Representation (politics)

Political representation is the activity of making citizens "present" in public policy making processes when political actors act in the best interest of citizens.[1] [2] This definition of political representation is consistent with a wide variety of views on what representing implies and what the duties of representatives are.[3] For example, representing may imply acting on the expressed wishes of citizens, but it may alternatively imply acting according to what the representatives themselves judge is in the best interests of citizens.[3] And representatives may be viewed as individuals who have been authorized to act on the behalf of others, or may alternatively be viewed as those who will be held to account by those they are representing.[2] Political representation can happen along different units such as social groups and area, and there are different types of representation such as substantive representation and descriptive representation.[2]

Views of political representation

Under the accountability view, a representative is an individual who will be held to account.[4] Representatives are held accountable if citizens can judge whether the representative is acting in their best interest and sanction the representative accordingly.[3] The descriptive and symbolic views of political representation describe the ways in which political representatives "stand for" the people they represent.[2] Descriptive representatives "stand for" to the extent that they resemble, in their descriptive characteristics (e.g. race, gender, class etc.), the people they represent.[5] On the other hand, Symbolic representatives "stand for" the people they represent as long as those people believe in or accept them as their representative.[6] Pitkin argues that these views of political representation give an inadequate account of political representation because they lack an account both of how representatives "act for" the represented and the normative criteria for judging representative's actions. Hence Pitkin proposes a substantive view of representation. In this view of political representation, representation is defined as substantive "acting for", by representatives, the interests of the people they represent.[6]

In contrast, Jane Mansbridge has identified four views of democratic political representation: promissory, anticipatory, surrogate and gyroscopic. Mansbridge argues that each of these views provides an account of both how democratic political representatives "act for" the people they represent and the normative criteria for assessing the actions of representatives.[7] Promissory representation is a form of representation in which representatives are chosen and assessed based on the promises they make to the people they represent during election campaigns. For Mansbridge, promissory representation, preoccupied with how representatives are chosen (authorized) and held to account through elections, is the traditional view of democratic political representation. Anticipatory, surrogate and gyroscopic representation, on the other hand, are more modern views that have emerged from the work of empirical political scientists. Anticipatory representatives take actions that they believe voters (the represented) will reward in the next election. Surrogate representation occurs when representatives "act for" the interest of people outside their constituencies. Finally, in gyroscopic representation, representatives use their own judgements to determine how and for what they should act for on behalf of the people they represent.[1]

Under Rehfeld's general theory of representation, a person is considered a representative as long as the particular group she represents judges her as such.[8] In any case of political representation, there are representatives, the represented, a selection agent, a relevant audience and rules by which the relevant judge whether or not a person is a representative.[8] Representatives are those who are selected by a selection agent from a larger set of qualified individuals who are then judged to representatives by a relevant audience using particular rules of judgement. The rules by which a relevant audience judges whether or not a person is a representative can be either democratic or non-democratic. In a case where the selection agent , relevant audience and the represented are the same and the rules of judgment are democratic (e.g. elections), the familiar democratic case of political representation arises and where they are not, undemocratic cases arise.

Units of Representation

Representation by social groups

In this method, elected representatives will be chosen by more or less numerically equivalent blocks of voters. This is not always practical for historical and current political reasons, and sometimes is impractical purely on the basis of logistics, as in regions where travel is difficult and distances are long. The shortened term "rep-by-pop" is used in Britain but is relatively uncommon in U.S

Historically rep-by-pop is the alternative to rep-by-area. However, in the colonial countries, the geographic realities made a necessity of low-population electoral districts in order to give meaningful representation to remote communities, and only in urban and suburban areas has there been any success with applying rep-by-pop more or less evenly

In the United States and other democracies, typically the lower house of a bicameral (two-chamber) system is based on population—more or less—while the upper House is based on area. Or, as it might be put in the United Kingdom, on title to land, as was originally the case with the old pre-Reforms House of Lords. In the Senate or the Lords, it does not matter how many people are living in a constituent's jurisdiction, it matters that the constituent have the jurisdiction (by election, heredity or appointment—the US, the UK and Canada respectively).

Representation by area

The principle of rep-by-pop, when brought in and promoted publicly, removed many archaic seats in the British House of Commons although some northern and rural counties necessarily still have variably lower populations than most urban ridings. Former British colonies like Canada and Australia also have rural and wilderness areas spanning tens of thousands of square miles, with fewer voters in them than a tiny urban-core riding. In the most extreme case, one riding of the Canadian parliament covers more than 2 million square kilometres, Nunavut, yet has less than one third the average number of voters for a riding, with a population of about 30,000. Making the riding larger would be difficult for the elected member, as well as for campaigning and also unfair to remotely rural constituents, whose concerns are radically different from those of the medium-sized towns that typically dominate the electorate in such ridings.

