In sociology, pluralism refers to the acceptance of multiple points of view within a society.
In cultural terms, pluralism means that various linguistic, ethnic, and subjective differences can exist among people, and yet everybody can live together peacefully.
Politically, it implies that there is not simply a “majority rule” but a system where the voices of all groups are recognized.
You may have seen various interest groups (such as the NRA in the US) in your country making organized efforts to influence policy decisions. Similarly, people are free to pursue different perspectives and pursue those beliefs in their ways.
Pluralism is an essential aspect of democracy, and it characterizes most modern political orders across the world. Let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Definition of Pluralism in Sociology
Joseph Gerteis defines pluralism in the following way:
“Pluralism refers to the condition of living amid diversity and also to a positive appreciation for that condition.” (2007).
It is a political philosophy that believes that people from various backgrounds, beliefs, and lifestyles can coexist peacefully. It also suggests that all of them can participate in the political process equally.
Pluralism not only permits but also encourages diversity of political opinion. The idea is that, through discussions and negotiations, these differing points of view will ultimately contribute to the “common good” of the entire society.
As such, there would not be a majority rule, but a group of minorities working together (Witten, 2015). Alexis de Tocqueville believed that this would create a “nation of joiners”, where people would be part of various groups, and they would work together to create a thriving democracy.
One of the earliest discussions of pluralism came from James Madison, a founding father of the United States. In his The Federalist Paper (No. 10), he feared that factionalism would lead to internal conflict in the country and set out to find how best to avoid it.
Madison argued that we must allow many competing factions with different points of view. This would prevent any single group from dominating the political system and instead promote competition. Here, like Edmund Burke, Madison is concerned with the idea of balance—a pluralistic harmony of interests is valued over any single abstract principle.
In more recent times, pluralist views have been exemplified in Robert Dahl’s Who Governs (1961). Dahl argued that the US is a democratic society because power is widely distributed among competing interest groups: none of them are all-powerful but still can pursue their legitimate interests. (Scott, 2014).
Characteristics of Pluralism
Pluralist societies have the following characteristics (University of Delaware, 2023).
Those characteristics are multiplicity, autonomy, countervailing influence, the openness of the system, and quest for public support. Each is explained below.
- Multiplicity: The government is not dominated by a single elite but by a multiplicity of small groups. Some of these may be organized and funded, although not necessarily. A few groups may be larger and more powerful, but even their scope is not universal; instead, it is limited to specific areas like banking, defense, etc.
- Autonomy: The small competing groups are politically autonomous. They are independent to compete in the political landscape, and how well they perform depends on their ability to rally political resources (and not on some higher authority). Since there are numerous independent groups, there is widespread and constant competition.
- Countervailing Influence: The power of various groups tends to cancel out each other, resulting in a rough equilibrium. Moreover, group memberships also overlap, that is, people often join multiple groups. This overlap helps to reduce the conflict intensity as people associate with numerous viewpoints instead of being rigid.
- The Openness of the System: Groups are never closed off from the larger world. Instead, they constantly recruit new members. Moreover, new groups are also formed frequently. People usually unite together when there are threats to their interests, fight against injustices, or for other reasons.
- Quest for Public Support: In a pluralist society, the different groups and officers are endlessly seeking public support. Public opinion is a huge resource that an organization can use, even if the people do not directly make decisions. Moreover, the public chooses various leaders, who are associated with organized groups.
- Direct Democracy: The most obvious example of pluralism is direct democracy. In such a political order, each individual has the right to vote on all laws and sometimes even on court decisions. Direct democracy existed in ancient Greek city-states but is quite impossible in today’s populous states. Moreover, it is not even desirable. Scholars argue that political issues require expertise and continuous attention, which the average citizen does not have.
- Modern Indirect Democracies: Most modern democracies are indirect democracies (people rule through their representatives), and pluralism is an essential element of them. Robert Dahl aptly said that “politics is a sideshow in the great circus of life”, meaning that most common people focus their attention on work, family, and friends. Therefore, they must elect representatives who can make political decisions. In a good democracy, pluralism ensures equality of opportunity. Everybody can participate equally in the political process by mobilizing resources, forming groups, and influencing policies.
- Interest Groups: Various interest groups around the world make collective efforts to shape society. For example, in the United States, with increasing environmental degradation, people united to fight against the ill practices of private industries. Scientists and members of Congress also joined in, which led to the enactment of the Clean Air Act in 1955 and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
- End of White Apartheid & Civil Rights Movement: The Apartheid regime in South Africa and the unequal treatment of African Americans in the US were both ended through collective efforts, exemplifying pluralism. South Africa’s apartheid ended through resistance efforts led by Nelson Mandela and global support, making the country democratic by 1994. Similarly, in the US, the civil rights movement fought against racial segregation and discrimination, ultimately leading to laws like The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both these movements exemplify how groups can bring about incredible change in societies.
Assimilation vs Pluralism
While pluralism refers to the coexistence of cultures and cultural blending, assimilation tries to merge these into a single unit.
The metaphor of the “melting pot” is often used to describe assimilation. Different elements go into it, but they are then turned into a single, homogenized whole. Assimilation is defined against pluralism, even though the two phenomena have often coexisted in reality.
Assimilation tries to deal with differences by suggesting that newcomers/outsiders should blend into the dominant society (Gerteis). It does not involve rejecting people who are different but their cultural differences. Essentially, it argues that all members of a society should share a common cultural “core”. (Alexander, 2001).
In contrast, pluralism believes that cultural differences should be recognized and appreciated (instead of being removed or melted into another). In recent times, the term “multiculturalism” has been used to describe this belief; it aims to recognize and respect the multilayered social differences of modern life.
So far, we have discussed how democracies like the United States of America have been pluralist. However, historically, the distribution of power has often been unfair. Chinese immigrants once faced sharp cultural and legal forms of exclusion.
African Americans suffered unequal treatment as late as the second half of the 20th century, which contradicts the American motto of freedom and equality. So, assimilation and pluralism have historically been two opposing beliefs that have shaped most societies.
Pluralism refers to the recognition and acceptance of different viewpoints.
Culturally, it means that people from various backgrounds and different lifestyles can live together peacefully. It also suggests that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
Pluralism is an essential component of most modern democracies, where “majority rule” is replaced by healthy competition between many minority groups. These groups mobilize resources to pursue their collective interests and try to influence policy decisions. Examples of such groups include environmentalists, labor unions, associations like the NRA, etc.
Alexander, J. C. (2001) Theorizing the ‘‘Modes of Incorporation.’’ Sociological Theory.
Gerteis, J. (2007). “American Pluralism” in (ed.) George Ritzer’s The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell.
Scott, J. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford.
The University of Delaware (2023). “Pluralism”. Retrieved from: https://www1.udel.edu/htr/American/Texts/pluralism.html
Witten, D. (2015) “Three Theories of American Democracy”. Mathwizurd. https://www.mathwizurd.com/government/2015/10/12/three-theories-of-american-democracy