Institutional Structure and Culture in the Transmission of Social Values

In the social sciences values have been considered largely a black box issue, at best subject to large-scale quantitative research (such as the American Values Survey). There have been few attempts to locate the function of values within social structures in social theory, and even fewer to have linked this function to the nature of values. In two earlier articles (posted 2015) I argued, based on phenomenological and semiotic analyses, that values have a dual modality, of interiority as shared experience and exteriority as linguistic marker, and also a dual functionality as symbol and information, these functionalities operative in ‘closed’ and ‘open’ social groupings, respectively, social forms that are largely interpenetrative in liberal societies. I also suggested that these functionalities are both operative in social transmission of values, embedding value discourse in everyday language disseminated through normal communicative channels, which is then ‘activated’ when values assume a more symbolic function in relatively closed contexts, such as political parties, businesses, government bodies, schools and religions.

In this article I want to extent this idea from the philosophy of value to social theory, by way of considering the ideas of a number of social researchers that can be broadly described as transmission theories. Its aim is to lead to a theory of institutional value transmission, in which values, institutional praxis and institutional structure are largely interdefinable. This article will be divided into three parts. In the first part I will look at the contribution to the idea of cultural transmission by a number of researchers and theorists in the field of evolutionary psychology and, in particular, those looking at inter-generational value transmission. In part two I will be considering sociological theories dealing with social transmission or aspects of, with a focus on education as one of the principal ways in which as societies we attempts to transmit values. The third part will be taken up with modelling a plausible mechanism for institutional value transmission, based on empirical research.

Part 1: Cultural and Inter-Generational Value Transmission

Although the concept of transmission is discussed in information theory, it is its biological dimensions that are of interest here. This is because although social theory has developed as an autonomous branch of knowledge, there is a growing understanding that the rationalistic view of social factors as entirely divorced from biologically-rooted motives is incorrect, and issues such as social transmission have to be understood primarily as modelled on and built upon genetics and kinship. Much of the recent research in this area, as a result, has been exploring evolutionary models of transmission and focussing on inter-generational relationships. I have divided the main part of the discussion of transmission into two parts, looking at some ideas about the evolutionary basis of transmission, and then the parameters and conditions of transmission. Parameters are the basic components and structures of transmission; conditions are various other factors associated with transmission, particularly the requirements for transmission to take place successfully. The parameters were laid down fairly early on in the 1980s and there has been little significant development since then. The subsequent research in the field has focused strongly on conditions.

The evolutionary basis of value transmission

As the areas that concern values, such as our own survival, social being, sexuality, culture and creativity, and spirituality are rooted in – though not necessarily defined by – our evolutionary past, it is to expected that any consideration of value transmission must also be rooted in our biology and our psychology. The relatively new fields of evolutionary anthropology and evolutionary psychology attempt to understand human nature and behaviour in a holistic manner underpinned by Darwinian evolutionary theory (Buss, 2015), and one of the main areas they are concerned with is the origins of our moral sense and to what extent this is inherited through our genes and to what extent passed through a separate cultural inheritance.

Beginning in the 1970s a considerable body of work has amassed on the evolutionary basis of cultural transmission. One of the most prominent hypotheses is known as the Dual Inheritance Theory, which claims that human nature and behaviour can best be understood as an amalgamation of genetic inheritance and cultural transmission (McElreath and Henrich, 2007). The main contributors to the field have been Lumsden and Wilson (1981), Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Boyd and Richerson (1985) who all developed mathematical models of how genetic and cultural factors can reinforce each other. I will look at the theory of Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman in some detail as it has features of interest in seeking to understand institutional transmission. Slightly predating these, and far better known, Dawkins (1976) theory of memetic evolution (cultural transmission though ‘memes’, a cultural analogue of genes) is of less interest. Dawkins’ focus is on the logic of the meme as universal replicator, which implies that cultural reproduction is sui generis; there is little in the way of the social context necessary for understanding institutional transmission.

In more recent theories there has been a drift away from the dual inheritance orthodoxy towards a more monistic view that human moral behaviours arise through survival strategies determined in close kinship groups in the earlier stages of our biological and social evolution as a distinct species. One notable contribution to this trend is Haidt’s (2012) Moral Foundations Theory, which proposes that as humans we have visceral responses to a number of deep-seated ‘foundations’ or value-disvalue oppositions, six at present (although the final number is undetermined): care/harm; fairness/cheating; liberty/oppression; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation. These are supposedly invariant across cultures, although some are emphasised more in some cultures than others, and there are individual and group preferences even within cultures.

Although theories like Haidt’s help us to understand the evolutionary foundations of our moral perceptions in groupish behaviour and the social values that have evolved in modern societies, they penetrate little to the core question considered in this article of the actual mechanism by which transmission takes place. That discussion has taken place in the research on cultural transmission and inter-generational value transmission. The rooting of social transmission firmly in evolutionary biology is, to the best of my knowledge, research still to be done.

