Pluralism Essay

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Pluralism refers to theories and practices that favor the inclusion and tolerance of human differences. These differences could involve politics, religion, ethno-racial identity, cultural tradition, language, or something else. The study of pluralism varies with academic discipline. Political scientists describe pluralism as a feature of an open, democratic society in which people have political freedom, can express dissenting opinion, and can pressure government. Religion scholars examine differences within denominations as well as cooperation between different denominational and theological traditions. Sociologists and anthropologists focus on cultural pluralism, or the interrelationships between distinct groups—particularly ethnic, racial, or cultural groups. Their various approaches have led to lively debates about how best to conceptualize and empirically study pluralism.

These different disciplinary approaches to pluralism tend to share a concern with how social problems can arise when an individual or group is restricted from peaceful participation in the political system, cultural traditions, religion, or some other domain of social life. These various approaches also raise some similar questions about the relationship between groups and society at large. How do members of different ethnic, racial, religious, cultural, linguistic, and political groups participate in a shared society? How should they relate to each other, the state, and other key institutions? Do societies have a core culture to be preserved, and if so, who determines its openness to change? Most analyses of pluralism agree with certain pluralist assumptions: unlike fundamentalism or totalitarianism, a common pluralist sentiment is that some diversity is inherently good and distinct cultures should be protected. Said differently, the scholarship about pluralism encompasses both empirical investigations into group relations and normative statements about how groups should relate to one another.

The Concept of Pluralism in U.S. History

Horace M. Kallen, an immigrant who taught at the University of Wisconsin in the early 20th century, first coined the term cultural pluralism. According to the prevailing nativist view at that time, new immigrants moving to the United States should become “Americanized” by strictly conforming to the social practices and even the blood lines of a singular, generic national culture. In 1924, Kallen introduced the term and made a radical argument: immigrants’ unique, persistent nationalities could coexist within American democracy in some kind of harmony. Since then, pluralism has meant different things at different points in U.S. history, depending on trends in academic disciplines, popular ideology, social movements, and geopolitical circumstances.

James Madison introduced one of the initial arguments for political pluralism in the 1780s when he proposed that factions would prevent any single group from dominating American politics. Not until the 1950s, however, did analysts popularize political “pluralism” as a theory of interest group politics. They understood the U.S. political system as interplay among corporate associations, labor unions, and other organizations that used resources to shape policy making. They believed that this system represented citizens, since power and influence were spread across many groups. Diversity could flourish and even enhance politics as long as everyone abided by certain American ideals, such as the democratic process and civility. This view of political pluralism, as well as popular ideas about cultural pluralism at the time, verbally lauded diversity while assuming a societal consensus around certain U.S. values.

In the 1960s, U.S. ideology about pluralism shifted toward two conflicting visions—corporate pluralism and liberal pluralism—amid social movements challenging discrimination at home, anti-colonialism abroad, and new laws allowing immigration from regions such as Latin America. Under corporate pluralism, ethnic and racial groups have formal legal status and rights, and individuals’ rights depend, in part, on the groups to which they belong. The Black Power movement and its separatist call for black power exemplified this vision. Some critics of this view called for liberal pluralism, in which democratic individualism and equality of opportunity are governing principles. They believe that the state should prevent discrimination against ethnic and racial groups but not control these groups or affirm their potentially divisive differences. Similarly, policy analysts have worried that some groups, especially poor black families, failed to adequately assimilate to a shared national culture. Critics of this view argue that it focuses on cultural deficiencies and largely ignores issues of structural inequality.

Contemporary pluralism emphasizes multicultural tolerance and the value of cultural diversity. Unlike earlier versions, it also suggests that intergroup interaction produces measurable, positive outcomes. For example, in two U.S. Supreme Court cases concerning affirmative action in 2003, the University of Michigan successfully argued that race-conscious admissions policies create a diverse student body, which leads to a better academic environment; students learn more when they interact with students of different backgrounds. Some progressive critics argue that contemporary pluralism emphasizes individuals’ cultural identity while downplaying concerns about systematic discrimination and societal injustice. Others view this vision of pluralism as congruent with a neoliberal international order, globalization of capital markets, and rising U.S. conservatism because it treats diversity as a means to economic competitiveness rather than greater equity. Conservative critics question the government’s role in promoting diversity or portray rhetoric about diversity as a repackaging of corporate pluralism—granting minorities and women unfair advantage that undermines principles such as merit.

Contemporary Areas of Research Focus

Theories and empirical studies of pluralism and its social problems offer different perspectives on the relationship between groups and society. Political theorists survey the political structures of pluralist countries such as Canada, India, and the United States and propose models for the proper relationship between cultural populations and the modern state. Some social scientists investigate how groups form from a macro-level perspective, examining the broader economic, political, and social forces, like race and racial distinctions, that shape institutions. For example, some scholars argue that the rise of modernity and Western capitalism depended fundamentally on processes of racialization that justified the exploitation of nonwhite “others” from Africa and the Americas. Other scholars point to the organizational processes of ethno-racial formation, such as the five racial categories created by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in 1977 for data collection. Still others examine group formation and its related social problems closer to the ground by looking within groups, at their boundaries, social networks, and identities. Research on ethnic groups, for instance, focuses on immigrants’ economic activity and their children’s socialization, as well as the impact of churches, geographic concentration, and transnational movement.

Another common research area looks at the resources and opportunities available to racial minorities, women, and other historically excluded groups. Many sociologists study minority group representation and stratification in different sectors of society. For instance, the current U.S. power elite—those who own large banks and corporations, fund political campaigns, and serve in government—includes more women, people of color, and openly homosexual men and women than it did in the 1950s, but white, Christian males still predominate. The new and old members alike tend to come from wealthy families and attend similar private schools. A related approach examines how organizations and law can increase minority group representation. For example, workforce policies that assign responsibility for improving diversity, such as affirmative action plans, move more women and black men into managerial ranks than do diversity trainings that try to minimize bias among managers.


  1. Downey, Dennis. 1999. “From Americanization to Multiculturalism: Political Symbols and Struggles for Cultural Diversity in Twentieth-Century American Race Relations.” Sociological Perspectives 42:249-78.
  2. Gleason, Phillip. 1984. “Pluralism and Assimilation: A Conceptual History.” Pp. 221-57 in Linguistic Minorities, Policies and Pluralism, edited by J. Edwards. London: Academic Press.
  3. Gordon, Milton. 1981. “Models of Pluralism: The New American Dilemma.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 454:178-88.
  4. Hollinger, David. 2000. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: Basic Books.
  5. Parekh, Bhikhu. 2000. Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Parrillo, Vincent N. 2008. Diversity in America. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
  7. Schuck, Peter. 2003. Diversity in America: Keeping Government at a Safe Distance. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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