Why I Am Not 'Conservative'

Like most sociologists, I am conservative in the sense that I believe in the existence of barely perceived social mechanisms—mechanisms that satisfy the deep physiological, psychological, and cultural needs. This sociological world view contains a conservative element: the belief that a sufficiently great attempt to alter society will introduce more unintended, and undesired, consequences than the innovators can anticipate.

At some level of abstraction, nearly everyone is "conservative" in this sense. Nearly everyone acknowledges the possibility of alterations that, by ignoring realities, invite disaster.

It would be easy, for example, to dismiss the funeral as an atavistic residue of rituals that make sense only for the primitive men who inhabit an apparently random world. It is hardly possible to attend a funeral without hearing someone ridicule the institution as "barbaric." At first glance this does not seem unreasonable: The funeral may indeed cause unnecessary pain, and it might be better to do away with the ritual altogether. However, a little reflection will bring us to the realization that funerals today continue to serve their ancient purpose; they force the bereaved to acknowledge that society has—from his viewpoint—changed dramatically and irreversibly; at the same time, society rallies round the mourner to remind him that he is not alone. The funeral, in other words, is...

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