Parameters and conditions of transmission

Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) developed a theory of cultural transmission based on an epidemiological model of viral diffusion. That model draws on four evolutionary factors (ibid, pp. 65-67) as the driving forces of evolutionary change, the two classical Darwinian notions of variation and selection and the later neo-Darwinian concepts of drift and migration. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman utilise the first two to create a basic typology of cultural change through the reproducibility of cultural knowledge, akin to genetic variation. As in epidemic spread, they identify three transmission routes (ibid, p. 54): vertical, from parent to offspring; horizontal, from peer to peer (non-related individuals of the same generation); and oblique, between non-related or distantly-related individuals of different generations, though Cavalli-Sforza (1993, p.312) later refined this concept of transmission routes adding ‘one to many’, typical of institutional structures such as schools, and ‘many to one’, referred to as ‘social group pressure’.

Schönpflug (2001b, p.132), clearly indebted to Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, but adapting and developing the ideas into the social-psychological arena, identifies four significant parameters of cultural transmission: the carriers of transmission, or transmitters – the people involved in the process of transmission; the contents of transmission, that which is transmitted, which are particularly sensitive to the channel; the mechanism of transmission, which is thought to include two stages – awareness and acceptance (cf. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981, p.62); and developmental windows, which can be genetically-based (e.g. language acquisition) or socially-based (e.g. compulsory schooling).

Within their model Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (ibid, pp.61-62) reckon there are four structural variables, ‘factors in transmission rules’: the relationship of teacher (transmitter) and taught (recipient); the age difference between transmitter and recipient (generation gap); the numerical relationship (ratio) of teacher to taught; and the degree of complexity of the society in which the transmission takes place. Schönpflug (2001a, p.174) considers the conditions, which he terms ‘transmission belts’, which favour cultural transmission taking place in a particular socio-economic and cultural context. They are primarily the age and educational level of the transmitter and receiver (‘personal characteristics’) and the marital relationship of the parents and the parenting style of the parents (‘family interaction variables’). Altogether ten conditions have been identified: degree of acceptance, quality of relationships, developmental windows, personal characteristics, perceptions, biases, common values, generation of values, numerical ratio, and social complexity. There is a degree of overlap, but they will be dealt with separately.

Degree of acceptance:  According to Cavalli-Sforza (1993) vertical transmission is more likely to result in variation in terms of the intergenerational value systems, whereas other routes, particularly the institutional route of ‘one to many’, are more likely to result in homogeneity of values. Barni et al. (2011) argue that there is a moderate degree of willingness among adolescents to accept their parents’ values. Also, after a period in which adolescents’ values diverge from their parents’, as they are asserting their identity, there is a tendency for the two generations’ values to become more similar (ibid).

Quality of relationships: Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) state that the relationship of teacher (transmitter) and taught (recipient) is a key condition of transmission, while Schoenpflug (2001a) specifies the marital relationship of the parents and the parenting style of the parents. More effective cultural transmission takes place when there is a harmonious and constructive relationship between the parents (ibid), and less effective transmission in a dysfunctional relationship. Schönpflug’s research also suggests that empathetic parents are the most effective transmitters (ibid). Euler et al. (2001) add that two important related aspects of cultural transmission between generations are investment in the younger generation and emotional closeness between the generations. Barni et al. (2011) assert that acceptance is assisted when the parents themselves share the same values, and that there is a reciprocal relationship between closeness and acceptance of parental values; that is, this is not a relationship of simple causality, but a bi-directional relationship.

Developmental stage: According to Schönpflug (2001a, p.185) acquisition of values is differentiated according to age of the receiver/acquirer. Early adolescents are more open to collective values, but are less receptive as they reach later adolescence; however, in later adolescence they are more open (and more cognitively developed to receive) individualistic values, those that contribute to a ‘stimulating life’, a point that Barni et al. (2011) confirm.

Personal characteristics: Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, and Schönpflug both assert the importance of personal characteristics; the former emphasise the age difference between transmitter and recipient (generation gap) and the latter adds the educational level of the transmitter and receiver.

Perceptions: In general, the values the parents wish to transmit are perceived by the younger generation to be more conservative, whereas the young are more open to new ideas (Barni et al., 2011).

Biases: Whitbeck and Gecas (1988) recognise that females have a slightly higher acceptance of parents values than males and that the mother-daughter bond in this respect is particularly strong, what they refer to as the ‘female lineage’ of value transmission.

Common values: According to Barni et al. (2011), some values seem to be almost universally shared between the generations, such as benevolence and independence of thought and action.

