Critical Mass for Affirmative Action: Dispersing the Critical Cloud

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The concept of critical mass has been invoked by social scientists and the Supreme Court in affirmative action decisions as a solution to problems related to underrepresentation of minority students in institutions of higher education. Little distinction is made by scholars between the Court's use of critical mass as a metaphor and its application in research as a mathematical concept. I use Agent-Based Modeling—a simulation technique in which systems are modeled through repetitive interaction of autonomous decision-making “agents” to observe the complex dynamics that emerge from interaction—to investigate the Supreme Court's conception of the relationship between student-body composition and student isolation and stereotyping. Findings demonstrate that the relationship between student body representation and the educational outcomes of interest as detailed by the Court, specifically minority students' feeling of isolation and majority students' retention of negative stereotypes, does not exhibit a specific threshold or tipping point as we would expect from a system that has a critical mass at which sudden and sustainable change in the state of the system occurs. Simulations of student interactions show there is not one definable threshold or critical mass of minority students that achieves educational goals of reducing either the isolation felt by minority students or the negative stereotypes held by majority students about their minority peers. Instead, greater minority representation is consistently associated with better outcomes for students in all contexts.




Kalbfeld, J. R. (2019). Critical Mass for Affirmative Action: Dispersing the Critical Cloud. Law and Society Review, 53(4), 1266–1304.

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