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date: 24 September 2017

Political Representation: From Classical Research Traditions to Comparative Perspectives

Summary and Keywords

The literature on political representation is split between research traditions that have remained largely separate: a philosophical normative strand, a behavioralist one focusing mainly on the roles held by representatives, and a third, more distinctly sociological one concerned primarily with issues of representativeness. These classical perspectives have been extended through the introduction of new dimensions into the analysis. The normative tradition has thus been able to formulate novel questions by considering, for instance, issues relating to the representation of nonhuman species or of future generations. Present-day writings on political representation also depart from accepted premises by integrating additional infra-institutional forms of representation. Similarly, a postmodern vein of thought has drawn increased attention to the fluidity of the processes involved and a rather hybrid literature has emerged that combines empirical and normative ambitions. Despite claims by some analysts to have renewed approaches on the topic, there are not so much major theoretical innovations as developments relating to the dynamics of political representation itself in the contemporary era. It is important to realize that much of the analysis of political representation has been couched in very general terms and that the field itself suffers from a lack of serious comparative work. In this respect, more inductive explorations are needed into the perceptions of representation (too often reduced to mere constructivist mechanisms), the concrete logics of accountability, and the “theatrical” dimension of the relationship—in all of which there has been underinvestment by political scientists.

Keywords: political philosophy, legislative studies, political sociology, postmodern approaches, comparative politics


On average, half a dozen books and numerous articles are published each year on the topic of political representation. There is thus no doubt as to the unabated interest it continues to elicit in academic circles. Yet, the literature on representation has split into distinct research traditions which have tended to carry on down their own path and remain largely oblivious of each other. Broadly speaking, however, it can be assumed that three strands predominate.

The first one is normative in nature. Mainstream writings of this kind have dealt with a set of moral considerations on representation that belong more properly to the realm of political philosophy. Although it endlessly revisits the same debates, this abstract and heavily value-laden literature has been able to recycle itself effectively. The second strand, whose origins lie in the rise of behavioralism, has brought about an empirical reaction which aims to examine the attitudes of political representatives within a positivist epistemological framework. Nowadays, this trend focuses mainly on legislative studies and emphasizes roles and institutions. In the third strand, the topic has also been tackled from a more sociological perspective, concerned above all else with questions of representativeness and constructivism.

Accordingly, this review will begin by providing an overview of these three main traditions before discussing recent evolutions in the literature. It shall be argued that, despite claims by some analysts to having renewed approaches to the topic, they represent not so much major theoretical innovations as developments relating to the dynamics of political representation itself in the contemporary era. Finally, new directions will be set out in a third section.

Research Traditions

The Primacy of Normative Writings

It has frequently been pointed out—and rightly so—that among all the key topics addressed by political analysts, representation is probably one of the most contentious. More often than not, it ends up unveiling the ideological convictions of the researchers that engage with it. Indeed, for many what is at stake is not so much the study of the workings of representation as the expression of normative views on the standards it should conform to—when they do not believe that the whole process should be repudiated altogether.

Reflections of this kind are usually based on a retrospectively oriented history of ideas that is only more or less conscious of contextual disparities. In this respect, we find that for a few specialists scrutinizing the arguments of key thinkers of the past is an end in itself1 and that for numerous others the goal consists in exploring the roots of political representation from a teleological perspective. However, attempts to revisit old practices and understandings of the concept in light of contemporary ideals are not without danger. It is crucial to remember that strong discontinuities exist between one period and the next, and that a vision in terms of “progressive steps” runs the risk of simplifying things and presenting them in an anachronistic fashion.2

The critical issue has been that of the (in)compatibility of representation with a genuine democracy. The preeminent contributors of past centuries usually considered political representation either as a problem or as a solution. At one extreme, we find those (principally Rousseau) who could not help but consider it as a form of betrayal. More common were those who, while not completely opposed to the idea of political representation, remained suspicious of it, nonetheless, on the grounds of what they perceived to be inherent flaws in the notion. Among these authors, some called for continual vigilance on the part of citizenry, while the more elitist-minded questioned the populace’s ability to designate as their representatives anyone other than second-rate individuals incapable of transcending local or sectional interests. In the other camp stand those who strongly defended the process of representation, or at least advocated it for pragmatic reasons. Historically, Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan notably made it the basis of a modern form of politics which sets the guarantee of stability and order as the ultimate goal. Within the context of the French Revolution, Sieyès famously declared that “Before the representative system, there was nothing but usurpation,” and that it was the political will of the nation that made representation legitimate.

