views updated May 21 2018


I. TheoryAlfred de Grazia


II. Representational SystemsGiovanni Sartori


III. Representational BehaviorKenneth Janda



Representation may be defined most usefully as a relation between two persons, the representative and the represented or constituent, with the representative holding the authority to perform various actions that incorporate the agreement of the represented. The relation is by no means simple, since practically every type of human communication and perception can be shown to be intrinsic to representation. The relation is sociopsychological. Essentially subjective, it may, however, be affected by numerous objective conditions and events.

Representation is a concept of social interest largely in the contexts of power relations among leaders (representatives) and followers (constituents)—whether in government, church, school, business, or the family. It may well be noted in terms of a scale ranging from nonrelation (or “bad” relation) to perfect or full relation. Thus an accord of x degree has to be achieved before representation may be said to exist; below that point, A is said not to be represented by M.

The study of representation

The simplest index of representation is a positive answer that a person may give to the query: “Do you feel represented by M?”

What this degree of accord is to be is not standardized, if only because the very parameters of the relation are unexplored. When H. F. Gosnell and this writer attempted such an exploration in 1940 (see Gosnell 1948), it was plain that the classical utterances on political representation were commonly polemical, unsystematic, and superficial (cf. Burke 1774; Mill 1861; the materials presented in Loewenstein 1922; Clarke 1936; Smith 1940). As soon as the thicket of representative relations was entered, progress became slow. Obviously representation must consist of unconscious as well as conscious relations, expressive as well as sanctioned actions, unknown as well as known actions. Otherwise one falls into the trap of regarding as determinative of the representative relation solely conscious, known legislative behavior—parameters that are more often missing than present in the setting about which the scholar wishes to say “A is represented by M.” This rationalistic fallacy has prevented generations of scholars of democracy from coming to grips with problems of representation (de Grazia 1951).

Today, by contrast, the study goes forward. John Wahlke, Heinz Eulau, William Buchanan, and L. C. Ferguson (1962) managed to perform the difficult task of fitting standardized inquiries of several sets of U.S. state legislators into the real-life environment of representation and attaching to the representatives’ cognitive and perceptive structures and functions a set of postures toward representation: the expert role defines the ability and reputation of a member with respect to the work of the assembly; the purposive role includes the ritualist and the tribune who defends the people; in the representative role some legislators take up a trustee posture toward their constituents, others take a delegate posture, and some “politicos” are disposed to both in various ways; finally, the areal role denotes the tendency toward identifying with the elective district, on the one hand, and the whole state, on the other. At about the same time, Warren E. Miller and Donald E. Stokes (1963) undertook to question samples of the electorate of various districts concerning their congressmen.

As they have exposed the facts of representation, recent studies have also disclosed the materials upon which the long-argued ethics of representation must rest. The question “Whom should a representative represent?” can be answered precisely, granted always that one knows what it is he wishes the representative system to produce by way of action or expression.

Clarifying the concept

Despite the improvement in research, the connection of representative and constituent in any setting or in society as a whole must continue to be referred to imprecisely in absolute terms (“is”—or “is not“—”represented“), or in imprecise comparative terms (”more representative than“). What would be required to make the terminology more precise?

First of all, a clear, scientific approach to the myth-shrouded concept is required. Considering the wealth of empirical investigation in human relations, it is odd and regrettable that so little work has borne directly upon the foremost structural problem of democracy.

The state of knowledge of representation would also be improved if translation of concepts and findings of other scientific fields were made. Since representation is a psychological condition, there are obviously numerous relevant concepts, such as perception (awareness), cognition (information), communication, stereotypes, and authority (charisma), that are to be regularly taken into account.

In addition, there are many group-behavior concepts that pertain to representation. If representation is a relation between A and M, it is also a relation between B, C, D, …, on the one hand, and M, on the other, the group boundary of the members being the electoral constituency, which in turn can take numerous territorial or functional forms and can exclude a few or most of the population.

Determining representativeness

What determines the representation of a group’s members and the selection of their formal leaders? Numerous variables do. They may be either constructed or naturally occurring variables, such as the social composition of the group and its aggregate attitudes toward personality types and public issues. In all attempts to influence or study these variables, it must be remembered that every force brought to bear upon A will perhaps affect B, C …, differently. This obvious fact has highly complicated meanings for electoral study. The effects of propaganda, for example, although difficult to measure, are highly germane to the study of representation. A major source of change in representation may be the propagandistic operations of parties contending for the right to be representatives.

If propaganda is regarded as stimulus, intended to cause responses favorable to the propagandists on the part of the propagandized (admittedly the represented are continuously being propagandized), the chances of success of the stimulus rest upon its penetration of the more basic norms of the population. If, for example, the expectations and demands of a group are heightened by the winds of an ideology new to its members, or by re-education according to nontraditional principles, increased pressures will be exerted upon those who offer themselves as representatives. The latter will be obliged to respond by messages of a confining or, more likely, exhorting nature.

In sum, the study of the representation of a group results from the special algebra of aggregations of individuals. Two theories of representation, one for individuals and the other for groups, are not necessary. Admittedly, if it is difficult to assess the condition of representation of a single person, extending a set of such single calculi to cover an aggregate of thousands would give findings of dubious validity. Still, counterbalancing and averaging errors of individual estimates permit the result that a statement made about the representation of a group is likely to be no less precise and may even be more valid than one made about an individual.

Representative government

Thus far, we have spoken of individual and group psychology in representation as being affected by subjective and symbolic determinants. There also exist as determinants a great number of institutional devices to produce (or restrict) representation. Election systems, nomination systems, campaigning systems, etc. are the devices. These devices, which may sometimes be called institutions but often are of a relatively minute nature (such as a term of office), are to be construed as recurring sets of similar actions relevant to the relation of representation—habitual, routine, predictable, and enforced by specialized personnel. There is no need, therefore, to separate the study of representative government from the study of representation.

A group of institutional devices intended to produce a high level of representation in a population may be called representative government. Historically, many governments have been representative without being representative governments, since the conditions for representation may be “ideal” without the employment of institutional devices. One can readily point to direct democracies, which have existed in many times and places—the ancient Greek cities, areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the Italian cities of ancient, medieval, and early modern times, the Teutonic tribes, and the New England town meetings. They need not be defended as models of representation in order to accept the premise that their peoples received on the average as much representation as, or more than, other peoples have received under representative governments. Actually, were it not for the fact that a largely mythical distinction is made between “true” representative government and “direct democracy,” we should lump the two together, not only because of the similar effects produced, but also because of principles and machinery of choice (elections) and control employed in both cases: the Athenian lottery brought forth officers who were supposed to represent the citizens in the same sense as the presidents chosen by modern election.

More bothersome to theory is the absence of the devices of representative government in certain groups where a high degree of over-all representation exists, such as Nazi Germany—between 1935 and 1942—Augustan Rome, and Napoleonic France, and, worse, the apparent absence of representation in certain representative governments, such as the United States under John Adams and the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Institutional devices

What is the nature of this cluster of devices—nomination, apportionment, election, ballots, campaigns, etc.—that is called representative government? Theoretically they have to be regarded as procedural constructions intended to form representation in a desired way. Thus, an apportionment that follows local cultural boundaries is expected to produce representatives colored by local ideas, and one that cuts across boundaries in a nearly random way is supposed to suppress established localism. A single-member district system in which a majority or plurality vote determines the winning candidate is expected to accentuate the majority sentiment of each district; whereas a multimember district in which any considerable minority is bound to elect at least one candidate, is a device intended to enrich legislative discussion by presenting opposing views from the same constituency.

Thousands of such variant election systems might exist, although, because of imitative forces, there are in fact mere hundreds. Only the fool or ideologue insists that one system is the only system of representative government. Indeed, as we have indicated, it is impossible to show that representative government produces a strikingly larger representation of the population than other forms of government. However, as representative government becomes more understood, and more controllable, its devices may be arranged to produce with fair accuracy the fuller representation of whomever the system is set up to represent.

It is important to stress that the devices of representative government are not all things to all people. They help certain people to get more representation, and this is performed almost always at the expense of someone else’s representation. Each successive change in history (and in the great many short-term cycles of history that occur from year to year in contemporary society) has meant a redefinition of who is “worth” representing in a people. Attitude, procedure, and device always go together, one often canceling out the effect of another. For instance, the kind of representation available to citizens of American states from their state legislatures was changed by court order in Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964) to provide districts of equal population, but simultaneously the total representativeness of the legislatures was, perhaps temporarily, reduced when many unfamiliar candidates presented themselves to the people. In a more permanent way, perhaps, the political power of rural and small city areas was cut down. (For other effects of these cases on the condition of representation, see de Grazia 1963.) Disturbing a set of relations that is premised on awareness and acquaintanceship can easily reduce representation in the very setting where new devices are intended to promote it.

Thus the devices of Italian and German representation were modified after World War i to permit more accurate manifestations of public opinion in the legislatures. Proportional representation was employed, for example. Some of the effects were as foreseen—representativeness was increased—but the largest effect of the innovations was to promote a contrary form of representation, based upon the Duce and Filhrer principles, i.e., direct, controlled representation of the people, emphasizing uncontrolled, unrepresentative activity on behalf of the mass (Hermens 1941). In quite another way, far from “strengthening the state legislatures,” as the Supreme Court maintained in associated opinions, the aforementioned 1962 and 1964 American cases could perhaps hasten the decline of federalism and, within the states, diminish the role of the legislature in relation to that of the governor.

These instances permit a proposition about changes in representation. Representation is broader than the devices that regulate it. Classical speculation and debate over representation have almost always looked on representation as a linear scale relation: a device would either increase or diminish representation. This is true, or can be made to be true, if the question that operationally defines the relation is simplified; for example, one may ask, “Do you feel more or less represented today than five years ago?” Alternatively, representation can be confined, usually unconsciously, to a certain kind of issue: “Has your representative followed your wishes with respect to voting on the budget?” A man with an atomistic view of society may consider this an adequate test of whether representation exists. However, many changes in representation could occur that would not be tapped by such questions and therefore would not be measured at all and might lead to a false general interpretation.

One must conclude that the burden of plotting and mapping the effects of disturbances and changes in most devices of representation is too heavy for contemporary political science to bear and far too heavy for the much more limited rationality of practical politics. Although each institutional device can be perceived to carry certain effects, such effects are not well known, either scientifically or in applied politics. If its individual effects can be predicted, its indirect effects when taken as part of a system of devices cannot; the coming of other changes cannot be foreseen either, and these may be of a character so gross as to overwhelm the effects of the initial change.

The role of representation

Representation is multifaceted. It is a broad relation. To define it otherwise invites continual frustration. To be useful in the traditional scope of its usage, it has to be defined as broadly as the range of expectations that people possess in regard to government, and hence in regard to public officials and leaders (pari passu, representation within all social organizations should be so defined).

Since many traits, events, and institutional devices affect the state of representation, the represented is approachable along numerous paths. It may, therefore, be sensed as only a small loss to him to be deprived of a vaguely familiar, “trivially” occupied district representative, when at the same time he is receiving a new charge of emotional satisfaction from a physically remote but psychologically near national figure. It is as useless to berate him for shortsightedness, romanticism, and foolishness as to berate any other mystic who shuns the practical. Indeed, this mysticism is more practical, for it costs nothing in self-discipline.

One conclusion about this particular phenomenon may be that only a self-disciplined ruling class, inured to the presences of commanding personalities and individuals of high status, can operate a republic over a long period of time; the mass of the population must succumb sooner or later to the seductive choice of the great over the petty, majesty over meanness, feeling over calculation. This elite need not be one of birth—it can emerge from the great population—but it must have two traits if it is to function in the bosom of modern mass democracy: (a) it must have a means of maintaining solidarity on the principles of multifaceted and rationalistic representation despite the surge of the mass of people toward single-executive leadership, and (b) it must have the skills to govern the masses.

The crisis of representation in the twentieth century has been precisely the inability of the old ruling class that created the rich fabric of representation to maintain its solidarity and guide the whole population. Thus in Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, Argentina, and France, to name only the important catastrophic cases, the exaltation of executive representation overcame the intricate and ramified system that had developed.

Today, after the historical experience provided by these cases, public opinion seems in a less dangerous state. Yet the United States and the Soviet Union both face permanent crisis over the mode of representation to be provided their populations. The Soviet Union depends on an ideological elite party to ward off single-executive dictatorship. The United States depends on a complicated legalistic set of representative devices and localized parties and elites. Neither is safe; neither is advancing toward the vision of representation developed according to humanistic principles whereby, as John Dewey described it, a citizen lives a life of enriching communion with his fellow men in an associational society (1927; cf. Follett 1918).

The vision of a pluralistic or “mobilistic” system that represents plural types of men and plurally complicated persons stands in sharp contradiction to the idea of monolithic, primitive, emotional representation via the central person, or “hero,” of the society. It is this system that might produce the republican elite referred to above as the prerequisite to an enduring democracy. It is, furthermore, a modern concept, quite at home in a multigroup society where “human systems engineering” has become a vigorous part of industrial technology. How to implement it presents many a problem now far beyond the capacities of scientists to solve and politicians to apply. By contrast, the notion of a single-faceted representation by a hero is so powerful in the human subconscious and so much easier to implement that throughout history it has achieved a far greater popularity.

Alfred de Grazia

[See alsoDemocracy; Elections; Legislation, article onnature and functions; Majority rule; Responsibility. Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofBurkeandMill.]


Brady, Robert A. 1943 Business as a System of Power. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Burke, Edmund (1774) 1920 A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Clarke, Maude V. (1936) 1964 Medieval Representation and Consent: A Study of Early Parliaments in England and Ireland With Special Reference to the Modus tenendi parliamentum. New York: Russell.

De Grazia, Alfred 1951 Public and Republic: Political Representation in America. New York: Knopf.

De Grazia, Alfred 1963 Apportionment and Representative Government. New York: Praeger.

Dewey, John (1927) 1957 The Public and Its Problems. Denver: Swallow.

Follett, Mary P. 1918 The New State: Group Organization, the Solution of Popular Government. New York: Longmans.

Gosnell, Harold F. 1948 Democracy: The Threshold of Freedom. New York: Ronald Press.

Hermens, Ferdinand A. 1941 Democracy or Anarchy? A Study of Proportional Representation. Univ. of Notre Dame (Ind.) Press.

Leiserson, Avery 1942 Administrative Regulation: A Study in Representation of Interests. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Loewenstein, Karl 1922 Volk und Parlament nach der Staatstheorie der franzosischen Nationalversamm-lung von 1789. Munich: Drei Masken.

