Plural Societies Research Paper

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The idea of the ‘plural society’ was first coined by a British colonial administrator, Furnivall, on the basis of practical experience in Southeast Asia, in his classic volume, Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India (1939), more as a descriptive device than as theory. It reflected the condition, common in colonial and later, newly independent postcolonial states, of deeply divided societies, usually along ascriptive lines of ethnicity or race (sometimes called ‘communal’), but also of culture, religion, or language. Characteristically, such societies are deeply segmented, with weak institutional integration and little consensus over ‘national’ agenda, unity, or identity. These tendencies are enhanced by the fact that the core values of each of the constituent (ethnic or other) communities are often incompatible, and that they each pursue separate goals and interests, in a fashion which Furnivall described as ‘mixing’ without ‘combining,’ and ‘meeting only in the market place,’ for basic economic needs. In the colonial context such societies were held together largely by coercion rather than consensus. Boeke, a Dutch colonial administrator in Furnivall’s tradition, developed similar ideas about segmented societies in his Economics and Economic Policy of Dual Societies, Indonesia as Exemplified by (1953), which he conceptualized in binary (‘dual’) terms, highlighting the colonial/indigenous cleavage, particularly in the domain of modern vs. traditional economic institutions.



One common source of confusion arises around two diametrically opposed meanings of the form ‘pluralism’ which may refer either to the plural society, or to its obverse, viz. a cohesive pluralist society integrated through a multiplicity of cross-cutting linkages, as conceptualized by such political scientists as (Dahrendorf 1959). This represents a continuation of the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose model of nineteenth-century America as knit together by webs of associations, helped to neutralize ethnic and other divisions.

Beginning in the 1960s, when most colonial states achieved independence, the term ‘plural society’ migrated into academic discourse, as anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists attempted to inject some theoretical rigor into the study of such weak states, held together as much by coercion as by the market. Among the pioneers were Smith and Kuper writing initially on (especially South) Africa and the West Indies. Together, they edited Pluralism in Africa (Kuper 1969), while Smith also authored Stratification in Grenada (Smith 1965b) and The Plural Society in the British West Indies (Smith 1965a). Smith and Kuper distinguished three types, or levels of pluralism. Cultural pluralism, as a form of extreme heterogeneity, sets the necessary, though not sufficient, preconditions for social pluralism, which is marked by the existence of relatively closed communities with separate core values and institutions and engaging in few cross ethnic contacts. Finally, where constituent groups within a state are ‘differentially incorporated,’ or have unequal civil and legal status as citizens, there exists a situation of structural pluralism, a feature often found in racially divided societies. These writers, and to some extent Van den Berghe (1970), largely due to the particularities of the societies they studied, were most concerned with the type of pluralism known as ethnic stratification. Most common in ‘white-settler’ (hence, not strictly postcolonial) societies, social structure is envisaged in the form of a vertical hierarchy of ethnic racial communities, which are simultaneously ranked as classes (occasionally called ‘eth-classes’), the most egregious example of the era being apartheid South Africa.

