Which do you value more, ideas or money? Which would you rather do, work or pursue a creative hobby? Do you think your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents would have answered the same? In this article, we are going to explore post-materialism, its theory, and how it compares to materialism, and we will explore post-materialism using environmentalism as an example. 

Post-Materialism Post-Materialism

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Table of contents

    Post-materialism definition

    Post-materialism is a socio-political theory developed by American political scientist Ronald Inglehart. In his book, The Silent Revolution (1977), he explored the modern shift of individual values away from materialism, toward non-economic, non-materialist goals such as autonomy and self-actualisation.

    This shift underpinned the birth of the environmental movement and the movements for gender and racial equality. This work was where the first post-materialism definition was proposed.

    Materialism is the attitude that prioritises the acquisition and accumulation of material goods.

    Materialist attitudes and behaviours have led to excessive consumption and a lack of regard for environmental protection. Because of this, the philosophy of ecologism, and the environmental movement find support in people who have embraced post-materialism.

    Ecologism is a movement concerned with protecting the environment. Eoligist thought is divided into two branches: Deep Ecology and Shallow Ecology.

    Deep ecology supports a radical change of values to give the natural world moral consideration. It calls for a structural change to embed consideration for the natural world in the decision-making process for any social, political and economic activity.

    Shallow ecology is a bit more narrow, it doesn't see a re-evaluation of morality and social organisation as a necessary step to achieve its aim. Instead, it promotes activities and behaviour that protect the environment within the current socio-political structure.

    Check out our explanation on Ecologism for more information!

    Post-Materialism theory

    Inglehart forwarded two hypotheses to explain how post-materialism developed. These are the main points that post-materialism theory is based on; the Scarcity Hypothesis and the Socialization Hypothesis.

    The Scarcity Hypothesis

    Inglehart was heavily influenced by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when formulating this hypothesis.

    Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist. Maslow wrote A Theory of Human Motivation in 1943 where he proposed the idea that humans have a hierarchy of needs. This hierarchy takes the shape of a triangle or pyramid. The needs at the bottom of the pyramid are the more basic physiological needs, such as food and water. The next layer up in the pyramid is safety needs: these refer to needs for safety, security, and stability such as resources, health, and employment. The pyramid goes up, level by level, until we reach the top of the pyramid where we find self-actualisation needs such as the development of morality, creativity and problem-solving.

    Post-materialism Illustration of Maslow's hierarchy of needs StudySmarterFig. 1 Maslow's hierarchy of needs

    Inglehart supported Maslow and believed that people pursued their needs similarly to the order presented in Maslow’s hierarchy. Whilst scarcity existed, these materialistic and basic needs present at the bottom end of the pyramid would prevail over the needs at the top of the pyramid.

    However, once these basic needs were satisfied, individuals could shift their priority to non-material needs such as those of self-actualisation.

    The USA experienced prosperity as a result of the two World Wars due to its position on the allied side and its late involvement. This meant that, in the aftermath of World War II, more and more American people had access to their basic needs such as food, shelter and financial stability. Thanks to this, post-materialism and its quest to achieve the needs of self-actualisation took hold in post-war America.

    The Socialization Hypothesis

    In the 'Socialization Hypothesis', Inglehart argues that the relationship between one's values and one's material condition is not something that is changed quickly. He states that the values that people hold by the time they reach adulthood are likely to remain the same for the rest of their lifetime. This means that generations that have experienced material scarcity are likely to pursue material wealth, whereas generations that were born in relative affluence, will put less value on material resources.

    Inglehart argues that if material affluence is sustained through subsequent generations, then society will experience a sustained embrace of post-materialism. Therefore, material stability is critical to moving past materialistic tendencies.

    Materialist vs post-materialism

    As we mentioned above, materialism is the attitude that prioritises the acquisition of material goods. As such, this puts materialist values directly at odds with post-materialism.

    From a materialistic perspective, wealth is considered a positive attribute and is associated with high social status and happiness. These materialistic values oppose concerns for other people's happiness and one's own spiritual growth. However, many studies show that people who embrace materialism, have lower levels of physical and mental health, consume more, have more debt and behave in a less environmentally conscious way1.

    materialism Illustration of a scale with a person on one side and money on the other with the money being heavier than the money to show materialism StudySmarterFig. 2 Depiction of Materialism

    Economic materialism originates from dialectic materialism. Dialectic means relating to the logical discussion of concepts. Dialectic materialism is the perspective of history, politics, and society that comes from political philosophers Engels and Marx. They saw the material world as having priority over thoughts: anything perceptible by the five senses exists independently of mind and spirit. They also added that anything we think about can only be thought of, as we reflect on material things.

