John S. Furnivall: Plural Societies.

As defined by FURNIVAL, a plural society is comprised of two or more distinct social orders, living in parallel within one political entity, without much intermingling, and reminds the reader of the image of the “salad bowl” as it is often used to oppose the idealized notion of the American “melting pot”. He continues to observe, that those social orders across different continents vary over the full range and intensity of ‘ethnic markers’, and he chooses Netherlands India as the subject of his considerations for the reason that, the racial make-up of this society provides a striking example for illustrating plurality. This Southeast Asian example equips him with a number of arguments to substantiate the debates about political economy among colonial theorists of the first half of the 20th century who analyzed respective economic system through a limited classical economic framework.

Looking at Netherlands India, the coexistence of indigenous, European, and Chinese social orders appear to lack a common will that serves as a bracket for all segments of society. Specifically, each member of society is molded by the cultural institutions of the original social order that she originates from, and which primarily attune the individual to her original cultural particularities. In societal terms, the only remaining cross-section of all segments in a plural society is the economy, as it represents the least common cultural denominator within this particualar setting. In contrast to homogenous economies, the production system in a plural setting is not structured as a social institution that serves a common social welfare but rather as a factory, in which each of the societal segment adapts to the niches that it is capable to occupy. As the assignment to economic roles; in FURNIVAL’s example based on race; further hinders an unbiased perception and identification of benefits for the society as a whole, this adds a further level of conflict to those which are already faced by homogenous societies. Of particular difficulty appear phenomena such as divergent social demand, distinctive economic and social casts, particularistic visions of social life, and ‘cast struggles’ between the societal segments in their economic functions.

As much as the American “melting pot” may differ from the reality of the “salad bowl”, FURNIVAL points at earlier Dutch writers who assumed that a “dual economy” in which European capitalism and pre-capitalist economy were believed to coexist. Within this notion, indigenous society is characterized to be inferior as its economic motives were not as prominent as compared to the Western capitalist principles. FURNIVALL then raises the question, in how far those deficiencies are owed to the historical circumstances as well as sociological setting, and not to innate characteristics of the indigenous culture and population. In doing so, he points out a number of examples that show how the indigenous population learned to appropriate Western capitalist principles and methods to increase their competitiveness against the Chinese and Europeans segments in Netherlands India. Both not only had a competitive edge due to their experience with the workings of the capitalist system but also the ability to price out native products from the market. Given this situation, FURNIVAL notes an impressing commercial catch up by the indigenous population; despite the compulsion towards the economic system of the oppressor and the barriers of entry provided by Europeans and Chinese; and points out evidences for an emerging capitalist ‘caste leaders’ among the native population. Never the less, approximations on the surface of plural society resulted in a decay and disorganization of the particular social demand and a further narrowing sectionalism within Netherlands India.

Having set this stage, FURNIVAL then confronts the thesis that the economy in Netherlands India is bound to be insufficient based on the low priority of economic motives within the indigenous set of values. Applying classical liberal theory to plural societies can not hold true, as the axioms are already inherently flawed. Whereas classic economic theory is based on the idea that society, once unleashed under a minimal state, exploits economic freedom to generate human welfare, non-pluralist theorists defraud that Netherlands Indian society can not provide a vehicle necessary to unleash this general will. In fact, the forces pull into opposite directions. For a homogeneous society politics aims at organizing the will of society and the economy exists to integrate individual and social demand. In plural societies however, politics aims at integrating society and economy is challenged to organize social demand. And this problem is not soon to be solved easily as serious reconfigurations may risk a collapse of the already fragile make up of plural societies.

Even though there have been attempts to align a common demand by introducing economic freedom in the legal domain, FURNIVAL points out that, the emphasis of individual rights over social duty further deepened the sociological cleavages within Netherlands Indian society. In the same way, nationalism didn’t lead to the desired common will as it originated from a reaction upon European protectionism and was driven by an economic necessity rather than a common social entity. Given the “dual character” of society, FURNIVAL assumes that, a federal framework might integrate society on a political level, and therefore reliefs the economic domain from its social burdon.


4433 Between Formality and Informality: Institutions in Southeast Asia | Furnivall, J.S. – Plural Societies. IN: Evers, H.D. Sociology of Southeast Asia. KL: Oxford Uni. Press, 1980: 86-96


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