Consociationalism is often seen as having close affinities with corporatism; some consider it to be a form of corporatism while others claim that economic corporatism was designed to regulate class conflict, while consociationalism developed on the basis of reconciling societal fragmentation along ethnic and religious lines.
The goals of consociationalism are governmental stability, the survival of the power-sharing arrangements, the survival of democracy, and the avoidance of violence. When consociationalism is organised along religious confessional lines, it is known as confessionalism, as is the case in Lebanon.
Political scientists define a consociational state as a state which has major internal divisions along ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines, with none of the divisions large enough to form a majority group, yet nonetheless manages to remain stable, due to consultation among the elites of each of its major social groups. Consociational states are often contrasted with states with majoritarian electoral systems.
Consociationalism was discussed in academic terms by the political scientist Arend Lijphart. However, Lijphart has stated that he had "merely discovered what political practitioners had repeatedly – and independently of both academic experts and one another – invented years earlier". John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary trace consociationalism back to 1917, when it was first employed in the Netherlands.
Indeed, Lijphart draws heavily on the experience of the Netherlands in developing his argument in favour of the consociational approach to ethnic conflict regulation. The Netherlands, as a consociational state, was between 1857 and 1967 divided into four non-territorial pillars: Calvinist, Catholic, socialist, and general, although until 1917 there was a plurality ("first past the post") electoral system rather than a consociational one. In their heyday, each comprised tightly-organised groups, schools, universities, hospitals and newspapers, all divided along a pillarised social structure. The theory, according to Lijphart, focuses on the role of social elites, their agreement and co-operation, as the key to a stable democracy.