Political Representation

In the EDGE programme important research is carried out on the meaning of good, democratic representation. The research in this work package engages with the so-called ‘constructivist turn’ in contemporary representation theory that conceives of political representation as effectively bound up in constituting the political world. This notion challenges traditional approaches that define the quality of political representation by making reference to a predefined set of interests or citizens’ preferences as evidenced in public opinion polls. The insight that citizens’ preferences and values only gain meaning within representation processes casts suspicion on citizens’ preference satisfaction – elites may just be responding to their proper cues – and calls for new and innovative ways of evaluating the quality, for instance the responsiveness, of representation processes.

Continuing her work on the quality of representation, Eline Severs has set up a collaboration with Suzanne Dovi (School of Government and Public Policy, the University of Arizona) on a special issue that deals with historically marginalised social groups and the conditions that make for good, democratic representation. Their special issue ‘The Good Representative 2.0’ will be published in PS: Political Science and Politics. Severs and Dovi have collected ten theoretical and empirical papers from international experts and are currently exploring outlets for an edited volume based on these contributions. Eline Severs also conducts research on MPs’ conceptions of political representation. A new research project feeds from these findings and seeks to explore citizens’ expectations toward representative democracy. Drawing on focus group methodology, it researches how citizens ‘make sense’ of representative democracy and unpacks the kind of arguments they invoke to challenge or defend political authorities’ right to rule. The ambitions of the project are two-fold: the project, first, sets out to contribute to concept-formation and theory-building on political legitimacy. The project, second, aims to generate a more profound understanding of the underlying causes of declining levels of citizens’ trust in contemporary representative democracies (this project has secured finding from FWO as from 2017).

Several of our scholars have teamed up to study social group representation in theoretically novel and methodologically innovative ways. They build from contemporary innovations within the representation literature (see supra) and present an innovative methodological approach to studying political representation (for instance by using focus group interviews for inductive research on the representation of group issues and interests). Theoretical innovations are also made by reconsidering the kind of actors that are considered conducive to promoting the interests of social groups (for instance conservative representatives and parties in the substantive representation of women). The groups studied are mainly women, ethnic minorities, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender), class and age groups, but the team also extensively engages with and contributes to the scholarship on intersectionality. Intersectionality theory calls for an understanding of groups as formed by the intersection of discriminatory mechanisms such as gender, race/ethnicity, class, age, sexual understanding etc. This evidently challenges the concept and praxis of political group representation (See for more details on these projects also the report on the activities of GE&EG).

Soumia Akachar’s research project ‘From citizen to citizen: a multi-dimensional and cyclical approach to understanding political representation’ (2013-2017) presents an innovative approach to studying political representation. In order to adequately capture the dynamism inherent to what it means to represent others and feel represented by others (and the mutual relations of meaning-making between representative and represented), the project advances a cyclical and multidimensional approach to studying political representation. This approach is not only apt to capture the representation of Muslims in any given country, but is also applicable to the study of different sets of social groups (i.e., LGBTQ communities, low social income classes). This project, more specifically, seeks to capture and explore citizens’ views at different moments in time and using different data-sets. The project begins with a first series of focus groups with Muslim youth in Antwerp through which it seeks to explore their take on politics and their relations with (and evaluations of) those who claim to represent them. This first phase in the data collection and analysis is followed by a documentation stage that seeks to establish, outside of the controlled focus group sessions, which issues and interests are salient for Muslim youth.

The focus groups constitute both the starting and the end point of the process—or better cycle—of representation, and the study thereof. Between these two rounds, the project analyses three important Facebook group discussions, where hundreds of Flemish Muslims “gather” online to discuss political issues. These discussions are being monitored and analyzed in order to develop thick narratives and cross-check online data with the data collected through the focus groups.