In other world regions, such as Southeast Asia, another kind of plural society was identified, where the ethnic cultural communal sections, rather than being ranked hierarchically, live side-by-side as ‘parallel,’ ‘pillared,’ or ‘segmental’ communities (Benedict 1962, Morris 1967), each largely institutionally self-sufficient. Characteristically, individuals in such societies are primarily identified as members of their collectivity (or ‘ethnicity’), which constrains them in most activities and life-chances, from religion, kinship practices, education, and occupation, to political party membership. In maximally plural situations (Despres 1968), there is little opportunity for autonomous individuals to act independently or to forge cross community ties without reference to the ‘basic givens’ of their birth status. ‘National’ unity consists of little more than opportunistic alliances of multi-ethnic elites, while most other societal institutions and relations remain divided along ethnic lines. Societies of this type included Indonesia (Geertz 1963), Malaysia (Ratnam 1965, Nagata 1979), and Mauritius (Benedict 1962), where the presence of coloniallyimported immigrant communities of Chinese and Indians exacerbated the cleavages and even conflict. In these places, and in such comparable plural states as Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Guyana, and Fiji, even national political elections are fought along communal lines, where the principal unity and co-operation emerges at the top, through cross-ethnic connections among elites for their mutual advantage. Political scientists describe such electoral arrangements as ‘consociational’ (Lijphart 1977), and these are probably implicated in the familiar ‘crony-capitalist’ style of leadership of many rapidly developing states, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Where the impetus for linking social, economic, and political institutions and issues to ethnic identity is state policy, there is little prospect for any form of assimilation ideology or practice, with all its implications for lack of national identity or shared ‘imagined community.’ In face of internally contested goals and identities, departments or ministries of ‘national unity’ are sometimes created to impose or direct what daily living cannot, but without some ‘depluralization’ (Kuper and Smith 1969), both the objective structures and subjective perceptions of separateness persist. Until this happens, in the view of some political scientists of the 1960s and 1970s, societies are not yet politically modern (Inkeles 1969). What is needed to overcome these problems, according to Geertz (1963) is an ‘integrative revolution,’ whereby transcendent civic loyalties come to supercede particularistic ones, or turned to the benefit of a more cohesive state. In effect this involves the creation of more cross-cutting institutional and individual networks in the public domain, based on superethnic principles and issues, of a neutral political space corresponding to a pluralist or even to a ‘civil society’. While it has been claimed (Eriksen 1994) for Mauritius, that such depluralization is achievable over time, particularly under the impact of an open market economy, and arguably that even South Africa is moving in this direction, it is at best an unpredictable and oscillating process. Evidence (Eriksen 1994) does suggest that some communal cleavages can be retooled to work for, rather than against, national unity as in Mauritius and Trinidad, whereas post-Suharto Indonesia, post-Abacha Nigeria, and contemporary Sri Lanka, on the other hand, remain vulnerable to the centrifugal tendencies of their internal plural divisions. As Tambiah (1989) has suggested, the initial postcolonial euphoria of nation-building may be sufficient in the short term to paper over the plural cracks, but they do seem to re-assert themselves subsequently as a new round of internal ethnic resource and power politics, or ‘retribalization’ (Cohen 1974) comes into play. The language of ‘ethnonationalism’ covers many of the same problems, in the sense that ethnonational movements represent politically mobilized ethnic communities, which may eventually be consummated in an independent or secessionist state, in the manner of Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia of the 1990s. Others are not (yet) consummated, but remain poised for secession from larger (plural) states, as in Quebec or the Tamil northeast of Sri Lanka, exemplifying the perennial problem of such polities.

In one variation of the plural society’s political and socially fissiparous tendencies, the binary type is considered by some observers (Milne 1981) to be the most fragile. In his selections of ‘bipolar’ plural states, notably Malaysia, Guyana, and Fiji (to which could be added Sri Lanka and Belgium), the argument is made for the presence of a zero-sum or winner loser mentality in matters of resource and power distribution, such that A’s gain is invariably construed as B’s loss, and vice versa. In situations of multiple division, where three or more communities are present, there are more possibilities for cross-cutting coalitions, whereby groups make different alliances according to interest, such that one can neutralize another, and this is particularly clear in the case of political party relations. In practice, however, even in situations where three or more nominal parties or plural segments exist, the actual arrangements may operate in de facto binary fashion. Thus in Malaysia, where three principal ethnic-based and several other political parties play the electoral field, in most major issues the public rhetoric is framed in terms of Malays (or Muslims) vs. non-Malays (or non-Muslims), the second category consisting of a collective assortment of other ethnic and religious constituencies. In Indonesia, the plethora of indigenous ethnic groups are packaged politically and symbolically as one (pribumi) in face of the (relatively tiny) immigrant Chinese community. Similarly, in Canada, the array of diverse immigrant ethnic communities count as a single unit (the ‘Rest of Canada/ROC’) or Anglophone, in opposition to Francophone Quebec in the business of federal politics. The reduction of multito bipolarity significantly affects the oppositional character and abrasiveness of internal relations, at least at the maximal political level.

