The World Values Surveys were designed to test the hypothesis that economic and technological changes are transforming the basic values and motivations of the publics of industrialized societies. The surveys build on the European Values Study (EVS) first carried out in 1981. The EVS was conducted under the aegis of Jan Kerkhofs and Ruud de Moor and continues to be based in the Netherlands at the Tilburg University. The 1981 study was largely limited to developed societies, but interest in this project spread so widely that surveys were carried out in more than twenty countries, located on all six inhabited continents. Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan played a leading role in extending these surveys to be carried out in countries around the world. Today the network includes hundreds of social scientist from more than 100 countries.
Findings from the first wave of surveys pointed to the conclusion that intergenerational changes were taking place in basic values relating to politics, economic life, religion, gender roles, family norms and sexual norms. The values of younger generations differed consistently from those prevailing among older generations, particularly in societies that had experienced rapid economic growth. To examine whether changes were actually taking place in these values and to analyze the underlying causes, a second wave of WVS surveys was carried out in 1990–91. Because these changes seem to be linked with economic and technological development, it was important to include societies across the entire range of development, from low income societies to rich societies.
A third wave of surveys was carried out in 1995–97, this time in 55 societies and with increased attention being given to analysing the cultural conditions for democracy. A fourth wave of surveys was carried out in 1999–2001 in 65 societies. A key goal was to obtain better coverage of African and Islamic societies, which had been under-represented in previous surveys. A fifth wave was carried out in 2005–07 and a sixth wave has been completed in 2010-2014. The next, 7th wave, is planned for 2017-2018.
Due to the European origin of the project, the early waves of the WVS were eurocentric in emphasis, with little representation in Africa and South-East Asia. To expand, the WVS adopted a decentralised structure. in which social scientists from countries throughout the world participated in the design, execution and analysis of the data, and in publication of findings. In return for providing the data from a survey in their own society, each group obtained immediate access to the data from all participating societies enabling them to analyse social change in a broader perspective
The WVS network has produced over 1,000 publications in 20 languages and secondary users have produced several thousand additional publications. The database of the WVS has been published on the internet with free access.
The official archive of the World Values Survey is located at ASEP/JDS, Madrid, Spain.