Mill, John Stuart (1861) 1958 Considerations on Representative Government. New York: Liberal Arts Press.

Miller, Warren E.; and Stokes, Donald E. 1963 Constituency Influence in Congress. American Political Science Review 56:45—56.

Smith, Thomas V. 1940 The Legislative Way of Life. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Wahlke, John et al. 1962 The Legislative System: Explorations in Legislative Behavior. New York: Wiley.


In order to define a representational system one must first define representation, a many-faceted and elusive concept. The term is associated with three quite different meanings: (1) the idea of mandate, or instructions; (2) the idea of representativeness, that is, resemblance and similarity; and (3) the idea of responsibility, or accountability.

The first meaning is derived from private law and belongs to the context of juristic representation, whereas the second meaning is derived from a sociological or existential context according to which representation is basically a fact of likeness that transcends all voluntary selection (Friedrich 1963, p. 304) and even awareness (unconscious representation; Gosnell 1948, p. 141). In the juristic meaning, we often speak of a representative as a delegate or a mandatory; in the sociological sense we say that somebody is “representative of” to mean that he impersonates (impersonare) certain existential features of the group, class, or vocation from which he is drawn. The idea of responsibility and its relationship to representative government, i.e., the third meaning, will be examined below.

To be sure, we are concerned here only with political representation. But political representation cannot be dealt with in isolation from other kinds of representation. It is closely connected with sociological (or existential) representation on the one hand and with juristic representation on the other.

The extent to which political and sociological representation are intertwined can easily be detected in the discussions about electoral systems and overrepresentation or wnderrepresentation: a debate that expresses a concern for representativeness and resemblance. Yet the distinction between political and existential representation must be kept firm; otherwise almost any political system may claim to be somehow a representational system: ruling groups are always “representative of” the sections or the strata of the society from which they derive.

The extent to which political and juristic representation overlap is shown by the fact that the European theorists of representation—German, French, and Italian—have reached the almost unanimous conclusion that political representation is not “true representation,” precisely by using the yardstick of a private law notion of representation (Laband 1876–1882; Orlando 1895; Saripolos 1899; Carre de Malberg 1922; Kelsen 1945). In fact, unless the distinction between political and juristic representation is kept firm, it is only too easy to reach the conclusion that no political system can claim to be a really representational system. Yet the distinction between political representation and juristic representation cannot be pushed too far because, among other reasons, political representation is formalized in our institutional arrangements and is part and parcel of constitutionalism.

Historical development

The emergence of modern political representation from its medieval phase was a gradual process best seen in the political history of England during the second half of the eighteenth century and in the writings of Algernon Sidney, John Toland, and Humphrey Mackworth. The French Revolution, however, provided a clear-cut break from medieval representation, a fact demonstrated in the constitution of 1791, which expressly forbade mandatory instructions to representatives because the “representatives nominated in the constituencies do not represent a particular constituency but the entire nation.” Two subtleties are worth noting. First, by saying nominated in, the authors of the constitution expressly meant that the representatives were not nominated by their electors; second, the authors deliberately used “nation” instead of “people.”

The distinction has far-reaching implications. If the people are declared sovereign, the will of the representatives of the people is secondary to the will of a principal (dominus), and two wills, that of the people and that of the assembly, are actually postulated. But if the nation is declared sovereign —as in article 3 of the Declaration of Rights of 1789—then there is only one will, for the will of the nation is the very same as the will of those who are entitled to speak for the nation (Carre de Malberg [1922] 1962, p. 267).

Thus the origin of the modern idea of political representation was vitally connected with the principle that the deputies represent the will of the nation, not the will of the people. Somewhat paradoxically, members of parliament took on the name “deputies” at the very moment that they ceased to be, properly speaking, deputies. Not only were they declared free agents who should not be given instructions, but they were called to represent a will that did not exist before their own will.

The idea of representation of the nation does not apply only to the origins of modern representation. The prohibition of mandates, sometimes explicitly connected with the principle of the sovereignty of the nation, is affirmed in the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century constitutions of most European countries: Belgium, 1831; Italy, 1848 and 1948; Prussia, 1850; Sweden, 1866; Austria, 1867, 1920, and 1945; Germany, 1871 and 1949; the Netherlands, 1887; and Denmark, 1915. Article 67 of the Italian constitution of 1948 is a good example: “each member of parliament represents the nation and performs his task without being bound by a mandate.” And the tortuous formula adopted in the French constitutions of 1946 and 1958—”the national sovereignty belongs to the people“—makes little sense unless one is reminded of the declaration of 1789.

The pattern in the United States may appear to have been different in that no state constitution expressly forbids mandatory instructions. But this omission means only that American constitution framers did not feel the need to state the obvious, since the United States did not have to break away from a medieval past. Likewise, the fact that the expression “sovereignty of the nation” has no legal meaning in English public law does not imply that British constitutional practice actually abides by a different presupposition. In effect, the French “will of the nation” entrusted to the assembly called for the same founding principle advocated by Burke in his Bristol address of 1774: that the representative should no longer be a delegate but a trustee acting according to his free judgment.

Modern representation reflects a fundamental historical change. Until the Glorious Revolution in England, the Declaration of Independence in the United States, and the French Revolution, representation was not associated with government. Representative bodies were intermediary channels between their mandatories and the sovereign: they represented somebody to somebody else. But the more the power of parliament grew and the more a parliament was located at the very center of the state, the more representative bodies took on a second function. In addition to representing the citizens, they also ruled over them. Present-day parliaments are Janus-faced: they represent the citizens to the state and the state to the citizens. Clearly, a parliament cannot acquire its modern function, that of governing, without change in its former function, that of representing. A representative body that is inserted into the state must be allowed the discretion that enables it to act for the state. Yet this transformation raises a number of thorny problems.

We are confronted with a puzzling fact: a point has been reached at which a representative body ends by representing somebody (the people, or the nation) to himself. The third party, the one to whom the second party was assumed to represent the first, has disappeared. Moreover, the principal of the representative relationship is hard to identify; for it is not easy to answer the question, Who is being represented? According to the constitutional prohibition of mandates and the emphasis on the representation of the nation, the representative does not, or should not, represent those who elect him. However, if a representative does not represent his electors, it follows that it is not the election that creates a representative. If this is so, the following question must be faced: Are elections a necessary means for the establishment of a representational system?

Representation and elections

Representation without elections. The query may be stated as follows: Can there be representation without elections? A positive reply is often given to this question on grounds that are irrelevant to the problem of political representation. If we refer, for instance, to existential or sociological representation, that is, to a mere fact of likeness, then it is clear that this kind of representation does not require an election. If representation is defined merely as an idem sentire, as the fact of “coinciding in opinion with” (Bagehot 1859), any method of selection or even no method at all might do. What matters is not the procedure that may best secure the coincidence in opinion (and behavior) between the representative and the represented but the existence of such coincidence. Political representation, however, is concerned precisely with securing this coincidence.

Aside from existential representation, one can still point to many instances in which a representative is appointed, not elected—an ambassador, for example. Yet even this case is hardly pertinent, since other guarantees besides the method of selection assure that he will perform his duty qua representative. By contrast, a member of parliament cannot be recalled at will and is subject to democratic control only because he may not be re-elected. The more political representation outgrows juristic representation, the less the former maintains the guarantees provided by the latter—except for the sanction of removal afforded by periodic elections. And this is why the method of selection appears all-important and becomes the peculiar concern of political representation. In principle there can be no representation (other than existential) unless those represented have some say and some way of protecting themselves; otherwise they would be at the mercy of their alleged representative. And since, ultimately, political representation provides only an electoral safeguard, in this case there can be no political representation without an election.

Elections without representation

The reverse is not true, for we can have elections without representation. Throughout history officials and rulers have been elected, but the election did not in the least imply that the elected represents his electors. This calls attention to the fact that representation is a “think so,” in the sense that it is only in terms of “ideas” that a person can be “made present” by another person (Friedrich 1962, p. 164). With the sole exception of the marginal case of existential unconscious representation, there can be no representation unless the representative feels the expectation of those he represents, and feels that it is a normative expectation. Not only does representation imply “think so,” but it is also inevitably linked with an “ought.” Therefore, if an election does not explicitly carry with it the meaning and the intention of electing a representative, not an absolute ruler, no representation follows from an electoral procedure. But this does not prove that elections are not a necessary means: it proves only that they are not, per se, a sufficient means.

Elective representation

Elections are one thing, and representation is another. Still, modern political representation is “elective representation,” for it is precisely this combination that makes representation both political and modern.

The means (elections) cannot surrogate the animus (the idea of representation), but the animus by itself does not suffice. Nonelective representation—”virtual” representation in the vocabulary of Burke—needs the support and the safety of “actual” (electoral) representation.

Let it be emphasized that this conclusion applies only to political representation (not to juristic and even less to existential representation) and especially with reference to securing responsibility. The electoral theory of representation actually is the theory of responsible and responsive representation; it is not concerned with satisfying the requirement of similarity but with securing the obligation to respond. [See Elections.]

Representational systems defined


We may now attempt to reply to the question, What is, and what is not, a representational system? A survey of the literature indicates wide disagreement, for it would seem that any one of the following conditions is either sufficient or necessary:

(1) The people freely and periodically elect a body of representatives—the electoral theory of representation.

(2) The governors are accountable or responsible to the governed—the responsibility theory of representation.

(3) The governors are agents or delegates who carry out the instructions received from their electors—the mandate theory of representation.

(4) The people feel the same as the state—the idem sentire, or syntony, theory of representation.

(5) The people consent to the decisions of their governors—the consent theory of representation.

(6) The people share, in some significant way, in the making of relevant political decisions—the participation theory of representation.

(7) The governors are a representative sample of the governed—the resemblance, or the mirroring, theory of representation.

According to the previous discussion, conditions 1 and 2 are joint conditions. The mere occurrence of elections does not indicate, in itself, a representational system; accountability to the people is a mere phrase if it cannot be enforced by the sanction of electoral removal. Condition 3 either refers to the premodern practice of representation or appears too exacting and impracticable. On the other hand, conditions 4, 5, and 6 are, per se, too vague. It is only too easy to presume consent and idem sentire; participation may well be obtained by manipulation and regimentation. It can be said, therefore, that these three conditions are more a consequence than a premise; they refer to something that is likely to be found in a representational system but not to a founding condition of a representational system. As for condition 7, the requirement of representativeness is an additional, not a necessary, requirement, which depends very much on the electoral system that is adopted.

Responsibility and representativeness

Nobody denies, to be sure, that one is likely to feel better represented if the representative is somebody “like himself,” that is, like-minded, somebody who acts the same because he is (existentially, or vocationally) the same. While this explains the recurrent quest for a parliament that is related to the society (as Mirabeau said) like the map to the territory it represents (for example, Ross 1955, p. 51), the unfortunate thing is that one may conceive of a parliament that is a perfect mirror and yet does not perform a mirroring function. This is why accountability takes a procedural precedence over resemblance, at least in politics.

The argument can be pursued: even if representativeness is not, by itself, a sufficient condition, it can still remain a necessary requirement. The difficulty is, however, that while responsibility and like-mindedness are easily combined in a one-to-one relationship, they are very difficult to combine in a many-to-one relationship (when the many amount to tens and even hundreds of thousands). In the context of political representation we are, therefore, confronted with a dilemma: either we sacrifice responsibility to representativeness, or we sacrifice representativeness to responsibility. This conclusion needs to be qualified, however, and calls for a closer look into the notion of responsibility.

The idea of responsibility has two sides, or implications : (1) the personal responsibility to someone, that is, the obligation of the representative to answer to the principal and (2) the functional or technical responsibility of meeting given standards, such as capable and efficient conduct or the “right” course of action (Friedrich 1963, pp. 310–311). The first is a dependent kind of responsibility; the second is an independent responsibility. In the first sense, the representative is related to somebody; in the second sense, reference is made to his “responsible conduct,” thereby implying that the behavior of a representative is basically entrusted to his own conscience and competence.

When the distinction is translated into political terms, it appears that the expression “responsible government” covers two different expectations: (1) that a government is responsive and accountable to the people for what it does and (2) that a government behaves responsibly by acting efficiently and competently. We may call the first a responsive government and the second an efficient government. And the difference between the two is no small difference.

In our private dealings it matters little whether we lean more on personal or on functional responsibility, for in either case the representative has only one end in view: the sole interest of the principal, whatever happens to any other interest. But when political representation is concerned, another end is at stake: the interest of the whole, whatever happens to private interests. For this reason, the distinction between dependent and independent responsibility is, in politics, a crucial distinction, and it matters very much which kind of responsibility a representational system leans on. It is precisely on account of its independent margin of functional responsibility that a government is empowered to pursue the interest of the whole against partial and partisan interests. The more that independent responsibility gives way to dependent responsibility, the more likely it is that the general interest will give way to the claims of sectional, short-sighted, and contradictory interests.

It is not a paradox, then, to say that a responsible government can also be a very irresponsible government. Actually, the more responsive it becomes, the less it is in a position to behave responsibly. Ultimately, a choice must be made between the representativeness and the efficiency of government. We cannot ask a government to do one thing and its very opposite, that is, to yield to the demands of the governed and resist the “irresponsible demands” of the governed. More exactly, we cannot have, at the same time, more responsiveness and more independent responsibility. [SeeResponsibility.]

Types of representational systems

The foregoing explains why representational systems belong to two main patterns originating in England and France. The English type of representational system is based on a single-member plurality system of electoral representation, which affords little electoral choice and favors, therefore, a two-party system; whereas the French type is based on proportional systems of electoral representation, which afford a large electoral choice and thereby facilitate multiparty systems. The English type sacrifices the representativeness of parliament to the need of efficient government, while the French type sacrifices efficient government to the representativeness of parliament.

If the vocabulary of politics were updated, the English type of representational system could fittingly be labeled “cabinet system” and the French type could properly be called “parliamentary government.” Whatever the terminology, “representative government” poses a two-sided problem: governing and representing. The English (and American) type of political system maximizes the governing requirement, whereas the French (and Continental) type has maximized the mirroring requirement.

To be sure, in a number of countries one finds a more balanced combination of efficient government and representative representation (for example, the countries having both proportional representation and a relatively limited number of parties, say from three to five). Nonetheless, from the viewpoint of institutional engineering the fact remains that we cannot build a representational system that maximizes at one and the same time the function of functioning and the function of mirroring. There is a point at which we must choose, and the realistic alternatives are independent or dependent responsibility, rather than governed and governing democracy (Burdeau 1949–1957, vol. 6), or feigned and veritable self-government (Ross 1955, pp. 50–51).

