In sociology, post-materialism is the transformation of individual values from materialist, physical, and economic to new individual values of autonomy and self-expression. The term was popularised by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in his 1977 book The Silent Revolution, in which he discovered that the formative affluence experienced by the post-war generations was leading some of them to take their material security for granted and instead place greater importance on non-material goals such as self-expression, autonomy, freedom of speech, gender equality and environmentalism. Inglehart argued that with increasing prosperity, such post-material values would gradually increase in the publics of advanced industrial societies through the process of intergenerational replacement. Post-materialism is a tool in developing an understanding of modern culture. It can be considered in reference of three distinct concepts of materialism. The first kind of materialism, and the one in reference to which the word post-materialism is used most often, refers to materialism as a value-system relating to the desire for fulfillment of material needs (such as security, sustenance and shelter) and an emphasis on material luxuries in a consumerist society. A second referent is the materialist conception of history held by many socialists, most notably Marx and Engels, as well as their philosophic concept of dialectical materialism. The third definition of materialism concerns the philosophical argument that matter is the only existing reality. The first concept is sociological, the second is both philosophical and sociological, and the third is philosophical. Depending on which of the three above notions of materialism are being discussed, post-materialism can be an ontological postmaterialism, an existentialistic postmaterialism, an ethical postmaterialism, or a political-sociological postmaterialism, which is also the best known.
The sociological theory of post-materialism was developed in the 1970s by Ronald Inglehart. After extensive survey research, Inglehart postulated that the Western societies under the scope of his survey were undergoing transformation of individual values, switching from materialist values, emphasizing economic and physical security, to a new set of post-materialist values, which instead emphasized autonomy and self-expression. Inglehart argued that rising prosperity was gradually liberating the publics of advanced industrial societies from the stress of basic acquisitive or materialistic needs.
Observing that the younger people were much more likely to embrace post-materialist values, Inglehart speculated that this silent revolution was not merely a case of a life-cycle change, with people becoming more materialist as they aged, but a genuine example of Generational Replacement causing intergenerational value change.
The theory of intergenerational change is based on two key hypotheses:
Inglehart assumed that individuals pursue various goals in something akin to a hierarchical order. While people may universally aspire to freedom and autonomy, the most pressing material needs like hunger, thirst and physical security have to be satisfied first, since they are immediately linked with survival. According to Inglehart's interpretation of Maslow's hierarchy of human goals, while scarcity prevails, these materialistic goals will have priority over post-materialist goals like belonging, esteem, and aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction. However, once the satisfaction of the survival needs can be taken for granted, the focus will gradually shift to these 'non-material' goods.
The relationship between material conditions and value priorities is not one of immediate adjustment. A large body of evidence indicates that people's basic values are largely fixed when they reach adulthood, and change relatively little thereafter. Therefore, cohorts which often experienced economic scarcity would ceteris paribus (all things being equal) place a high value on meeting economic needs (such as valuing economic growth above protecting the environment) and on safety needs (will support more authoritarian styles of leadership, will exhibit strong feelings of national pride, will be strongly in favor of maintaining a large, strong army and will be more willing to sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of law and order). On the other hand, cohorts who have experienced sustained high material affluence start to give high priority to values such as individual improvement, personal freedom, citizen input in government decisions, the ideal of a society based on humanism, and maintaining a clean and healthy environment.
Together, these two hypotheses carry the implication that, given long periods of material affluence, a growing part of society will embrace post-materialist value systems, an implication which has been indeed borne out internationally in the past 30 years of survey data. The post-material orientations acquired by each cohort during socialisation have been observed to remain remarkably steady over the time-frame of multiple decades, being a more stable value-system in contrast to the more volatile political and social attitudes.
There are several ways of empirically measuring the spread of post-materialism in a society. A common and relatively simple way is by creating an index from survey respondents' patterns of responses to a series of items which were designed to measure personal political priorities.
If you had to choose among the following things, which are the two that seem the most desirable to you?
... On the basis of the choices made among these four items, it is possible to classify our respondents into value priority groups, ranging from a 'pure' acquisitive type to a 'pure' post-bourgeois type, with several intermediate categories.
- Maintaining order in the nation.
- Giving people more say in important political decisions.
- Fighting rising prices.
- Protecting freedom of speech.
The theoretical assumptions and the empirical research connected with the concept of post-materialism have received considerable attention and critical discussion in the human sciences. Amongst others, the validity, the stability, and the causation of post-materialism has been doubted.
The so-called "Inglehart-index" has been included in several surveys (e.g., General Social Survey, World Values Survey, Eurobarometer, ALLBUS, Turning Points of the Life-Course). The time series in ALLBUS (German General Social Survey) is particularly comprehensive. From 1980 to 1990 the share of "pure post-materialists" increased from 13 to 31 percent in West Germany. After the economic and social stress caused by German reunification in 1990 it dropped to 23 percent in 1992 and stayed on that level afterwards (Terwey 2000: 155; ZA and ZUMA 2005). The ALLBUS sample from the less affluent population in East Germany show much lower portions of post-materialists (1991: 15%, 1992: 10%, 1998: 12%). International data from the 2000 World Values Survey show the highest percentage of post-materialists in Australia (35%) followed by Austria (30%), Canada (29%), Italy (28%), Argentina (25%), United States (25%), Sweden (22%), Netherlands (22%), Puerto Rico (22%) etc. (Inglehart et al. 2004: 384). In spite of some questions raised by these and other data, measurements of post-materialism have prima facie proven to be statistically important variables in many analyses.
As increasing post-materialism is based on the abundance of material possessions or resources, it should not be mixed indiscriminately with asceticism or general denial of consumption. In some way post-materialism may be described as super-materialism. German data show that there is a tendency towards this orientation among young people, in the economically rather secure public service, and in the managerial middle class (Pappi and Terwey 1982).
Recently, the issue of a "second generation of postmateralism" appearing on the scene of worldwide civil society, to a large extent conceived as their "positive ideological embodiment", has been brought up by cultural scientist Roland Benedikter in his seven-volume book series Postmaterialismus (2001–2005).