The most familiar argument in favor of representation lies of course in the impracticability of direct democracy in modern states, which are too large to act collectively except through representatives. This does not necessarily translate into enthusiastic support for representative democracy but, for many authors, it constitutes the best available option. Here, the question of the relative autonomy of the representatives frequently takes on a central importance. Edmund Burke notoriously defended the idea that representatives of a higher caliber than those they represented would be better placed to judge what was in the public weal. Likewise, some of the American Federalists considered that representative democracy was superior to direct democracy precisely because it allowed the people to delegate power to persons distinguished enough by their talents to be able to discern the common good of society. On the other hand, we find authors who were mindful of the fact that those entrusted with power might abuse it but who still viewed political representation as unavoidable—under the proviso that citizens should actively keep their representatives’ personal interest in check so that it should not take priority over the interest of the community. Theorists of liberal democracy (notably John Stuart Mill) did not share the homogenizing conception of a “common good” but, in so far as all sorts of opinions were represented, they also believed that political representation provides the foundation for a good system—at least as long as “the tyranny of the majority” (most feared by Alexis de Tocqueville) could be avoided.

It is fascinating to see that the debate on the sovereignty of the people or the terms under which they “mandate” their representatives has never really ended. The enduring longevity of these normative controversies based on the exegesis of classical texts is perfectly embodied in the opposition between two learned volumes published by Bernard Manin (1997) and Nadia Urbinati (2006), which aim respectively to demonstrate the “aristocratic” character of the election of representatives and the democratic nature of political representation. Beyond this type of philosophical dispute, one also observes a tendency within this strand of literature toward the elaboration of more and more radical doctrines of representation. Without making any claim to exhaustiveness, Anne Phillips’s (1995) influential book, which advocates a “politics of presence” as opposed to a mere “politics of ideas,” can be mentioned here. She argues that it is only when people are consistently present in the process of working out alternatives that they acquire any real opportunity to challenge dominant conventions. With regard to the inclusion of previously underrepresented voices, Iris Marion Young (2000) goes one step further by insisting that “oppressed groups” should have guarantees of consultation and even a power of veto over any policy affecting them. The intention would be to work toward an inclusive participatory framework affirming rather than suppressing social differences.

Behavioralist Studies on Political Representatives

Unlike political philosophers, the researchers who, from the end of the 1950s onward, based their work on representation on field investigations did not consider classical thought on the subject to be in any way central to theorization. Quite the contrary, they considered this heritage an obstacle to “scientific” analysis. At best, the normative assumptions of past authors were taken to be possible options that could be encountered in the real world. In this perspective, for instance, Edmund Burke’s famous notion of “virtual representation,” as opposed to a mandatory interpretation of representation, no longer constitutes an ideological position to argue for or against but simply a potentially observable case for political scientists.

This behavioralist approach has led to more concrete analysis of political representation and was meant to usher in a conceptual revolution. In a seminal 1959 article, inductively based on the study of four state legislatures in the United States, Heinz Eulau and his colleagues introduced a typology of representational roles (from “trustee,” following his own convictions, to “delegate,” bound by instructions, through a “politico” style, which involves both free agency and forms of delegate control, depending on circumstances). Moreover, they insisted on the multiplicity of possible representational foci—which became a standard point of departure for generations of researchers dealing with territorial or group representation. Building on the publication of Hanna Pitkin’s influential book on the concept of representation (1967), this school came to develop pioneering empirical studies on the theme of “responsiveness.” Distinctions were made in this respect between policy (decision making that corresponds to the expectations of a district), service (case work), allocation (“pork-barrel politics” that benefit a whole constituency), and symbolic responsiveness (involving public gestures that create a sense of trust and support).3

From its original groundbreaking reflections on “party voting,” as opposed to the “constituency factor” in relation to roll call behavior, this research tradition has grown both within the field of legislative studies and beyond. It has raised important questions regarding political representation and connected them to many other key objects in political science, from institutions to citizens’ competence and participation.4

The Political Sociology Tradition

A third major line of research has focused on the profile of representatives, their social background and resources. Originally, the main goal of this approach was to produce detailed sociographic studies of Members of Parliament in the hope of better identifying logics of recruitment and career, but also—especially within the critical vein of this tradition in Europe—to underline the existing gap between the general characteristics of politicians (upper-class, white, male, elderly) and those of the population at large. This has notably encouraged researchers to produce works dealing with the sensitive question of representativeness (or the lack thereof) and to highlight “descriptive representation strategies” that entail the increased inclusion of younger people, women as well as representatives from ethnic minorities.