The more developed and differentiated representational systems of the Western nations do not exhaust the range of all possible representational systems. Yet to the extent that the political structures of the developing nations are of a derivative nature, these nations are likely to be confronted with the issues and the problems that we have been discussing. The experience of the West does provide, therefore, a parameter for stating the minimal requirements for the existence of any representational system.

A representational system cannot materialize unless electoral accountability makes the governors responsible to the governed. However, all that is required is personal or dependent responsibility, since functional or independent responsibility qualifies the performance, not the relationship. Even the requirement of dependent responsibility should not be taken too literally; it merely implies responsiveness, albeit a sanctionable and safeguarded responsiveness.

In conclusion, a political system qualifies as a representational system whenever honest electoral practices secure a fair amount of responsiveness of the governors to the governed. This does not necessarily imply a large enfranchisement; but it does imply that no representational system can be based merely on “virtual representation.” Nor does a political system qualify as a representational system if it has one ruler (monarch or dictator) who monopolizes the claim of representing the whole. Unless the representative function is entrusted to some collective body that is free enough to express a diversity of views and interests, we may be confronted (at least existentially) with representative rulership but not with a representational system.

Contemporary issues

Scale and scope of representation

When representational systems were introduced in England and on the Continent, the electorates were small and so were the governments. With the passing of time the electorate has grown from a few hundred to tens of thousands of electors for one representative. Correlatively the small government with simple problems and few functions has become a large government with complex problems and innumerable functions. Both developments combine to place an ever-growing strain on the relational aspect of representation, that is, on the link between those represented and their alleged representatives. As Bruno Leoni put it, “…the more numerous the people …one tries to ’represent,’…and the more numerous the matters in which one tries to represent them, the less the word ’representation’ has a meaning referable to the actual will of actual people other than that of the persons named as their ’representatives’” (1961, p. 18).

While political representation has always been a many-to-one relationship, the many have become so numerous that one may well wonder if, in a 50,000-to-l ratio, it still makes sense to say that each person is represented. The reply is related to the scope of representation and of representative government. As long as representation is considered basically a protective device that limits (among other things) the scope of government, the reply is still, “Yes, it surely makes sense.”

But the wider the coverage and the larger the area of intervention that calls the representative to decide upon matters that fall beyond the understanding of the represented, the more one may be alarmed by the potential of arbitrariness that is involved and wonder whether the scope of representation can be stretched without end. At any rate, one can hardly escape the feeling that the initial link in the chain, the represented, has become an infinitesimal quantity.

“Who” is represented?

The problem may be stated as follows: The larger the size of the electorate, the smaller the scale of representation; and the smaller the scale of representation, the more we lose sight of who is being represented. At least, this seems an inescapable conclusion if the who of representation refers to the “individual.”

While this conclusion is not always acknowledged in this form, it helps to explain the dissatisfaction with the individualistic or atomistic basis of the theory and practice of representation. The opposition to “individualistic representation” need not be explained as merely a nostalgic revival of medieval corporate representation. However, the fact is that whenever the anti-individualistic mood has prevailed (as in Italy and Germany during the 1930s), it has been used to justify an autocracy rather than to suggest new means or techniques of nonindividualistic representation.

Without abandoning the starting point of the “individual voter,” we may scrutinize his voting behavior with reference to the representational message, or intention, that he transmits. It has been suggested that the act of voting expresses (1) what the elector has to say (or thinks), or (2) what the elector is (existentially), or (3) what the elector wills. According to the first view, representation represents opinion; according to the second, it represents class or vocational appurtenance; according to the third, an individual may be represented even though he is inarticulate or silent.

The first is the traditional view, and is apparently destined to succumb under the joint blows of electoral numbers and big government. Whether we like it or not, we are thus likely to fall back on the other two interpretations. Both make the individual voter less of an individual. For if we vote by identifying ourselves with a social class, the fact that we vote per capita does not mean that we vote qua individuals. And the “will theory” of representation not only can be conceived collectivistically but can, moreover, be put to use for any purpose whatever, since a will that is silent or not articulated can be said to wish anything that its interpreter thinks it should.

These two approaches provide a way out precisely because they no longer attempt to answer the query concerning who is being represented. They actually provide an answer concerning what is being represented—which is not quite the same thing.

“What” is represented?

Since all representational systems adopt a territorial criterion of electoral apportionment, what is actually being represented are the localities, the geographic areas. But acknowledgment of this only leads to a reformulation of the question, What comes to be represented through a territorial channeling? The reply is largely a matter of speculation (or of needed research), except for one definite conclusion: territorial representation does not satisfy and even impedes occupational or functional representation.

The question of what is being represented can also be approached by discussing whether representation is focused more on ideal preferences or on material interests, more on values or on wants. And while territorial representation considers the citizen (not the homo economicus), thereby implying, among other things, that the voter should be encouraged to respond in terms of ideals rather than wants, the contention is that the adoption of vocational representation would definitely elicit a response in terms of material interests. In any case it should be pointed out that whether or not we believe in “individualism,” and whether or not territorial representation works as it is supposed to work, we are made to vote qua individual citizens according to a territorial criterion of apportionment because it is the safest way of getting the electoral business done. If territorial apportionment is already exposed to tricky manipulations (”gerrymandering“), vocational or any other kind of functional apportionment would allow no end of manipulative trickery. [SeeApportionment.]

In free societies, the idea of replacing a political parliament with an occupational parliament (or parliament of experts) has only led to attempts to combine the two. Side by side with the political parliament, some kind of technical or vocational parliament was established expressing the views of special interests, for example, the Reichswirt-schaftsrat of the Weimar Republic and the economic advisory councils established in the 1950s in Italy and France (but not in West Germany). The attempt has definitely failed in Italy while it has been relatively successful in France and in some smaller countries. Ultimately, however, great difficulties arise out of the relative positions of the technical and the political parliaments. There are three possibilities: either (1) the technical parliament has the final say, or (2) the two parliaments are made equal, or (3) the technical parliament is a subordinate consultative body. The first case would in effect eliminate the political parliament; the second would lead to systematic conflict and paralysis; whereas in the third instance the consultative body would be listened to only when the political parliament was in the mood to do so.

What is being represented, then, in or by a political parliament? Local and community interests, class appurtenance, special and sectional interests, ideals, individual wants? Depending on the scale of representation, different combinations of all of these are represented. All sorts of voices that are strong enough to make themselves heard somehow find their way to a representative body.

The “how” of representation

Whatever the “who” or the “what” of representation, there remains the problem of the “how.” And, clearly, the how of representation feeds back on the what and even on the who.

Broadly speaking, the how refers to the way in which a representational system is established and made to operate. Precisely who and what benefits from a given representational system may remain obscure, but one thing is clear: if the how is known, a system of elective representation (as defined above) allows more freedom and provides more responsiveness than any other known system.

More specifically, the how of representation can be taken to mean the style of representation, as Wahlke and his associates (1962) call it. In this sense the how of representation is related to the role orientations of the representative, for example, whether he acts more as a delegate or more as a trustee or whether he is more a party man, a constituency servant, or a mentor (Eulau 1962).

From another point of view, the how of representation is related to the electoral system and to the party system. The relationship between electoral systems and representational systems has already been mentioned and is a relatively old problem (for example, Duverger 1951). A more recent problem is how the representational process is affected by party interposition. For the more mass democracy there is and the more mass parties there are in a political system, the more the how of representation hinges on the party system as a vehicle of the representational process.

Party representation

The scale of representation being as it is, parties are a means for reducing unmanageable numbers to a manageable size. Citizens in modern democracies are represented through and by parties. This seems inevitable. The troubling thing is, however, that a point may be reached, or even has been reached, at which, as Beer (1965, p. 88) concisely put it, “the function of representing the national interest, once attributed to the Sovereign and later to Parliament, is now performed by party. Party—to echo Herman Finer’s phrase—is indeed ’king.’”

Now, to speak of the party as a “filter” for political representation is one thing; to speak of the party as “king” is quite another thing. The theoretical and constitutional problems that have resulted from this development are thorny; this is one of the reasons why even the more recent constitutions avoid giving formal recognition to party representation (the exceptions are the constitution of Brazil, the Bonn constitution, and the French constitution of 1958).

A realistic view of the present-day representational process confronts us, then, with a two-step process or even with a process that is cut in two: a relationship between the electors and their party, and a relationship between the party and its representatives. And the contention is that party nomination, that is, party co-optation, tends to be the real election; for while the electors choose the party, the elected are actually chosen by the party.

Of course parties, party systems, and countries are very different, and therefore generalizations can be very misleading. Yet it can be argued that whenever we are confronted with rigidly and powerfully organized mass parties—as is usually the case in Europe—the representative is likely to be far more a spokesman for his party than for anyone else (including his electors), and party bonds are perhaps far stronger than any other bonds (including the ties of social class). Thus, according to Duverger (1956), the modern representative is entrusted with a “double mandate,” from his electors and from the party; and in practice the party mandate takes precedence over the electoral mandate.

Representation has lost all immediacy and can no longer be viewed as a direct relationship between the electors and the elected. The process hinges on three elements—those represented, the party, and the representatives. And the intermediary link appears to be so decisive that a point could be reached at which parliamentary representation would “resemble” party personnel, in the strict meaning of party career men, much more than the society it was asked to resemble. If so, the party would indeed be king and one could conclude that the who being represented is actually the party. In spite of the lack of adequate research, the available evidence suggests that this point has not yet been reached, although the parliamentary duplication of professional party politicians is progressing. [SeeParties, Political.]

Although not unusual, it is perplexing that while actual political developments point in one direction, much of the prevailing theory and practice point in another. The scale of representation has become infinitesimal; the scope of representation bypasses the grasp of the common man; furthermore, parties have largely replaced the electorate in deciding what should be represented and how. All these developments seem to indicate that what is really at stake is “responsibility” and that the real problem is how to improve the performance of big government in terms of independent responsibility without too great a loss of accountability. Yet much of the recent literature still emphasizes the sociological approach to representation, and proportional representation still enjoys the reputation of being the one truly representative electoral system. Since both concerns imply “similarity,” or representativeness, they could be described as somewhat anachronistic.

Research issues

To the extent that representational systems are normative constructions, they are largely beyond empirical disproof. Representational systems also presuppose, however, factual assumptions that can, and should, be tested empirically. In this connection there are three main areas of inquiry that are relevant to the theory of representation: (1) public opinion, that is, what people really want and expect; (2) decision makers, that is, who is actually chosen (how) to serve as a representative; and (3) representational behavior [seeRepresentation, article onRepresentational Behavior].

Despite field surveys and opinion polls, we do not know as much as we should concerning what people really demand from a representational system. According to one author, “the English people still like being governed,” and the evidence suggests that the order of priorities is, for the British, the following: (1) consistency, prudence, and leadership; (2) accountability to Parliament and the electorate; (3) responsiveness to public opinion and demands (Birch 1964, p. 245). Possibly this could also be the order of priorities in West Germany, while perhaps in the United States responsiveness ranks second. On the other hand, one might guess that in countries like France (during the Third Republic and Fourth Republic) and Italy, the order of priorities would be (1) responsiveness, (2) accountability, and (3) leadership (that is, independent responsibility). So far, the results of only one nation-wide study are available and they concern constituency influence in the U.S. Congress (Miller & Stokes 1963).

As to the second focus of inquiry, decision makers in the legislative arena, there is growing documentation concerning who is who in parliaments (Meynaud 1967). While the data are very uneven and difficult to compare, we are now in a position to test at least some aspects of the “resemblance” theory of representation on a country-by-country basis: England (Guttsman 1961; Ber-rington & Finer 1967), France (Dogan 1961; Hamon 1967), United States (Matthews 1954a; 1954b; 1967; Miller & Stokes 1965), Italy (Sartori 1957; 1967), Israel (Akzin 1967).

The sociological approach to representation that is implied by the foregoing documentation is seldom focused, however, on the problem of party representation: for example, the parliamentary duplication or projection of party career personnel has as yet received very little attention. In general, the role of the party as an intervening variable has remained a neglected area of research. The findings on whether (and if so to what extent) it is the party that administers the sanction of removal, or on whether the party is the real recruiter, are poor, peripheral, and widely conflicting (for example, Seligman 1958, p. 361; Sorauf 1963, p. 120). Likewise, the claim that parties receive an “electoral mandate” remains a matter of speculation, even though it could be warranted or disclaimed by ascertaining whether this is really the expectation of the voter.

The resemblance aspect of representation has been explored far more than the aspects of accountability and responsibility. Possibly research in that area is easier. This is all the more reason for stressing that a reorientation of the focus of research on accountability is badly needed. For instance, whose sanction of removal is feared most—the sanction coming from the electorate, from the party machine, or from other supporting groups? This is a rather crucial question—and a question that remains unanswered.

Giovanni Sartori


A penetrating analysis of the issues raised by political representation in the context of Continental constitutionalism, with particular reference to France, may be found in CarrS de Malberg 1922. Sartori (1957) 1962 includes a survey of the literature; Birch 1964 covers the British approach; and de Grazia 1951 is relevant for the American pattern. Concerning the medieval origins of representation, Clarke 1936 is still a valuable analysis, in addition to the classic Carlyle & Carlyle 1903–1936. With reference to the European constitutional development of the theory of representation, the most influential work has been Gierke 1868–1913.

Akzin, Benjamin 1967 The Knesset. In Jean Meynaud (editor), Decisions and Decision Makers in the Modern State. Paris: UNESCO.

Bagehot, Walter (1859) 1965 Parliamentary Reform. Pages 296–347 in Walter Bagehot, Bagehot’s Historical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor.

beer, Samuel H. 1965 British Politics in the Collectivist Age. New York: Knopf.

Berrington, H. B.; and Finer, S. E. 1967 The British House of Commons. In Jean Meynaud (editor), Decisions and Decision Makers in the Modern State. Paris: UNESCO.

birch, Anthony H. 1964 Representative and Responsible Government. London: Allen & Unwin.

Burdeau, Georges 1949–1957 Traiteé de science poli-tique. 7 vols. Paris: Librairie Général de Droit et de Jurisprudence. -” See especially Volume 6.

Carlyle, Robert W.; and Carlyle, A. J. (1903–1936) 1950 A History of Mediaeval Political Theory in the West. 6 vols. New York: Barnes & Noble; London: Blackwood. -> See especially Volume 5, Chapter 9, and Volume 6, Part 2, Chapter 6.

