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Women and Politics: Critical Mass Theory

By Edited Jan 10, 2014 0 0

Critical Mass Theory in gender politics and collective political action is defined as the critical number of personnel needed to affect policy and make a change not as the token but as an influential body. The term is borrowed from nuclear physics and in that field it refers to the amount of a substance needed to start a chain reaction[1]. To thoroughly analyze this topic I conducted a literature review of a number of research articles and have compiled a summary to help explain and understand the phenomena/dilemma of critical mass theory. I used a total of seven sources and in order to fully understand the dimensions of the issue I began with why critical mass is so important to begin with.

Part of the issue of critical mass debate stems from the negative connotations of being a ‘token’ group or the minority also referred to as tokenism. In a book written by Rosabeth Moss Kanter she describes certain factors that prohibit women from fitting in and participating to the extent their male counterparts do. In her study she identified that women making up less than 15% of the population of an organization feel socially isolated, receive heightened attention (which increases the pressure to perform) and gender differences are exaggerated. She also noticed that tokenism does not work in reverse. For instance if men were the minority in a given workplace the effects would not be negative and could even be positive.

 “A Theory of Critical Mass. I. Interdependence, Group Heterogeneity, and the Production of Collective Action.”[2] does not focus on gender in politics specifically but rather provides a definition as well as outlines some critical topics of research that were/are important to consider in regards to groups that could be considered the critical mass. The authors stated their dependant variables as being the probability, extent and effectiveness of their desired outcome and the independent variables as being the form of the production function and the heterogeneity of the collective action. The article focused on the members of the collective action and what they contributed to the production of the change such as money, time or other resources and on the differences in the group that affected the contribution level and decision making process. What they found in regards to contribution was that if the probability of change definitely increased with a contribution the contribution was more likely and that if the level of interest was high (ie had a lot at stake) contribution was also likely. Another point made was the evaluation of the collective action thought process. The level of contribution increased with the rise of participants. For instance, I saw Sally Jane donate $25 to the new playground and I know a bunch of my neighbors did too so I know I’m not the only one who wants one and now I will donate too. The thought process of a critical mass is interdependent since they have all impacted the thoughts of each other. Lastly, they also pointed out that since the number of contributions is likely to rise based on prior contributions the ‘free rider’ problem attempts to take care of itself.

            The next article “The Paradox of Group Size in Collective Action: A Theory of Critical Mass. II.” [3] the same authors discuss the misconception that smaller groups are more likely to form a collective action than larger groups. The example used to refute this claim is in the United States African-Americans and Women are more likely to form a collective action than say paraplegics or Armenian-Americans. They hypothesize that the reason is because within these larger groups there are smaller groups that are more willing to jump start the contributions and have access to resources, whereas in smaller groups the likelihood of this ‘critical mass’ is less. Therefore even though the critical mass consists of a minority group in regard to society it is the larger minority group that is most effective.

            The general brief on critical mass as a collective action theory leads to elaboration on how it affects gender in politics. When the topic of critical mass was introduced in the 1980’s (as it pertains to gender and politics) the assumption was there was a magic number (30%) that needed to be attained in order for women to make a difference in legislatures and parliaments. In an article titled “Numbers and Beyond: The Relevance if Critical Mass in Gender Research”[4] Sandra Grey points out that finding the magic number of the critical mass is not as cut and dry as previously thought. She points out that in legislatures and groups where the female population is 15 percent or less the women are essentially a ‘token’ unit and though this has proven to have effects they are not likely responsible for making a substantive change. On the contrary when the population rises to between 15 and 40 percent the policy outcomes can be tilted in their favor. She ascertains that there is no single figure but different critical masses are required for different outcomes. For example, if the desired outcome is simply to change the agenda 15 percent will suffice whereas if the desired outcome is to institute female-friendly policy 40 percent may be needed.

            Amidst the debate of how many female representatives are needed to achieve a critical mass is another dimension. How do we best achieve this critical mass? Manon Tremblay of the University of Ottawa, Canada attempted to answer this question in his article titled “The Substantive Representation of Women and PR: Some Reflections on the Role of Surrogate Representation and Critical Mass.” [6] In this article Tremblay evaluates the role of the electoral process in the percentage of female representatives. Throughout the course of his evaluation of 89 countries considered free (by Freedom House) he found that in countries using the majority system to elect government officials an average of 10.8% of women held office while in countries using proportional representation women held 21.1% of the seats. The numbers suggest that proportional representation is more effective in ensuring substantive representation and conducive to the formation of a critical mass.

            To sum it up in “Should Feminists Give Up on Critical Mass? A Contingent Yes”[7] the authors explain that over the years critical mass theories have played a large part in quota representation as well as been used as a tool to fight for more women in office. They argue however that the absence of critical mass has not been proven to result in negative effects on the passing of female-friendly legislation. They further state that substantial increases in the number of female law makers can even create a backlash effect and hinder the process. To answer their own question they say that the theory of critical mass should be discarded because expecting a certain number of women to make change automatic is uncertain. However they also admit that the ‘concept’ has allowed for real change in the way women as politicians have been encouraged to increase their numbers. In summary they call for additional research to provide a more accurate approach towards substantive representation for the female population.



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  1. Dahlerup, Drude. "The Story of the Theory of Critical Mass." Politics and Gender. 2 (2006): 512.
  2. Oliver, Pamela, Gerald Marwell, and Ruy Teveira. "A Theory of Critical Mass. I. Interdependance, Group Heterogeneity, and the Production of Collective Action." American Journal of Sociology. 91 (1988): 522-556.
  3. Oliver, Pamela, and Gerald Marwell "The Paradox of Group Size in Collective Action: A Theory of the Critical Mass. II." American Sociological Review. 53 (1988): 1-8.
  4. Grey, Sandra "Numbers and Beyond: The Relevance of Critical Mass in Gender Research." Politics and Gender. 2 (2006): 492-501.
  5. Grey, Sandra "Numbers and Beyond: The Relevance of Critical Mass in Gender Research." Politics and Gender. 2 (2006): 492-501.
  6. Kanter, Rosabeth Moss Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books, 1977.
  7. Tremblay, Manon "The Substantive Representation ofWomen and PR: Some Reflections on the Role of Surrogate Representation and Critical Mass." Politics and Gender. 2 (2006): 502-510.
  8. Childs, Sarah, and Mona Lena Krook "Give Up on Critical Mass? A Contingent Yes." Politics and Gender. 2 (2006): 522-530.
  9. Childs, Sarah, and Mona Lena Krook "Give Up on Critical Mass? A Contingent Yes." Politics and Gender. 2 (2006): 522-530.

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