Reading Time: 19 minutes

Over the past ten years or so there has been a growing tendency for writers on Caribbean Affairs to use the model of ‘The Plural Society’ as a guide for the explanation of major social ills. If there is conflict over economic policy as in British Guiana in 1962; over the alleged misdemeanours of elected officials in Grenada; over the difficulties of making West Indian federation work; over labour legislation in Trinidad; over almost anything in fact, it can be explained in terms of the operation of ‘the plural society’. Dr. Michael G. Smith, a Jamaican now teaching at the University of California, has been the main, though by no means the only, advocate of this way of thinking. Beginning with his essay A Frame­work for Caribbean Studies in 1955, he has published a series of papers which have provoked controversy as well as attracting followers, to the extent that there now exist schools of thought on the subject. A collection of these papers has recently been published under the title The Plural Society in the West Indies.

In this short essay, the aim is to examine the ‘plural society’ idea, its origins in the discussion of colonial policy and its influence in shaping both the vision and the reality of a Caribbean future.

A central problem in the discussion of any social situation is whether one should emphasise stability, continuity and the fact that people observe the ‘rules’, or whether one should stress the fact of conflict, continuous change, deviation from the rules, and in­deed the constant revision of the rules themselves. A problem must arise in the sense that while all societies must have some coherence and stability if they are to be thought of as societies at all, none is static and without internal divisions, frictions and conflicts. All reasonably sophisticated social theorists attempt to take account of these two aspects of social existence—continuity and change—though they may stress factors making for one or the other.

At first glance, it would appear that the plural society concept, as used by Dr. M. G. Smith, is designed to deal with political conflict and social change, especially since great stress is laid upon the inadequacies of other theories for the understanding of Caribbean problems. But it soon becomes clear that plural society theory has no real dynamic dimen­sion, is essentially pessimistic and deals only with a very limited range of conflict situations.

The basic idea is that certain societies, among them those of the Caribbean region, appear to be made up of a number of sub-societies each of which is an integrated entity with its own culture, while the relations between these sub-societies are established and maintained solely by political dominance and force. Thus Jamaica is to be thought of as a series of social and cultural sections, basically defined as black, brown and white, held in fixed relations by force. No peaceful change in the social system is possible because the sections have nothing in common except involvement in economic and political relations which are essentially antagonistic.

The superficial resemblance to Marxist theory is misleading. Marxism sees conflict rooted in class in­terest as part of an historical process leading to higher levels of integration and to an eventual resolution of the conflict, whereas plural society theory can predict nothing beyond the fact that conflict is always likely between groups which define themselves in terms of kinship and race.

In the preface to his collection of reprinted essays, Dr. M. G. Smith tells us clearly for the first time that he has sought to “develop and apply the work of J. S. Furnivall.” Furnivall was one of the first twentieth century writers to deal extensively with the problems inherent in multi-racial societies created by colonial­ism. He also introduced the term ‘plural society’ into the literature, but there is very little resemblance be­tween Furnivall’s overall analysis and that of more recent writers such as M. G. Smith. It is not always profitable to trace ideas to their source. but in this case the original seems to provide rather more insight than its derivatives.

Furnivall’s main work is Colonial Policy and Practices: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India. Most of the inspiration for recent work on pluralism seems to come from pages 303-12 where the concept of The Plural Society is discussed. These nine pages contain an attack upon laissez-faire economics and many of the ideas stated there were expressed by Furnivall as long ago as 1910 in an article in The Economic Journal. The argument is straightforward; in tropical countries which have been subjected to European colonisation, the free play of economic forces has resulted in the creation of multi­racial societies which have no overall common stand­ards or culture save that of animal existence on the one hand, and economic competition on the other. In developing this idea further, Furnivall puts forward two contradictory assertions. (This was pointed out some years ago by John Rex in ‘The Plural Society in Sociological Theory’, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. X, No. 2, 1959). He says on the one hand that each racial section “holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways”, and although they mingle in the market-place, they do not combine.

Dr. M. G. Smith has taken up this casual observ­ation and developed the view that in the plural society each section practices its own separate ‘institutions’. However, the whole argument of Colonial Policy and Practice is that laissez-faire economics and colonial rule combine to produce a situation in which market forces bring together racially diverse populations; these forces then act as a ‘solvent’ of traditional culture and values, creating conditions of social atomization in which a highly individualistic society is held together by the twin forces of market relations and colonial domination, the withdrawal of which would lead to anarchy. To quote Furnivall himself:

On looking at a plural society in its political aspect, one can distinguish three characteristic features: the society as a whole comprises separate racial sections; each section is an aggregate of individuals rather than a cor­porate or organic whole; and as individuals their social life is incomplete. (p. 306)

Only in India is the situation held to be rather different because ” …. British India has been protected against the solvent influence of economic forces by the shield of caste.'” (p. 538)