On the other hand, libertarian values held by postmaterialists could be seen as located at the opposite ends to those authoritarian personal traits and take less xenophobic but more pluralistic and inclusive stances.

The economic thesis raised by Inglehart includes two dimensions, one argues that societies that are wealthier and more prosperous are associated with more postmaterialist populations, and the other argues that societies that exhibit faster economic growths are associated with faster replacements of generations in terms of their values. The figure below shows these tendencies in two separate scatterplots extracted from Chapter 5 of the book Modernization and Postmodernization. The societies that were investigated are represented in dots and a strong correlation pattern could be identified despite the existence of some outliers that do not seem to follow a similar pattern predicted by the regression model.

Fig. 5: Inglehart’s Economic Thesis (Inglehart, 1997)

He employs survey research to argue that a general tendency for richer societies to develop higher percentages of postmaterialist values could be observed across the globe, in other words, this tendency is not restricted to any particular region. Furthermore, he argues that similar patterns could also be observed within countries given regional differences in economic situations. He mentions the case of Spain and empirically shows that the provinces in Spain closely follow this economic thesis too, as shown in the figure below extracted from Chapter 5 of the book.

Fig. 6: Inglehart’s Economic Thesis in Spain (Inglehart, 1997)

However, the two scatterplots include primarily societies in the West and leave out a number of societies in Asia. To investigate the development of “emancipative values”, which is operationalized by four components including autonomy, equality, choice, and voice and seem interchangeable with postmaterialist values, in the paper The Myth of Asian Exceptionalism: Response to Bo

mhoff and Gu, Christian Welzel (2012) applies Inglehart’s postmodernization model to Asia. He finds that the different birth cohorts and generations demonstrate a similar pattern as argued by Inglehart and that the country’s knowledge development level and an individual’s education level seem to be strong predictors of emancipative tendencies, as shown in the figures below extracted from the paper.

Fig. 7: Welzel’s Generation Thesis in Asia (Welzel, 2012)

Fig. 8: Welzel’s Education Thesis (Welzel, 2012)

From my perspective, the major contribution of Inglehart to political sociology and comparative politics is that he developed a conceptual framework to test the movement of humans’ values not only across time but also across regions. Through the WVS project he pioneered where similar sets of survey questions are asked repeatedly during various waves and in an increasing number of regions, meaningful longitudinal and cross-sectional analyses are made possible. In the past, while some of the great philosophers and thinkers, namely John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault wrote on how and why people’s values and understandings of the world and themselves had changed, on the adjustments of social institutions from group- and religion-based toward individual- and science-based, and on identity politics and social justice, they were only able to do so descriptively and normatively rather than empirically and scientifically due to the lack of transnational survey databases.

Fig. 9: Some Great Thinkers in History

With the emergence of transnational survey projects and sophisticated statistical techniques, we became able to shed light on the seemingly vague field of values through the representation of numbers and graphs. It was not possible to test the impact of potential value changes that happened through some symbolic historical eras and events in European and global history including the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, Age of Discovery, Age of Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, American War of Independence, French Revolution, the two World Wars, and the Cold War which transformed the international cultural landscape. In conclusion, with the help of survey data, scholars have been able to empirically show how differing childhood socialization environments matter for generational value gaps and how economic conditions lead to a global trend toward postmaterialism as well as examine to what extent the correlation between economy and postmaterialism could also be confirmed in non-Western regions such as East Asia. Contextual and local factors are still relevant in assessing the generalizability and predictability of Inglehart and Welzel’s theories in the future, and the holding-back of postmaterialism in some regions remains to be interpreted.



Adorno, T. W. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. Political Psychology. URL:

Inglehart, R. (1997). Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies. Princeton University Press. URL:

Inglehart, R. and Norris, P. (2019). Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. Cambridge University Press. URL:

Welzel, C. (2012). The Myth of Asian Exceptionalism: Response to Bomhoff and Gu. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. URL:

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