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Attitudes are judgments people have about ideas, experiences, and other people. They can be conscious (explicit) or unconscious (implicit) beliefs that may influence behavior and decisions. Behavioral attitudes are attitudes that develop as a direct result of certain behaviors. However, because one may hold a negative attitude toward a specific behavior yet still engage in that behavior, a person’s behavior does not always reflect his or her attitudes.
Social research on nonconformity at the group and societal level has yielded insights into attitude formation and behavior. An early and influential work was Oscar Lewis’s La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty, San Juan, and New York (1966). Lewis intended to show that the behavior of poor people—his book’s subjects—revealed key insights into how poverty itself generated a way of life that Lewis described as a distinct “culture of poverty.” Lewis’s work set off a highly politicized controversy in social scientific and policy circles over the causes of poverty and the complex issue of which social groups set and define the “norms” used to judge behavior as favorable or unfavorable. According to Lewis, poverty’s enduring nature cannot be attributed to structural constraints only, but also to poor peoples’ own attitudes and beliefs that prevent them from succeeding according to mainstream standards.
Research on unfavorable behavior has revealed the key role that norms play in all attitude formation, whether these norms are sanctioned at the group level, the societal level, or both (see for example Erikson 1966; Becker 1991). Many social scientists emphasize the way in which shared or socially held beliefs and attitudes—“norms”— link the individual to society (Tesser and Shaffer 1990). In contrast to a singular or independently developed attitude, belief systems are larger structures that link individual attitudes together. Human behavior is thus continuously mediated between socially situated attitudes (norms) and an individual’s attitudes. Jary and Jary (1991), integrating various definitions, argue that attitudes contain three elements: the cognitive, the affective, and the behavioral. Using the framework of behavioral action and attitudes, social scientists have focused their empirical research on the societal and group context in which attitudes and beliefs, and their attendant actions, occur. Some social scientists differ over the weight to ascribe to the individual, group, or society in attitude formation, but generally their numerous studies of behaviors—both conforming and deviant—have revealed the complex nature of the interactions between the various levels at which attitudes are formed, beliefs are generated, and behaviors are enacted. The behavioral attitudes exhibited by Lewis’s subjects, for example, may not have been a reflection of their individual-level “positive regard” for the behaviors so much as the group-level “coping strategy” for dealing with the results of generations of poverty.
- Becker, Howard.  1991. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press.
- Erikson, Kai T. 1966. Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Macmillan.
- Jary, D., and J. Jary. 1991. The Harper Collins Dictionary of Sociology. New York, Harper Collins Publishers.
- Lewis, Oscar. 1966. La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty, San Juan, and New York. New York: Random House.
- Tesser, Abraham, and David R. Shaffer. 1990. Attitudes and Attitude Change. Annual Review of Psychology 41: 479–523.
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