December 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 6 // Tools of the Trade // 6TOT1

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The Value Orientations Method: A Tool to Help Understand Cultural Differences

To work with people of other cultures, it's important to understand their "world view." The Value Orientation Method (VOM) provides a way to understand core cultural differences related to five basic human concerns, or orientations. The method has been used widely in cross-cultural situations, including in higher education, health services, and conflict resolution. A 16-question oral survey is available and can be used for formal research about cultural differences or informally in training to help people become aware of and work with cultural differences at the individual and institutional levels.

Tom Gallagher
Leadership Development Specialist
Office of Personnel and Organizational Development
Oregon State University Extension Service
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet Address:


Changes in the demographics of the United States challenge Extension faculty and staff to work effectively across cultures. One of the fundamental problems of working effectively with people of another culture is understanding basic differences in "world view." Without this understanding, it is difficult to provide appropriate services and easy to get into unnecessary conflict.

There is, however, a method to quickly help people understand cultural differences. This article introduces the Value Orientation Method (VOM), a tool that can help identify differences in core values across cultures. For those readers familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Keirsey, 1998) and how it describes type of individuals, the VOM provides a similar method for describing types of cultures.


The foundations for VOM were developed in the 1940s and 1950s by anthropologists with the Harvard Values Project (Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck, 1961). The project team proposed that it is possible to distinguish cultures based on how they each addressed five common human concerns. They did not propose that these were the only five concerns but that they were useful in understanding cultural differences.

They also proposed from their study that cultures could respond to the problems in at least three ways and that all cultures would express each of the three responses. It was the rank order of responses that gave a culture its character. They called these responses to the five concerns "value orientations." Today we might call them "core values." Kohls (1981) provides a brief introduction to the five human problems and the three possible responses (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Description of Five Common Human Concerns and Three Possible Responses (based on Kohls, 1981)

Concerns/ orientations

Possible Responses

Human Nature: What is the basic nature of people?

Evil. Most people can't be trusted. People are basically bad and need to be controlled.

Mixed. There are both evil people and good people in the world, and you have to check people out to find out which they are. People can be changed with the right guidance.

Good. Most people are basically pretty good at heart; they are born good.

Man-Nature Relationship:What is the appropriate  relationship to nature

Subordinate to Nature. People really can't change nature. Life is largely determined by external forces, such as  fate and genetics. What happens was meant to happen.

Harmony with Nature. Man should, in every way, live in harmony with nature.

Dominant over Nature. It the great human challenge to conquer and control nature.  Everything from air conditioning to the "green revolution" has resulted from having met this challenge.

Time Sense: How should we best think about time?

Past. People should learn from history, draw the values they live by from history, and strive to continue past traditions into the future.

Present. The present moment is everything.  Let's make the most of it.  Don't worry about tomorrow: enjoy today.

Future. Planning and goal setting make it possible for people to accomplish miracles, to change and grow. A little sacrifice today will bring a better tomorrow.

Activity: What is the best mode of activity?

Being. It's enough to just "be."  It's not necessary to accomplish great things in life to feel your life has been worthwhile.

Becoming. The main purpose for being placed on this earth is for one's own inner development.

Doing. If people work hard and apply themselves fully, their efforts will be rewarded. What a person accomplishes is a measure of his or her worth. 

Social Relations: What is the best form of social organization?

Hierarchical. There is a natural order to relations, some people are born to lead, others are followers. Decisions should be made by those in charge.

Collateral. The best way to be organized is as a group, where everyone shares in the decision process. It is important not to make important decisions alone.

Individual. All people should have equal rights, and each should have complete control over one's own destiny. When we have to make a decision as a group it should be "one person one vote."

Most studies of the dominant Euro-American culture in the United States find that it is future oriented, focused on doing, emphasizes individualism, aspires to be dominant over nature, and believes that human nature is mixed, some people are good and some are bad (e.g., Carter, 1990). By contrast, most studies show that Native cultures are past oriented, focused on being, emphasize collateral (group) relations, aspire to be in harmony with nature, and believe that people are fundamentally good (e.g., Russo, 2000a).

It is important to note here that each culture will express all three possible responses at some time. For example, it is common for Euro-Americans to have a "doing" orientation during the workweek but to have a "being" orientation on weekends and while on vacation. The VOM theory recognizes that there is diversity within a culture--both among subgroups and individuals--and that degree of acculturation matters.

The Kluckhohn Center for the Study of Values has worked with a number of scholars from various disciplines to test the VOM in different cross-cultural situations. The VOM has been found effective when working in higher education (Ortuno, 1991), medicine (Ponce, 1985), nursing (Brink, 1984), mental health/stress treatment (Papajohn & Spielgel, 2000), and conflict resolution (Gallagher, 2000a). The VOM has proven very effective in working in conflict resolution involving Native people and public resource management agencies (Russo, 2000a).


