The European Values Study was initiated by the European Value Systems Study Group (EVSSG) in the late 1970s, at that time an informal grouping of academics. Now, it is carried on in the setting of a foundation, using the (abbreviated) name of the group: European Values Study (EVS).

The EVSSG researchers aimed at exploring the moral and social values underlying European social and political institutions and governing conduct. At the time of the first survey, the first elections for the European Parliament were approaching, a bishops conference was organized, and questions were raised such as:

  • Do Europeans share common values?
  • Are values changing in Europe and, if so, in what directions?
  • Do Christian values continue to permeate European life and culture?
  • Is a coherent alternative meaning system replacing that of Christianity?
  • What are the implications for European unity?

To answer these questions, a survey was planned and in 1981 interviews were conducted in ten European countries (also including Northern Ireland which was investigated separately from Great Britain). The research project aroused interest in North and South America, the Middle and Far East, Australia, and South Africa where affiliated groups were set up to administer the same questionnaire. Agreements were negotiated with regard to the exchange of data for intercontinental and inter-cultural comparisons. As a result, a unique dataset became available, covering 26 nations.

To explore the dynamics of values changes, a second wave of surveys was launched in 1990 in all European countries, including Switzerland, Austria, and countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the US and Canada.

About ten years later (1999), the third EVS wave was conducted in almost all European countries, with the exception of Norway, Switzerland and some of the former Yugoslavian countries. This allowed to investigating the causes and consequences of the dynamics of value change.

In 2008, the fourth wave of the European Values Study took place. The fieldwork covers no less than 47 European countries/regions, from Iceland to Azerbaijan and from Portugal to Norway.