Variations and trends in cultural values across 105 countries, 1980 to 2020

I’ve long been interested in the relationship between the stages of development of the individual (whether stages of moral development, psychological development, or consciousness) and the stages of development of human societies and civilizations. With the increasing prominence of fundamentalist religion in some regions of the world, the rise of science denialism and “post-truth” popularist politics, differences in human values are of huge importance and can literally become life and death matters for people. More generally, it seems fairly clear that people’s beliefs play a key role in economic development, the emergence and flourishing of democratic institutions, the rise of gender equality, and the extent to which societies have effective governments.

So I have taken an interest in results from the World Values Survey over the last two decades, and last month learnt that data from its most recent wave was being released in late July. There have now been seven waves of the World Values Survey (WVS), the first in 1980-1982 and the seventh underway since 2017. There have also been five waves of the European Values Study (EVS), which includes many of the same items as the WVS, and whose most recent wave covers the period 2017-2020. With the release of the WVS 7th wave data for 48 countries in July 2020, the WVS plus the EVS now include data for 117 countries or territories and over 638,000 respondents, covering the period 1981-2020.

Data from previous waves of the World Values Survey were used by political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel to identify two major dimensions of cross cultural variation across the world. They refer to these as Traditional values versus Secular-rational values and Survival values versus Emancipative values. Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values in contrast to secular-rational values. Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance. Emancipative values are associated with gender equality, relative acceptance of divorce, abortion, and homosexuality and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life. Inglehart and Welzel used factor analysis to estimate where each country lies on these two dimensions are constructed what they called a “culture map”.

I set out to replicate this analysis with the full WVS+EVS dataset including the latest wave [1-4]. I decided to use a different statistical approach (item response theory) to estimate the two dimensions. I have posted a more technical summary on my professional website to give details of this analysis. In brief, I used structural equation modelling to estimate two latent variables. The survival-emancipative variable was derived from data for three questions of gender equality (jobs, politics, education) and three questions on acceptance of homosexuality, abortion, and divorce. The traditional-secular values variable was derived from data for three questions on sources of authority (nation pride, government, parents) and three questions on religion (importance, belief, practice. The values for countries with data for years 2005 or later were used to extrapolate values for year 2019. The following “culture map” shows the location of 105 countries based in these two variables.

New West and West —  Western Europe and overseas offshoots of Western Europe
Returned West —  Catholic and Protestant parts of post-communist Europe  returning to the EU
Orthodox —  Christian Orthodox or Islamic parts of the post-communist world, mostly parts of former USSR
South Asia —  Parts of South Asia under the historic influence of Indian culture
South East Asia —  Parts of South East Asia excluding those under historic influence of Chinese culture
Sinic East —  Parts of East Asia under the historic influence of Chinese culture
Latin America —  Central and South America and the Caribbean
African-Islamic —  African countries south of the Sahara, together with regions of the Islamic world that have been parts of the Arab/Caliphate, Persian and Ottoman empires.

The general topology of this map is similar to the Inglehart-Welzel map, with Scandinavian countries to the top right, Sinic countries to the top left, and African-Islamic countries to the bottom left. However, there are some considerable differences in the locations of countries relative to each other, and the positions of some individual countries – no doubt reflecting the difference between the method I have used and the factor analysis used by Inglehart and Welzel.

I have also extrapolated time series for these two culture variables across the period 1980-2020 and calculated population-weighted averages for 10 culture zones (as used by Welzel in his recent book Freedom Rising  [5].

The following graph summarizes the net trend in culture values from 1980 to 2020 as straight lines joining these two points. For more details, and full trajectories, see trends-in-cultural-values-1980-to-2020.

Net trends for 10 culture zones from 1980 to 2020.

The 10 culture zones are defined as follows:

Reformed West — Western European societies strongly affected by the Reformation;
New West — English-speaking countries (UK, Ireland and former overseas colonies);
Old West — Mostly Catholic parts of Western Europe being core parts of the
Roman Empire;
Returned West — Catholic and Protestant parts of post-communist Europe returning to the EU;
Orthodox East — Christian Orthodox or Islamic parts of the post-communist world,
mostly parts of former USSR;
Indic East — Parts of South and South East Asia under the historic influence
of Indian culture;
Islamic East — Regions of the Islamic world that have been parts of the Arab/Caliphate, Persian and Ottoman empires;
Sinic East — Parts of East Asia under the historic influence of Chinese culture;
Latin America — Central and South America and the Caribbean;
Sub-Saharan Africa — African countries south of the Sahara.

This graphs shows a very clear contrast between the evolution of cultural values for the West plus Latin America and the other culture zones. The West regions and Latin America have all moved quite strongly towards more emancipative values and also away from traditional values to more secular-rational values. In contrast, while the other regions have also moved somewhat rightward in emancipative values, they have moved downwards away from secular-rational values towards to more traditional values. The Islamic East is the major exception with very little change in either dimension.

In his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, Samuel Huntington described a global revival of religion in the second half of the twentieth century, claiming that the trend towards secularization went into reverse in the 1970s in every region of the world [6]. At least to the extent the second latent dimension (or indeed Inglehart and Welzel’s traditional-secular factor) measure the degree of secularization, the trends from 1980 to the present do not fit with his conclusion. He was correct in identifying a return to religion in the former Soviet countries with predominantly Orthodox Christian or Islamic religious tradition. He also pointed to an increasingly Hindu orientation of India, whereas the story from the WVS-EVS data is somewhat more complex with a fairly stable level of religiosity from 1990 to 2000 associated with an increasing level of emancipative values, but from 2000 to 2020 an increasing degree of religiosity associated with a declining level of emancipative values. This correlates broadly with the rise of Hindu extremism and the election of the BJP Party with its Hindu nationalist orientation in 2014.

I am currently looking more closely at questions in the WVS/EVS relating to religious belief and exploring ways to develop a better measure of religiosity, if possible to take into account degree of “fundamentalism” and rejection of science. There are also questions that allow investigating how broadly the respondent identifies with others (tribal/neighbourhood, ethno-religious group, nation, world) and whether they see religion as a way of making sense of life in this world versus making sense of life after death. These latter questions are available in fewer waves of the survey but may enable a more nuanced latent variable to be constructed that identifies stages of religious understanding.


  1. Inglehart, R., C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2014. World Values Survey: All Rounds – Country-Pooled Datafile Version: Madrid: JD Systems Institute.¨
  2. Haerpfer, C., Inglehart, R., Moreno,A., Welzel,C., Kizilova,K., Diez-MedranoJ., M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2020. World Values Survey: Round Seven–Country-Pooled Datafile. Madrid, Spain & Vienna, Austria: JD Systems Institute& WVSA Secretariat[Version:].
  3. Gedeshi, Ilir, Zulehner, Paul M., Rotman, David, Titarenko, Larissa, Billiet, Jaak, Dobbelaere, Karel, Kerkhofs, Jan. (2020). European Values Study Longitudinal Data File 1981-2008 (EVS 1981-2008). GESIS Datenarchiv, Köln. ZA4804 Datenfile Version 3.1.0,
  4. EVS (2020): European Values Study 2017: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2017). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7500 Data file Version 3.0.0,doi:10.4232/1.13511
  5. Welzel C. Freedom Rising. Human Empowerment and the. Quest for Emancipation. 2013. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Samuel Huntington. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. London: Simon and Schuster 1996.