The theory of Post-materialism assumes an ongoing transformation of individuals and society which liberates them gradually from the stress of basic acquisitive or materialistic needs. In the first place, the term "post-materialism" and the related concept of "the silent revolution" was made rather notorious in political and social sciences by Ronald Inglehart since the beginning of the seventies.
One of Inglehart's main assumptions is that individuals pursue various goals in hierarchical order. First, material needs like hunger or thirst have to be satisfied. If this is done, the focus will be gradually shifting to nonmaterial goods. Hence, according to Inglehart's interpretation of Maslow's hierarchy of human goals, cohorts which often experienced economic scarcities would ceteris paribus place strong priorities on economic needs or economic growth and safety needs such as a strong national defense and "law and order" (materialism). On the other hand, cohorts who have experienced high material affluence start to give high priority to values such as individual improvement, personal freedom, citizen input in government decisions, the ideal of a society based on humanism, and maintaining a clean and healthy environment.
This hypothesis would imply that a growing part of society becomes more post-materialist given long periods of material affluence. The post-material orientations acquired during socialisation should also be rather steadfast, because they are claimed to be a rather stable value-system value in contrast to more volatile political and social attitudes.
There are several ways of measuring post-materialism in empirical science. A rather simple, but common way is creating an index from survey respondents' patterns of responses to a series of items which were designed to measure personal political priorities:
"If you had to choose among the following things, which are the two that seem the most desirable to you?
... On the basis of the choices made among these four items, it is possible to classify our respondents into value priority groups, ranging from a 'pure' acquisitive type to a 'pure' post-bourgeois type, with several intermediate categories." (Inglehart 1971: 994 f.)
The theoretical assumptions and the empirical research connected with the concept of post-materialism have received very high attention and aroused much critical discussion in human sciences. Amongst others, the validity, the stability and the causation of post-materialism has been doubted.
The so-called "Inglehart-index" has been included in several surveys (e.g. General Social Survey, World Values Survey, Eurobarometer, ALLBUS). The time series in ALLBUS (German General Social Survey) is particularly comprehensive. From 1980 to 1990 the share of "pure post-materialists" increased from 13 to 31 percent in West Germany. After the economic and social stress caused by German reunification in 1990 it dropped to 23 percent in 1992 and stayed on that level afterwards (Terwey 2000: 155; ZA and ZUMA 2005). The ALLBUS sample from the less affluent population in East Germany show much lower portions of post-materialists (1991: 15%, 1992: 10%, 1998: 12%). International data from the 2000 World Values Survey show the highest percentage of post-materialists in Australia (35%) followed by Austria (30%), Canada (29%), Italy (28%), Argentina (25%), United States (25%), Sweden (22%), Netherlands (22%), Puerto Rico (22%) etc. (Inglehart et al. 2004: 384). In spite of some questions raised by these and other data, measurements of post-materialism have prima facie proven to be statistically important variables in many analyses.
As increasing post-materialism is based on the abundance of material possessions or resources, it should not be mixed indiscriminately with asceticism or general denial of consumption. In some way post-materialism may be criticized as super-materialism. German data show that there is a tendency towards this orientation among young people, in the economically rather secure public service, and in the managerial middle class (Pappi and Terwey 1982).
Human Beliefs and Values. A cross-cultural sourcebook based on the 1999-2002 values surveys. Coyoacan: siglo veintiuno editores. ISBN 968-23-2502-1