Other recurring themes lie at the core of this type of research. In a Weberian perspective, attention has been paid to issues of professionalization and legitimation.5 This literature sometimes uncovers very concrete mechanisms pertaining, for instance, to the use of assistants (in assemblies and in constituencies) or time management and prioritization of particular concrete activities. Significantly, the social positions of representatives and their respective resources (what Bourdieusian scholars would call the “volume” of economic, social, cultural, symbolic, and political “capital”) always retain a central importance, whether one is considering relations between better and less-endowed politicians or their interactions with nonprofessionals.

Despite their claims to scientific detachment, political sociologists often veer into normative territory, especially when dealing with vexed issues such as political actors representing dominant interests or defending these interests under the guise of objectivity. The same can be said to a lesser extent for research in the field of historical sociology, where certain revolutionary episodes (for instance, 1848 in France or elsewhere in continental Europe) seem to hold a power of fascination over some students of representation.

Several other approaches could have been mentioned here, of course: such as rational-choice theory, whose proponents tend to see representation mainly from the angle of political calculus in line with the evolutions of public opinion.6 Some authors would also revisit this type of relationship from a principal-agent perspective. The idea is that the “principal” (usually the voters) delegate authority to agents (a leader, a political party). Emphasis is interestingly laid on potentially conflicting goals and interests but also on information asymmetries between the two types of presumably rational actors.

Current Evolutions

Many of the publications that have come out in recent years can be placed within the framework of the three main research traditions identified above. There are, however, an increasing number of studies which combine empirical and normative ambitions.

With regard to the philosophical tradition, two developments deserve particular mention, both of which have to do with the integration of interests that have never been represented. The first concerns nonhuman species. The natural world (wild animals, trees) is increasingly perceived as a nonpassive set of biological entities deserving of our attention and respect. The challenge for environmental philosophers, and all the more so for green theorists advocating “deep ecological” perspectives, is to elaborate a nonanthropocentric vision of political representation. This involves the deconstruction of narrow-minded modes of thinking and the production of counternarratives, whereby the Earth is no longer considered merely as a passive surrounding but as a key “actor” that emits signals transcending borders and state interests (global warming, ecological disasters). The second development is related to the construction of a new conception of democracy which introduces the interests of the coming generations into the equation. At the beginning of the 21st century, it seems that a growing number of thinkers acknowledge the fact that many of the decisions taken today have significant implications for future citizens. For instance, the rise of public debt is due to weigh considerably on those who will follow us. Again, this seriously complicates the debate on the nature of political representation because it is dealing with yet-to-be-born human beings. What are contested in both cases are the short-term horizon of electoral politics and the restrictive character of ordinary conceptions of accountability.7 These two examples provide a good illustration of the normative approach’s essential concern for continually extending the logics and scope of political representation and of how, in doing so, it raises what are undeniably new and fundamental questions.

The vitality of the behavioralist tradition focusing on legislative studies is equally obvious. This vitality can be seen for instance in the collective volume recently published on members of 37 statewide and substate parliaments in Europe and Israel (Deschouwer & Depauw, 2014). A large-scale yet very coherent enterprise, which involved researchers working in no fewer than 14 different languages, this volume gives a comprehensive picture of the state of the art in political representation analysis according to this vein. The various chapters dealing with representational roles, the representation of older and newer groups, constituency orientations, careers, relations to the media, and so forth—from a top-down perspective—all draw on hypotheses based on a sound knowledge of both the pioneering theoretical formulations and more recent refinements. Even if the limits of the quantitative survey methodology used are obvious, if one could have hoped for more comparative insights, and if some of the book’s main conclusions may fail to sway most readers (notably regarding the durable influence of institutions and political parties), this imposing piece of teamwork should be consulted by whoever is looking for an updated compendium on the various facets of the question. Another example, taken this time from North America and from a bottom-up perspective, is the monograph published by Robin M. Lauermann (2014) summarizing findings on the evaluation of representatives by citizens. This book also revisits the important theme of responsiveness alluded to above and insists interestingly on the symbolic dimension, which has too often been neglected by the topical literature.