CarrÉ de Malberg, Raymond (1922) 1962 Contribution a la théorie générale de I’éetat: Spécialement d’aprés les donnees fournies par le droit constitution- nel frangais. Volume 2. Paris: Sirey.

Clarke, Maude V. (1936) 1964 Medieval Representation and Consent: A Study of Early Parliaments in England and Ireland, With Special Reference to the Modus tenendi parliamentum. New York: Russell.

de Grazia, Alfred 1951 Public and Republic: Political Representation in America. New York: Knopf.

Dogan, Mattei 1961 Political Assent in a Class Society: French Deputies 1870–1958. Pages 57–90 in Dwaine Marvick (editor), Political Decision-makers. New York: Free Press.

Duverger, Maurice 1951 The Influence of the Electoral System on Political Life. International Social Science Bulletin 3:314–352.

Duverger, Maurice 1956 Esquisse d’une theorie de la representation politique. Pages 211–220 in L’evolution du droit public. Paris: Sirey.

Eulau, Heinz 1962 The Legislator as Representative: Representational Roles. Pages 267–286 in John Wahlke et al., The Legislative System: Explorations in Legislative Behavior. New York: Wiley.

Friedrich, Carl J. 1962 Representation. Volume 19, pages 163–167 in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: Benton.

friedrich, Carl J. 1963 Man and His Government: An Empirical Theory of Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gierke, Otto Von (1868–1913) 1954 Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht. 4 vols. Graz (Austria): Aka-demische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt. -” Volume 1: Rechtsgeschichte der deutschen Genossenschaft. Volume 2: Geschichte des deutschen Korperschaftsbe-griffs. Volume 3: Die Staats- und Korporationslehre des Altertums und des Mittelalters und ihre Aufnahme in Deutschland. Volume 4: Die Staats- und Korporationslehre der Neuzeit.

Gierke, Otto Von (1881) 1958 Political Theories of the Middle Age. Cambridge Univ. Press. -> First published as “Die publicistischen Lehren des Mittelalters,” a section of Volume 3 of Gierke’s Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht. Translated with a famous introduction by Frederic William Maitland.

Gierke, Otto Von (1913) 1934 Natural Law and the Theory of Society: 1500 to 1800. Translated with an introduction by Ernest Barker. 2 vols. Cambridge Univ. Press. -> A translation of five subsections of Volume 4 of Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht. A paperback edition was published in 1957 by Beacon.

Gosnell, Harold F. 1948 Democracy: The Threshold of Freedom, New York: Ronald Press.

Guttsman, W. L. 1961 Changes in British Labour Leadership. Pages 91–137 in Dwaine Marvick (editor), Political Decision-makers. New York: Free Press.

Hamon, LÉo 1967 Members of the French Parliament. In Jean Meynaud (editor), Decisions and Decision Makers in the Modern State. Paris: UNESCO.

II parlamento italiano, 1946–1963. A research project directed by Giovanni Sartori. 1963 Naples: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane.

Kelsen, Hans (1945) 1961 General Theory of Law and State. New York: Russell.

Laband, Paul (1876–1882)1911–1914 Das Staatsrecht des deutschen Reiches. 5th ed. 4 vols. Tubingen (Germany): Mohr.

La Bigne De Villeneuve, Marcel De 1929–1931 Traite gene’rale de I’etat: Essai d’une thiorie rialiste de droit politique. 2 vols. Paris: Sirey.

Leibholz, Gerhard (1929) 1960 Das Wesen der Re-priisentation und der Gestaltswandel der Demokratie im 20. Jahrhundert. 2d rev. ed. Berlin: Gruyter.

Leoni, Bruno 1961 Freedom and the Law. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

Matthews, Donald R. 1954a The Social Background of Political Decision-makers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Matthews, Donald R. 1954b United States Senators and the Class Structure. Public Opinion Quarterly 18:5–22.

Matthews, Donald R. 1967 United States Senators: A Collective Portrait. In Jean Meynaud (editor), Decisions and Decision Makers in the Modern State. Paris: UNESCO.

Meynaud, Jean 1967 Introduction. In Jean Meynaud (editor), Decisions and Decision Makers in the Modern State. Paris: UNESCO.

Meynaud, Jean (editor) 1967 Decisions and Decision Makers in the Modern State. Paris: UNESCO. Earlier versions of the articles in this book were published in Volume 13 of the International Social Science Journal.

Miller, Warren E.; and Stokes, Donald E. 1963 Constituency Influence in Congress. American Political Science Review 57:45–56.

Miller, Warren E.; and Stokes, Donald E. 1965 Representation in Congress. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Orlando, Vittorio E. (1895) 1940 Del fondamento giuridico della rappresentanza politica. Pages 417–456 in Vittorio E. Orlando, Diritto pubblico generate: Scrittivarii (1881–1940) coordinatiin sistema. Milan: Giuffré.

Ross, James F. S. 1955 Elections and Electors: Studies in Democratic Representation. London: Eyre & Spot-tiswoode.

Saripolos, Nikolaus N. 1899 La democratic et Vilec-tion proportionelle. Paris: Rousseau.

Sartori, Giovanni (1957) 1962 A teoria da represen-tacao no estado representativo moderno. Belo Horizon-te (Brazil): Edicoes da Revista Brasileira de Estudos Politicos.

Sartori, Giovanni 1967 Parliamentarians in Italy. In Jean Meynaud (editor), Decisions and Decision Makers in the Modern State. Paris: UNESCO.

Seligman, Lester G. 1958 Party Roles and Political Recruitment. Western Political Quarterly 11:359–361.

Sorauf, Frank J. 1963 Party and Representation: Legislative Politics in Pennsylvania. New York: Atherton.

Wahlke, John et al. 1962 The Legislative System: Explorations in Legislative Behavior. New York: Wiley.


Representational behavior refers to that aspect of legislative conduct that is studied for the nature, extent, and basis of its correspondence with constituency opinions. Representatives are assumed to differ in the extent to which they reflect their constituents’ opinions in their legislative activities, most notably in their decision making. The modern student of representational behavior is interested in (1) determining the extent of agreement between constituency opinion and legislative behavior on various issues, (2) accounting for differences observed in the relationships between representatives and their constituencies, and (3) specifying the effect of different representative-constituency relationships upon public policy formation.

The study of the representational behavior of individual legislators is particularly important in political systems where party voting is not essential for governmental stability. In a parliamentary system featuring well-disciplined parties and slim majorities, most notably the modern British Parliament, individual representatives are subject to restraints on their voting behavior that are unknown in other legislative bodies, such as the United States Congress, where members are relatively free to vote their opinions or to respond to political forces other than the party leadership. Although eighteenth-century Britain can be credited with the birth of interest in representative-constituency relationships, the United States has produced the most extensive research on the topic. In Britain, within the last century, the motivations for research on representational behavior apparently decreased as party voting increased in parliament.

Development of interest

The study of representational behavior and representative-constituency relationships assumed importance with the development of representative democratic government. Democratic theory held that the general public ought to have some participation in governmental policy making so that the government would do what the people wanted it to do (or at least did not do what they did not want). All modern democracies eventually developed some form of representative government, which institutionalized popular participation in governmental policy making through popular election of representatives empowered to formulate governmental policy. The establishment of a popularly elected legislative body did not, however, insure that governmental policy would follow public opinion. Once elected, the representatives might or might not satisfy popular desires in formulating public policy.

Viewed strictly from the standpoint of democratic theory, it was undesirable for representatives to act contrary to public opinion. But at the same time, it was obvious that complete reliance upon public opinion in governmental policy making was also likely to have undesirable consequences. The voters’ ignorance or misunderstanding of the facts involved in the issues, their inclinations toward selfishness in promoting their own interests, and their tendencies toward hasty and ill-considered actions were cited as factors that would lead to unwise or unjust governmental policies if the representatives were merely to act in accordance with their constituents’ wishes.

On one hand, then, both abstract requirements of democratic theory and practical consequences of making representatives directly accountable to the people urged a close correspondence between constituency opinion and legislative behavior. On the other hand, both abstract notions of desirable government and practical necessities of rational decision making argued against a close correspondence between them. The conflict between these considerations was of concern to scholars who sought to evaluate the operation of representative government. This conflict provided the initial interest in the study of representational behavior.

Those who were interested primarily in evaluating the operation of representative government sought to determine the proper relationship between the representative and his constituency. Later students who were less interested in the evaluative aspects of political science were also less concerned with determining the “proper” relationship between the representative and his constituency. They sought instead to clarify types of relationships, discover the factors associated with different relationships, and predict the probable consequences of different relationships for public policy.

Early approaches

Edmund Burke’s defense of his voting record in his classic “Speech to the Electors of Bristol” in 1774 set forth a conception of the proper role of the representative as one who ought to respect his constituents’ opinions, who ought to prefer their interests above his own, but who ought not to sacrifice his unbiased opinions in deciding for the good of the whole nation (quoted in de Grazia 1951, p. 38) [see Burke]. Burke’s often quoted statement most certainly influenced the subsequent study of representative-constituency relationships. Inquiry into the topic commonly raised the general question to which Burke addressed himself: What ought to be the relationship of the representative to his constituency? This question elicited normative prescriptions but did not invite empirical inquiry, and the literature that developed was characterized by opinions and arguments concerning the proper role of the representative. In general, extreme democrats (e.g., the Levellers of seventeenth-century England and the “direct democrats” in the early twentieth-century United States) insisted that the representative ought to obey the wishes of his constituents, while those less enamored with the unqualified application of democratic principles argued that better legislation would result if the representative relied mainly on his own judgment when deciding upon legislation.

Interwoven with the question of whether the representative ought to obey the wishes of his constituents or vote according to his own judgment was another question: Ought the representative to be guided in his decisions by the welfare of his constituency or the welfare of the state as a whole? The logical independence of these questions was not always recognized in the polemics concerning the proper role of the representative. The distinction between the two questions has recently been acknowledged and labeled as a difference between the “style” and the “focus” of representation (Wahlke et al. 1962, p. 269).

The style of representation refers to the particular criterion of judgment the representative ought to use in deciding on legislative issues. The basic argument over the proper style of representation was whether the representative ought to behave as a “trustee” and arrive at decisions either on the basis of his own sense of right and wrong or on his personal evaluation of the facts or whether he ought to behave as a “delegate” and disregard his personal opinions while executing those of his constituents. (It should be noted that the trustee-delegate terminology is not standard in the literature. Some writers have reversed the application of the terms or substituted other labels, such as “agent” or “ambassador,” for those given here.)

The focus of representation refers to the particular group of persons whose welfare the representative ought to consider in deciding on legislative issues. The basic argument over the focus of representation was whether the representative ought to be “district-oriented” and consider primarily the welfare of his constituents or whether he ought to be “nation-oriented” and consider the welfare of the nation as a whole.

Argument over the normative question of how the representative ought to act characterized the literature on representative-constituency relationships from the second half of the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. Like many other “ought” questions in political science, the question of the proper role of the representative defied definitive answers. The answer to this question involved more than reasoned appeals to value positions concerning what constituted good government. Vital information was lacking on empirical aspects of representative-constituency relationships, such as the nature and extent of the constituents’ knowledge of legislative issues, the ways by which the constituents’ opinions on issues were communicated to the representative, the correspondence between his perceptions of constituents’ opinions and their actual opinions, the politics of his district, and so forth. It became obvious that detailed knowledge of these and other factors was not only important in its own right but was also essential for those who remained interested in the classic normative question.

Recent developments

Modern research in representational behavior has been characterized by its concern for empirical questions, but research to date has been handicapped by the unavailability of certain behavioral and psychological data required for an adequate understanding of the subject. In order to determine the faithfulness with which representatives represent their constituents’ wishes, for example, data are needed both on the behavior of incumbents and on the opinions of their constituents. In general, relevant data on the representatives’ behavior has been more accessible than matching data on their constituents’ opinions.

Research on representational behavior has been aided by the ready availability of public information about important aspects of the incumbents’ behavior, such as votes cast on the floor and sponsorship of bills. Information on other legislative activities, such as speaking on proposed bills, may also be found in published sources or observed directly. Behavior in committee meetings, party conferences, or outside the legislature proper is less easily learned but may be determined through interviews with representatives or other participants in the political process. Despite the wide variety of legislative activities that could have relevance for the disposition of public issues on which constituents have opinions, studies have generally relied solely on the representative’s floor votes for the data on his side of the relationship. Although some doubts have been raised concerning the wisdom of relying on the recorded floor vote as the sole indicator of the representative’s behavior, there seems to be little question that floor votes do constitute important data. In legislative bodies that feature strong party voting, however, some aspects of a representative’s activities other than his floor votes would probably be more suitable for research.

The overriding research problem has not been obtaining data on representatives’ behavior but on constituents’ opinions. The sample survey is the most suitable research technique yet developed for obtaining reliable information about the distribution of personal opinions among populations. An appropriately drawn sample of about 2,000 respondents furnishes an adequate basis for making confident statements about the distribution of voters’ opinions in the United States. But the science of probability sampling is such that a sample of practically the same size is needed to make statements at a similar level of confidence about a population of only 400,000—about the size of the average congressman’s constituency in the United States. Because careful sample surveys are expensive to conduct and complex to administer, survey techniques until very recently have not been used at all for systematic research in representational behavior.

A pioneering effort was undertaken in 1958 by the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center, which designed its national sample of the United States electorate in a manner that permitted limited analysis of constituency opinions in about one hundred congressional districts (Stokes & Miller 1962). That effort opened the door for a genuine breakthrough in the study of representational behavior, enabling the first direct comparisons to be made between representatives’ behavior and their constituents’ opinions (Miller & Stokes 1963). Much additional work remains to be done with this approach, however, before firm generalizations can be made concerning the interesting empirical questions of representative-constituency relationships. It is unlikely that these generalizations will soon be formulated, for cost and complexity factors involved in sampling a number of constituencies still obstruct the development and application of this methodological approach.

Without the use of sample survey methods, students of representational behavior have conducted their research by classifying constituencies according to social characteristics on which census-type data were available (such as occupation, per cent urban, per cent native-born, and so on) and then correlating these characteristics with the voting positions of their representatives. In some cases, researchers have attributed opinions to the inhabitants of certain districts on the basis of their social composition: constituents in working-class districts were said to favor unemployment guarantees, those in farming districts were said to favor agricultural subsidies, and so forth. In other cases, this somewhat risky imputation of opinions has been avoided, and researchers have simply examined similarities and differences in the voting patterns of representatives from various types of districts. A common refinement of such research involved introducing the variable of party competition in the district and analyzing legislators’ votes according to the “safe” or “doubtful” nature of their constituencies as determined by past election returns.

