Valuescapes in Postmodernity: An International Study of Undergraduate Worldviews

Jim Norwine1, Michael Preda2, Michael Bruner3, Allen Ketcham4


"Postmodern" values already appear to have potency in society at large as well as in college classrooms. In modernity, for instance, most geography professors assumed the unity of knowledge and the authority of objective evidence. In retrospect it is clear that sometimes that faith was misplaced, either because it was too naive or disingenuous. Today, for good or ill (we shall suggest both), personal valuescapes are taking on very different forms. Postmodernity's strength lies in its openness to, even celebration of, plural voices and multiple experiences, that is, its valuing of difference. Authority increasingly now seems to be self-referential, that is, to reside in personal experience. This paper addresses some results of an ongoing empirical research project which grew out of our interest in the question: To what extent, if any, do the worldviews and personal values of contemporary undergraduate students around the world reflect a "postmodern paradigm shift?"


In the early 1990s, we began a study of the personal values of university students around the world. We chose undergraduates, partly because of our professional roles as professors, but also because of plain curiosity. In general, would we find more commitment to traditional values or to postmodern values? Are college student values bound to a "place?" Is a paradigm shift away from the Weltanschauung (German term for "worldview" or "philosophy of life") of modernity evident?

Before we proceed, we should offer a definition of key terms. Postmodernism is an outlook or worldview marked by an "incredulity toward metanarratives" (Lyotard, 1984) and the conviction that systematic knowledge is impossible. Therefore, a geography professor with a postmodern outlook might doubt the centrality of "reason' and might challenge an account that calls itself "history." Postmodernism exhibits an impulse to deconstruct, that is, to take a text not at face value but in terms of its hidden ideologies and implied power relationships. For example, seen from a postmodern point of view, "Global Warming" might be discussed with respect to the domination and marginalization of groups. In extreme forms, postmodernism means that there is no Truth. The individual is the judge and arbiter. "Anything goes" as long as the individual is respected and empowered.

Traditional values are at the opposite end of the values continuum from postmodernism. Traditional values include a conviction that some things are True and that some practices are wrong. Modernism is a version of a traditional worldview that emphasizes reason, science, progress, and the importance of happiness.


Our research has suggested two main trends (Norwine et al 1992; Brunei at al 1994; Norwine et al 1996). First, a number of core traditional and modern values remain firmly at the center of most undergraduates' worldviews. Honor, family, and duty, for instance, all "traditional" values, and technology, self-interest, and happiness (all "modern" or at least "non-traditional" in our schema) are all identified by the overwhelming majority of college students everywhere in the world as "important to me." Second, majorities or sizable minorities of students at most universities in most world regions express strong attachment to another set of values which we consider "postmodern." Examples include concurrence with the following statements: "Happiness is whatever makes me feels good"; "All ideas have equal worth"; "My opinion is as valid as that of an authority"; and, "Personal sacrifice is not essential for happiness." We also found significant cultural and regional differences in thinking about values although some agreement with a postmodern worldview was found to transcend nearly all such divisions.

The values project also has a methodological dimension. In the early stages, we developed and tested items for the first survey instrument. We crafted items that represented each worldview. The four authors had to agree on the categorizations. Some items were hard to categorize and, later, were discarded. We ended with a set of "core" items for each worldview.

As we assessed responses from students, we were guided by the responses to the core items. However, we were not interested in constructing a profile of a student. We were more interested in depicting a broad sweep of values and value changes. For our original report, therefore, we developed what was virtually a three-dimensional, graphic, modeling procedure (Ketcham). Our findings caused us to begin to think in terms of landscapes or "mindscapes." A key finding was that university students, apparently, could simultaneously hold contradictory values. If we assume a starting point in traditional values, then we could say that students' values are changing or shifting in a fashion akin to glacial movements.

Our team's most recent study begins to explore values such as trust in the realm of computers and new communications technologies (Brunei and Burns 1997). We will briefly summarize some results of each of the phases of our inquiry, which is ongoing.


Our original values survey instrument, developed and test in 1990-91, consisted of value statements representing four worldviews: traditional (T), non-traditional (N), modern (M), and postmodern (P). Students were asked to respond to each item, using a Likert-like scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." The research team paid special attention to certain "benchmark" statements, statements that were particularly representative of each of the four worldviews.