The political sociology tradition is far from waning either. However, an increasingly pessimistic tone can be observed here. The unbalanced aspects of political representation have been commonly exposed by critical sociology for years, but recent studies of this kind tend to adopt a skeptical stance that also encompasses what had hitherto been viewed as possible alternatives to traditional forms of representation, such as “deliberative democracy.” Even the central issue of the so-called crisis of representation can thus be interpreted as an instrumental used by political actors to achieve relegitimation.8 In fact, what is most remarkable about this corner of the literature is the widening gap between those analysts who still emphasize the importance of traditional social logics (in particular, class) and those who are more interested in new identities, cultural minorities, and marginalized groups.9

An important volume which tries to depart from socio-economic determination (among other things) is the one coedited by Peter A. Hall and colleagues (2014). Starting from the acknowledgment that increasingly multiple identities and cross-cutting interests are not simply given by deep structural forces, the contributors to this collective work seek to argue that the representation of interests has become a purely political process which involves phases of identification, mobilization, and adjudication (to refer to the subtitle of the book). Far from being mere conveyor belts transmitting the demands of preexisting groups with well-defined interests, contemporary political actors are presented as playing an essential role in the construction of perceptions. Furthermore, the mechanisms of representation are depicted as inherently fluctuating, uncertain, and often dependent on phases of mobilization. When globalization is taken into consideration (with notably new transnational modes of representation), the whole practice becomes even more complex, breaking with customary visions adapted to national state institutions. Political representation could henceforth be characterized by a relative “fluidity”—which is known to be a key word for analysts of postmodernity.

It is striking to note how substantial a part of the literature has moved in that direction. On the other hand (and this is probably also quite symptomatic of the present era), authors from this current frequently reach opposing conclusions. Some go as far as arguing that individualistic postmodernity implies a complete denial of political representation. In this respect, the degree of confusion affecting collective identities and the increasing loss of clear rallying points would render any form of representation obsolete. This argument may be related to a broader discourse advocating direct democracy, which is now perceived as a less unrealistic option—at least at the local level—thanks to developments in information and communication technology. For others, however, what is outdated is not political representation in itself but conventional representative institutions. On this account, Michael Saward’s (2010) reflections on “representative claims” deserve to be mentioned. His main thesis is that representation constitutes a dynamic process of claim making and not just a static product of electoral politics within territorial constituencies. Traditional assemblies and political parties may still prove important but they do not exhaust the manifestations of representation. The originality of this type of approach lies in the attempt it makes to move away from deeply wary attitudes toward representatives in general—systematically suspected of confiscating the relationship to their own advantage. Instead the picture here is of a multifaceted creative phenomenon which remains crucial and inescapable when it comes to giving voice to previously unheard populations.

That being said, as far as the contemporary literature on political representation is concerned, it is important to underline the increasing number of theoretical works that defy classification schemes. Some works which draw on serious empirical or historical research (see e.g., Rosanvallon, 2008) seem conducive to innovative and sophisticated conceptualization but aim chiefly to debate political representation at a more normative level. A good illustration of this kind of hybrid genre is Jane Mansbridge’s (2003) attempt to generate a new model of interpretation in an effort to better grasp the realities of representation in present-day democracies (involving forms respectively called: anticipatory, gyroscopic, and surrogate) while retaining a primary interest in normative matters. An increasing number of publications tend to question no less than the future of representative democracy (Alonso, Keane, & Merkel, 2011), sometimes raising serious doubts about the durability of this type of arrangement while insisting on the emergence of new forms of “nonmediated” politics (Tormey, 2015) or at least on the necessity to improve the current systems of representation (Dovi, 2012).

New Avenues of Research

It is probably not unfair to say that if some authors claim to have made serious progress in the analysis of political representation (hence the use in article titles of ambitious words such as “rethinking,” “reconsidered,” “repenser,” and so on), what is found overall has less to do with incontestable theoretical advances than developments that relate to transformations currently affecting the process itself.

What follows should not be taken as authoritative advice promising to take us beyond the usual debates but merely as recommendations regarding the avenues from which fruitful research on political representation might proceed. A broad remark must be made from the outset, namely that much of the analysis provided by students of political representation is couched in very general terms. Research here suffers from a serious lack of comparative insight.