Studies of roll call voting in the United States Congress and in American state legislatures have disclosed tendencies for representatives from different types of districts to vote on certain measures in accordance with presumed or imputed interests of their constituencies. The strength of these tendencies appears to increase with an increase in homogeneity of the social composition of the district. Those representing districts composed almost entirely of working-class people, for example, tend to give more support to legislation establishing unemployment guarantees than those representing districts dominated by working-class people but with substantial white-collar elements. Nevertheless, constituency characteristics have been shown to account for only a part of voting behavior in American legislatures. The representatives’ party affiliations generally stand out as the most pervasive influence on voting alignments, despite the undisciplined nature of American parties. The importance of party affiliation is so clearly recognized that researchers often attempt to measure constituency influences on voting by examining the instances when representatives abandon the party position. When the party’s position on an issue coincides with the position assumed to be favored by the constituency, the representative’s vote is unlikely to be contradictory. When the party’s position and the assumed constituency position are in conflict, his vote is less predictable. There is some evidence to indicate that a representative will tend to favor the presumed interest of the constituency in case of such conflict if he comes from a “doubtful” rather than a “safe” district.

Students of representational behavior who have made use of census-type data on constituency characteristics in lieu of sample survey data on constituents’ opinions have produced these and other suggestive findings. But they have not been able to answer some of the most important empirical questions because they have lacked reliable knowledge about the nature and distribution of constituency opinions.

In the absence of survey information about constituents’ preferences, the exact impact of constituency opinions on representational behavior cannot be measured. Not only is the researcher unable to establish the extent to which the legislator’s behavior conforms to constituency opinions, but he is also unable to determine how closely the representative’s personal attitudes and perceptions match these opinions.

Research needs

The two basic types of data required for research in representational behavior are, for reasons mentioned above, data on constituency opinions and data on representatives’ behavior. At least four other categories of information, which remain to be discussed, are especially important for the study of representational behavior. Data are needed on representatives’ personal attitudes toward policy issues, the motivational bases of their behavior, their perceptions of their constituencies, and representative-constituency communications. Each of the last four categories will be discussed in turn.

Representatives’ -personal attitudes

In general, students of legislative behavior have shown that a representative’s voting record reflects, to some extent, his personal attitudes as determined by independent attitude tests. Representatives whose voting behavior suggests that they are especially attuned to the opinions of their constituents may in fact exert little or no effort to ascertain district opinions and may merely vote according to their own personal attitudes. Their votes, however, may conform closely to their constituencies’ positions simply because they hold the same basic attitudes and values as their constituents. The mechanics of representation operating in this situation are quite different from those involved when a close correspondence between constituency opinions and voting behavior exists regardless of the representative’s personal attitudes toward the issues. Shifts in constituency opinions over time are more likely to be reflected in the representative’s behavior when he is consciously responsive to those opinions. In order to assess the operation of constituency control over a representative’s behavior, it is necessary to know something of his personal attitudes toward the issues on which he votes.

Motivational bases

In order to understand why a representative acts in a given way, it is necessary to give explicit attention to the motivational forces guiding his behavior. Scattered attention has been given to motivational factors in case studies of legislative decisions, but this obviously important variable has been largely ignored in more comprehensive studies of legislative behavior. Undertaking motivational explanations of human behavior may appear to be hopelessly complex. But complexity can be avoided and the understanding of representational behavior can be helped considerably if some simple motivational concepts are introduced into the analysis. Three different motivational bases seem to be particularly relevant to the study of representational behavior. The representative’s behavior might be guided by a desire to (1) express his own personal attitudes toward the legislation before the chamber, (2) fulfill his personal conception of what the proper representative ought to do (e.g., act as a delegate or a trustee), or (3) be re-elected to office at the next election. Probably no representative’s behavior is completely guided by any one of these three motivational bases, and more than one base may underlie any given act. There undoubtedly are other important motivational bases. The point is, however, that the study of representational behavior will remain incomplete unless explicit attention is given to the collection and analysis of data relevant to the motivational bases of political conduct.

Representatives’ -perceptions of the constituency

A person’s reactions to a situation depend on how he perceives it, and his perceptions do not necessarily accord with reality. It is important to determine the accuracy of the representative’s perceptions of his constituents’ opinions on various policy matters. The representative who consciously tries to vote in accordance with his constituents’ opinions, but who frequently misreads them, may seem to be ignoring his district when in fact his behavior is due to a failure in communication instead of a lack of concern for constituency opinions.

It is also important to gather information on the representative’s perceptions of the important political forces in his district, which can affect his chances for renomination or re-election. These forces may exert themselves at either stage, depending on the structure of politics in the district. They may, for example, be important at the nomination stage, where the official party endorsement is acquired. In some cases, the representative himself may control his own renomination through his domination of the district party organization. (This situation is not uncommon in the United States but perhaps occurs less frequently in countries with stronger national parties.) In other cases, effective control at the nomination stage may lie with a small group of party leaders, whom the incumbent must court in order to be renominated. Finally, where the nomination is won through elections at a party primary or in conventions, there is the possibility that a large number of party workers or rank-and-file voters may be the force to be courted.

The importance of the general election stage as an obstacle to re-election depends on the tendencies toward party voting in the district. In districts that are safe for one party, failure to be renominated constitutes the only real threat to re-election. In competitive districts, the key to victory may involve cultivating support among various groups of voters. A candidate is not likely to be unaware of these obvious political facts, but because of his closeness to the situation or because of his anxiety over re-election, he may perceive them somewhat differently than an outside observer.

Data on the representative’s perceptions of the district’s politics are important for understanding his reactions to constituency-based demands, especially if he is strongly motivated by a desire for re-election. Data on the legislator’s perceptions of his constituents’ opinions have broad utility for the study of representational behavior but are especially important if the representative is strongly motivated to do what his constituents want, for then his behavior depends on how he perceives those wants.

Representative-constituency communications

The representative’s perceptions of his constituency are affected by the content of the messages he receives and by the manner of their transmission. A useful distinction can be made between representative-initiated and constituency-initiated communications. The representative may himself try to determine the opinions of his constituents by examining the local newspapers, conducting his own public opinion polls, or circulating among the voters in his district. The amount of effort he expends in initiating communications with his constituents, the types of communication activities employed, and the specific constituents or constituency groups contacted can be expected to depend on the motivational basis of the representative’s behavior and on his various constituency perceptions.

Constituents may also initiate communications to their representatives by such means as writing letters, sending telegrams, and making personal visits. Studies have shown that the opinions conveyed through various forms of constituency-initiated communications are unlikely to be accurate reflections of the distribution of constituency opinions due to the operation of distorting influences. For example, representatives are more likely to hear from those who agree with them than from those who disagree, and letters are more likely to be written in opposition to proposals than in support of them. Those who do initiate communications also tend to rank higher in education, income, political involvement, and occupational status than those who do not.

Sources of distortion are also present in representative-initiated communications. Legislators tend to communicate more with those who agree with their views, who are more highly involved in politics, and who share the same party identification. Although faithful disclosure of constituency opinions can be produced by professional polling or survey research organizations, few representatives can afford such expensive means of acquiring this information. Lacking essential technical and organizational resources of professional research firms, those who engage in opinion polling seldom develop accurate knowledge of constituency opinions because of sampling difficulties or biased wording of questions. The fact is that some representatives are relatively unconcerned about the accuracy of their polling procedures, for they frequently conduct polls for purposes of public relations with little intention of studying the findings for decision-making purposes.

Whether representatives poll their constituents for public relations or for decision-making purposes probably depends, once again, on their perceptions of the constituency and on their motivational basis of behavior. A delegate-styled representative, who is motivated primarily by a desire to perform his representational role by voting the way his constituents want, would probably strive for greater accuracy in polling and give more consideration to poll findings than would, for example, a trustee or a representative from a safe district whose chances for renomination are controlled by a group of party leaders. But regardless of the motivational bases of the representative’s behavior, detailed information concerning the persons, groups, messages, and media involved in communications constitutes another important category of data for the study of representational behavior.

Kenneth Janda

[See alsoInterest Groups; Legislation; Lobbying. Other relevant material may be found inDecision making; Political behavior; Political recruitment and careers.]


De Grazia, Alfred 1951 Public and Republic: Political Representation in America. New York: Knopf. -” A thorough summary and analysis of various views of the proper role of the representative.

Dexter, Lewis Anthony 1957 The Representative and His District. Human Organization 16:2—13.

Macrae, Duncan 1958 Dimensions of Congressional Voting: A Statistical Study of the House of Representatives in the Eighty-first Congress. University of California Publications in Sociology and Social Institutions, Vol. 1, No. 3. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Miller, Warren E.; and Stokes, Donald E. 1963 Constituency Influence in Congress. American Political Science Review 57:45–56.

Stokes, Donald E.; and Miller, Warren E. 1962 Party Government and the Saliency of Congress. Public Opinion Quarterly 26:531–546. -” This is the first published report of the findings of a 1958 study conducted by the Survey Research Center, University of Michigan.

Turner, Julius 1952 Parti/ and Constituency: Pressures on Congress. Johns Hopkins Studies in Historical and Political Science, Series 69, No. 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Wahlke, John et al. 1962 The Legislative System: Explorations in Legislative Behavior. New York: Wiley.


views updated May 23 2018


REPRESENTATION. Political representation in the United States reflects a central tension of American democracy. On the one hand, America is a democratic form of government. Democracy requires a close connection between the citizens and laws that govern them. On the other hand, from the time of its founding, the size of the nation has prohibited all but a very small minority to write and pass legislation. Thus, political representation provides the connective tissue between the democratic rule of American citizens and the aristocratic lawmaking of members of Congress, the executive, and the judiciary.

There are four key areas that are central to the history of representation in the United States: voting rights; electoral rules for the House; rules for the Senate; and nonlegislative political representation in the executive, judiciary, and interest groups.

The Right to Vote

The right to vote is a legal right that defines which groups or types of people shall be included or excluded from choosing representatives. Because the size of the electorate is so large that a single vote in any election for national office is unlikely to affect the outcome of an election, the right to vote is a powerfully symbolic expression of the nation's judgment about what qualifies as full democratic citizenship.

As early as 1763, the concept of political representation has been closely tied to the right to vote and the legitimacy of government through the colonial protests against the Stamp Act. In that case, the English Parliament justified taxing their colonial "subjects" because colonial interests were said to be "virtually" represented in Parliament. The rejection of this argument was summed up in the apocryphal "no taxation without representation"—the demand that taxes could only be legitimately levied by legislators who themselves were accountable to the voters whom they taxed.

At the founding, the right to vote for members of the U.S. House of Representatives was determined by state law. Anyone who could legally vote for a member of their own state's "most numerous branch of the State Legislature" was granted the right to vote for members of the House. In practice, this meant that voting requirements varied between states and that virtually all voters were white males, with some minimal financial means.

The decision to exclude groups of voters rested on principled and prejudicial grounds. In principle, the right to vote was denied to groups of citizens when that group was judged to lack wisdom, political independence, and a demonstrated stake in society. Prejudicially, this meant that nonwhite "citizens," slaves, women, and children, and in a few cases Jews, Catholics, and other non-Protestants, were, with some notable exceptions, denied the vote. Today children, felons (in some states), and noncitizens are denied the vote precisely because they are judged to lack the political maturity (or, in the case of felons, they have given up their rights) of full citizenship.

Voting laws since the founding of the United States were increasingly restrictive until roughly the period of Reconstruction. Women in New Jersey, for example, were allowed to vote until formally "disenfranchised" in 1807. In many states, laws were added post-founding that explicitly restrict the suffrage to white men. But it is less clear whether these restrictions in practice eliminated many voters from the rolls. In general, laws are not passed until legislators perceive a need—for example, the emergence of speed limits during the twentieth century is not evidence that anyone in nineteenth-century America was traveling 60 mph on a highway. Speed limits were instead a response to the new automobile. Similarly, it is quite likely that voting restrictions appeared in the early nineteenth century only when women, blacks, immigrants, and others began to take advantage of the unintended openness of local voting laws. Thus newly codified restrictions on suffrage through the early nineteenth century may have been more properly understood not as a formal "taking away" of rights but rather as a codification of the underlying but unstated intention. In any case, the restrictions were certainly a symbolic offense.

After this initial contraction, voting laws expanded during a century of progress, beginning with the Constitutional amendments passed at the start of Reconstruction. The Fourteenth Amendment (ratified 9 July 1868) was the first Constitutional enactment that linked citizenship rights to the right to vote for any "male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State." But the linkage was in the form of a penalty for noncompliance rather than a guarantee of a right to vote. States were still allowed to restrict their citizens from voting, but if they did so, they would receive fewer representatives in Congress directly proportionate to those whom they disenfranchised. The Fifteenth Amendment (ratified 3 February 1870) made such infringement illegal, providing an explicit guarantee, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude."

While the Fifteenth Amendment ended legally sanctioned racial discrimination at the ballot box, state laws were enacted that made voting by former slaves and other nonwhites difficult, if not impossible. Literacy tests and poll taxes were legally allowed but unevenly applied to white and nonwhite citizens. Intimidation and informal coercion ensured that voting by blacks in particular would be treacherous even if they could pass the legal tests. Only through the various Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, particularly the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (extended and expanded in 1982), did the law guarantee blacks the right to vote.

While blacks formally received the right to vote just after the Civil War, women had to wait until 1920, the United States being the last of the then-industrialized nations to so extend its suffrage. The move for national voting rights for women began in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony. Illustrating the earlier point that law is enacted in response to perceived need, debate around the Fourteenth Amendment resulted in the adoption of the first reference to gender in the U.S. Constitution. By the period of Reconstruction, women were seen as a sufficient "threat" that the word "male" qualified the linkage between citizens and voting rights in the language of that amendment.

In 1890, the women's movement unified to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). While earlier campaigns had emphasized the equal standing of women and men, NAWSA engaged a new strategy: women had distinctive qualities that were themselves worthy of political representation. After an initial and failed strategy on making state-level changes in voting rights in 1915, they shifted their efforts toward a Constitutional amendment. Buoyed by both major political parties believing they stood to benefit most from the new electorate, the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted on 18 August 1920, guaranteeing voting rights to all citizens regardless of sex.

