An everyday notion meaning to ‘preserve’ or ‘keep intact’ which has, at least in Europe and the United States since the nineteenth century, come to be associated with a set of political principles. The major problem in defining the concept is that many conservatives themselves deny conservatism is an abstract theory or ideology ; rather, they defend their judgements on the grounds of tradition, historical experience, and gradualism. Typically, conservatives eschew comprehensive visions of the good society, and favour instead the (as they see it) pragmatism of piecemeal social reform.
That said, modern conservatism tends to draw on two somewhat contradictory intellectual strands, namely the organic conservatism of the Middle Ages and the libertarian conservatism of writers such as Edmund Burke. The former harks back to the medieval ideal of the close-knit local community , a stable social hierarchy with rank ascribed at birth rather than achieved (see ascription ), dominated by aristocratic paternalism towards the poor, and a network of reciprocal rights and obligations linking benevolent master and deferential servant (see deference ). By comparison, Burke (an eighteenth-century English political theorist) favoured laissez-faire economics , unregulated capitalism , and minimal state intervention in economic affairs. Whereas organic conservatism emphasizes ‘one nation’, libertarians endorse the individualism of autonomous individuals following their own self-interest, usually on the grounds of individual freedom, social justice, and (long-term) collective welfare.
These strands have proved difficult to reconcile in the long term. (Burke himself also wrote a passionate defence of the organic political and social traditions of eighteenth-century Britain, denouncing the French Revolution, and thus setting the trend in this respect.) Modern conservatives have grappled to balance the two and offered a full range of hybrids. An excellent account of the difficulties inherent in this exercise, illustrated by reference to the history of political conservatism and the Conservative Party in Britain, is Robert Eccleshall's essay on this subject in hisPolitical Ideologies (1984).

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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