The American Constitution has built into it a series of compromises between rep-by-pop and rep-by-area: two Senators per state, at least one Representative per state, and representation in the electoral college. In Canada, provinces such as Prince Edward Island have unequal representation in Parliament (in the Commons as well as the Senate) relative to Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta, partly for historical reasons, partly because those electoral allotments are constitutionally guaranteed, and partly because governments have simply chosen to under-represent certain voters and over-represent others. In the United States, Baker v. Carr (1962) established the "one-person/one vote" standard, that each individual had to be weighted equally in legislative apportionment.

In Canada, until recent reforms, there were still many federal and provincial electoral districts in British Columbia and other provinces that had less than a few thousand votes cast, notably Atlin, covering the province's far northwest, with no more than 1,500. The area of the riding was about the size of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia combined, and larger than many American states. In practicality, the voters of the tiny communities scattered across the subarctic landscape, less than the population of a city block, had as much electoral clout as two Fraser Valley municipalities totaling up to 60,000 in population. The population imbalance between largely rural areas and overwhelmingly urban areas is one reason why the realities of representation by area still have sway against the ideal of representation by population.

Types of Representation

Substantive representation

Under representative democracy, substantive representation (in contrast to descriptive representation) is the tendency of elected legislators to advocate on behalf of certain groups.

Conflicting theories and beliefs exist regarding why constituents vote for representatives. "Rather than choosing candidates on the basis of an informed view of the incumbents' voting records, voters, it is argued, rely primarily on the policy-free 'symbols' of party identification".[9] Politicians, it would seem, have little to fear from a public that knows little about what laws their representatives support or oppose in the legislature.

Descriptive representation

Scholars have defined representation as “the making present in some sense of something which is nevertheless not present literally or in fact”[10] . Descriptive representation is the idea that a group elects an individual to represent them who in their own characteristics mirror some of the more frequent experiences and outward manifestations of the group[11] . In this form of representation, representatives are in their own persons and lives in some sense typical of the larger class of persons whom they represent[12]. For example, certain ethnic groups or gender-based groups may want to elect a leader that shares these descriptive characteristics as they may be politically relevant. Disadvantaged groups may gain benefit from descriptive representation primarily in two ways:

  1. When there is mistrust: This refers to a situation where communication between the group and its representatives has been inadequate[11]. In these cases, descriptive representation promotes vertical communication between representatives and their group of constituents[11].
  2. When interests are uncrystallized: In certain historical moments, citizen interests are not clearly defined. Either the issues haven’t been on the political agenda for long, or candidates haven’t taken public positions on them[11]. In this case, the best way to have one’s substantive interests represented is often to choose a descriptive representative whose characteristics match one’s own[12].

Descriptive representation can be instituted by political parties independently where they set aside a certain number of party seats for particular groups[13]. It can also be instituted through national electoral quotas either by reserving seats for office or candidate quotas for political parties[13].

Traditionally, quotas have been thought of as a way of providing adequate representation for previously disadvantaged groups such as women or oppressed ethnic groups[11]. However, another way of conceptualizing quotas is to institute a maximum or ceiling quota for advantaged groups[14]. This may improve the meritocracy of the system and improve the process of candidate selection[14].

Empirically, quotas show mixed results. In Lesotho, quota-mandated female representation has had no effect or even reduced several dimensions of women’s engagement with local politics[15]. In Argentina, quotas have mandated negative stereotypes about women politicians[16]. Meanwhile, in India, women are more likely to win an election in a constituency that formerly had quotas, even when the quotas are removed[17], and women leaders provide public goods favoured by women constituents[18]. Evidence also shows that caste-based quotas may not change stereotypes of how people view the oppressed caste group, it does change the social norms of interaction between caste groups[19].

For data on gender quota adoption from 1947 to 2015, see the Quota Adoption and Reform Over Time (QAROT) data set.

Dyadic representation

Dyadic representation refers to the degree to which and ways by which elected legislators represent the preferences or interests of the specific geographic constituencies from which they are elected. Candidates who run for legislative office in an individual constituency or as a member of a list of party candidates are especially motivated to provide dyadic representation. As Carey and Shugart (1995, 417) observe, they have “incentives to cultivate a personal vote” beyond whatever support their party label will produce. Personal vote seeking might arise from representing the public policy interests of the constituency (by way of either the delegate, responsible party, or trustee models noted above), providing it “pork barrel” goods, offering service to individual constituents as by helping them acquire government services, and symbolic actions.