The last major expansion of the right to vote reduced the age of suffrage from twenty-one to eighteen. The age restriction again reflected the principle that only those of political maturity should be given the right to vote. The establishment of the age of twenty-one as the start of political maturity had been adopted in the American colonies from English practice and was the age restriction on every state voting law through the late 1960s. A political movement to decrease the voting age to eighteen emerged during almost every U.S. war because boys under twenty-one were ordered by their government to risk their lives. Although a Constitutional amendment had been proposed in 1942 by Senators Arthur Vandenberg and Jennings Randolph, it never made it out of committee. Indeed, while there were some proposals among state governments to lower the voting age during World War II, only Georgia succeeded in doing so. While there was some movement on the issue during the 1950s, the push to extend the suffrage to younger voters finally succeeded during the Vietnam War. An outgrowth of the social and political youth movements that arose during this time, Democrats and Republicans soon began campaigning to reduce the age of political maturity to eighteen. In 1970, as part of the expansion of the Voting Rights Act, Congress reduced the age of voting in all elections to eighteen.

Many, however, thought such a law was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court in Oregon v. Mitchell ruled in a 5 to 4 decision that the law was only constitutional when applied to federal elections. Following that decision there existed a two-tiered voting system in the United States: for federal elections, anyone over eighteen years could vote; with few exceptions, twenty-one was still the age of majority for state and local elections. Because of the cost of administering such a system, as well as the political sentiments that had been brewing, the Twenty-sixth Amendment, formally reducing the age of voting to eighteen, was adopted on 1 July 1971.

Representation in the House: Apportionment and Districting

Representation in the House of Representatives is determined by two features of the U.S. political landscape: apportionment and districting.

Apportionment. Apportionment refers to the number of representatives in the House of Representatives that each state receives based on its population. By linking representation to population, the House of Representatives was created as a body that represented individual persons. At the founding, each state was apportioned no more than one representative for every thirty thousand inhabitants, with a minimum guarantee of one representative each. How an "inhabitant" is counted has varied widely by state, and has sometimes included citizens and noncitizens.

Infamously, the U.S. Constitution did not include Native Americans in this count and only counted "three-fifths" of each slave. It is this clause (Article I, Section 2) that some people point to as evidence that the founders thought blacks were only three-fifths human. But this attribution of three-fifths human is apocryphal, and ignores the effects of the clause: were slaves to be counted as full persons for the sake of apportionment, southern states would have been apportioned that many more representatives and thus given that much more political power in Congress. Indeed, it was slave owners in the South who advocated counting each slave as a whole person. And it was abolitionists—people who thought slaves were both fully human and unjustly bound to a wicked institution—who wished not to count slaves at all. A compromise of three-fifths emerged between the two sides because the number of "inhabitants" also determined how much each state owed the federal government in taxes.

The ratio of population to representatives would determine how large or small the legislature would be. James Madison had earlier warned that the size of a legislature was independent of the underlying population. It must be large enough "to guard against the cabals of a few" but small enough "to guard against the confusion of a multitude" and the first Congress after the first apportionment saw a body of 106 members. But because the size of Congress was linked to population size, as the latter grew, so did the legislature, though in decreasing speed. By the turn of the twentieth century, the U.S. House of Representatives had more than quadrupled its size, and in the second decade passed a law to fix the number of seats at 435. That number has been maintained since, with the exception of the period just after Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union, when the number of House members briefly rose to 437.

Districting. While apportionment determines how many of the 435 representatives each state will receive, districting refers to drawing of electoral constituencies within each state. An "electoral constituency" is simply a group of people who vote for a particular seat. Electoral constituencies had originally been territorial because of the close affinity between where people lived and the set of political interests important to them. In the colonies, all political representation was based on the town, parish or county in which a citizen lived, a practice adopted from English political life going back at least as far as the Magna Charta. This practice well suited early American political life since populations tended not to be a mobile as they later would be, and the ratio between population and representatives could be relatively small.

Yet when the U.S. Congress was proposed, both opponents and supporters realized the nature of territorial representation would fundamentally change. A ratio of one representative to thirty thousand people—the minimum size of any Congressional district—was a roughly tenfold increase in the average size of the state electoral district. Even if citizens found their affinities close to home, the congressional district was far too big to represent them in the way it had in their state and colonial governments. Opponents of the Constitution saw the large size of the congressional district as undermining the "strong chords of sympathy" that representatives needed to have with their constituents, and undermining of the communal bonds that had justified territorial representation in the first place. Advocates of the Constitution admitted that the large district would make it much more difficult for constituents to attach to their national representative but viewed this to be a salutary check—representatives would have to earn their constituents' respect based on the quality of their service to the nation. Furthermore, as James Madison famously argued in "Federalist 10," large congressional districts would tend to check the emergence of electoral factions at the district level, allowing, he hoped, the emergence of people who would have strong incentives to act in the public good in order to get reelected.

Founding intent did not accurately predict the response within the states to the newly enacted federal laws. First among the unforeseen consequences of the institutional rules of the U.S. Constitution was the rise of political parties. Political parties essentially group together many different kinds of interests in order to represent them more efficiently in Congress. Their effect on political representation was direct: many states continued more forcefully the English and colonial practice of drawing district lines to maximize party advantage. In 1812, the Massachusetts legislature approved a districting map that was lampooned by a newspaper cartoonist who accentuated the features of its shape, making it appear as a salamander. Despite Governor Elbridge Gerry's reluctant support for the map, the cartoonist nevertheless labeled it after him, and thus arose the term "gerrymander."

A second response to the institutions of political representation was the creation of multi-member, statewide districts. During the first fifty years of the republic, party affiliation mapped closely to geographical location: Federalists and Whigs, for example, commanded much of the coastal and city votes, while Democrats were far more popular in the rural sections of each state. Single-member territorial districts ensured that these geographical differences were represented in Congress. Sensing an opportunity for greater influence, states began electing their delegations as a whole, through majority vote. Thus, states with a small majority of one party or another were able to elect and send a congressional delegation all of one party. Since 1842, electoral constituencies have been single-member districts by law, although violations of that and subsequent "single-member laws" were not unusual and seldom challenged. With some notable exceptions, representatives to the House have been elected in "single-member districts" by "first past the post" rules ever since.

Finally, during the industrial period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rural Americans moved into cities, as did a continued influx of immigrants. This had unexpected consequences for political representation in the United States. Urban centers became more heavily populated relative to rural towns but district lines were not redrawn; the effect was to "over-represent" people in less populated rural areas relative to their urban counterparts. By the middle of the twentieth century, there were great disparities in district size: some rural congressional districts had only tens of thousands of people, other urban districts were ten times or more that size.

Advocates in Illinois and Tennessee, among other states, sued their respective states arguing that, coming from cities, they did not receive fair representation. After rejecting the argument in the 1940s and 1950s on the basis that districting was a "political question" and not for them to decide, the Supreme Court argued in Baker v. Carr (1962) that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required districts to be of roughly equal size. Writing in his last dissent on the bench, Justice Felix Frankfurter argued that the Fourteenth Amendment could not possibly apply to this case because it provided its own remedy for voting irregularities. Nevertheless, in 1964, in a collection of cases headed by Reynolds v. Sims, the Court established its standard of "one-person-one-vote," ultimately requiring states to come as close to equality of population between districts, and requiring them to redistrict every ten years.

The history of the redistricting cases up to that point was a remnant of the urban-rural split that emerged in the twentieth century and was largely unrelated to civil rights issues. Only after the decision in Reynolds v. Sims was the concept "one-person-one-vote" used as a forceful weapon in the fight for minority voting rights in the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and 1982, and the upholding of much of their law by the Supreme Court. Increasingly, this has meant that districts can be drawn not only to equalize population, but also to produce desired electoral outcomes, particularly the securing of electoral success for minority candidates.

Representation in the Senate

The House of Representatives had been conceived of as a body to represent the people of the United States. In contrast, the U.S. Senate was animated by a very different conception of political representation. Emerging out of the "great compromise" during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Senate had originally been modeled on the House of Lords in England—as an aristocratic "upper house" meant to provide a more reflective space in which its members could check the cruder ambitions of the lower house. Much of these "aristocratic" origins of the institution still remain: members of the Senate serve longer terms than those in the House (six years to two years respectively); they must be an older minimum age (thirty compared to twenty-five in the House); and their functions were seen as requiring greater discretion and discernment (for example, ratification of treatises and advising and approving the executive's judicial nominees).

But even during the summer of 1787, the aristocratic nature of the Senate had shifted to something more practical. Owing to the "great compromise," the Senate was created in order to represent the states as political units, with each state receiving equal political representation (two senators per state) much as in the House, each person received equal political representation. Thus, from the ratification of the Constitution until 1913, senators were elected by their state legislators rather than by the citizens of the state. In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified after which individual voters were able to directly elect their U.S. senators.

Executive, Judicial, and Interest Group Representation

The executive and judicial branches must also be considered locations of political representation in the United States. In the executive branch, the nation as a whole is thought to be represented, and the symbols of that branch—the White House and the president—are regularly held to be symbols of the country. In the case of the judiciary as it has developed from its founding, the Constitution or supreme law of the land finds its representation.

Finally, the rights granted in the Bill of Rights, particularly the rights of free expression and congregation, have allowed citizens to form groups around various interests and to organize to persuade their elected representatives on issues that matter to them. The appropriateness of such "lobbying" activities—including giving money to political campaigns—has been debated throughout American history. In any case, there is little doubt that interest group lobbying remains a distinctive and important hallmark of political representation in the United States.


Bybee, Keith J. Mistaken Identity: The Supreme Court and the Politics of Minority Representation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Cooke, Jacob E., ed. The Federalist. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1982.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution: 1863– 1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Grofman, Bernard, and Chandler Davidson, eds. Controversies in Minority Voting: The Voting Rights Act in Perspective. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1992.

Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Nelson, William E. The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Pole, Jack R. Political Representation in England and the Origins of the American Republic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Rehfeld, Andrew. "Silence of the Land: On the Historical Irrelevance of Territory to Congressional Districting and Political Representation in the United States." Studies in American Political Development 15 (spring 2001): 53–87.

Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution. Abridged by Murray Dry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.


See alsoElections ; Federalist Papers ; Representative Government ; Stamp Act ; Suffrage .


views updated Jun 11 2018


Representation is a re-presentation of someone or something that is in some sense absent. A country may send an ambassador to another country and a delegate to an international body (such as the United Nations), and those persons are said to represent that nation. The governing officials who decide the foreign policy of that nation are not (typically) present in person, but the delegate speaks for the decision makers in their absence and, by extension, for the nation itself. (The commitments made by such delegates do not oblige the delegate personally but the nation.)

Representation, therefore, often is understood as a process engaged in by persons who "stand in" or "stand for" others. Such representatives may stand in for the nation, a government, or even a single individual (as occurs when a person is represented by a lawyer in a court of law). Representation in the broadest sense, however, does not occur only between persons. Flags, for example, are said to represent a nation, province, or, in fact, any entity that may choose to use a flag. In this case, a person is not representing, and it may not be a person (or persons) who is represented. An artist may put forward a work intended, for example, to represent the pain and destruction caused by warfare. Such an artwork may represent an abstraction and not reference any particular persons or collectivity.

Persons who act as representatives, or who engage in acts of representation, also may represent abstractions in the sense that their account of what they represent may not correspond with a given person or interested party's specific wishes; rather, they claim to speak for a common cause, one unattached to specific persons or factions . They may claim to speak for a particularly broad interest (e.g., a commercial interest or consumers), or they may claim to speak as representatives of ideals (e.g., equality or world peace).

Acts of representation are an everyday part of public political life, and they often stir conflict in societies. Groups and persons of all kinds find themselves and others represented (in words or images) in popular forums. Often those represented (or those who concern themselves with how others are represented) believe the representation is flawed or misleading. Representations therefore may be used as a part of a political strategy by casting others in a positive or negative light. Group members may even disagree with one another as to how they should choose to represent themselves. In the study of governments, the forms of representation that capture the most attention among social scientists, however, are those that involve persons standing for other persons or for specific interests.

representative forms of government

The seventeenth-century British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) argued that the governed ought to think of their leader (or leaders) as a sovereign representative. In the life without government (Hobbes called this the "state of nature") individuals must rely on themselves to ensure their protection and have, Hobbes insisted, the right to pursue their protection by any means they judge necessary. However, when they consent to make someone (or an assembly of persons) their sovereign, they all agree to a social contract by which they transfer these rights and judgments to their sovereign, which becomes the subjects' representative in that after the transfer of these rights the sovereign's words and actions are to be understood as the subjects' own. As such, subjects are obliged to obey those representatives they have authorized in the social contract and to support no rival authorities so long as the sovereign protects them.

Hobbes's sovereign representative, however, only partially explains what most modern citizens associate with representative forms of government. Persons living under representative governments also expect that they will be represented in deliberative bodies that determine how they are governed. (According to the logic of the republican tradition, people could not be considered free if they did not play a role in determining their own laws.) The most important of these bodies are legislatures (bodies that make—or at least play an essential role in making—laws).

Not all members of deliberative bodies are placed there by election. Some may be appointed by persons in government; positions in some deliberative bodies have been passed down by hereditary right. In democratic societies, however, election processes are the usual method for selecting representatives to lawmaking bodies. In some democratic countries governing heads of state (often called presidents) are selected through elections. In some countries ceremonial heads of state may be said to represent the nation, but their representation is largely symbolic. They do not govern, and they may or may not be elected.

How an elected official should perform the functions of representation is a matter of debate. What counts as adequate representation? For citizens in democratic societies, where sovereignty is said to rest ultimately in the people, this question must be asked when the people are electing, or reelecting, representatives. The same applies for members of organizations that profess democratic principles. Rules for when states and organizations hold elections vary. Representatives may be sent for a fixed term and may or may not be permitted to run for re-election. Other systems may involve a process by which elections are called or triggered by a vote of no confidence by a legislative body or members of an organization.

In part, expectations placed on a representative are determined by the method of election. Many popular representatives in legislative bodies are elected by persons within a specific geographic region. Typically, the candidate who wins the majority of votes is elected (additional, or run-off, elections between top candidates may be necessary if no candidate wins a majority). Regional, state, or provincial representatives are expected to defend and promote the interests of their constituents , but they also may feel competing pressure to conform to ideological goals because of their affiliation with a particular political party.