The first survey, the Texas Survey, administered in 1991 to approximately 1600 undergraduate students at three public universities in Texas, revealed that the students had strong attachments to happiness, honor, duty, family, technology, and other mainly traditional and modern values (After reviewing the data, we concluded that the non-traditional category had limited utility.). However, more than 50 % of the respondents also agreed with statements expressing postmodern commitments, e.g.:

$ Happiness is whatever makes me feel good-68% agreement

$ My ideas are as good as those of an authority -68% agreement

$ All ideas have equal worth-57% agreement

In sum, the evidence suggested that the students continued to hold traditional and modern values, but at the same time the agreement with the postmodern statements and the divided responses indicated some uncertainty and possibly some shifting of values.

A second survey (the International Survey), a briefer version of our Texas Survey, was administered in April-May, 1992, to approximately 1,000 students at six diverse colleges in the U.S.A. and at eight institutions of higher learning in Australia, Canada, Chile, Gaza (Palestine/Israel), South Korea, and Wales. The overriding research questions were the same: To what extent do the personal values of contemporary students reflect a commitment to one or more worldviews, and to what degree, if any, do those values reflect a shift from traditional and modern values to postmodern ones?

Respondents to the International Survey achieved near unanimity on at least three items:

$ Friendship is important to me- 96% agreement

$ Spiritual development is essential to everyone- 83% agreement

$ A personal sense of humor is vital- 82% agreement

The most glaring difference between the Texas respondents and the international respondents was with respect to the statement, "Everyone should pursue his/her self-interest." Fully 81% of the Texas students agreed, whereas only 55% of the international respondents concurred with this statement. On the benchmark postmodern statements, more than 50% of the international students agreed with the following items:

$ My opinion is as valid as that of an authority-69% agreement

$ Happiness is whatever makes me feel good-68% agreement; and,

All ideas have equal worth-52% agreement.

Some responses were affected by place, culture, and/or nationality; that is, the location of particular universities seemed in the case of some survey statements to result in quite different student responses. The American colleges were Grambling State University, a predominantly African-American public university in Louisiana, and Colorado Christian College, a private church-oriented school located in a Denver suburb. The foreign institutions included: Vina de Mar, a private Chilean university; the College of Science and Technology in Gaza, a technology college funded by Israel but entirely Palestinian in character; and the University of Seoul, the most important public university in South Korea. Results suggested that the Grambling State University responses might be characterized as "the most postmodern," those at the College of Science and Technology, Gaza, as "the most traditional and modern," and those of Colorado Christian, Seoul, and Vina del Mar as somewhere in between. Table 1 shows responses from students at five selected campuses indicating agreement (agree and strongly disagree in percentage) with fifteen survey statements:

Table 1-Statements and Responses at Five Distinct Universities(1)


Grambling State Univ.

Colorado Christian

Vina del Mar



Seoul, South Korea

"Live free"
























"Pers. Sacrif.
























"My Ideas"
























"Premar Sex"






"All ideas"



















We concluded that traditional and modern values remained even stronger at most non-U.S. universities than we had earlier found at the Texas universities. At the same time, there was clearly some shifting to a postmodern paradigm. The ability of the students to simultaneously affirm values ranging across the spectrum from traditional to postmodern suggested their ability to occupy multiple identities and to inhabit complex mindscapes in which specific values and, consequently, overall worldviews are no longer inherited but continuously created or crafted.

A third survey, The Survey on Computers and Values, concentrated on computers and values and explored gender differences in these areas. The survey was completed by 283 students at a public university in Texas. The respondents included 148 males and 135 females. Nearly all were under the age of twenty-six.

In the area of knowledge about computers, 57% reported knowing what Intel is, including 47% of the women and 66% of the men. In response to a question about the "Pentium chip," 60% were familiar with it, representing 46% of the females and 74% of the males. Regarding personal ownership of a computer, less than 50% of women reported owning a computer, while 53% of males owned a computer.

Responses to questions about trust revealed interesting results. Trust of computer sales persons in large, well-known chain stores was low among both females and males (21-26%). Responding to the statement, "I trust computers to work 99% of the time," 67% of women and 64% of men agreed. These results suggested that the respondents seem to trust technology more than people (or at least more than sales people).

To assess commitment to a worldview, the students were asked to respond to some of the benchmark value statements discussed earlier. As we found previously in the Texas and international surveys, these students seemed to have one foot in the world of traditional values and one foot in the world of postmodern values. For example, on two postmodern statements, agreement reached or exceeded 40%:

$ "A college student who exerts her/his best effort should receive a passing grade regardless of the quality of the work" -- 40% agreement (36% female, 43% male)

$ "My opinion on a particular subject is as valid as the opinion of a person who is more knowledgeable on that subject"-- 50% (52% female, 48% male).

