Neopluralism: The Evolution of Political Process Theory by Andrew McFarland
University Press of Kansas, 2004
||The Journal of Politics
|Date accepted online:
|Published in print:
||Volume 69, Issue 03, Pages 876-895
Andrew McFarland's ambitious synthesis of pluralist and postpluralist literature on interest groups, public policy, and political change aims to recenter a growing yet disparate set of research agendas around a framework he calls "neopluralism." McFarland contends that an undercurrent of scholarship has carried on the analytical and theoretical traditions of the pluralists, and he weaves a compelling narrative of scholarly progress around a theory of political process. Unlike Virginia Gray and David Lowery (2004), whose own neopluralist synthesis is aimed primarily at the study of interest groups, McFarland casts a broad net that sweeps in a variety of studies of noninstitutional politics including social movements, political power, policymaking, as well as interest groups. The crux of McFarland's argument is that the collective contributions of the estimated 500 or so political science researchers working in this field since the early 1980s, combined with the ancient wisdom of Bentley, Truman, Dahl, and Lindblom, comprise a powerful intellectual tradition that, properly harnessed, can anchor political science research in coming decades. The purpose of Neopluralism is to organize and highlight the most important features of political process theory, to clarify the appropriate conceptual tools for scholars working in this tradition, and to identify the research "sites" where these tools may best be applied.
Close readers of McFarland's oeuvre will recognize many of the themes that informed his earlier work on pluralism, public interest groups, and policymaking. Indeed, Neopluralism reads as an exposition of a research agenda that has been many decades in the making. This is reflected in the way McFarland develops his version of political process theory, unfolding it over the course of eleven distinct research "steps" as he traces the intellectual lineage of pluralism and its neopluralist inheritors (8-11). The major tenets of pluralism account for the first five steps: (1) The Bentley-Truman process model; (2) Dahl's idea of power as causation; (3) the notion that power exists within particular arenas; (4) the subjective definition of interests; and (5) Lindblom's concept of partisan mutual adjustment. The second set of steps reflect the theoretical contributions of scholars who have written in the postpluralist era: (6) the prevalence of subgovernments; (7) the problems associated with collective action; (8) interest group sustainers; (9) social movements; (10) the independent role of the state; and (11) a recognition that pluralism does not imply a fair or just system.
There is much to be gained from an assay of McFarland's Neopluralism, especially for graduate students interested in an introduction to the vast literature profiled here. Part of the rationale for this project, McFarland explains, is to forestall any trend toward "reinventing the wheel" as a younger generation of scholars hashes out old debates. Moreover, he continues, if we establish a theoretical framework for studies of the political process, subsequent research projects on any one part of the political process will be easier to fit into a broader context. In this respect, McFarland hopes to supplant a Kuhnian notion of paradigm shifts (from earlier to later stages of pluralism, for example) with a conceptual framework that emphasizes the continuity of ideas across generations.
Students of interest groups will also appreciate McFarland's effort to push the boundaries of the study of interest groups. Echoing Baumgartner and Leech (1998), McFarland bemoans the devotion of so much scholarly attention to the question of why people join groups instead of other questions like how social movements contribute to interest group formation or how interest groups operate in political time. Indeed, McFarland's chapters on social movements and on political time reveal the theoretical barrenness of the interest groups subfield in comparison to the work that has been done in sociology and in American political development.
Neopluralism is written in a conversational, informal style that conveys a sense of personal engagement both with the literature as well as with the community of scholars who have produced it. At the same time, this casual tone can be off-putting and it lends a sense of disorganization to the manuscript. Given the difficulty of synthesizing four decades of scholarship in a readable fashion, one is sympathetic to the challenges McFarland faces in this respect. Still, if neopluralism or political process theory is going to frame future research on interest groups, political power, or policymaking, a stronger theoretical justification is required. It is not simply enough to identify the core arguments that have served the discipline well in the past. Rather, exponents of neopluralism or political process theory must demonstrate that their approach will serve the discipline well as it tackles new challenges. In this sense, neopluralism is still undertheorized. McFarland highlights the promise of neopluralism, but its realization awaits future scholarly endeavors.