In many parts of the world the election processes may work according to a different logic, called proportional representation —many governments combine some elements of geographic representation and proportional representation. Systems of proportional representation vary, but in general parties present voters across regions with a list of candidates. Voters are asked to select a party list or, in some cases, specific candidates on the party list. The number of seats won in the legislative body (or the proportion allotted through proportional representation) by a party is determined by the total number of votes each party receives. In this system, unlike geographic representation, a majority of votes within a given region does not elect a single representative from that region; minorities with a sufficient number of votes in their favor (a minimum number of votes determined as a part of the rules) gain representation in rough proportion to their share of votes among the entire enfranchised population. The method of proportional representation asks voters to respond primarily to the party's publicized commitments rather than to the commitments a candidate might make to a particular district.

In systems of parliamentary government, in which those capable of assembling a majority of seats in the parliament are entitled to form a government, ruling coalitions may consist of elected representatives from more than one party. Relatively small parties in the legislature may gain leverage over larger parties by tipping the balance in favor of a majority coalition. The duties of representatives in these circumstances might be pulled in at least two directions at once: the duty to uphold the party ideals and promises that won them votes in the election and the duty to coalition partners to honor agreements that make it possible to form the majority coalition. The question of which method to use is very often a point of conflict, especially in states that are beginning a process of democratization .

What does it mean to represent a particular constituency? Does the representation of people require that the representative resemble the citizens who put him or her into office? How close should the resemblance be? Proponents of proportional representation often claim a greater correspondence between the general electorate and its representatives. Representations of any kind, however, are not expected to be exact duplicates of that which they represent (representations are not copies), and what it would mean to duplicate a large population precisely is by no means clear given the dynamic nature of legislative processes.

Representation in this context, however, often is thought to imply a duty to present the opinions, the sentiments, or at least the interests of the citizens who elected the representative. Typically, geographic representatives feel the greatest obligation to represent the views of the majority of voters (the persons who elected them to office), but within democratic societies it is not unusual for such representatives also to profess a dedication to represent all persons in

their region. The decisions of a regional representative often are colored by a desire to be reelected. A representative who wins by a large majority may conduct himself or herself differently than does one who wins by a slim margin. On some political questions the representative may feel he or she has wide latitude and on other issues may feel a strict requirement to vote in accordance with the wishes of voting majority.

Nevertheless, the duty of the representatives—even those who believe that they must echo the views of their constituents—is not always clear. In a deliberative assembly, issues may come before the representative concerning which the electorate may have no opinion or no clear opinion. An ambassador is typically free to explain the complexities of deliberations to responsible parties in government and ask for instructions. Elected representatives rarely have this opportunity and cannot always count on finding a majority opinion in their constituency on the issues that arise in any specific vote in the legislature. More often, democratically elected representatives (if and when they are asked) explain their votes and decisions to their constituents after they have made them.

Representatives therefore often find it necessary to fall back on the principle that their decisions promote the welfare of those they represent, which in many instances may prove a workable solution. However, what if a representative concludes that the wishes of his or her constituents are contrary to their welfare? Representatives who wish to ensure the welfare of their constituents in these cases are in a more difficult situation. Some representatives may feel duty bound to vote their constituents' wishes regardless of their own views. Others, however, may feel an obligation to what they see as their constituents' "true interests."

Political parties also may play a strong role in determining votes. In these situations explanations offered after the fact may become critical. Representatives (and parties) may lose votes and elections, and voters may become better educated about their interests. The give-and-take between representatives and the represented can be understood as a part of a well-functioning representative democracy.

edmund burke

Representatives in governing deliberative bodies therefore frequently have to exercise their own judgment. How much latitude should a representative be allowed? The eighteenth-century British parliamentarian Edmund Burke (1729–1797) occupies one pole in debates over representation. He held that representatives in most instances should be largely independent of the voters' opinions.

According to Burke, the purpose of a parliament is deliberation . Writing at a time when the right to vote in his nation was very far from universal, Burke held that representatives should be selected from among the political elite. They should possess the powers of reasoning and be capable of weighing the various interests and points of view (including the grievances of various populations) but should base legislative decisions on what would be in the interest of the nation as a whole. Burke's estimation of the general population's intellect was not merely low (although it was); he also believed that persons deprived of the opportunity to deliberate in parliament were in no position to know what was best. Burke's notion of representation therefore was much closer to that of a trustee than conceptions of representation that stress representatives' role as a relay for the will of their constituencies.

Burke's conception often is contrasted with notions associated with liberal political philosophies. Here representatives within deliberative legislative bodies are not necessarily perceived as being far above their constituencies in ability or rank. Instead, as representatives they are seen as accountable for passing on the opinions of their constituencies. If a legislative body is designed to allow the nation in all its diverse points of view to deliberate over and vote on matters of law and policy, the duty of the representative on this delegate theory is to ensure that the constituents' views and preferences are made known and promoted.

james madison

Whereas Burke counted on the superior wisdom of representatives to ensure that the true welfare of the nation is not harmed by the wishes of misinformed constituents, some liberal theorists, perhaps most notably the American Federalist James Madison (1751–1836), believed that the best safeguards for the well-being of the nation would be found in the design of representative institutions. From the Madisonian point of view, the greatest danger facing democracies is faction, by which he meant a collectivity (either a majority or a minority) of persons united by goals harmful to the rights of some other citizens or to the permanent or collective interests of the nation as a whole.

Early small democratic communities in which each citizen was entitled to participate in government often were disadvantaged by the problem of factions. A relatively small number of persons might coordinate to form a majority to tyrannize minority groups or specific citizens. Because of these problems such "direct democracies" were criticized for creating particularly unstable regimes , communities where the lives and property of individuals or minorities might be unsafe.

Mechanisms of representation, however, allow for larger states that cover a range of geographic regions and therefore a greater combination of interests. Because of this, Madison held, such states had a distinct advantage. A much wider range of interests would be represented in the legislative body, and therefore a majority faction would be much more difficult to form. Factions may achieve some success on local levels, but the possibility of kindling a vicious sentiment across a diverse nation was thought much more difficult. Indeed, Madison thought that potential factious majorities would be less likely even to discover their numbers or act in unison in such a system.

Within this form of representative government, therefore, the greatest safeguard against vicious motives was not a belief in the superior moral faculties of those who are elected as representatives (although Federalist writings expressed the hope that this would prove true) but the expectation that even if each representative devotes himself or herself strictly to the local preferences of his or her constituency, the dynamic conflict between interests in a national assembly would help ensure that interests would check one another.

See also: Democracy; Republic.


Burke, Edmund. The Portable Edmund Burke, ed. Isaac Kramnick. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers (1787–1788), ed. Clinton Rossiter. New York: Signet Classics, 2003.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan (1651), ed. Edwin Curley. Indianapolis IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994.

Mill, John Stuart. "Considerations on Representative Government" (1841). In Three Essays on Liberty, Representative Government, The Subjection of Women. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 1975. (Original work published 1861)

Pitkin, Hanna F. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Ted H. Miller


views updated Jun 27 2018



Any major dictionary offers numerous definitions of the term representation. This indicates that the concept comprises a range of meanings and usages, depending on the type of discourse in which it emerges, the variety of cultural phenomena to which it may refer, and the philosophical programs and ideological perspectives it is intended to serve. Within the realm of sociocultural studies, two clusters of meanings of the termdefined as the act or action of representing: the state of being represented (Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary 2003, p. 1057)have acquired critical importance:

  1. To bring clearly before the mind (a book that represents the character of America); to serve as a sign or symbol of (the flag represents a country); to portray or exhibit in art; to serve as the counterpart or image of (a movie hero who represents the character of a culture); to describe or depict in language.
  2. To take the place of in some respect; to act in the place of or for usually by legal right; to serve especially in a legislative body by delegated authority usually resulting from election. ( Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary 2003, p. 1057)

Both clusters of meaning suggest that representations essentially stand in for something or someone else, and, as such, present something or someone a second timethey literally re-present. Although it is fair to say that representation functions through reproduction (for example, most people in the Western world are familiar with the image of Rembrandts 1642 painting The Night Watch, without ever having seen the original painting, through reproductions), or by processing the likeness of an object, this is not the sense in which the issue of representation has come to prevail in recent theoretical discussions. In the simplest terms, representation in contemporary sociocultural theory is the production of meaning through language. As Stuart Hall points out in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997, p. 17), representation constitutes the link between concepts and language that allows us to refer to objects, people, and events in the real world, or to imaginary worlds of fictional objects, people, and events (as in films or literary texts). In this line of thought, representations do not so much stand for some underlying real, or re-represent some original or preexisting object, as they call into being, in fact quite literally produce, that to which they supposedly refer, or re-present.

The philosophical concern with representation dates back to ancient times, with Plato (427-347 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) acting as key figures. Plato considered representationswhether musical, literary, or visualas potentially dangerous, creating illusory worlds that would lead one away from real things. Aristotle, in contrast, regarded the ability to re-create, through mimesis (the imitative representation of nature and human behavior in art and literature), as that which distinguishes human beings from animals, and thus as necessary for peoples learning and being in the world. In his influential book The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), literary scholar M. H. Abrams argues that the Aristotelian notion of representation in terms of mimesis (the supposition that the mind, and its products, reflect the external world) dominated Western attitudes toward representation up to the eighteenth century. The antimimetic approach that emerged with the advent of romanticism subsequently came to substitute the idea of the mind as an essentially passive, reproductive apparatus with the notion of the mind as an active and creative power. Since reality is only accessible through representationthrough texts, discourses, and imagesthere is no unmediated access to reality. The products of the mind, in the form of representations, consequently came to be regarded as so many different and, indeed, active attempts to make sense of the world, as historically and culturally shifting constructions of equally shifting realities, rather than as accurate reflections of preexisting objects, people, and events in the world. Moreover, since reality is always more complicated and therefore necessarily exceeds the ways in which it can be signified by any culturally and historically prevailing means of representation, it remains always necessary to construct new ways of seeing reality, to produce new (modes of) representation.

The productive notion of representation suggests that there is no inherent meaning in any picture or sentence or sound; rather, as Dani Cavallaro posits in Critical and Cultural Theory, a representation only represents by virtue of being interpreted and ultimately represents anything it is capable of suggesting (2001, p. 39). This entails that, rather than acting individually and exclusively on their own terms, any representation is part of a system of representation. First, as Hall argues, there is the system that allows us to sort all kinds of objects, people, and events, in correlation with a set of concepts and ideas that we carry around in our heads (1997, p. 17). This system does not so much consist of individual concepts or ideas, but rather of different ways of organizing, arranging, and classifying concepts on the basis of similarity and difference. Representations, therefore, always require interpretation within a specific set of interpretive conventions that make up the dominant way of looking at reality within a culture at a certain time in history. Second, there is the system of language. The conceptual map of reality that is shared by individual people within a given society, and which enables them to make sense of reality, is necessarily mediated by a shared system of signs, a common language of words, images, and sounds. Signsin the broadest sense, so as to include not only spoken and written languages proper, but also visual images, facial expressions, and body language, as well fashion, music, or any other body of signs that carries and expresses meaningjointly make up the system of signification and representation, that is, the sociohistorically specific system of organizing reality that helps us to make sense of the otherwise incoherent mass of our everyday experience. Since systems of representation mediate our access to the world, representations are never immediately and unequivocally connected with an underlying reality: We only experience reality through the mediation of texts, discourses, and images. The real as such is unattainable, and may only be grasped according to the codes and conventions of interpretation and signification of any specific society.

Understanding representational practices as the medium or channel through which meaning production happens, most contemporary theorists infer that objects, people, and events in the world do not have fixed or stable meanings, but only acquire meaning within a specific culture, and are defined by human beings, participants in a culture, who speak with a certain authority to make things mean or signify something. At this point, the first and the second cluster of meanings of the term representation begin to converge, as well as to show up its ideological and political aspects. Since those who speak with authority about the ways in which (certain aspects of) reality make sense, or signify, and since no representational account of reality can ever fully grasp the complexities of such realities, systems of representation cannot but offer partial and, indeed, interested ways of viewing the world and the people, objects, and events within it. As W. J. T. Mitchell points out in Picture Theory, representation not only works to mediate our knowledge (of slavery and of many other things), but obstructs, fragments, and negates that knowledge (1994, p. 188). Instead of seeing representations as only particular kinds of objects representing something or someone else, this perspective asks us to approach representation as an active process and product of power (relations), in which certain kinds of representations are produced, valued, and exchanged on the basis of underlying interests and investments, while alternative ways and conventions of representation are either disavowed or simply negated so as to affect, fragment, or deny other forms of knowledge about the world, and the objects, people, and events within it. As such, particular modes of representation can be seen to offer clues to a given cultures (dominant) belief systems, its interpretations of reality, and its translations of factual and fictional situations into words and images. Representations, on this view, embody certain kinds of social relations, the interpretations and evaluation of which are necessarily partial, more imaginary than real, and always already endowed with specific interests and investments. Rather than objectively reflecting the world as it is, representation thus constructs shifting realities as they are perceived through various, ideologically informed filters and channels.

SEE ALSO Aristotle; Critical Theory; Culture; Hall, Stuart; History, Social; Nonverbal Communication; Plato; Representation in Postcolonial Analysis; Society; Symbols


Abrams, M. H. 1953. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cavallaro, Dani. 2001. Critical and Cultural Theory: Thematic Variations. London and New Brunswick, NJ: Athlone.

Hall, Stuart, ed. 1997. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Open University Press.

Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary. 2003. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Mitchell, W. J. T. 1994. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

renée c. hoogland


views updated May 29 2018


Representation is standing or acting in the place of another, normally because a group is too large, dispersed, or uninformed for its members to act on their own. It is not necessarily democratic; nor is it necessarily connected to the idea of government by consent. Democratic representation, based on the concept that governmental legitimacy rests on the reasoned assent of individual citizens, dates from the seventeenth century.

This concept has long been taken seriously in the United States. Colonial assemblies won as much domestic legislative power in the fifty years before the american revolution as Parliament had won in 500, with broader voting constituencies than Parliament's and more conviction that the representatives should speak for their local constituencies rather than for the nation at large. Both this "inner revolution" and the outward break with England asserted a natural right to government by consent of the governed and treated consent as more than a legal fiction. "No taxation without representation " was the slogan asserting this right. A guarded commitment to majority rule has helped put the right into practice. As thomas jefferson declared in his first inaugural address, "though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable."

