Plural Society

Unit 1 Module 3 - Social Stratification & Social Mobility

Plural Society

Many of the societies which have problems of multicultural governance are former multi-ethnic colonies.  A theory of such colonial and post-colonial societies draws particularly on the work of J.S.Furnivall and M.G.Smith.
According to Furnivall different ethnic groups in a plural society meet only in the market place. This market place however lacks the characteristics which Durkheim envisaged in his concept of organic solidarity. It lacks the shared values which organic solidarity requires and involves brutal conflict and exploitation. The sense of solidarity on which morality depends is to be found within the different ethnic groups when they go home from the market place. Within these groups there is intense solidarity and moral unity.
Furnivall worked in Burma but wrote about Java drawing on the work of the Dutch economic theorist, Boeke. Boeke writes that in the economy of Netherlands India “there is a materialism, rationalism and individualism and a concentration on economic ends far more complete and absolute than in homogeneous Western lands” As he sees it this is a capitalism quite different from that which grew slowly over hundreds of years and maintained its moral roots.                                                                                   

M.G..Smith wrote originally about Grenada but his theory of the plural society has been widely used in the analysis of colonial and post-colonial societies in the Caribbean.  Smith is aware of the general sociological theory of Talcott Parsons and its assumption of four mutually supportive institutions. In the Caribbean, however he argues that there are several co-existing ethnic groups each of which has a nearly complete set of social institutions. Setting his argument within the context of a review of social anthropological theories used in studying the Caribbean, he sees the various ethnic groups as having their own family systems, there own productive economies, their own languages and religion but not their own political system. In the political sphere they are all controlled by one dominant segment... To put this in more concrete terms Blacks are descended from Slaves, Indians from indentured labourers. The groups have remained distinct and have their own institutions. They exist however politically under the domination of an outside power. Thus the defining feature of a plural society is seen as this process of the domination of all ethnic groups by the colonial power. New problems arise when the colonial power withdraws.
Whereas Furnivall sees the different ethnic groups as bound together by the economic fact of the market place, Smith sees them as bound together by a political institution, the colonial state.
One crucial institution in the Caribbean was the slave plantation. The history of plantations is traced by Max Weber in his General Economic History to the manor. But the Caribbean slave plantation comes into existence when capitalism directs horticultural production to the market. Similar developments occur in mining. M.G Smith’s theory has to take account of this. In fact he sees the plantation as one form of political institution.
M.G.Smith collaborated with the South African, Leo Kuper in producing a series of essays on Africa and also turned his attention to the United States in his book Corporations and Society, The case of South Africa is of special interest calling for an analysis of a society based upon rural labour migrating to the gold mines. The United States has developed as neither homogeneous nor plural but heterogeneous.
Smith has to deal with the question of social class. This is easy enough for he has only to say that each group has its own internal class structure. He does, however, have to compare his own theory to that of Marx. He cannot accept that group formation occurs between those having the same or different relations to the means of production, nor that “in the social production of the means of life men enter into circumstances which are independent of their will” For Smith the culture of ethnic groups in a plural society is not simply determined in this way. The plural segments in colonial society operate according to a different dynamic which it is the purpose of Plural Society theory to explain.

Rex has attempted to set out a theory of the plural society which does justice to Marxian and other theories as well as those of Smith. This involves first of all recognizing that such societies go though several phases of development,  pre-colonial, colonial and post colonial. In the colonial phase relations to the means of production are important, even though they are more varied than Marxist categories suggest involving such structures as the encomienda in Spanish America. At the same time however groups have a relationship to each other reminiscent of the mediaeval estate system in Europe different groups having the cultures, rights and privileges which attach to their function. In the post-colonial phase there would be according to this theory a number of developments. One would be the subordination of peasants to the large estates or latitudinal, a second would be the replacement of the former colonial power by a group able to take over its powers, a third would be a change in which new primarily economic centres replaced the colonial power, and so far as resistance and struggle within the new system is concerned.
Fanonism laying emphasis upon the national struggle would take precedence over class struggle.
The application of plural society theory to capitalist societies based upon mining produces a different set of problems. There rural agricultural reserves are expected to provide social back-up so that males of working age can live in segregated compounds or locations and be intensively exploited. This is a situation very much like that described by Furnivall. 


Boeke J, .H. “De Economische Theorie der Dualistiche Saamleving” quoted by Furnivall Op.cit p452.

Durkheim, E., (1933), The Division of Labour in Society, Free Press, Glencoe Illinois

Furnivall, J. S., (1939) Netherlands India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,

Rex, J., (1981), “A Working Paradigm for Race Relations Research” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol 4 No 1 pp1-25

Smith, M, G., (1965), The Plural Society in the British West Indies, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Smith, M.G., (1964), Corporations and Society, Duckworth, London,

Smith, M., G., and Kuper, L., (1969), Pluralism in Africa, University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Weber, M., (1961) General Economic History, Collier Books, New York.