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Pluralism (political theory)

Pluralism (political theory)

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Classical pluralism is the view that politics and decision making are located mostly in the framework of government, but that many non-governmental groups use their resources to exert influence. The central question for classical pluralism is how power and influence is distributed in a political process. Groups of individuals try to maximize their interests. Lines of conflict are multiple and shifting as power is a continuous bargaining process between competing groups. There may be inequalities but they tend to be distributed and evened out by the various forms and distributions of resources throughout a population. Any change under this view will be slow and incremental, as groups have different interests and may act as "veto groups" to destroy legislation that they do not agree with.

The existence of diverse and competing interests is the basis for a democratic equilibrium, and is crucial for the obtaining of goals by individuals. A polyarchy
In modern political science, the term polyarchy was introduced by Robert A. Dahl, now emeritus professor at Yale University, to describe a form of government in which power is vested in three or more persons. This form of government was first implemented in the United States and was gradually...

 - a situation of open competition for electoral support within a significant part of the adult population - ensures competition of group interests and relative equality. Pluralists stress civil rights, such as freedom of expression and organization, and an electoral system with at least two parties. On the other hand, since the participants in this process constitute only a tiny fraction of the populace, the public acts mainly as bystanders. This is not necessarily undesirable for two reasons: (1) it may be representative of a population content with the political happenings, or (2) political issues require continuous and expert attention, which the average citizen does not have.

Important theorists of pluralism include Robert A. Dahl
Robert A. Dahl
Robert Alan Dahl , is the Sterling Professor emeritus of political science at Yale University, where he earned his Ph.D. in political science in 1940. He is past president of the American Political Science Association...

 (who wrote the seminal pluralist work, Who Governs?
Who Governs?
Who Governs? is an influential book in American political science by Robert Dahl. It was published in 1961 by Yale University Press. Dahl's work is a case study of political power and representation in New Haven, Connecticut...

) and Seymour Martin Lipset
Seymour Martin Lipset
Seymour Martin Lipset was an American political sociologist, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. His major work was in the fields of political sociology, trade union organization, social stratification, public opinion, and...


Pluralist conception of power

Pluralists emphasize that power is not a physical entity that individuals either have or do not have, but flows from a variety of different sources. Rather, people are powerful because they control various resources. Resources are assets that can be used to force others to do what one wants. Politicians become powerful because they command resources that people want or fear or respect. The list of possibilities is virtually endless: legal authority, money, prestige, skill, knowledge, charisma, legitimacy, free time, and experience. Pluralists also stress the differences between potential and actual power as it stands. Actual power means the ability to compel someone to do something and is the view of power as a causation. Dahl describes power as a "realistic relationship, such as A's capacity for acting in such a manner as to control B's responses" [A preface to Democratic Theory]. Potential power refers to the possibility of turning resources into actual power. Cash, one of many resources, is only a stack of bills until it is put to work. Malcolm X
Malcolm X
Malcolm X , born Malcolm Little and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz , was an African American Muslim minister and human rights activist. To his admirers he was a courageous advocate for the rights of African Americans, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its...

, for example, was certainly not a rich person. But by using resources such as his forceful personality, organizational skills, and especially the legitimacy of his cause, he had a greater impact on American politics than most wealthy people. A particular resource like money cannot automatically be equated with power because the resource can be used skillfully or clumsily, fully or partially, or not at all.

The pluralist approach to the study of power
Political power
Political power is a type of power held by a group in a society which allows administration of some or all of public resources, including labour, and wealth. There are many ways to obtain possession of such power. At the nation-state level political legitimacy for political power is held by the...

, states that nothing categorical about power can be assumed in any community. The question then is not who runs a community, but if any group in fact does. To determine this, pluralists study specific outcomes. The reason for this is that they believe human behavior is governed in large part by inertia
Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest, or the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion. It is proportional to an object's mass. The principle of inertia is one of the fundamental principles of classical physics which are used to...

. That said, actual involvement in overt activity is a more valid marker of leadership than simply a reputation. Pluralists also believe that there is no one particular issue or point in time at which any group must assert itself to stay true to its own expressed values, but rather that there are a variety of issues and points at which this is possible. There are also costs involved in taking action at all—not only losing, but expenditure of time and effort. While a structuralist may argue that power distributions have a rather permanent nature, this rationale says that power may in fact be tied to issues, which vary widely in duration. Also, instead of focusing on actors within a system
System is a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole....

, the emphasis is on the leadership
Leadership has been described as the “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task". Other in-depth definitions of leadership have also emerged.-Theories:...

 roles itself. By studying these, it can be determined to what extent there is a power structure present in a society
A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...


Three of the major tenets of the pluralist school are (1) resources and hence potential power are widely scattered throughout society; (2) at least some resources are available to nearly everyone; and (3) at any time the amount of potential power exceeds the amount of actual power.

Finally, and perhaps most important, no one is all-powerful unless proven so through empirical observation. An individual or group that is influential in one realm may be weak in another. Large military contractors certainly throw their weight around on defense matters, but how much sway do they have on agricultural or health policies? A measure of power, therefore, is its scope, or the range of areas where it is successfully applied as observed by a researcher. Pluralists believe that with few exceptions power holders usually have a relatively limited scope of influence. Pluralism does leave room for an elitist situation- Should a group A continuously exert power over multiple groups. For a pluralist to accept this notion, it must be empirically observed and not assumed so by definition.

For all these reasons power cannot be taken for granted. One has to observe it empirically in order to know who really governs. The best way to do this, pluralists believe, is to examine a wide range of specific decisions, noting who took which side and who ultimately won and lost. Only by keeping score on a variety of controversies can one begin to identify actual power holders. Pluralism was associated with behavioralism
Behavioralism is an approach in political science which seeks to provide an objective, quantified approach to explaining and predicting political behavior. It is associated with the rise of the behavioral sciences, modeled after the natural sciences...

