Pluralism and Elitism | Difference between Pluralism and Elitism

Pluralism and Elitism

Pluralism and Elitism are belief systems that are opposite to each other and constitute a way of looking at a political system. This attitude system allows one to analyze the political system including the institutions such as government, army, parliament etc. Despite ostensible differences, many people seem to confuse between elitism and pluralism. This article attempts to highlight the system of looking at power equations and struggle in a political system through belief systems called Pluralism and Elitism 

Pluralism and Elitism | Difference between Pluralism and Elitism

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Introduction to Pluralism 

This theory was developed by German jurist Otto Von Gierke. 

It  originated in the last quarter of the 19th century. 

It has been developed by the English legal historian F.W. Maitland. 

• The advocates of pluralism are Harold J. Laski, Ernst Barker, G.D.H. Cole, R.M. MacIver, Sidney and Leon Duguit. 

• The beginning of pluralism can be traced from the time of guild system of the middle Ages.

Definition of Pluralism

A term used in philosophy, meaning “doctrine of multiplicity.”

Acceptance or acknowledgement of different religion.                                                                              

Pluralism is a political sociological theory of society. 

It recognizes various types of organizations present in the state like religious, political, social etc. 

Pluralism refers to “a state of affairs in which a multiplicity of groups or institutions are operative within society.

Politics is a free market.

A society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious and social groups maintain participation in and development of their traditions and special interest while cooperatively working toward the interdependence needed for a nation’s unity.

Definitions of thinkers 

Ryan and Goldberg 

Pluralism is” the existence of a range of diverse ways of living. This challenges citizens to negotiate their differences, to live together peacefully and to work cooperatively on local, national and global contexts”


  • Interdependence,
  • Interconnectedness,
  • Interrelationships
  • Development and cooperation among diverse peoples of the world.

Development in Society That Led To Pluralism 

  • Distinction was made between spheres of law and morality. 
  • There was definite change in the function of the state. 
  • Growth of associations. 
  • Emergence of state as an association. 
  • Change in the pattern of Social existence and allegiance.
  •  Need for international co-operation. 

Principles of Pluralism

The state is one of the various grouping through which men seek to satisfy its numerous needs. 

Different groups in society are not creations of the state but they arise independently and acquire power & authority not given by state.

Various associations such as churches and trade unions are important in a state.

The monistic state is not only incapable of wielding absolute authority over such bodies but is also incapable of regulating their affairs intelligently or administering them efficiently. 

Pluralism stands for decentralization of government authority.

Pluralists and Democracy 

Pluralists accept that individuals in democracies have little say over political decisions but claim that this doesn’t make them undemocratic. 

Instead the democratic element is provided by pressure group activity. 

Pluralist view of society:

Society as made up of competing interest groups; 

 No one interest group dominates

Interest groups compete with each other for influence over decision makers 

Power is shared between the interest groups in society 

Protective groups defend the interests of particular groups: e.g. trade unions (e.g. NUT and RMT) and professional organizations. 

Pluralists and the state 

Pluralists say that the government is the neutral arbiter between pressure groups.

Pluralists see wide ranging pressure group activity as essential for a modern democracy.

Types of pluralism

Social Pluralism 

This refers to the concepts of human justice and equality, responsible citizenships and consumerism, fairness in local, national and international levels, constitutional democracy and economic responsibility

Cultural pluralism

It is a factual descriptive term for the phenomenon of many cultures co-existing and interacting within the same spatial area, whether district, village, town, nation, region or global. Smaller groups within a larger society maintain their unique cultural identities and their values and practices area accepted by the wider culture. It is essential that persons and groups having plural, varied and dynamic cultural identities should live together in harmonious interaction and proper accord

Religious pluralism  

The foundation of pluralism has taken the initiative to present all religious communities. The goal is to bring people of different faiths together and provide a plat form for them to share their beliefs, their systems, and rituals, while expanding the comfort zone of each group. Encourage individuals to develop an open mind and open heart toward their fellow beings. Accept and respect the God given uniqueness of every individual. Appreciate different religious views.

Political pluralism 

The view that in liberal democracies power is (or should be) dispersed among a variety of economic and ideological pressure groups and is not (or should not be) held by a single elite or group of elites. Pluralism assumes that diversity is beneficial to society and that autonomy should be enjoyed by disparate functional or cultural groups within a society, including religious groups, trade unions, professional organizations  and ethnic minorities.

Pluralism was stressed most vigorously in England during the early 20th century by a group of writers that included Frederic Maitland, Samuel G. Hobson, Harold Laski, Richard H. Tawney, and George Douglas Howard Cole, who reacted against what they alleged to be the alienation of the individual under conditions of unrestrained capitalism. It was necessary, they argued, to integrate the individual in a social context that would give him a sense of community, and they pointed to the medieval structure of guilds, chartered cities, villages, monasteries, and universities as an example of such a society. Pluralists argued that some of the negative aspects of modern industrial society might be overcome by economic and administrative decentralization.