In order to illustrate this problem and possible ways in which it can be addressed, discussion is structured around three (interlinked) facets of political representation: socio-cultural representations, the representation of interests, and theatrical representations. The polysemic nature of the term “representation” is well recognized and it is clear that in English (as in French, but not necessarily in all languages) it may refer to perceptions and conceptions, to mechanisms of delegation and management of interests, as well as performances.10 Connecting these three meanings is the process through which something that is not present in any real physical sense is made so through the action of an intermediary (e.g., an image, a spokesperson, or an actor). What has kept analysts fascinated for generations is the symbolic relationship, and the gap it entails, between what is represented and what represents. This polysemy is sometimes viewed as a problem by political scientists who justifiably fear that a seemingly solid notion may disappear behind uncontrolled shifts in meaning. Nonetheless, it can be argued that the very nature of this type of political relationship depends on how it is perceived by both the representatives and the represented. It is also the outcome of the way in which representatives defend the interest of the represented, as well as the way in which they present and legitimize their role. Many examples could be adduced here to illustrate how these three aspects blend together in practice.11

Representation is a political process common to most polities, but the variety of guises under which it appears has been underestimated. Developing a comparative analytical scheme liable to capture this process in its diverse realities requires, first of all, that due attention be paid to the representations of representation so to speak. Second, it implies that a fresh look be cast at the questions of delegation and representation of interest, in a way that takes better account of concrete logics of accountability. And third, this endeavor should give full consideration to the theatrical side of representation, in which political scientists have underinvested. We are now going to consider these three dimensions in turn.

Representations of the Relation of Political Representation

It is only recently that the importance of actual perceptions in the relation between representative and represented has been duly recognized.12 Indeed, for the longest time the perceptual aspects of representation were deemed at best secondary, at worst trivial, compared to its normative content. However, even present-day studies tend to misunderstand the issue and take a simple “constructivist” approach to the complex question of what makes sense to both the representatives and the represented. In doing so, these studies focus selectively on the “constitutive” dimension of representation. Politicians and political organizations are key actors in this perspective, capable of shaping public representations of constituencies, of the group they claim to speak for, and of course themselves. The central idea here is that representatives construct the perception of the represented to some degree, through images and verbal communication. Pierre Bourdieu (1984) sums this position up when he says that it is the spokesperson who creates the group, rather than the other way round, in a process of symbolic takeover that he calls “le coup de force symbolique de la représentation” and which is, in and of itself, a specific mode of domination. There is much truth to be uncovered following this path and, in many cases, the very claim to being a representative can affect the nature of the grouping for which one purports to act. Yet, an equal danger lies in overstating this argument and taking it as a general rule. Indeed, it is also true that in many settings the representatives themselves act under severe constraints and are expected to reproduce the socio-cultural representations of the people for which they stand. More so, it can often be said that it is only at this condition that they are empowered to act on behalf of those they represent. It is important to realize that communities or identities, as well as portrayals of “the others,” frequently exist prior to their evocation or constitution in politics. This is why it is crucial to take local meanings into account.

An important new direction for research consists in exploring top-down and bottom-up perceptions from a nondeductive angle. Doing so requires first of all that we do not become entrapped by rigid lines of a priori reasoning and avoid reducing complex perceptual dimensions to simple structural determinants. As is often the case with the three main traditions mentioned above, reduction usually operates in favor of normative doctrines, societally centered logics (in terms of dominant representations versus new emergent social understandings), or political logics (relating to the influence of institutions, political parties, and possibly phases of mobilization). It may apply to contemporary politics as well as to past settings and non-Western polities. In this respect, studies of the way in which the relation of representation was perceived in the past have remained too closely dependent on the history of political ideas, at the risk of falling into pure nominalism. For instance, the fact that certain cultures never developed a conception of representation (as is well known regarding Ancient Greece) does not mean that the mechanisms of delegation they established should be neglected. On the other hand, it is essential not to give in to ethnocentric bias. Similarly, it is important not to adhere systematically either to constructionist views, according to which political actors have a quasi-unlimited ability to manipulate their environment, or to a rational-choice perspective, according to which they seamlessly track changes in public preferences and flexibly respond to them. The empirical analysis of these modes of perceiving the relation of political representation has been plagued by dogmatic one-sidedness. It is high time to move forward toward alternative approaches that are more open and attentive to disparities.

