A culture's values are its ideas about what is good, right, fair, and just. Sociologists disagree, however, on how to conceptualize values. Conflict theory focuses on how values differ between groups within a culture, while functionalism focuses on the shared values within a culture. For example, American sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested that the most important values in American society are wealth, success, power, and prestige, but that everyone does not have an equal opportunity to attain these values. Functional sociologist Talcott Parsons noted that Americans share the common value of the “American work ethic,” which encourages hard work. Other sociologists have proposed a common core of American values, including accomplishment, material success, problem‐solving, reliance on science and technology, democracy, patriotism, charity, freedom, equality and justice, individualism, responsibility, and accountability.
A culture, though, may harbor conflicting values. For instance, the value of material success may conflict with the value of charity. Or the value of equality may conflict with the value of individualism. Such contradictions may exist due to an inconsistency between people's actions and their professed values, which explains why sociologists must carefully distinguish between what people do and what they say.Real culture refers to the values and norms that a society actually follows, while ideal culture refers to the values and norms that a society professes to believe.