What is individual representation?

Political representation is usually understood to be about groups: left-wing parties represent people with left-wing views (“substantive” representation), female MP represent women in the population (“descriptive” representation). When Matt Golder and Jacek Stramski examined ideological congruence, that’s what they did, too. They included a footnote to outline the possibility that individuals are represented by a parliament as a whole, but seemed to dismiss this perspective as irrelevant in practice — this was the same comment I got from an examiner once when still working on my doctorate. This did not discourage me to write up how to conceptualize and measure individual representation in 2012.

Let’s begin with the different representational relationships:

forms_of_representation

Here, Z’ is an individual citizen, and R’ and individual representative (parliamentarian). ZZ refers to citizens as a group, and RR to representatives as a group.This gives us:

    dyadic representation: how well does a single MP represent citizens, e.g. how well does the MP of a district represent the views of the citizens in this district?
    collective representation: how well do parliamentarians collectively represent citizens, e.g. how well are the views of the citizens in a country represented in their legislature?
    direct representation: how well does a single MP represent a single citizen, e.g. does the president of a country represent the views of this particular person?
    individual representation: how well do parliamentarians collectively represent a single citizen, e.g. how well are the views of this particular person represented by their legislature?

Individual representation is expressed as a score for each individual. Rather than combining views and looking at averages or distributions, we consider the position of an individual citizen. To keep the information of all citizens, we first compare the position of each citizens vis-à-vis the positions of the other citizens. This gives us a measure of “marginality”. The intuition is that individuals are aware of their position among citizens to some degree, and a person with far-left views will not expect to have his or her views represented in a legislature if everyone else is centre-right or far-right. Similarly, a person with centrist views will expect his or her views represented in a legislature when many other citizens have centrist views. This is the comparison at the top of the figure.

individual_representation_thought_experiment

Once we have figured out how common or marginal each citizen’s position is in the population, we do a thought experiment, and look at how common or marginal each citizen’s position would be among the representatives. This is the comparison at the bottom of the figure.

We can then simply compare (=subtract) the marginality among citizens and the (imagined) marginality among representatives to derive an individual representation score. Normatively, we assume that smaller Euclidian distances are “better”. This is an important note, because we could also assume that an individual only cares about having “perfect” direct representation through one MP. When moving beyond single issues, I think most individuals will cease to have a “perfect” direct representative who shares their views on all dimensions exactly, and considerations of minimizing positional distance will play a role.

Why should we care about individual representation? Because individual representation allows us to examine different aspects of representation than the other perspectives. For instance, individual representation is very flexible for exploring how membership in different socio-demographic groups (“intersectionality”) affects substantive representation. We can readily compare the level of representation of old women with that of left-wing men (if this makes sense, of course), or test whether individuals who are better represented also feel better represented – rather than make the assumption.

Golder, M., and J. Stramski. 2010. “Ideological Congruence and Electoral Institutions.” American Journal of Political Science 54 (1): 90–106.

Ruedin, Didier. 2012. “Individual representation: A different approach to political representation.” Representation 48(1): 115–29. doi:10.1080/00344893.2012.653248

Polrep package for R to calculated individual representation scores: http://polrep.r-forge.r-project.org/irs.html

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