Representation of Interests

The issue of the representation of interests—or, from a bottom-up perspective, that of delegation—also suffers from reductionism, and the usual flaws of deductive analysis can be detected in the manner in which traditional theories have treated the subject. In this regard, a perfect illustration of this problem in the persistent distinction between the “mandate model” and “trusteeship.” The danger here lies in systematically equating the relation of representation to either (1) an ideal model, according to which the represented should by definition remain ultimate arbiters, or (2) an elitist (and supposedly more realistic) vision, whereby, as a rule, the represented never have any real power of control over the actions of their political representatives. In both cases, we are dealing with approaches that are respectable per se and can find empirical applications, but which assume that political representation is a unitary phenomenon.

Going beyond these abstract and universalizing scenarios, it is necessary to realize to what extent the logics guiding the representation of interests can differ. A properly comparative framework would be better equipped in this respect to uncover the degree to which political representation can be institutionalized or durably informal, the different types of links it might entail, or the various forms of accountability it may involve.13 The dynamic aspects of political representation raise further questions which could also benefit from a comparative treatment. For instance, in the early 21st century, the political landscape is currently being reshaped by trends such as the decline of parties as key actors of representation, the rise of representative claims emanating from civil society, and the balkanization of identities and interests. The traditional figure of the professional politician was of someone whose membership of a party and efforts to secure position within representative institutions were rooted in territorial constituencies. This figure, which superseded that of the “notable” at the end of the 19th century in many Western countries, was weakening. New types of professional representatives and forms of representation (which involve participatory and deliberative instruments as well as novel forms of communication) have appeared that challenge this model and stretch its capacity to adapt. The broad question left to be addressed is how to interpret the emerging configuration. Does it spell the end of political elites as such, or should it rather be thought of in terms of transformation and dispersal? Whatever the case, even the proponents of these innovative forms of representation often acknowledge that the representation of interests by personal intermediaries remains essential. Being represented has both advantages and disadvantages. It might imply that the represented group become a monolithic bloc. However, by being closely identified with one or several spokespersons, the represented are likely to gain a public face and voice.

From the point of view of political science, the most salient issue involved here concerns the process of legitimation—that is, the concrete ways in which political representatives acquire legitimacy. Priority should therefore be given to studying how competition for the claim to speak on behalf of a group actually works in relation to the question of perceptions mentioned above, not to endless debates on the normative status of legitimacy and representativeness. How this work can be conducted in light of the important theatrical dimensions of representation is worth considering.

Theatrical Representation

To the extent that the literature does take account of the performative (here in the sense of “staged”) side of representation at all, it is solely to underline the symbolic aspects of domination. A number of scholars from various disciplines have thus interpreted political rituals or modern communication strategies in terms of “theatrocracy”; that is, as an activity whose purpose is to generate visibility and deference.14 There is undeniably some truth to this view. Yet, these matters cannot be reduced to the production of dramatic effects intended to constitute or reaffirm hierarchical relations. Some anthropologists and historians have questioned the ready-made thinking which tends to prevail in this regard by raising the issue of the intelligibility of rituals and emphasizing the limitations of political symbolism.

The study of political representation immediately gains in substance when it is taken from the more concrete angle of representatives and the way they project image. With this added substance, it also brings into light the full extent of cultural disparities. Comparative analysis of the manner in which political actors reconcile the opposing imperatives of eminence and nearness provides a good example of this. Thus, while it is essential to advertise one’s powers of patronage in order to attract followers in a sub-Saharan country such as Nigeria, the opposite holds true, for instance, in Scandinavian countries, where political representatives come under considerable pressure not to distinguish themselves from the average citizen. In the Nigerian case, political representatives stake much of their credibility on the ability to signal their powers of accumulation and dispensation of resources to potential followers. The ensuing symbolic competition creates a dynamic of display that may reach incredible heights of ostentation. Remarkably enough, that same process of comparison often draws in the represented themselves, who come to identify vicariously with the prestige goods enjoyed by their representatives. Conversely, in a Scandinavian context, the display of superiority can equate to political suicide. Here, the norm consists in what can be called “conspicuous modesty” and the flaunting of previous success is generally considered absurd or inappropriate. In between these extremes, we find an entire spectrum of more ambiguous situations where political actors waver between contradicting codes. French political elites, for instance, are often torn between a sense of what can be thought of as “majesty” and the need for “proximity.” In the French case at least, history may help shed light on the nature of the dilemma, as the egalitarian ethos inherited from the Revolutionary periods never fully eliminated a preexisting aristocratic culture. The enduring result is that, in French political life, success is often dependent on the ability to play on both registers.15

