Limits of Descriptive Representation

There are many benefits of including minorities of power in decision-making — so-called descriptive representation. This is the case for women who remain numerically under-represented in legislatures around the world, but also ethnic minority groups, and other minorities.

There are, however, practical limitations to including different groups and subgroups in legislatures. Goodin (2004) highlights that there is a tension between including members from different groups and subgroups on the one hand, and the practical ability to debate in the legislature – thus rob them of the possibility of substantively represent their particular subgroup. Goodin highlights that legislatures and governments need not include all groups and subgroups in society to represent the fact of diversity. While this observation highlights why it is impossible to include every subgroup all the time, it should not distract from the need of including ethnic and regional minorities in processes of decision-making, and certainly not be seen as a licence to exclude large groups of society.

It might be helpful to take a longer-term perspective here: rather than focusing on the absence of particular (small) groups in society in any given legislature, focus on persistent exclusion over several legislatures. And bear in mind that representatives act on behalf of groups not directly included in decision-making — so we should also focus on the representation of interests (though this is much harder to do than simply counting, of course).

Goodin, R. 2004. «Representing Diversity». British Journal of Political Science 34 (3): 453–68. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123404000134.
Ruedin, Didier. 2013. Why Aren’t They There? The Political Representation of Women, Ethnic Groups and Issue Positions in Legislatures. Colchester: ECPR Press.

Image: CC-by-nc by Guilherme Sales

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