A contradiction to pluralist power is often cited from the origin of one's power. Although certain groups may share power, people within those groups set agendas, decide issues, and take on leadership roles through their own qualities. Some theorists argue that these qualities cannot be transferred, thus creating a system where elitism still exists. What this theory fails to take into account is the prospect of overcoming these qualities by garnering support from other groups. By aggregating power with other organizations, interest groups can over-power these non-transferable qualities. In this sense, political pluralism still applies to these aspects.

Elite pluralism

There were some objections to this model of pluralism, especially by critics who argued that groups need a high level of resources and the support of patrons to contend for influence. This observation formed the basis for elite pluralism. This modified pluralism accounts for elements of elite theory
Elite theory
In political science and sociology, elite theory is a theory of the state which seeks to describe and explain the power relationships in contemporary society. The theory posits that a small minority, consisting of members of the economic elite and policy-planning networks, holds the most power and...

 and was advanced by scholars such as E.E. Schattschneider
Elmer Eric Schattschneider
Elmer Eric Schattschneider was an American political scientist.Schattschneider was born in Bethany, Minnesota. He received his B.A. and M.A. at the University of Pittsburgh and his Ph.D. at Columbia University. He taught at Columbia, the New Jersey College for Women , and Wesleyan University...

, who wrote that "The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent."


While Pluralism as a political theory of the state and policy formation gained its most traction during the 1950s and 1960s in America, some scholars argued that the theory was too simplistic (see Connolly (1969) The Challenge to Pluralist Theory) - leading to the formulation of neo-pluralism. Views differed about the division of power in democratic society. Although neo-pluralism sees multiple pressure groups competing over political influence, the political agenda is biased towards corporate power. Neo-pluralism no longer sees the state as an umpire mediating and adjudicating between the demands of different interest groups, but as a relatively autonomous actor (with different departments) that forges and looks after its own (sectional) interests. Constitutional rules, which in pluralism are embedded in a supportive political culture, should be seen in the context of a diverse, and not necessarily supportive, political culture and a system of radically uneven economic sources. This diverse culture exists because of an uneven distribution of socioeconomic power. This creates possibilities for some groups - while limiting others - in their political options.
In the international realm, order is distorted by powerful multinational interests and dominant states, while in classical pluralism emphasis is put on stability by a framework of pluralist rules and free market
Free market
A free market is a competitive market where prices are determined by supply and demand. However, the term is also commonly used for markets in which economic intervention and regulation by the state is limited to tax collection, and enforcement of private ownership and contracts...


There are two significant theoretical critiques on pluralism: Corporatism
Corporatism, also known as corporativism, is a system of economic, political, or social organization that involves association of the people of society into corporate groups, such as agricultural, business, ethnic, labor, military, patronage, or scientific affiliations, on the basis of common...

 and Neo-Marxism
Neo-Marxism is a loose term for various twentieth-century approaches that amend or extend Marxism and Marxist theory, usually by incorporating elements from other intellectual traditions, such as: critical theory, psychoanalysis or Existentialism .Erik Olin Wright's theory of contradictory class...


Charles Lindblom

Charles E. Lindblom
Charles E. Lindblom
Charles Edward Lindblom is a Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Economics at Yale University. He is a former president of the American Political Science Association and the Association for Comparative Economic Studies and also a former director of Yale's Institution for Social...

, who is seen as positing a strong neo-pluralist argument, still attributed primacy to the competition between interest groups in the policy process but recognized the disproportionate influence business interests have in the policy process.


Classical pluralism was criticized as it did not seem to apply to Westminster-style
Westminster System
The Westminster system is a democratic parliamentary system of government modelled after the politics of the United Kingdom. This term comes from the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the Parliament of the United Kingdom....

 democracies or the European context. This led to the development of corporatist
Corporatism, also known as corporativism, is a system of economic, political, or social organization that involves association of the people of society into corporate groups, such as agricultural, business, ethnic, labor, military, patronage, or scientific affiliations, on the basis of common...

 theories. Corporatism is the idea that a few select interest groups are actually (often formally) involved in the policy formulation process, to the exclusion of the myriad other 'interest groups'. For example, trade union
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

s and major sectoral business associations are often consulted about (if not the drivers of) specific policies.

These policies often concern tripartite relations between workers, employers and the state, with a coordinating role for the latter. The state constructs a framework in which it can address the political and economic issues with these organized and centralized groups. In this view, parliament and party politics lose influence in the policy forming process.

See also

  • Elite theory
    Elite theory
    In political science and sociology, elite theory is a theory of the state which seeks to describe and explain the power relationships in contemporary society. The theory posits that a small minority, consisting of members of the economic elite and policy-planning networks, holds the most power and...

  • New institutionalism
    New institutionalism
    New institutionalism or neoinstitutionalism is a theory that focuses on developing a sociological view of institutions--the way they interact and the way they affect society...

  • Marxism
    Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

  • Legitimation Crisis
  • Agonism
    Agonism is a political theory that emphasises the potentially positive aspects of certain forms of political conflict. It accepts a permanent place for such conflict, but seeks to show how we might accept and channel this positively. For this reason, agonists are especially concerned to intervene...

  • Salad Bowl (cultural idea)
    Salad bowl (cultural idea)
    The salad bowl concept suggests that the integration of the many different cultures of United States residents combine like a salad, as opposed to the more traditional notion of a cultural melting pot. In Canada this concept is more commonly known as the cultural mosaic...