The Sociology of Tokenism

July 10, 2001

After reading Linda's post about the treachery she has experienced from other women, and Elizabeth's about all those happy women at CCRMA, and her positive relationship with CREAM, I thought I might make a few comments about tokenism. Numerous sociological studies have found that integration follows a pattern defined in three stages:

Tokenism (0-10% representation)
Transitional (11-40%)
Parity (40-60%)

In each stage, the behavior of people in the grouping is fairly predictable. In the token stage (0-10%,) there is very little animosity between the minority and the majority. The main goal of the minority is assimilation by just about any means. The minority does not have sufficient numbers within the group to formulate a group identity, and the majority does not see them as a threat. In the transitional stage (11-40%), the minority begins to formulate a group identity, compare experiences, and struggle for greater equity. It also gains the numbers to create a genuine threat to the status quo. When parity is reached (40-60%), the minority gains the weight to set its own agendas and social harmony returns (but never to the earlier levels of groups with only a token minority.) The former minority then begins to lose its group identity (at least in terms of advocacy and justice.) Smaller mixed groupings begin to form.

From a sociological perspective, it is thus quite predictable that the "token" women in computer music institutions such as CCRMA should feel happy. They feel fortunate just to be present, and it is likely that assimilation is a much higher priority than struggles for social justice. They are not seen as a threat to the status quo, and in a more proverbial sense, some women can even be the "Queen Bees" or "Coquets" of the social grouping. Since assimilation tends to be the first and foremost concern, and since they lack the numbers to formulate a group identity, solidarity among token minorities is rare. 

Hence Linda's observations about the treachery she has experienced from women in computer music, especially during the 80s when their representation was even less than it is now. I have noticed in my advocacy work that about 70% of the knifes are stabbed into my front (by men,) and about 30% are stabbed into my back (by token women.) Another curious aspect of tokenism is that the more famous or powerful the token member might be, the more they have to lose if the boat is rocked by struggles for justice, and thus the more likely they are to betray. Understanding the clearly definable social forces of tokenism might not increase your love for human nature, but it can help you take it in stride. 

These sociological studies should also be considered when analyzing interview data from institutions such as CCRMA and all of its "happy women." Comparisons between computer music institutions in the token and transitional stages would be useful. Unfortunately, there might not yet be any major computer music centers clearly in a transitional stage, e.g. with about 30% women.

The sociology of tokenism also helps us understand the Wave List. Women are just now moving beyond the 10% level in computer music and reaching the transitional stage, hence the beginning development of group identity and the birth of the Wave List. But since the representation of women is still hardly more than 10%, dialog on the list is still tenuous and cautious.

For more information about the sociology of tokenism and an example related to music see: Julia Allmendinger and J. Richard Hackman, "The More, the Better? A Four Nation Study of the Inclusion of Women in Symphony Orchestras," Social Forces 74/2 (University of North Carolina, December 1995): 423-60. The article contains important biographical references to other major studies of tokenism and the behavioral patterns of integration.

William Osborne