Plural Society

Many of the societies which have problems of multicultural governance are former multi ethnic colonies. A theory of such colonial and postcolonial 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 marketplace. This marketplace, 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 marketplace. Within these groups there is intense solidarity and moral unity. Furnivall worked in Burma but wrote about Java, drawing on the research of Dutch economic theorist Boeke. Boeke wrote 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” (quoted in Furnivall 1939: 452). 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 postcolonial 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 coexisting ethnic groups, each of which has a nearly complete set of social institutions. Set ting 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, their 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 laborers. 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 marketplace, 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. 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 labor 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 through several phases of development, precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial. 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 medieval estate system in Europe, different groups having the cultures, rights, and privileges which attach to their function. In the postcolonial phase there would be, according to this theory, a number of developments. One would be the subordination of peasants to the large estates or latifundia, 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 centers replaced the colonial power. So far as resistance and struggle within the new system are concerned, Fanonism lays emphasis upon the national struggle, which 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 backup 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.


  1. Durkheim, IE. (1933) The Division of Labor in Society. Free Press, Glencoe, IL.
  2. Furnivall, J. S. (1939) Netherlands India. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. Rex, J. (1981) A Working Paradigm for Race Relations Research. Ethnic and Racial Studies 4(1): 1 25.
  4. Smith, M. G. (1964) Corporations and Society. Duck­worth, London.
  5. Smith, M. G. (1965) The Plural Society in the British West Indies. University of California Press, Berke­ley and Los Angeles.
  6. Smith, M. G. & Kuper, L. (1969) Pluralism in Africa. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
  7. Weber, M. (1961) General Economic History. Collier Books, New York.

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