Sociology Overview: The Assumptions of the Pluralist Paradigm

Human Nature

1. The interactionist conception of human nature is a strongly intimate one. There is great emphasis on the private world of the actor (Bendix, 1977, pp. 1-10).

2. Human behavior is assumed to be intentional and voluntary. This does not mean that there are no outside influences. For example, we may play one role in the presence of one person and yet another role when we are with somebody else. Still, the pluralist would argue that external conditions do not simply determine our behavior. In a basic sense, people know what they are doing. We act with purpose and our conduct reflects a contemplated design (Berger, 1963, pp. 125-126).

3. As can be gleaned from the thought of Rousseau, freedom and a socio-political system that ensures it will be crucial for pluralist theory. However, for Rousseau and many pluralist thinkers, this freedom is primarily individual and personal rather than collective. Thus, members of society remain sovereign parties to the social contract. The right of the person to speak her mind or to be all she can be, is an example of personal freedom. The concept of collective freedom (more in keeping with the conflict paradigm) stresses the welfare of the whole. For example, freedom does not exist unless all are free from want.

4. Human nature reflects an abiding dualism; it is both sociable and self-assertive. 

The Nature of Society

1. Society ultimately is a social reality, a state of consciousness based on the shared ideas and meanings of its members. Thus, society does not exist outside but rather inside. Its essence is the subjective world of definitions and perceptions that we create through contact with others.

2. The cornerstone of a society is reciprocity--not in the sense of the sharing of rewards stressed by theories of social exchange but in the sense of orientation to others. If each member of a group behaves on the basis of what others are thought to be doing or thinking, the relationship is reciprocal (Freund, 1969, pp. 118-123).

3. The meaning of reciprocal relationships, symbols, and conceptions of self must be understood as part of a bigger picture. Failure to achieve this leaves the study of human conduct at a psychological level. For example, while human beings create culture, they do not recreate it from scratch each time they interact. Guidance is provided by larger patterns of meaning such as customs, laws, and ideas. This point was driven home by Max Weber when he held that Protestant ideals are crucial to understanding the motivations for entrepreneurial behavior.

4. The broader institutional patterns of a society (such as the state, religion, education, the economy, the family) can best be conceived as an organization of roles that are interpreted and shaped by human action. Order and conflict sociologists also employ the concept of role. However, they are more deterministic than the pluralists. While interactionists understand that roles are not invented anew by each member of a society, they would stress that role content varies and is subject to reinterpretation. Hence, what it means to be a woman can be redefined over time.

5. People do not share the same world of meanings. The pluralist view is one of a heterogeneous society representing perhaps many cultures and certainly more than a few interest groups. Though members of most groups will share the most important meanings that hold a society together, they may disagree on customs and the choice of life-style. Also, not all groups will have the same influence or power.

It is crucial to note that pluralist theories do not assume a conflict of classes in society (at least not to the extent that the conflict tradition does). Nor do they embrace the value consensus of the order paradigm. The pluralist vision of society is rather one of the ongoing opposition of interest groups, and the clash of cultures. Tolerance and diversity are embraced, and forms of social control such as law are viewed with ambivalence. On the one side, law can be an instrument of arbitrary state power and the means by which the interests of dominant groups (not a dominant class) are advanced. On the other side, law, when it is the expression of a freely developed social contract, can be the means of reform.

6. This vision of ambivalence toward the law is quite consistent with the larger pluralist vision. The nature of society is one of an abiding dualism, an antagonistic cooperation. At one level we see the rise and fall of competing interests and the battle of organizations. At another level we find a general commitment to the order born of the social contract. One faction, no matter how influential for the historical moment, does not realize total and continuous control. It is checked by countervailing organizations and the sovereign right of people to dissolve their convenants, if the state persists in the unjust support of one group over others. Thus, the idealized pluralist portrait is one of a balance of power, where force is checked by force, and tyranny is eliminated by the means of the covenant. 

The Nature of Science

1. The truly distinctive thing about people and their relationships evolves from their ability to think, to create a world of ideas and attach meaning to human conduct. Thus, for the pluralist paradigm, the philosophy of idealism is the basis for human science. Put simply, no object has meaning apart from a perceiving mind. The "stuff" of theory, its major concepts and logical linkages, must conform to this subjective imperative.

2. Human action has a strongly unpredictable quality to it. Thus, the explanations and methods of social science cannot be founded on concepts such as determinism, laws, or even statistical probability. Theories based on the pluralist paradigm ordinarily seek to explain the multiple realities of the social world (Freund, 1969, pp. 37-47). However, this does not mean that pluralists habitually reject any sort of scientific generalization.

As a case in point, Weber distinctly rejected both nomothetic and idiographic conceptions of history. Whereas the former holds that the course of history follows general laws (cycles, linear progress, dialectical change), the latter conceives of history as unique and specific events. For example, the nomothetic approach would seek to find the general law or laws underlying all revolutions. On the other hand, the idiographic method would center on one unique case such as the Chinese Revolution.

Weber believed that similar events may share common analytic properties and that these together form an ideal type. Thus, he sought to resolve the nomothetic/idiographic controversy by arguing that phenomena are not unique but representative of such general analytic categories. Hence, the understanding of a specific phenomenon (such as the Chinese Revolution) is possible only if referred to the larger classification (such as all revolutions). Weber's use of the ideal type constitutes a kind of generalization. However, this remains quite apart from the quest for laws.

3. The primary unit of sociological investigation is the individual. The target of theory (and research) is consciousness, and consciousness is a property of the person (Freund, 1969, p. 112).

4. Sociological theory will not answer the question why in an absolute fashion. Nor will theory be constructed to valiantly resist falsification. Systems of thought will enhance our understanding of interpersonal action and the social construction of reality. This will be done through the discovery of ideas that heighten our awareness of how social actors interpret and make the empirical world about them. Given this assumption, it follows that pluralist theories will give rise to qualitative rather than quantitative research.

This content is based upon Perdue (1986, pp. 168-170).