Pillarization ('Verzuiling'): On Organized 'Self-Contained Worlds' in the Modern World

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Movements and groups abound in modern society. Sometimes, a movement or group succeeds in mobilizing a large section of the population and thoroughly knitting it together, by building a pervasive subculture and by setting up a vast interrelated network of organizations, resulting in a seemingly impenetrable and powerful bloc. This happened to different degrees in most Western countries, including the United States and Canada. It is also occurring now in the non-Western world. Belgium and the Netherlands were particularly affected by extensive bloc building. In both countries, Catholic, Socialist, and Liberal pillars – plus a Protestant pillar in the Netherlands – divided society and determined political and social life from the late nineteenth century up to the late twentieth century. As a consequence, the phenomenon has been studied there more thoroughly and under a specific label, ‘verzuiling’ (pillarization).

The first section of this article offers a review of pillarization theory in the Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere. In the second part, to advance the study of organized blocs all over the world, I argue for a broad, international perspective on pillarization against the particularistic tendencies of many pillarization researchers, especially in the Netherlands. In a shorter third part, I address the isolation of pillarization theory from general sociological theory. Self-reinforcing processes of segregation and organization in large population groupings were and still are a common feature in the modern world. They have resulted in more than one case in divided societies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-24
Number of pages25
JournalThe American Sociologist
Publication statusPublished - 29 Apr 2020



  • Pillarization
  • Verzuiling
  • The Netherlands
  • Belgium
  • Modern world
  • Divided societies

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