The term refers primarily to two major and very different bodies of work in political science. Most commonly, it refers to a body of American, empirically oriented work, which was highly influential during the 1960s. Largely on the basis of studies of political decision-making in local communities , most famously exemplified by Robert Dahl's Who Governs? (1961), the pluralists argued that the United States was a democratic society because political power was widely distributed amongst the competing interest groups that operated therein: none of these groups was all-powerful and each was powerful enough to secure its own legitimate interests. The empirical claims made by the pluralists have been subjected to serious criticisms by scholars working within the Marxist and élitist traditions (see, for example,, Who Rules America?, 1967), who argue that visible exercises of power may disguise the fact that some groups wield power in less obvious ways, and that expressed political preferences are not necessarily equivalent to objective (or ‘real’) interests . Nevertheless, this variety of pluralism continues to exercise considerable influence as a body of normative political theory (see, for example,’s A Preface to Economic Democracy, 1985).
Less commonly, the term also refers to a body of British political theory, associated with such names as George Douglas Howard Cole, John Neville Figgis, and Harold J. Laski, which attracted equal attention in the 1920s. It argued that the sovereign power, whose concentration in the state is accepted by all other political theories save that of the anarchist tradition, should not simply be competed for, but should in addition be distributed amongst the self-governing associations of civil society . This latter body of work appeared to have died a death until it was exhumed by Paul Hirst in his The Pluralist Theory of the State (1989). According to Hirst, the ‘associationalism’ of the British pluralists may be combined with the American stress on group competition to produce a concept of ‘associational democracy’, which provides a model for a socialist polity which contrasts sharply with that provided by the social democratic and Marxist-Leninist traditions. See also community power ; élite theory ; military-industrial complex ; power élite.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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