Structural Pluralism   

This refers to the way in which society is stratified. Stratification maybe on the basis of such referents as caste, rank, social class or birth into monarchic and aristocratic groups, as in United Kingdom.

Factors influence Pluralism

Economic expansion of Western societies created for a large additional labor force and brought together by mass migration 

Improved communications and international transportation system

Growing concern for human rights, as a result of the violence of the war and establishment of new international organizations dedicated to peace, conflict resolution and human rights 

Major new independent nations emerge, with in-built safeguards to take accounts of cultural diversity, for example, Lebanon and India

Merits of Pluralism 

It shows the importance of social organizations in a state.

It not only includes government and law but also social relation    between men      and multi-sided human beings. 

It shows that the interest of state is not always identical with interest of its parts. 

It stresses the need of decentralization of power.


  • Pluralists oppose sovereignty of state, but if there is no sovereignty, anarchy will prevail.
  • Sovereignty can’t be divided among various associations.
  • This lacks clarity. It is ambiguous and contradictory.


Pluralism is the view that politics and decision making are located mostly in the framework of government, but that many non-governmental groups use their resources to exert influence. The central question for classical pluralism is how power and influence are distributed in a political process. Groups of individuals try to maximize their interests. Lines of conflict are multiple and shifting as power is a continuous bargaining process between competing groups. There may be inequalities but they tend to be distributed and evened out by the various forms and distributions of resources throughout a population.

Introduction to Elitism

Elitism is the theory that power is concentrated and not evenly distributed Society is divided into ruling minority – the elites and the ruled – the mass

Elites gain power by their personality

Economic groups are commonly seen as more powerful than other groups, especially business groups

In most democratic countries the distribution of power is unequal.

However there are opportunities for every group to get their voice heard, as those in power have to recognize that they are voted into power.

Governments are not neutral arbiters who listen to all

Distinction between pluralism and elitism

Pluralism and elitism are terms which make reference to the distribution of political power. 

Pluralism is a theory which believes that power is to an extent evenly distributed and that it is not concentrated.

Pluralism has a positive view of pressure groups and considers a multiplicity of them to be good for the body politic.

Elitism by contrast implies that there is a concentration of power in a narrow and exclusive grouping. 

Elitism implies that this alleged unequal and unfair distribution of political power in the system may posit problems for the body politic.

Elitist theory of power

In all societies and political organizations there exists a small class of rulers and decision-makers that performs key political functions and monopolies power, and a larger class that is ruled over and largely passive and marginalized in political affairs.

The ruling elite is drawn from the higher echelons of political office, the corporate sector and the military; an almost ‘aristocratic’ nature to this self-perpetuating elite’s exercise of power

Elitism Analyzed

There are many sources of elite power (wealth, traditional or religious authority etc.) 

‘Democratic elitism’ – modern democratic elections – opportunities for the normally passive masses to ‘vote’ in different/same elites to rule over them 

Competition between different elites for election, participation by pressure group elites in between elections, interaction with bureaucratic elites, are regarded as the ways in which democracy operates in a modern liberal democratic capitalist state.

Elitism and Groups

Distribution of power in society reflect the inequalities of wealth. Some groups have few resources, other have many. 

Some interests are un-organized; some rely on others to protect them ;( minority groups, children, and the homeless, mentally ill, poor)

Groups fight their battles in a system which is systematically loaded in favor of middle and upper class interests, or financial interests. 

Organizations themselves are inherently oligarchic. A few leaders wield power, and are often un-elected and unaccountable to members (Michel’s’ ‘iron law’).

Limitations of Elitist theory

Not all historical societies have been hierarchical with an elite

 A cephalous tribes and egalitarian societies (though elitism as a theory is only usually applied to modern societies) 

Distinction between elites and masses is oversimplified? 

Universal education and welfare-based meritocracies in post-WWII Europe 

Unable to engage with normative issues of democracy and justice 

Simply presents the existence of ruling elites as ‘inevitable ‘and democracy reduced to competition between elites (or sections of the same elite) to rule

Distinction between pluralism and elitism

  • Pluralism and elitism are terms which make reference to the distribution of political power. 
  • Pluralism is a theory which believes that power is to an extent evenly distributed and that it is not concentrated. 
  • Pluralism has a positive view of pressure groups and considers a multiplicity of them to be good for the body politic.
  • Elitism by contrast implies that there is a concentration of power in a narrow and exclusive grouping. 
  • Elitism implies that this alleged unequal and unfair distribution of political power in the system may posit problems for the body politic.

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