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.
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

Claims-Making as Political Representation

Political claims-making can be seen as a form of political representation. It lacks the formal authorization of electoral representation, but can fulfil the functions of substantive representation of groups. This is particularly the case for groups that may otherwise be absent or under-represented in electoral politics. Following work by Michael Saward and to some extent Andrew Rehfeld, Laura Montanaro has established that such non-elected representation can indeed be legitimate. More recently, Pieter de Wilde has put together a nice summary how the claims-making perspective is well suited for approaching claims as political representation. In my view, we have to focus on claims that are positive to really speak of political representation, especially if we are concerned with substantive representation.

Montanaro, Laura. 2012. “The Democratic Legitimacy of Self-Appointed Representatives.” The Journal of Politics 74 (4): 1094–1107. doi:10.1017/S0022381612000515.

Rehfeld, A. 2006. “Towards a general theory of political representation.” Journal of Politics 68 (1): 1–21.

Saward, M. 2006. “The Representative Claim.” Contemporary Political Theory 5 (3): 297–318. doi:10.1057/palgrave.cpt.9300234.

De Wilde, Pieter. 2013. “Representative claims analysis: theory meets method.” Journal of European Public Policy 20 (2): 278–294.

Do Civil Society Organizations See Immigration Positively?

Civil society organizations (CSO) are important political actors in the debate on immigration. As part of the SOM project we examined the politicization of immigration in seven Western European countries, 1995 to 2009. Civil society organizations are responsible for between 11 and 28 per cent of claims in the news.

With the exception of the UK, most of the claims by civil society organizations are positive: Between around 70 and 80 per cent of claims by civil society organizations on immigration are positive.

Edited on 1 Feb 2013: Removed some incorrect numbers; the patterns is generally observed.

Women in Claims-Making

In the project SOM we use a large media analysis to examine claims-making in the news. I looked at the gender aspect. Since the original data does not record the gender of the claimant, I used the first name of the 200 most common first names and manually assigned the gender.

This gives me 531 claims by women (16%), and 2729 claims by men (84%).

I find significant differences across countries in the proportion of claims made by women (as opposed to men):

Women 23.5% 9.4% 17.2% 24.7% 18.5% 16.9% 5.55%
Men 76.5% 90.6% 82.8% 75.3% 81.5% 83.1% 94.5%

My initial thought was that these differences are just another reflection of the different levels of descriptive representation. This isn’t the case, though (r=0.08):

I also looked at the frames used in political claims; men tend to use identity frames a bit more often, women moral arguments more often and instrumental frames. Instrumental frames are dominant for men and women.