Social Structure, Value Orientations, and Party Choice in Western Europe


The project analyses the relationship between social structure, personal (human) and political values, and party choice in Western Europe. The design is intended as a truly comparative project, covering up to all eighteen West European countries with a considerable population. The project builds on previous research conducted by the participants.

Background to the project

The classic texts in political science established the importance of social structural variables such as class and religion as being among the most important explanations of individuals’ political preferences and party choice. In recent decades, research has shown that sector employment and gender also have become influential determinants for value orientations and party choice. Social structure has been under profound and rapid change in advanced industrial or post-industrial societies. For example, the new middle class (or service class) has grown and higher education has increased among the populations.

Personal and political value orientations are also changing in advanced industrial societies. These play an important role in determining political behaviour, and research has shown that their impact has increased over time.

This project considers four interrelated research questions:

  • a) Value dimensions

Popular views hold that political preferences are one- or two-dimensional. On the other hand, central studies of human values holds that voter preferences are multi-dimensional. In this project, we rely on our previous works showing that political orientations are also multidimensional, comprising more than one dimension both within the traditional conflict structure in industrial society (Old Politics) and in post-industrial society (New Politics). This will be a point of departure for examining the structure within both personal and political value domains by means of various multidimensional analysis techniques.

  • b) How social structure influences basic personal and political values.

Concrete life experiences frequently imply that social groups have different interests, values and attitudes. Values are often considered as more fundamental and enduring than attitudes and interests. It is therefore important to examine how and to what degree social location determines people’s basic value orientations. For example, which personal and political value orientations are strongest among women compared to men, also among those who aree higher-educated compared to the lower educated? Which personal and political value orientations suggest that social structure has a large explanatory power?  And which orientations suggest only a limited explanatory power?

  • c) How personal values influence people’s political values and party choice

Personal values guide people in all domains of life. Personal values appear increasingly central to political orientations. Personal values are used to organise and prioritise political beliefs, political issues and political choice. In this part of the project, the relationship between basic personal values (which will be considered as independent variables) and political values and party choice will be examined.

  • d) How social structure and personal and political value orientations account for party choice of citizens in Western democracies.

Social structural variables and value orientations are major determinants of party choice, and their influence is complex when included in the same explanatory model. In this part of the project the main research questions are: How do social locations and value orientations influence party choice? To what extent is the impact of social structure transmitted via value orientations? Is the impact of personal values transmitted via political values? Do the answers to these research questions vary between countries and party families?

These are fundamental research questions in the field of political behaviour in general.


The data sources for this project are a cumulative file of European Social Surveys (ESS) (currently 2002–2014), the European Values Study (EVS) 2008, and the forthcoming fifth wave (2017–2018).

ESS covers many social and political orientations. It contains detailed data on the social structural location of the respondents and includes a very influential personal value battery, i.e. the Portrait Value Questionnaire developed by Shalom Schwartz and colleagues. Schwartz’s approach to basic personal values specifies a set of values presumed to cover the full range of human motivation. In this way ESS can be used to examine the role of important personal values in depth in the causal chain from human values to political values and party choice.

EVS is unique in its broad emphasis on questions relevant when measuring values. The large number of value and basic attitude questions allows us to construct multi-indicator indices of value orientations. In addition to political values, EVS covers a substantial number of personal and social values, religious values and work values.


The project has so far generated the following main publications.


Knutsen, Oddbjørn (2018). Social Structure, Value Orientations, and Party Choice in Western Europe. Palgrave Studies in European Political Sociology. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. 303 p.


Langsæther, Peter Egge (2014). Class Voting and Value Orientations: The fourth generation. MA Thesis, Department of Political Science, University of Oslo. 110 p.

Published Dec. 19, 2017 2:09 PM - Last modified Dec. 19, 2017 2:12 PM