The basic assessment instrument is a survey, consisting of 16 situations with associated questions. (See the sample question in Figure 2.) The instrument was originally designed with this story/response format so that it could be read to people who could understand English but not read it well. The instrument has proven equally effective with non-literate and literate respondents. The full instrument is available from the author or from the Kluckhohn Center (1995).

Figure 2
Sample Question (about time orientation) from VOM Instrument

Some people were talking about the way that children should be brought up. Here are three different ideas:

1. Some people say that children should always be taught the traditions of the past. They believe the olds ways are best, and it is when children do not follow them that things go wrong. (A)

2. Some people say that children should be taught some of the old traditions, but it is wrong to insist that they stick to these ways. These people believe that it is necessary for children to always learn about and take on whatever of the new ways will best help them get along in the world of today. (B)

3. Some people do not believe children should be taught much about the past traditions at all, except as an interesting story of what has gone before. These people believe that the world goes along best when children are taught the things that will make them want to find out for themselves new ways of doing things to replace the old. (C)

Which of these people has the best idea about how children should be taught? [Your answer: ________]

Which of these people has the next best idea?
[Your answer: ________]

Note: Idea "A" is past orientation, "B" present orientation, "C" future orientation.

The VOM can be used in several ways, from a research-focused analysis of differences to an informal, awareness-building tool. As a scientific tool, the VOM provides a way to measure value differences, which can then be linked with other variables, such as participation in or preference for a program. For example, an individual from a group that preferred hierarchical relations (strong chain of command) may not prefer a program that involves extensive collateral discussions to reach a decision.

On the informal side, many people who complete the survey have an "ah hah" experience as they become aware that other people score the questions differently. This response, also encountered when people take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for the first time, provides a "learning moment." In this moment it is possible to show how such fundamental aspects of our lives as leadership, decision making, communication, and motivation are shaped by our value orientations.


The VOM, in addition to serving as a tool to understand cultures, is useful in helping to understand our organizations (Carter, 2000; Gallagher, 2000b). Our institutions, including Extension, have an organizational culture that is consistent with the value orientations of the dominant culture. For example, an organization may have a very strong orientation toward the past, thus it can be stressful for people from a present or future orientation to access the institution, or work within it. In Extension, the value orientations of the Euro-American founders can make it difficult for people from other cultures to access our programs and jobs.

Acculturation is, arguably, one answer to cultural differences. But another--and probably the most immediate, effective, and fair--is for each of us to understand ourselves, to understand the "others," and then to explore "finding the middle ground" (Russo, 2000b).


Brink, P. J. (1984). Value orientations as an assessment tool in cultural diversity. Nursing Research, 33(4),198-203.

Carter, R. T. (1990). Cultural value differences between African Americans and White Americans. Journal of College Student Development, 31,71-79.

Carter, R. T. (2000). Perspectives on addressing cultural issues in organizations. In R. T. Carter (Ed.), Addressing cultural issues in organizations: Beyond the corporate context. (pp. 3-18). Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications.

Gallagher, T. J. (2000a). Value orientations and conflict resolution: Using the Kluckhohn Value Orientations Model. In K. W. Russo (Ed.), Finding the middle ground: Insight and applications of the Value Orientations Method. (pp. 185-194). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Gallagher, T. J. (2000b). Building institutional capacity to address cultural differences. In R. T. Carter (Ed.), Addressing cultural issues in organizations: Beyond the corporate context, (pp. 229-240). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Keirsey, D. (1998). Please understand me II: Temperament, character, intelligence. Del Mar, CA: Prometheus Nemesis Book Co.

Kohls, L. R. (1981). Developing intercultural awareness. Washington, D.C.: Sietar Press. 

Kluckhohn Center. (1995). User's manual for the Value Orientation Method. Kluckhohn Center for the Study of Values, Bellingham, WA.

Kluckhohn, F. R., & F. L. Strodtbeck. (1961). Variations in value orientations. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.

Ortuno, M. M. (1991). Cross-cultural awareness in the foreign language class: The Kluckhohn Model. The Modern Language Journal, 75:449-459.

Papajohn, J., & J. Spiegel. (1971). The relationship of culture value orientation change and Rorschach indices of psychological development. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 2(3),257-272.

Ponce, D. E. 1985. Value orientation: Clinical applications in a multi-cultural residential treatment center for children and youth. Journal of Residential Group Care and Treatment, 2(4),71-83.

Russo, K. W. (2000a). A sharing of subjectivities: the Values Project Northwest, In K. W. Russo (Ed.). Finding the middle ground: Insight and applications of the Value Orientations Method. (pp. 165-177). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Russo, K. W. (2000b). (Ed.) Finding the middle ground: Insights and applications of the Value Orientations Method. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.