Plural constructions of society tend to focus exclusively on the divisiveness of ethnic, racial and cultural, or religious identities and their derivative institutions. Conspicuously missing in most of the plural literature is any reference to class stratification and its potential for the creation of cross-cutting cleavages, or, viewed from another perspective, of unity in a different direction. Where class enters the picture at all, as in the writings of Kuper and Smith, the emphasis is on the fact that each ethnic racial selection is internally stratified by its own unique set of strata, none of which correspond with those of any other, hence their cooperative, class-action potential is neutralized. No South African black miner would find common cause with a white worker in the same sector, nor a Malay with a Chinese rubber tapper. However, the deflection of class to ethnic/racial images is often as much the product of a state worldview or agenda, whose interest it is to frame all local issues in ethnic terms and to rule by playing off one community against another. This is also intended to a avoid labor unrest or economic instability, and is reinforced by banning unions (or channeling them along ethnic lines), and other class-like activities. One consequence is that members of such societies spontaneously perceive all inequalities as based on ethnic communal or sometimes religious statuses. It is this kind of mindset which causes the Chinese in many countries to be unilaterally classified as the ‘exploiters,’ while conveniently ignoring the existence both of poor Chinese and rich local elites. Furnivall’s ‘meeting in the market place’ does not necessarily seem to create the de Tocquevillian or Dahrendorfian conditions necessary for a pluralist society.

The lack of attention to the potential or existence of class expression in plural societies may be as much ideological as a reflection of the actual situation. In contrast to Marxian convictions that the fundamental determinant of social inequality is material, and that ethnicity is merely an epiphenomenon of class, plural society theorists maintain that ethnic and racial identities are sui generis, the cause of most social inequality and conflict.

Since the late 1970s, the term ‘plural’ seems to have yielded to or been superceded by the label ‘multicultural’ in many places. A careful examination of socalled multicultural societies today reveals a number of parallels with the older ‘plural’ term, in its emphasis on ethnic, racial, or cultural identities as the primary source of diversity and division, often at the expense of class. Some commentators maintain that states which promote multicultural policies, which make a virtue of ethnic difference, and even design many social activities and programs along these lines, are a cynical official device (‘myths’) to obscure more basic class or race inequalities and lack of opportunities for mobility or political empowerment (Peter 1981) for Canada. Proponents of this view suggest that the choice of the term ‘culture’ as the operating principle conveys a bland, benign, and misleading image of tolerance and equality of opportunity, turning ‘difference’ away from ethnic conflict and to the benefit of national unity. Given that most societies today are in the process of becoming demographically, socially, religiously, and culturally more multicultural through immigration, even the older, more stable states of Europe, once confident of their national character and identity, are now rethinking these as they come to terms with unaccustomed internal ethnic and cultural diversity. Particularly pressing are the handling of religious and legal pluralness by the host society. The actual policy responses to de facto multiculturalism, however, vary by country and over time, as Germany’s (1999) reconsideration of the status of its largely Turkish ‘guestworkers’ (Gastarbeiter) illustrates. In the case of the US, the long-established ideology of assimilation is challenged by ideas of multiculturalism as policy (Walzer 1992, Waldron 1992). Increasingly, the emphasis is on the acceptance of difference rather than on the promotion of homogeneity. Also at issue is the question of recognition of (ethnic/cultural/racial) collectives or group rights vs. the more established privileging of the individual and of individual rights as the underpinning of western liberal democracy (Kymlicka 1995). This has implications for such ‘corrective’ policies introduced by some contemporary plural states in the direction of quotas or of affirmative action, which could be construed as benign attempts to condone or perpetuate pluralness (Porter 1975), and hark back to what could be interpreted as compromising the standards of liberal democracy and a civic nation. This dilemma, of simultaneously recognizing group identities and integrity while maintaining liberal democratic ideals, is most articulately treated in Taylor (1992) dissections of Canadian multiculturalism.

A general survey of current world trends indicates a declining emphasis on assimilation as a route to nation-building, from Israel to Australia, largely as a response to accelerated and extensive transnational movements and to the existence of deterritorialized communities. This raises new problems of internal social cohesion within states, as they face the question as to whether multiple identities (and even citizenships) among their populations, (who may simultaneously also be participating in the activities of transnational communities offshore), are necessarily mutually exclusive or to the detriment of the state. The original, rather divisive forms of pluralness may, in certain circumstances, form the foundations of a new style of pluralistic politics of diversity or difference, in dialogic as much as conflictive relations, operating between, as well as within states.


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