Generation of values: According to Grusec and Goodnow (1994) acquisition of values takes place through the assertion of moral autonomy; acceptance comes on the basis of self-generation. Barni et al. (2011) contest this view; they prefer the notion of self-other generation: the values we acquire are the result of our free choice, but this choice is not made in a vacuum; we tend to choose the values of those close to us in a familial setting.

The final two points are of particular relevance outside of the immediate family setting, in the broader social and institutional context:

Numerical ratio: The numerical relationship (ratio) of teacher to taught can also be a factor in how effective value transmission can be (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981). It is unclear here what conclusion they might have reached about this. The assumption is that they consider a smaller teacher-pupil ratio to be more effective; however, this might contradict the idea that ‘one to many’ transmission reproduces a more homogeneous set of values, referred to above.

Social complexity: The degree of complexity of the society in which the transmission takes place is considered to be a factor in value transmission(Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981; Whitbeck and Gecas, 1988); there is a recognition that multiple factors are at play in value socialisation, not only the parents, important as that influence is. Hashimzade and Della Giusta (2011) have modelled the relationship between the intergenerational values of immigrant families and the values of their schools, in order to determine the optimal outcomes. They have concluded that in a society of heterogeneous communities, better social outcomes are created when schools focus on inclusivity in order to avoid alienation. Attempts by schools to create homogeneity of values increases alienation and worsens social outcomes. If there is a gradual convergence of values between the immigrant community and the host society, there is a measured improvement in social and economic outcomes, initiated in part by higher educational outcomes.


I would expect that much of what has been studied in terms of intergenerational transmission of values would be of some relevance to transmission in institutions such as schools, particularly in terms of the key relationship between teacher and pupil, which while not commonly as close as that of parent and child, has some of the features of that relationship (Riley, 2010; Pianta, 1994; Bowlby, 1969), but also of some, though diminishing, relevance to other social organisations in which there are social bonds of authority and dependence. Clearly, though, on the basis of the research, transmission of values within institutions is going to be dependent upon a number of variables such as age and gender, personal relationship and the quality the institutional culture, education (both in terms of level achieved and receptivity to new ideas), cultural background, and even – apparently – which values are being transmitted.

There do seem to be two noticeable omissions. Although Schönpflug mentions the mechanism of transmission, which he (after Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman) states has two stages – awareness and acceptance – there is no attempt to describe or model this mechanism. The other is that values are not assigned any role in this process. My intuition is that these omissions are connected. As long as values are seen as a black box problem there is a limit to the extent that the transmission of values can be modelled.

Although the theories emerging from evolutionary psychology do provide relatively simple models of transmission, they are predominantly focused upon the interaction between transmitter and receiver and, therefore, in the larger social context they will be considered as part of the mechanism, i.e. an aspect of transmission rather than as a complete model. In the second part of this article I will turn to several other theories which address aspects of transmission and consider some theoretical models of social transmission.


Barni, D., Ranieri, S., Scabini, E. and Rosnati, R. (2011). Value transmission in the family: Do adolescents accept the values their parents want to transmit? Journal of Moral Education, vol. 40, no. 1, pp.105-121.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment (vol. 1 of Attachment and loss). New York: Basic Books.

Buss, D. (2015). Evolutionary psychology: the new science of the mind (Fifth Edition). Oxford: Routledge.

Boyd, R. and Richerson, P. (1985). Culture and the evolutionary process. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. (1993). How are values transmitted? In M. Hechter, L. Nadel and R. E. Michod (Eds.), The origin of values. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 305-318.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. and M. Feldman. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grusec, J. E. and Goodnow, J. J. (1994). Impact of parental discipline methods on the child’s internalization of values: A reconceptualization of current points of view. Developmental Psychology, vol. 30, pp. 4-19.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hashimzade, N. and Della Giusta, M. (2011). Schooling and intergenerational transmission of values. University of Reading. [Online] Available at:

Lumsden, C. and E. Wilson. 1981. Genes, mind and culture: The coevolutionary process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McElreath, R. and Henrich, J. (2007). Dual inheritance theory: The evolution of human cultural capacities and cultural evolution. In R. Dunbar and L. Barrett, (Eds.), Oxford handbook of evolutionary psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 555-570.

Pianta, R. C. (1994). Patterns of relationships between children and kindergarten teachers. Journal of School Psychology, vol. 32, issue 1, pp. 15-31.

Riley, P. (2010). Attachment theory and the teacher-student relationship: A practical guide for teachers, teacher educators and school leaders. London: Routledge

Schönpflug, U. (2001a). Intergenerational transmission of values: The role of transmission belts. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 174–185.

Schönpflug, U. (2001b). Introduction. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 131-134.

Whitbeck, L. B. and Gecas, V. (1988). Value attribution and value transmission between parents and children. Journal of Marriage & the Family, vol. 50, pp. 829–840.




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