Societies which are divided into different linguistic, ethnic, religious, or racial groups and communities. Arguably, this description could apply to almost any society, with the result that the term is sometimes (unhelpfully) treated as synonymous with ‘multi-cultural society’ and applied to states as different as the contemporary United States and Brazil. Originally, however, the concept had a more limited application. It referred to those states in the developing world created by colonial rule—notably Burma and Indonesia—in which different ethnic groups occupied distinct places in the division of labour, existed as largely self-contained communities, and therefore felt little or no sense of obligation to the national society (see J. S. Furnivall, Colonial Policy and Practice, 1948). In other words, not only is there cultural heterogeneity, but also formal diversity in the institutional systems of kinship, religion, education, recreation, and economy (and sometimes, though not always, government).
In plural societies, people of different ethnic origins meet only in the market-place, where the various groups must trade and exchange goods and services with each other. No common ‘social will’ therefore develops to restrict the exploitation of the members of one group by members of another. In order to prevent market an-archy, some social framework has to be devised to govern inter-group transactions; in the case of Indonesia, the major attempted resolutions of the plural dilemma have included the imposition of a caste system, of the rule of a common law, a nationalist democracy, and federalism. A good account of the rise and (partial) demise of pluralism in that society is W. F. Wertheim 's Indonesian Society in Transition (1956).
Later writers (including, for example, M. G. Smith, The Plural Society in the British West Indies, 1965) extended Furnivall's usage to include the post-colonial and multiracial societies of the Caribbean and South Africa—which were seen as being socially and culturally pluralist (if not strictly so in terms of the division of labour). The principal critics of the plural societies thesis have been Marxists, who have attempted to translate observed ethnic or cultural (‘ideological’) inequalities into underlying class conflicts, and to highlight relationships of dependency between developed and developing societies.