Representation (politics)

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In politics, representation describes how some individuals stand in for others or a group of others, for a certain time period. Representation usually refers to representative democracies, where elected officials nominally speak for their constituents in the legislature. Generally, only citizens are granted representation in the government in the form of voting rights; however, some democracies have extended this right further.


Hanna Fenichel Pitkin established four theories of representation in her philosophical writing on this subject:[1]

  1. Formalistic Representation, including:
    1. Authorization
    2. Accountability
  2. Symbolic Representation
  3. Descriptive Representation, and
  4. Substantive Representation

Scientific research addresses some of the preceding forms of representation, but it also distinguishes dyadic and collective forms, which are explained below. Scientific research has also identified several alternative "models" or alternative versions of how dyadic representation might come about, especially including instructed delegate, responsible party, and trustee ones. The goal of scientific research is to develop systematic theory that accounts for the character of collective and dyadic representation and, in the latter case, for the conditions under which these alternative models arise.


British politician Edmund Burke in his 1774 Speech to the Electors at Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll was noted for his articulation of the principles of representation against the notion that elected officials should be delegates who exactly mirror the opinions of the electorate:

It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitting attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

— [2]

Pitkin points out that Burke linked the district's interest with the proper behaviour of its elected official, explaining, "Burke conceives of broad, relatively fixed interest, few in number and clearly defined, of which any group or locality has just one. These interests are largely economic or associated with particular localities whose livelihood they characterize, in his over-all prosperity they involve."[3]

Representation by population

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.

Descriptive and 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".[4][page needed] 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 is the idea that elected representatives in democracies should represent not only the expressed preferences of their constituencies (or the nation as a whole) but also those of their descriptive characteristics that are politically relevant, such as geographical area of birth, occupation, ethnicity, or gender. According to this idea, an elected body should resemble a representative sample of the voters they are meant to represent concerning outward characteristics—a constituency of 50% women and 20% blacks, for example, should have 50% female and 20% black legislators.

Sometimes voting systems that obtain proportional representation may achieve descriptive representation as well. However this can be guaranteed only to the extent that voting patterns reflect descriptive characteristics of the voters. If a particular trait is not a concern for voters or prospective candidates (for instance, eye color), then, if the system does not introduce other biases, an elected body will resemble a random sampling of the voters instead.

Some[5][page needed] argue that cynicism and distrust towards government of disadvantaged minorities is partly due to not having representatives with similar characteristics. Supporters of this argument point out that as descriptive representation increases, distrust decreases. This can be the basis of laws imposing that half the candidates on a given list be women (for example in France since 2001) or of voluntary measures (Spain's current government has eight women and eight men). Opponents of such logic argue that political interests as already addressed by the political system may play a larger role.[citation needed]

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. ^ Political Representation - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. ^ The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. Volume I (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854), pp. 446-8.
  3. ^ Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, The concept of representation (1972) p. 174
  4. ^ Stokes and Miller, 1962.
  5. ^ "Voting for Minority Candidates in Multiracial/Multiethnic Communities," with Robert M. Stein and Stephanie S. Post. 2005. Urban Affairs Review 41(2): 157-181.


  • Carey, John M. and Matthew Soberg Shugart. (1995) "Incentives to Cultivate a Personal Vote: A Rank Ordering of Electoral Formulas." Electoral Studies vol 14(4): 417-439.
  • Disch, Lisa. (2011) "Toward a Mobilization Conception of Democratic Representation" American Political Science Review, vol. 105(1): 100-114.
  • Erikson, Robert S., Michael B. MacKuen, and James A. Stimson. (2002)The Macro Polity Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Huber, John D. and G. Bingham Powell, Jr. (1994) "Congruence Between Citizens and Policymakers in Two Visions of Liberal Democracy" World Politics vol. 46(April): 291-326.
  • Hill, Kim Quaile, Soren Jordan, and Patricia A. Hurley (2015) Representation in Congress: A Unified Theory. Cambridge University Press.
  • Hurley, Patricia A. (1982) "Collective Representation Reappraised" Legislative Studies Quarterly vol. VII(February): 119-136.
  • Hurley, Patricia A. and Kim Quaile Hill. (2003) "Beyond the Demand-Input Model: A Theory of Representational Linkages." Journal of Politics vol.65(May): 304-326.
  • Mansbridge, Jane. (1999) "Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent `Yes'" Journal of Politics, vol. 61(3): 627-657.
  • Miller, Warren E. and Donald E. Stokes. (1963) "Constituency Influence in Congress." American Political Science Review vol. 57(March): 45-56.
  • Phillips, Anne. (1995) The Politics of Presence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pitkin, Hannah. (1967) The Concept of Representation. University of California Press.
  • Plotke, David. (1997) "Representation is Democracy." Constellations 4 (1): 19-34.
  • Powell, G. Bingham, Jr. (2000) Elections as Instruments of Democracy New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Stimson, James A., Michael B. MacKuen, and Robert S. Erikson. (1995) "Dynamic Representation" American Political Science Review vol. 89(September): 543-565.
  • Ulbig, Stacy G. (2005) "Political Realities and Political Trust: Descriptive Representation in Municipal Government". Southwestern Political Science Association Meeting. Retrieved from [1] on July 19, 2005.
  • Vieira, Mónica Brito and David Runciman. (2008) Representation. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Weissberg, Robert. (1978) "Collective vs. Dyadic Representation in Congress." American Political Science Review vol. 72(June): 535-547.
  • Williams, Melissa S. (1998) Voice, Trust, and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failings of Liberal Representation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

External links

  • Analysis of reapportionment after the 1990 US census, from an Arizona State University website
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Political Representation by Suzanne Dovi.
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