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  Pluralism is the belief that there are, or ought to be, many things. While not endorsing relativism pluralists defend multiplicity in beliefs and institutions, and criticize monists: those who believe that there is, or ought to be only one thing. As a philosophical doctrine pluralism, is the label given to those who think that reality cannot be explained by one substance or principle. This idea still survives in the current, largely political, meanings of pluralism.

Normative pluralism, in politics, represents a compromise between individualism and communitarianism in the quest for the optimal form of state. The pluralist ideal is of flexible consensus and dissensus: since definitively acceptable definitions of the good are unlikely, if not impossible, it is best to design political institutions which allow for the expression and competition of a plurality of ideals and interests. Normative pluralism developed, especially in Britain, as an assault upon absolutism, sovereignty and centralized state authority. Political philosophers in Britain, France and America came to advocate institutional pluralism (the fragmentation of state authority) and social pluralism (the development of a vigorous civil society marked by extensive group autonomy, activity and diversity). Although they were defenders of individualism, normative exponents of pluralism, like de Tocqueville in the 1840s, also warned of the dangers posed by societies in which self-interest was paramount and collective social ties were diminished or absent. To this extent normative pluralism is associated with at least one version of social liberalism. Pluralists emphasize the merits of exposing individuals to conflicting ideals and interests (through involvement in a variety of social and political associations), the protection of minority rights in law so that the legitimacy of diverse groups is respected, and reducing the amount of influence large, corporately organized interests exercise on political decision-making.

Analytical pluralism, by contrast, is an explanatory approach to the study of the distribution of political power in liberal democracies. Modern pluralists, like Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom, argue that most liberal democracies are actually ‘polyarchies’ (systems of rule by many) rather than oligarchies or pure democracies. Political power is not held cumulatively, but rather is dispersed throughout society, in political parties, interest group organizations and mass media, as well as among individual voters. In principle every interest can get organized and compete for influence. Thus pluralists maintain that ‘countervailing power’ operates within modern democracies.

Critics of conventional analytical pluralism maintain that it operates with too narrow a conception of power and does not recognize the extent to which the political agenda in liberal democracies is either controlled by the state or by a small number of powerful social interests or a dominant class. The methods of analytical pluralism, according to its critics, blind political scientists to the evidence of systematic domination within modern democracies. Neopluralists, including Dahl and Lindblom, have acknowledged the force of these criticisms, especially the extent to which big business interests distort the workings of polyarchies. In the 1950s and 1960s the pluralist perspective in political science was associated with the right, today it is increasingly the preserve of the liberal left and democratic socialists. BO\'L

See also behaviourism; élite theory; representative government; socialism and social democracy; state.Further reading R. Dahl, Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy; , C. Lindblom, Politics and Markets.



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