Behind the evidence of cultural disparities on this question is a glimpse of the highly contrasted systems of meaning within which the actors operate. If a conspicuous public aura of modesty constitutes a desirable trait in Nordic political life, cultivating such an image would be virtually unthinkable in many African contexts. In an intermediary situation such as France, fulfilling the duties of representation may demand both proof of and transcendence of proximity. These empirically observed differences are essential. It would be wrong to assume that they can be easily reduced to a matter of detail or explained away by structural variables and broad teleological processes (e.g., interpretations in terms of democratization).

For all the efforts of a handful of pioneering scholars, the study of the theatrical facet of political representation is still in its infancy. It is hoped that future field research will contribute to a better understanding of this important aspect—not only from the angle of political communication strategies, but also in terms of the constraints that weigh on representatives who aim to embody certain groups and their conventions.


The somewhat paradoxical conclusion is that, despite the great quantity of distinguished scholarship on the topic, the study of representation still suffers from awkward tendencies toward reductionism. These complex political relationships should be approached with less preconceived ideas and thought of as concrete realities that do not have to be instantly brought into line with allegedly ubiquitous explanatory schemes, of whatever kind they may be. This implies for instance that political actors be taken both as makers and recipients of representations which affect their relation to the represented, and that various different logics of accountability can prevail. In this perspective, what are needed more than ever are inductive and comparative explorations.


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(1.) See, for instance, Jaume (2014).

(2.) See, e.g., Seitz (1995), Ankersmit (2002), and Brito Vieira and Runciman (2008). For instance, the English revolutions of the 17th century and the American and French revolutions in the following one—generally viewed as founding moments in the history of political representation—involved challenges, as well as priorities and solutions, of a rather different nature (such as guaranteeing civil peace, organizing a balanced federal system, and liquidating the legacy of absolute monarchy).

(3.) The volume edited by Eulau and Wahlke (1978) provides the clearest introduction to this literature. It contains many classical articles which, taken together, give a good overall picture of the evolution of perspectives within this school of thought.

(4.) Leading for instance to neo-institutional perspectives (see notably Searing, 1994, on roles and rationality).

(5.) Sometimes in a comparative way and from a longue durée perspective (see Best & Cotta, 2000, on European cases).

(6.) See, e.g., Andeweg (2003).

(7.) Here, the seminal contribution is Dobson (1996). Incidentally, Pitkin in her famous philosophical book on this concept had already mentioned the question of the representation of “generations yet unborn” (1967, p. 128).

(8.) See several contributions and numerous references on this subject in the book edited by Mazeaud (2014), which is worth reading despite a certain lack of polish.

(9.) For instance, while some authors gladly underline that there are more women within “Western” assemblies, orthodox political sociologists would focus instead on the fact that the latter usually belong to the upper spheres whereas the working-class population remains constantly underrepresented.

(10.) Let it be said as an aside that quite a few analysts of representation have offered typologies of the concept, which tend to vary greatly.

(11.) For instance, when a leftist MP appears in the French Parliament purposely wearing a red tie and a red jacket, it is clear how the three dimensions are combined.

(12.) A small number of important works based on participant observation have had a pioneering role here. See notably Fenno (2003). One could also mention ethnological studies of the American Congress, the European Parliament, the French National Assembly, and the House of Lords and the House of Commons in London. Anthropologists, however, tend to produce mainly postmodernist studies which aim to deconstruct dominant representations, often under the heading of “Politics of Representation.”

(13.) The question of accountability as it relates to political representation is usually tackled in very abstract terms (Przeworski, Stokes, & Manin, 1999). See, however, Stokes’s contribution in this volume. See also Guillermo O’Donnell’s (1994) relevant perspectives on newly installed democracies in South America and beyond not really moving toward representative systems but rather toward what the author calls a “delegative democracy,” according to which the elected ruler makes decisions as s/he sees fit in the name of the national interest.

(14.) See, for instance, Marin (2002) on “the representation of power” and “the power of representation.”

(15.) See Daloz (2013, pp. 51–66) for an analytical synthesis and references to field research on these case studies.