Stellenbosch University | Political Science


Centre for International & Comparative Politics


Principal Investigators: Dr. Cindy Steenekamp and Prof. Amy Alexander (Gothenburg University, Sweden)

Website and online analysis:

Overview of the project

The World Values Survey (WVS) is an international research programme and global network of social scientists and researchers devoted to the scientific and academic study of social, political, economics, religious, and cultural values of people in the world. This research programme forms part of a long-term investigation of the value orientations of societies of diverse cultural traditions by means of a representative comparative social survey that is conducted globally every 5 years. To date, seven succesive waves have been completed across 120 societies on all six continents, representing 94,5% of the world’s population.

The WVS is currently the largest non-commercial cross-national empirical time-series investigation of human beliefs and values and the leading source of comparative quantitative information on social tolerance to foreigners, religious and ethnic minorities, attitudes towards women and family roles, the role of religion and religiosity, the impact of globalization, attitudes toward the environment, democratic governance , work, family, politics, national identity, culture, diversity, insecurity and subjectivity, and subjective well-being.

Beyond its descriptive value, the WVS has made possible the testing and development of broad theories of the connections between economic development, human development and political development. This has not only contributed to important theoretical progress in our understanding of the worldwide processes of modernization, and post-modernization, but also links them to the processes of democratization, and more recently democratic regression. Such findings are not only important for academic scholars, but also for practitioners who work in national development agencies and democratic assistance programs in understanding the relative value of projects aimed at material, cognitive, or political development.

Extensive geographical and thematic scope, free availability of survey data, and project findings for the broad public has turned the WVS into one of the most authoritative and widely used cross-national surveys in the social sciences. The WVS is the largest non-commercial, cross-national, time series investigation of human beliefs and values ever executed, currently including interviews with almost 400,000 respondents. Moreover, the WVS is the only academic study covering the full range of global variations, from very poor to very rich countries, in all of the world’s major cultural zones.

Providing a global resource

The WVS seeks to help scientists and policy makers understand changes in the beliefs, values and motivations of people throughout the world. Thousands of political scientists, sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists and economists have used these data to analyze such topics as economic development, democratization, religion, gender equality, social capital, and subjective well-being.

The WVS findings have proved to be valuable for policy makers seeking to build civil society and stable political institutions in developing countries. The WVS data is also frequently used by governments around the world, scholars, students, journalists and international organizations such as the World Bank, World Health Organizations (WHO), United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the United Nations Headquarters in New York (USA). The WVS data has been used in thousands of scholarly publications and the findings have been reported in leading media such as Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Economist, The World Development Report, the World Happiness Report and the UN Human Development Report.

According to the WVS website, there are more than 30 000 publications based on WVS data, over 60 000 citations for WVS in Google Scholar, and over 800 000 data downloads per year.

The South African wave of the World Values Survey

The execution of the WVS is crucial in the developing world and particularly Africa, which has been relatively understudied. High quality empirical data from African countries will shed light on how sentiments from this region are changing as the world experiences democratic backsliding, digitalization and global pandemics.  While South Africa attracted much international attention and funding for research and development in the 1990″s, less attention has been given to the country (and region) over the past twenty years. It is thus of uttermost importance that a research engagement, like the WVS in South Africa, is continued.

South Africa is one of the more unique cases in the WVS initiative because it has a complex political and social history, a diverse population in terms of culture and demography, and is the only African country  that was included during the inaugural WVS survey in 1981. The continued inclusion of South Africa in the WVS is of vital importance because it provides valuable scientific information for policy makers seeking to sustain and strengthen civil society and (relatively young) democratic institutions. South Africa’s transition from an authoritarian apartheid regime to a democracy in 1994 was widely lauded as a miracle by the international community. Since then, universal suffrage, political rights and freedoms, and civil liberties have been extended to all citizens and enshrined in one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. It is thus unsurprising that South Africa continues to score positively, and high in the African context, on a host of liberal democratic indicators from macro-level data such as Freedom House, V-Dem, and the Democracy Index. While these macro-level investigations are useful in assessing the status and strength of democracies, they are by no means the only way to study democracy.  By tapping into individual, or micro-level data such as the WVS, we are able to measure citizens’ attitude toward political economic, social, religious , and cultural values and systems as well as their behavior with increasing effectiveness. This becomes even more significant when trying to understand the many paradoxes of South African society. 

By continuing to track and understand key trends of post-apartheid South Africa, we are able to provide insight into many pressing issues. Are values, overall changing in ways that will support and contribute to economic growth, reduce inequality, and sustain democracy? If so, or if not, is this due to individual level change? Or is it due to generational differences? And what are the driving factors? How does the role of education, compare to experiences of poverty, identity, or cultural beliefs? In addition, understanding South Africa is also important in order to draw broader comparative conclusions. Indeed, South Africa is perhaps one of the most important settings for this study, since it provides an ongoing laboratory to examine the consequences of highly uneven levels of education and material development, racial and ethnic pluralism, and rapid generational change for the development of a new democracy with one country.