The most abundant scientific scholarship on dyadic representation has been for the U.S. Congress and for policy representation of constituencies by the members of the Congress. Miller and Stokes (1963) presented the seminal research of this kind in an exploratory effort to account for when alternative models of policy representation arise. Their work has been emulated, replicated, and enlarged by a host of subsequent studies. The most advanced theoretical formulation in this body of work, however, is by Hurley and Hill (2003) and by Hill, Jordan, and Hurley (2015) who present a theory that accounts well for when belief sharing representation, delegate representation, trustee representation, responsible party representation, and party elite led representation will arise.

Collective representation

The concept of collective representation can be found in various normative theory and scientific works, but Weissberg (1978, 535) offered the first systematic characterization of it in the scientific literature and for the U.S. Congress, defining such representation as “Whether Congress as an institution represents the American people, not whether each member of Congress represented his or her particular district.” Hurley (1982) elaborated and qualified Weissberg’s explication of how such representation should be assessed and how it relates to dyadic representation. Stimson, MacKuen, and Erikson (1995), offer the most advanced theoretical exposition of such representation for the U.S. Congress. And the latter work was extended in Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson (2002).

In most Parliamentary political systems with strong (or ideologically unified) political parties and where the election system is dominated by parties instead of individual candidates, the primary basis for representation is also a collective, party based one. The foundational work on assessing such representation is that of Huber and Powell (1994) and Powell (2000).

See also


  1. Dovi, Suzanne. "Political Representation". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition). Retrieved 19 November 2019.
  2. Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel,. The concept of representation. Berkeley. ISBN 0520021568. OCLC 498382.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. Democracy, accountability, and representation. Przeworski, Adam., Stokes, Susan Carol., Manin, Bernard. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. 1999. ISBN 9781139175104. OCLC 817932765.CS1 maint: others (link)
  4. Pitkin, Hanna (1967). The Concept of Representation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp. 38–39, 55. ISBN 978-0520021563.
  5. Pitkin, Hanna (1967). The Concept of Representation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 63. ISBN 978-0520021563.
  6. Pitkin, Hanna (1967). The Concept of Representation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 174. ISBN 978-0520021563.
  7. Mansbridge, Jane (Nov 2003). "Rethinking Representation". The American Political Science Review. 97 (4): 515–528. JSTOR 359302.
  8. Rehfeld, Andrew (2006). "Toward a General Theory of Political Representation". The Journal of Politics. 68: 1–21. CiteSeerX doi:10.1111/j.1468-2508.2006.00365.x.
  9. Stokes and Miller, 1962.
  10. Pitkin, Hanna (1967). The Concept of Representation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 114.
  11. Mansbridge, Jane (1999). "Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent "Yes"". The Journal of Politics. 61 (3): 628–657. doi:10.2307/2647821. ISSN 0022-3816.
  12. Phillips, Anne (1995). The Politics of Presence. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-827942-6.
  13. Hughes, Melanie; Paxton, Pamela; Clayton, Amanda; Zetterberg, Par (2019). "Global gender quota adoption, implementation and reform". Comparative Politics. 51: 219–238.
  14. Murray, Rainbow (2014). "Quotas for Men: Reframing Gender Quotas as a Means of Improving Representation for All". The American Political Science Review. 108 (3): 520–532. ISSN 0003-0554.
  15. Clayton, Amanda (2015). "Women's Political Engagement Under Quota-Mandated Female Representation: Evidence From a Randomized Policy Experiment". Comparative Political Studies. 48 (3): 333–369. doi:10.1177/0010414014548104. ISSN 0010-4140.
  16. Franceschet, Susan; Piscopo, Jennifer M. (2008). "Gender Quotas and Women's Substantive Representation: Lessons from Argentina". Politics & Gender. 4 (03). doi:10.1017/S1743923X08000342. ISSN 1743-923X.
  17. Bhavnani, Rikhil R. (2009). "Do Electoral Quotas Work after They Are Withdrawn? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in India". American Political Science Review. 103 (01): 23–35. doi:10.1017/S0003055409090029. ISSN 0003-0554.
  18. Chattopadhyay, Raghabendra; Duflo, Esther (2004-09-01). "Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in India". Econometrica. 72 (5): 1409–1443. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0262.2004.00539.x. ISSN 1468-0262.
  19. Chauchard, Simon (2014). "Can Descriptive Representation Change Beliefs about a Stigmatized Group? Evidence from Rural India". The American Political Science Review. 108 (2): 403–422. ISSN 0003-0554.


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