    Dialectic materialism is in opposition with dialectic idealism, proposed by German philosopher Friedrich Hegel. Dialectic idealism, from “idea”, assumes that thoughts, instead of matter, come first and actions and events are a projection of those thoughts.

    Marx attempted to understand history by looking at the events and the dynamics between people. Hegel, instead, saw it from the perspective of what the people involved were trying to achieve.

    Looking at the differences between dialectic materialism and dialectic idealism can show us why the shift towards post-materialistic values has also led to a change in thinking. According to Inglehart, post-materialism has seen an increase in political activism, radicalism and seeing politics from an ideological perspective rather than a material one.

    Post-materialism example

    Perhaps the best post-materialism example is Generation Z. According to Inglehart's more recent research2, at the end of the 20th century, younger generations in the Global North increasingly hold post-materialistic values.

    The Global North typically refers to the most developed countries, especially the US, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

    The 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development involve 17 goals agreed to by all members of the United Nations. They urgently call for actions to ensure peace and prosperity for people and the planet now and in the future. They include actions to preserve the environment, such as tackling climate change and protecting forests and oceans.

    Let's explore more closely how having post-materialistic values manifests in behaviours supportive of environmental goals.

    Post-materialist values lead to the pursuit of post-materialist experiences, which are activities that aren't focused on financial or material accumulation. These can be volunteering, engaging in creative pursuits, or political activities besides voting.

    The latter, especially, has seen a surge in the second half of the 20th century3.

    Other post-materialism examples are some of the increasingly common behaviours that support the green economy, such as:

    • Lower consumption than materialists with similar economic opportunities. This includes lower environmental impact from the resulting waste.

    This could be buying less, or second-hand clothes, or keeping a mobile phone for longer.

    • Less materialistic forms of living with a lower negative impact on the environment.

    Such as choosing to travel by train over flying, or buying a smaller car or house.

    • Having a smaller family.

    According to this 2017 study, one less child per family can reduce the Global North's CO2 emissions by 58.6 metric tons per year4.

    • Embracing environmental protection policies and taking part in political actions supporting environmental protection.

    The green economy is an economy that is guided by the principles of sustainable development to try to minimise environmental impact.

    Post-Materialism - Key takeaways

    • Post-materialism is a sociological theory that seeks to explain the shift of individual values from materialistic to values concerned with autonomy and self-actualisation.
    • Post-materialism was developed by American political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the late 1970s.
    • Post-materialism is opposed to economic and dialectic materialism.
    • The two hypotheses of post-materialism are the scarcity hypothesis and the socialisation hypothesis.
    • Post-materialism manifests in behaviours that are in line with the environmentalist agenda.


    1. Tim Kasser, Materialistc Values and Goals, National Centre for Biotechnology Information website, 2015
    2. Ronald Inglehart Changing values among western publics from 1970 to 2006, 2008
    3. Inglehart and Welzel, Modernization, cultural change, and democracy: the human development sequence 2005
    4. Seth Waynes and Kimberly A. Nicholson, The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions 2017
    5. Fig. 1 Maslow's hierarchy of needs ( by FireflySixtySeven ( Licenced by CC-BY-SA-4.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Post-Materialism

    What is post-materialism?

    Post-materialism is a sociological theory that seeks to explain the transformation of individual values from having material, physical and economic values to values concerned with autonomy and self-actualisation. 

    How do materialist and post-materialist values differ?

    Material values refer to the acquisition of material goods and seeking wealth. Post-material values refer to concerns over non-materialist goals such as gender equality, racial equality, and environmentalism. 

    What are the theories of post-materialism?

    The two theories of post-materialism are the Scarcity Hypothesis and the Socialization Hypothesis.

    What causes people to develop post-materialist views?

    According to the Scarcity Hypothesis when people achieve financial security and affluence they shift their concerns to non-materialist/post-material goals and values. This particularly happened post-World War II.

    What are post-materialist values?

    Autonomy and self-actualisation.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs? 

    What shape is Maslow's hierarchy of needs?

    Which of these behaviours isn't in line with post-materialism?


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