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In politics, representation describes how political power is alienated from most of the members of a group and vested, for a certain time period, in the hands of a small subset of the members. 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 furthe


Theories of Representation

The most groundbreaking work on this subject was done by Hanna Fenichel Pitkin who established four theories of representation[1]:

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

Representation by population

In this method, hihilected representatives will be chosen by more or less numerically equivalent blocks of voters (See also Proportional Representation). This is not always practical for historical and current political reasons, and sometimes are 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 British English but is unknown to American English.

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 your jurisdiction, it matters that you 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 and Quebec 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.

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 representation

Descriptive representation, sometimes called passive representation or symbolic representation, is the idea that candidates in democratic elections should be elected to represent ethnic and gender constituencies, as well as other minority interest groups, rather than the population at large. 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.

Generally, voting systems that obtain proportional representation also tend to achieve descriptive representation as well, however this can only be guaranteed 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 an elected body will resemble a random sampling of the voters instead.

Some [Ulbig 2005] 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 symbolic measures (Spain's current government has eight women and eight men). Opponents of such logic argue that practical policies may ultimately play a larger role, making such representative gestures irrelevant unless already done by a government considered favorable by the community. For example, only 2% of African-Americans support the Bush administration[citation needed] despite the high-profile nominations of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

See also


  1. ^ Political Representation - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

External links


Simple English

In politics, representation describes how political power is given from a large group for a certain time period in the hands of a comparatively small group of its members. Representation usually refers to representative democracies, where elected officials (so-called representatives) nominally speak for their electors in the legislature. Generally, only citizens have representation in the government in the form of voting rights.


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