Sociology Conservatism
Peter Kivisto
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0259


Conservatism refers to one of the constituent political positions found in all contemporary democracies. It can be construed as a philosophy, an ideology, a political party, a movement, a disposition, a mode of discourse, performance style, and an emotional relationship to the political. Since the birth of modern democracies in the aftermath of the French Revolution, it has become commonplace to describe the range of political options available to the citizenry as occupying a spectrum from left to right, with a range of alternatives between the extreme poles, including a centrist position in the middle that straddles the divide. The left was associated with promoting challenges to established authorities and existing hierarchies, along with calls for increased economic equality and expanded social and political rights to all citizens, including the heretofore marginalized. This contrasts with the right, which was defined as defending inequalities and differential entitlements, concentrating matters involving rights around preserving property rights, shoring up public and social order, and promoting traditional values and conventional social relations. In this context, liberalism became a mark of political identity associated with the left, as did socialism, while conservatism, broadly construed, represented the right. This framing of politics also includes the possibility of underminings by extremism on both the left and right. For the former, the main threat since the Russian Revolution has been posed by revolutionary communism, while right-wing extremism has manifested itself in reactionary movements, including fascism and illiberal populism. Since liberalism and conservatism must be understood in relational terms, the spatial and temporal settings for the politics of opposition will vary considerably. It is impossible to do justice to the vast literature on conservatism in a bibliography such as this. What follows is a more delimited, and thus manageable examination of work on conservatism. First, it focuses on conservatism in the United States, and not elsewhere. Second, it is chiefly concerned with conservatism since the end of World War II. Third, it concentrates on the study of conservatism by sociologists and those working in cognate disciplines; while not all the authors are card-carrying sociologists, their works reflect a sociological character, although the exception to this third point is the overview section, which presents key readings by advocates of conservatism, and thus offers insider depictions of the meaning of conservatism. Fourth, this article does not concentrate solely on extremist right-wing movements; rather, in surveying the relevant literature on American conservatism broadly construed, it points to a growing consensus that the radical right wing has pushed mainstream conservatism increasingly further to the right.

Overviews by Conservatives

Conservative writers have offered a wide range of accounts of what it means to be a conservative, how modern conservatism is connected to a longer intellectual tradition, and what conservativism means to not only American politics, but to broader social and cultural issues. Several entries in this section deal with the ideas central to conservative thought, including the overiews of Kirk 2016 and Nisbet 1988. Dunn and Woodward 1996 furthers this line of inquiry by examining analytically distinct conservative schools of thought, while Bacevich 2020 attempts to update understanding of the conservative tradition. Critchlow 2011 explores the political mobilization of conservatives, while Stevens 2020 concludes that the movement has led to reactionary extremism. A broad overview of ideas, parties, movements, and issues is contained in Frohnen, et al. 2006.

  • Bacevich, Andrew J., ed. 2020. American conservatism: Reclaiming an intellectual tradition. New York: Library of America.

    Casting a wide net to capture the conservative disposition, Bacevich stresses recurring themes on the virtues of tradition, an embrace of individualism, fears of an expansive bureaucratic state, the enduring role of religion, nationalist concerns with foreign enemies, and a defense of capitalist markets.

  • Critchlow, Donald T. 2011. The conservative ascendancy: How the Republican right rose to power in modern America. 2d ed. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

    Tracing the rise of the Republican right following the Goldwater electoral loss in 1964, through the Reagan years and the administrations of Bush father and son, to the rise of the Tea Party after the Obama electoral victory, Critchlow focuses on the mobilization of political power by the right.

  • Dunn, Charles W., and J. David Woodward. 1996. The conservative tradition in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    In this account of conservatism since World War II, the authors identify five analytically distinct but sometimes empirically overlapping schools of thought: traditional, economic, anticommunist, neoconservative, and classical.

  • Frohnen, Bruce, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson, eds. 2006. American conservatism: An encyclopedia. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute Books.

    Published by an organization founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1953 to promote conservative ideas on college campuses, this encyclopedia contains 626 entries ranging from brief descriptions to longer essays, covering not only specific thinkers and schools of conservative thought, but treatments of contested political and cultural topics ranging from abortion and affirmative action to welfare and war.

  • Kirk, Russell. 2016. The conservative mind: From Burke to Eliot. Washington, DC: Gateway Editions.

    Originally published in 1953 (Washington, DC: Regnery), probably the most influential book among contemporary conservatives, in which Kirk presents a perspective on conservatism as consisting of a variety of streams of conservative thinking, including liberal, traditional, legal, historical, critical, and Southern conservatism.

  • Nisbet, Robert. 1988. Conservatism: Dream and reality. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    Nisbet, a conservative and a sociologist, contends that society— composed of groups and communities—is an essential mediator between the individual and the state. Conservatism is committed to protecting society from the challenges posed by both collectivism and radical individualism.

  • Stevens, Stuart. 2020. It was all a lie: How the Republican Party became Donald Trump. New York: Alfred A, Knopf.

    A conservative former political organizer who led Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, and in 2016 joined the ranks of never-Trump conservatives, Stevens traces how the Republican Party came to embrace Donald Trump. This proved possible because it had much earlier abandoned its credentials as a responsible center-right party by embracing extremism and anti-intellectualism.

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