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Cultural Conservatism vs. Social Conservatism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Some people want to conserve society, while others want to conserve culture. So, what's the difference? In this lesson, we'll examine both ideas and see how they're similar and how they're different.

Conservative Policies

There's a tradition in the modern world of fighting for tradition. This means something different to everyone, but one major trend that has emerged is conservatism. Conservatives, in this sense, support policies that prevent changes to institutions, ideas, or values that they see as being traditionally important. There's a history of conservative policies being favored by those who benefit from those traditions; privilege and power are often enshrined within tradition. So, what does all of this mean? Well, it all depends on which traditions you want to conserve.

Social Conservatism

When we talk about conservatism today (outside of a strict discussion of established conservative or liberal political parties), there are generally two kinds of conservatism that come to mind. Both have been particularly important since the 1980s in defining modern ideas about tradition and fighting to prevent them from being changed.

The first of these is social conservatism. Social conservatives are focused first and foremost on society. Specifically, they seek to preserve what they see as the traditional values of their society. The goal is to prevent social changes from undermining these values, and thereby to prevent a fundamental change to the society itself. In order to do this, social conservatives draw from a number of tactics that range from private advocacy and protests to the use of the federal government to enforce traditional values and limit change.

So, what exactly do these values look like? It changes by society, but there are some common ones that can be found across the world. One big traditional value supported by social conservatism is marriage and family. This doesn't just mean that social conservatives support the concepts of marriage and families, but that they support a very specific view of what a marriage and family should look like. In their minds, these are the traditional structures upon which their society is built.

In the modern world, social conservatism in this sense tends to equate to heterosexual unions, blessed by a religious institution, composed of biological children. Homosexual marriages, homosexual adoption of children, non-married coupling, mixed families, single parenting, and abortion are therefore seen as challenges to traditional social orders. Social conservatives fight against these changes because they threaten the perceived status quo, and so they support laws designed to prevent or restrict them.

Cartoon portraying suffrage for women as a threat to traditional family values
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It's important to keep in mind that there is never, and has never been, a single set of traditions within any society. What 'tradition' means invariably changes with time. Racial integration, women's suffrage, and even restrictions prohibiting child labor were all once seen as radical ideas that challenged traditional social values. So, what matters is not so much a fact of what is and is not tradition, but simply what people perceive their social traditions to be.

Cultural Conservatism

Social conservatism is very often confused with a related but distinct concept known as cultural conservatism. Cultural conservatives are concerned with threats to cultural traditions and the established status quo within a culture.

So, isn't that the same thing as social conservatism? Not quite. Social conservatism deals with social values, while cultural conservatism is more interested in the heritage and traditions that form the basis of a national culture. To cultural conservatives, the government should be active in preserving the cultural traditions of a nation and should work to restrict ideas they see as a threat to those traditions.

A great example of this would be language. Many cultures embrace the concept of a national language, and this can be a significant part of what it means to belong to that culture. After all, the English speak English, the Spanish speak Spanish, the Italians speak Italian...you get the idea. A cultural conservative would argue that the government should not only work to advance the use of the language, but should also prevent the use of other languages. In many European nations, foreign languages are often seen by cultural conservatives as a threat to the cultural traditions of the nation. In places like Latin America, indigenous languages have historically been presented as a threat to Spanish-based culture.

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