These students were ambivalent about the two traditional value statements to which they responded. In the first case, they mainly rejected a traditional value. In the second case, they supported a traditional value:

$ "I am willing to die for the U.S.A." --30% (19% female, 41% male)

$ "Duty is very important to me" - 71% (65% female, 80% male)

Based on these studies, we suggest four main conclusions with respect to the worldviews of contemporary undergraduates. First, while most undergraduate students at most universities remain committed to a core of traditional and modern values, their Weltanschauungen (worldviews) reflect an ongoing and probably accelerating shift toward values we have labeled as "postmodern." Second, we found that while some value-changes may be gradual and some fitful, still others are accomplished via rapid jumps. Third, we discovered that the mindscapes of students may well best be thought of as mental "valuelands" in which multiple, sometimes contradictory, positions are occupied not out of necessity but out of choice. Finally, we suggest that pre-logical and analogical thinking may be valued as much or more than "logicality" in the new postmodern paradigm; hence, the heightened sensitivity to and importance of feelings (Norwine et al 1994).

Our ongoing survey research continues to support these possibilities. Assuming that traditional and modern mindscapes, then a combination of the two mindscapes, were dominant prior to the late 20th century, our findings suggest a shifting toward mindscapes which now include postmodern values. The most significant finding of our research is that many undergraduate students actually now choose their values. Therefore, we believe that postmodern pragmatism may be growing in importance.

In postmodern pragmatism, personal choice is paramount, even sacrosanct. The responses to our surveys consistently suggested that choice is now for most undergraduates a non-negotiable value. We are also open to the possibility that an insistence upon "choice" is related to the inability or unwillingness to see things from the perspectives of others. For instance, while "duty" rates highly (71-83%) in all three surveys, far fewer students (30-56%, excepting the Palestinian students in Gaza, a unique case) agree that they are willing to die for their country. In fact, we suspect that choice and tolerance are roughly the equivalents for many postmodern students of what justice and liberty were to their predecessors in, say, 1850, 1900 or even 1950.

Most scholars have adopted as a perspective on the postmodern condition a nominally objective one, which nonetheless combines an assumption of progress with a process approach. This stance carries with it the assumption that postmodernity is yet another step forward in the development of our struggle for self-mastery and our evolution toward whatever we are becoming. More problematic are some of the most fundamental assumptions of the postmodern worldview. Of these, the most significant is the general presumption (nearly universal among the young) that the new worldview represents a progressively superior outlook, one which is just plain better than the outmoded modern and hopelessly archaic, traditional value-systems. Not only is this faith incongruent with postmodernism's distrust of universals, but it may well prove to be at least partly untrue. "A secular utopia by human engineering" (Inglehart 1990) surely has the ring of hubris.5


1. Regents Professor, Department of Geosciences, Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Kingsville, Texas. E-mail:

2. Professor, Department of Political Science, Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas E-mail:

3. Associate Professor, Department of Communication Studies, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas. E-mail:

4. Professor, Department of Management and Marketing, Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Kingsville, Texas. E-mail:

5. Largely adapted and condensed from Chapter Two, "Values in Flux," in Worldview Flux, J. Norwine and J. Smith, Eds., Lexington Books, in press (July 2000).


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Norwine, J., B. BakamaNume, M. Preda, A.M. Ketcham, M. Brunei, and S. Flere. (1996). A Preview of 21st Century Values? A Summary of an Ongoing International Study of Changing Undergraduate Weltanschauungen. The Society for Philosophy and Geography Newsletter. 2:2, 2-7.

Norwine, J. and Jonathan M. Smith. (2000). Worldview Flux. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

1. 1Complete survey statements corresponding to Table 1: "Live free or die" is a motto that I accept. Merit should be the basis for determining status in society. Cigarettes should be banned. Sometimes violence is necessary. Personal sacrifice is essential for happiness. A white person can understand a black person. A man can understand a woman. Friendship is important to me. My ideas are as good as those of an authority. I am more hopeful about the future than despairing. I would be willing to live in poverty if I could be content. One must have children in order to have a happy life. Sexual relations prior to marriage is morally wrong. All ideas have equal worth. I am willing to die for my country.