The Constitution put certain restraints on majority rule: it banned some acts outright; it divided its majorities by separation of powers and federalism; and it permitted an electorate that was restricted mostly to white male landowners. Yet the Constitution was democratic for its day; it has since expanded both the number of elective offices and the franchise; and its very barriers to majority whim, requiring the creation of broad, stable coalitions to rule, have brought about a majority rule stronger and more reasonable than might have evolved from a less fettered regime. james madison, explaining and defending the Constitution in the federalist, extolled the principle of representation as the device that made majority rule compatible with good government. Representation made possible the extended republic, embracing a large enough territory and population to be safe from foreign aggression and a great enough diversity of economic and other interests to minimize the danger of majority faction. Indirect self-government through a limited number of representatives required coalition-building, with diverse factions compromising their antagonistic goals. Representation also facilitated deliberation: direct democracy (exemplified by the Athenian Assembly) smacked too much of mob rule.

But the Constitution left many questions of representation unsettled. Whom, exactly, do the representatives represent? Does the representative speak for his district, state, or nation? Does he speak only for his supporters and his party, or for opponents, nonvoters, and the unfranchised as well? Does he speak for the whole people or for a coalition of interests? Answers depend on what representation is expected to accomplish and how it is structured.

There has been little agreement in American history about the goals of representation. Some, such as Jefferson and abraham lincoln, have argued that the purpose of the regime is to protect individual rights of liberty and equality. Others, such as john c. calhoun, with his doctrine of concurrent majorities, have argued that protection of states ' rights or property rights is the basic goal. Still others, such as alexander hamilton and stephen a. douglas, have emphasized institutional stability and regularity.

Structural variation can drastically affect the quality of representation. A representative can be a symbol, a sample, an agent, or a trustee, elected directly or through intermediaries, individually or jointly accountable to a territorial or an ideological constituency. The American system, with two-party competition for single-member districts, bicameral legislatures, and separate executive branch, has had accessible representatives who speak for their local constituencies (though they are more than agents and are not bound by detailed constituent "instruction") but may be hard to unite on national issues. The British system, combining legislative and executive powers, and with disciplined national parties, has produced representatives who speak for the nation and coalesce easily on national issues but are much less accessible and attentive to district interests than American representatives. Proportional representation, used by several European governments since world war i, usually has multimember districts, with seats divided by proportion of vote for each party. Proportional representation reflects public ideological variety, often with a small party for every view. By focusing on ideological issues, it tends to discourage compromise and produce weak, volatile coalitions, such as those of Weimar Germany and the Fourth French Republic.

American reformers have greatly extended the franchise without greatly changing the structure or working of government. In the Progressive era, 1880–1920, they also sought to cleanse elections of control by party and financial bosses with "good government" reforms: Australian ballot; primary elections, initiative, referendum, and recall; nonpartisan civil service; nonpartisan local elections, corrupt practices acts, and weakening of the speaker's control over the house of representatives. These reforms reduced corruption but also undermined party discipline and lowered voter turnout.

Academic reformers responded to these changes in three different ways. Some called for less separation of powers and more disciplined national parties on the British model. Others wanted to make every office elective, including party, cabinet, and corporate leaders, and to make elections more "representative" with public funding, reapportionment, proportional representation, or quotas. Yet others called for councils of experts to take over problems that elected representatives had failed to solve.

These prescriptions have been partially fulfilled in the adoption of structural change but less so in the delivery of promised results. National power has been enlarged over state, public over private, expert over amateur, and judicial over legislative. Blacks have the right to political equality; legislative districts are equalized; public funding of presidential campaigns has been increased; presidential nomination has been made almost plebiscitary. But these reforms did not still complaints that the system was producing unrepresentative leadership. Reformers deplored most of the candidates in the reformed presidential elections of the 1970s and public turnout sank to new lows. The winning candidate in 1980 and 1984 argued that private consumer sovereignty was the truest form of democracy.

Over the years the Supreme Court, though once reluctant to take sides on political questions, has become an important player in the game of reform. Chief Justice john marshall first laid down the political question doctrine in obiter dictum in marbury v. madison (1803), forbearing to "intermeddle with the prerogatives of the executive." "Questions, in their nature political," he wrote, "can never be made in this court." Chief Justice roger b. taney, in luther v. borden (1849), declared that the republican or representative character of state domestic government was "political in its nature" and reserved by judicial prudence—and perhaps also by constitutional mandate under the guarantee clause—for resolution by the "political branches, not the judiciary." The Dorr controversy in Luther involved many of the same issues as baker v. carr (1962), but the Court lacked the political strength, the appearance of constitutional authority, and the enforcement technique to intervene effectively.

Against the disfranchisement of blacks, prohibited on paper after 1870 by the fifteenth amendment, the Court provided no lasting protection until 1944, when it ended the white primary—although it had intervened against some administrative abuses and would later intervene aggressively against franchise restrictions under both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Almost all other state representation questions—validity of delegations of authority, of legislative enactments, of party nomination decisions, and of initiatives and referenda—the Court found nonjusticiable.

The Court's list of nonjusticiable political questions appeared to include unequal or "malapportioned" electoral districts, especially after colegrove v. green (1946). But in Baker v. Carr, over objections from Justices felix frankfurter and john marshall harlan that the Court was entering a "quagmire" of insoluble questions, the majority held that apportionment was not a political question and was "within the reach of judicial protection under the fourteenth amendment." In reynolds v. sims (1964), the Court proclaimed that " one person, one vote " is the "fundamental principle" of the Constitution, applicable to both houses of state legislatures and to local and special-purpose elections—even if most of the voters involved opposed it. The principle does not, however, apply to the United States senate, the electoral college, or most aspects of party organization. Nor does it seem to apply to the manipulation of effective votes through gerrymandering (see Gerrymander) and multimember districting unless these are surgically exclusive of a protectable minority, as in gomillion v. lightfoot (1960). Gomillion invalidated a law excluding from the city limits of Tuskegee, Alabama, all but four or five black voters while keeping every white voter. In a series of cases beginning with Wright v. Rockefeller (1965) and highlighted by united jewish organizations v. carey (1977) and mobile v. bolden (1980), the Court has repeatedly refused to interfere with nonsurgical districting to the obvious disadvantage of racial or religious minorities who as individuals would have been eminently protectable against franchise discrimination. The difference between districting discrimination against groups and franchise discrimination against individuals is that franchise discrimination is easy to remedy, but districting discrimination is not. Courts have equalized nominal votes by equal apportionment but not effective votes—votes that actually elect the voter's candidate—because there is no way short of proportional representation to equalize every group's effective vote.

Besides holding apportionment justiciable, the reapportionment cases did something more radical: they treated districting discrimination and franchise discrimination as if they were virtually interchangeable, and they invoked the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect a "right to vote" against "dilution" by unequal districts. But the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment had insisted that it left suffrage "exclusively under the control of the states"; construing it to grant a federal right to vote would seem to render at least five subsequent voting rights amendments, including section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, superfluous. This "parthenogenesis of a voting right, " combined with an aggressive application of strict scrutiny, led to the judicial abolition of poll tax, property, and taxpayer qualifications on voting, and all but the shortest residency requirements. It also cleared the way for the passage of the voting rights act of 1965 and, paradoxically, gave a boost to the twenty-sixth amendment (eighteen-year-old vote)—and, possibly, to the proposed district of columbia representation amendment.

These voting rights decisions substantially aided the "inclusion process" in a formal sense. Some critics feel that this aid was a desirable end in itself; others argue that, by overriding the choices of elected representatives and creating constitutional authority ex nihilo, the Court has debased the vote in substance more than it has enlarged it in form. As the nation enters its third century under the Constitution, the inclusion process has been judicialized but hardly completed—and the same may be said of the ancient debate over political representation.

Ward E. Y. Elliott


Elliott, Ward E. Y. 1975 The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court's Role in Voting Rights Disputes, 1845–1969. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


views updated Jun 08 2018

352. Representation

See also 23. ART ; 128. DRAWING ; 141. ENGRAVING ; 218. IMAGES .

a sketchy representation of something.
a view or pictorial representation of the earth from above, as from an aircraft.
an art form, as a story, painting, or sculpture, in which the components have a symbolic, figurative meaning. allegorist, allegorizer, n. allegorical, adj.
a pair of lenses of different colors used in spectacles for viewing a specially processed two-dimensional picture, creating a three-dimensional effect.
a distorted image of an object, as in anamorphic art. Also anamorphosis . anamorphic, adj.
a cylindrical mirror for correcting the distorted image created by anamorphism.
Obsolete, anamorphosis.
a stereographic projection of the earth, as a sphere, on the plane of one of the great circles. Also called planisphere .
an exaggerated representation; grotesque parody or satire.
a distorted representation, usually pictorial, often used to parody people in public life. caricaturist, n.
a simplified or abstracted form of diagrammatic representation of statistical data, usually on a map base or distorted map base.
1. a system of symbols used to represent ideas.
2. expression by means of such symbols.
the art or technique of using a motion-picture camera or prjector. cinematograph, n., v. cinematographer, n . cinematographic, adj.
a view or representation of a city, especially in a painting, photograph, etc.
a view or representation of clouds, particularly a painting of clouds.
a summary, outline, or general view of a situation.
a display of scenes of different parts of the world. cosmoramic, adj.
a hollow glass globe, for depicting the position of the earth in relation to the fixed stars at a given time.
a person who is well acquainted with culture, as literature, the arts, etc., and who advocates their worth to society.
a circular panorama, usually of a landscape or battle, designed to be viewed from a central point. Also called panorama . cycloramic, adj.
1. a miniature, three-dimensional scene, often depicting a historical event.
2. an apparatus designed for giving extra realism to paintings by transmitting light through them in various colors and intensities at different times.
something representative as a fine example of the whole group of things to which it belongs. See also 53. BOOKS .
a large globe or sphere in which a spectator can stand and view a representation of the earths surface.
Statistics. a graph showing frequency distribution in which rectangles based on the horizontal axis are assigned widths that correspond to class intervals and heights that correspond to frequency.
a three-dimensional representation in photographic form, recorded on film by a reflected laser beam of a subject illuminated by part of the same laser beam.
an exhibit or cyclorama showing a great variety of scènes.
1. a signature or mark characteristic of or peculiar to a particular person, organization, etc.
2. a logotype or trademark.
a drawing, photograph, or other image that represents an object or scène with little or no magnification.
British Dialect, a scarecrow or any grotesque effigy. Also spelled mawkin .
a form of landscape picture, made of several sections that can be combined in various ways to make different scenes.
a type of panorama which represents the interior of a large building in which the spectator appears to be standing as he views the scene displayed.
cyclorama; hence, any unlimited view or comprehensive survey. panoramic, panoramical, adj.
a type of magiclantern show in which rapidly moving images blend, change size, etc.; hence, any series of images that move and change rapidly, as a dream. phantasmagorial, phantasmagoric, adj.
an astrolabe.
an instrument that represents the effect of moving images on a screen.
In literature and art. strict adherence to particular concepts, rules, or ideals of form, style, etc., either as formulated by the artist or as dictated by a school with which the artist is allied. See also 23. ART ; 104. CRITICISM ; 236. LANGUAGE . purist, n., adj.
a view or representation of a river, especially in a painting, photograph, etc.
an outline or diagrammatic representation. See also 128. DRAWING . schematic, adj.
the form, disposition, or outline of a thing or concept. schematist, n .
a view or representation of the sea or seashore, especially in a painting, photograph, etc.
a view or representation of the sky, especially in a painting, photograph, etc.
a projector with two complete lanterns, so that one picture appears to be dissolving while the other is appearing. stereoptician, n . stereoptican, adj.
symbology, defs. 1 and 2.
1. the study and interpretation of symbols.
2. representation by means of symbols. Also symbolism .
3. any system of symbols. symbologist, n . symbological, adj.
a type of kinescope that presents the effect of moving pictures by use of a rotating glass plate with images attached to it.
an apparatus combining a telescope and the camera lucida, used for producing images of distant objects on a screen.
a card with a different design or picture on each side that appear to merge when the card is whirled around. thaumatropical, adj.
a view or representation of a town, especially in a painting, photograph, etc.
imitation or parody for the purpose of ridicule; a grotesque or ludicrous representation.
1. a view of a stretch or body of water, as a lake.
2. a drawing or painting of such a view.


views updated May 18 2018

representation Representation refers to the way in which images and texts reconstruct, rather than reflect, the original sources they represent. Thus a painting, photograph, or written text about a tree is never an actual tree, but the reconstruction of what it seemed to be or meant to the person who represented it. If it were a tree, it could not then be a photograph, painting, or text.

Representation is an important concept in semiology, linguistics, Marxism, and feminism, and points to an aspect of the way in which meaning is constructed. It can therefore be understood as contributing importantly to social processes. Feminists argue that representation is continually creating, re-creating, and endorsing stereotypical ideas of gender identity. All media images—for example in advertising or cinema—are constructed by somebody, for a specific purpose with a specific audience in mind, although they are usually presented as if they were a ‘slice of reality’. To try and understand what they mean, and how they construct meaning, it is important to examine what lies behind the image or text: who constructed it, where and when, for what purpose, and for which particular audience's gaze. Because watchers rarely have access to this process, images in particular tend to classify complex ideas into apparently simple meanings; they thus deny contradiction and ambiguity, and representations become like myths which are nevertheless accepted as ‘real’. Feminist critics of pornography have used the idea of representation to develop theories of how pornography functions in society, and how it is represented in relation to class, race, and gender (see S. Kappeler , The Pornography of Representation, 1986
; and E. Chaplin , Sociology and Visual Representation, 1994


views updated May 14 2018

rep·re·sen·ta·tion / ˌrepriˌzenˈtāshən; -zən-/ • n. 1. the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone or the state of being so represented: asylum-seekers should be guaranteed good legal advice and representation.2. the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way or as being of a certain nature: the representation of women in newspapers. ∎  the depiction of someone or something in a picture or other work of art: Picasso is striving for some absolute representation of reality. ∎  a thing, esp. a picture or model, that depicts a likeness or reproduction of someone or something: a striking representation of a vase of flowers. ∎  (in some theories of perception) a mental state or concept regarded as corresponding to a thing perceived.3. (representations) formal statements made to a higher authority, esp. so as to communicate an opinion or register a protest: certain church groups are making strong representations to our government. ∎  a statement or allegation: any buyer was relying on a representation that the tapes were genuine.


views updated May 14 2018


Any action or conduct that can be turned into a statement of fact.

For example, displaying a car with an odometer reading of ten miles constitutes a representation to a prospective buyer that the car has only been driven ten miles.

The term representation is used in reference to any express or implied statement made by one of the parties to a contract to another, regarding a particular fact or circumstance that serves to influence the consummation of the deal.

As applied to the law of descent and distribution, representation is the principle by which the issue of an individual who has died inherits the portion of an estate that such person would have taken if he or she had lived.


views updated May 18 2018

representation Storage and data values used to carry information.

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