Multidimensional Representation

The forthcoming article “Multidimensional Representation” by Fabio Wolkenstein and Christopher Wratil is summarized by the author(s) below. 

It is widely thought that the quality of democracy is closely bound up with the quality of representation. This is why generations of political scientists have studied representation empirically. Broadly speaking, the quantitative political science literature that has emerged over the last three decades has engaged with two different concepts of representation that are typically associated with the canonical theoretical work of Hanna Pitkin––substantive and descriptive representation. 

Important though this scholarship is, political representation is not limited to its substantive and descriptive forms. Cutting-edge research in political theory, notably the work of Jane Mansbridge, Andrew Rehfeld and Michael Saward, has recently uncovered additional dimensions of representationUsing a bibliometric analysis, we show that these have, however, made virtually no inroads into quantitative empirical political science. This is a missed opportunity to better understand the complex representative processes that are central to our democracies. Reacting to this, our article aims at translating the theoretical insights of MansbridgeRehfeld and Saward into operationalizable conceptions of representation that are both faithful to political theorists’ impulses and useable for quantitatively-oriented empiricists. By empiricizing and further systematizing some key ideas in recent theoretical research, we also make a contribution to representation theory more generally. 

In a first step, we identify four “dialogue stoppers for why the new theoretical work on political representation by MansbridgeRehfeld and Saward is notoriously difficult to operationalize for empiricists. The first is what we call “expansionism,” meaning a tendency among theorists to argue for an all-encompassing understanding of representation that goes way beyond traditional electoral representation. This, we suggest, creates enormous data demands, as well as difficulties regarding sampling strategies. A second dialogue stopper are problems with the observability of some of the more central phenomena representation theorists describe. As we show, some of these phenomena can neither be observed directly nor generate clear observable implications, creating insurmountable obstacles for quantitative research. The third impediment for quantitative scholars is theorists’ focus on constructing ideal types of representative relationships or practices. This is problematic because those ideal typeswhile useful for purposes of illustration, tend to be over-specified and hence less useful empirically. Finally, some of the more influential theoretical concepts are shaped primarily by the distinctive political realities of the U.S. and its single-member district electoral systemThis considerably limits how far theorists’ conceptual apparatuses can travel, and are received as helpful by scholars. 

In a second step, we develop four conceptions of representation that are not plagued by these problems but remain sensitive to MansbridgeRehfeld and Saward’s key innovations. We call these (1) surrogation (claiming and choosing constituents and representatives); (2) justification (providing and demanding reasons for actions); (3) personalization (viewing the representative role as that of an individual vs. party agent); and (4) responsiveness (acting out of and expecting sensitivity to electoral sanctions). These depart from conventional conceptions that are used in quantitative scholarship (e.g. ideological congruence, policy responsiveness, or descriptive representation), in that they do not compare citizens’ policy-related wishes or their descriptive characteristics with representatives’ actions or characteristics, but focus on how citizens want to be represented and whether representatives meet these expectations. This relational understanding of representation takes heed of the constructivist turn in representation theory, which encourages us to re-think the representative-represented relation as co-constituted by both sides. We discuss how these novel conceptions of representation can be measured using quantitative methodologies and illustrate the feasibility of such research designs with findings from a “proof-of-concept” study conducted in the context of the 2019 United Kingdom general election.  

In sumwith our paper, we hope to provide the basic conceptual toolkit for a refined research agenda on representation that does greater justice to the full complexity of representative practices.  

About the Author(s): Fabio Wolkenstein is Associate Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University and Christopher Wratil is Lecturer in European Politics at University College London. Their research “Multidimensional Representation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.