Core Themes

  • 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.

  • Representation by election is the widespread formal pattern of democratic representation. Our research under this heading is very much inspired by the increasing criticism of electoral representation and by the question whether the electoral and partisan representation processes are able to properly catch the varying and changing demands and expectations of divided, multileveled and multicultural societies. There are several projects that are or have been conducted under this general label.

    We concluded and published in 2014 the results of a large comparative survey among MPs in 15 countries and in 73 statewide and substate parliaments, evaluating – among others – the degree to which individual MPs can make individual choices on how to represent the people, or are, to the contrary, very much affected by the institutional environment in which they have to function (like the electoral system or the level of government). Our research confirmed the latter reality was predominant. The data gathered with this international survey have also allowed us to shed light on the variation in representational styles and focus between levels of government, and to get a better understanding of representational roles, of constituency orientation and of the balance between the seeking of partisan or personal votes (see also below).

    The representation of diversity is quite central in our research. We have worked extensively on the electoral mobilization of regional identities, with particular attention to linguistic identities in Belgium. Most work in this respect has been done with survey data, but we have also successfully used mental maps – asking people to draw their country – to evaluate the way in which they perceive the territorial organization of politics. A similar project is now in progress in Cyprus.

    Against the background of increasing criticism of the traditional political parties, we have paid attention to the rise and success of new political parties that try – with varying success – to respond to representational demands left open by the traditional parties. We have been able to show that the mortality rate among new parties is rather high, and that survival chances depend very much on the degree to which new parties can rely on existing organizations.

    We are also analyzing (in a project started in 2015) the way in which voters with Eurosceptic attitudes behave electorally in a country – Belgium – where the Eurosceptic position is not offered by the political parties. While radical left and radical right parties offer Eurosceptic programmes and can attract the votes of the radical electorate, centre voters with Eurosceptic attitudes have no party to vote for.

    An often mentioned indicator of the weakening link between parties and voters is the increasing personalization of politics. It means that voters who search for good representation do so more by voting for candidates rather than for parties. We have several projects that analyze both for Belgium and comparatively the evolution of the alleged personalization of politics.

    The work of Tom Verthé focuses on strategic voting i.e. assessing the degree to which voters choose for the party that truly represents their interests or rather make a strategic choice for a party that has better chances of winning. Strategic voting has in the past mostly been studied in environments that were conducive to (relatively) easy model construction and testing, namely elections with single member districts in plurality voting systems. This means that the large majority of studies on strategic voting have nothing to say on the most common democratic format: multiparty (i.e. more than three) parliaments and coalition governments. Because of the necessity for coalition formation the question of winning and losing has a different meaning for parties and voters and, furthermore, requires more complex strategies than the relatively simple classic wasted-vote logic (abandoning the hopeless preferred party for the second party with better chances). The last few years Tom Verthé has worked on several projects that are related to strategic voting and coalition formation in Belgium, a complex and highly fragmented proportional multiparty system. The overarching research question that ties the three projects together is: to what extent can coalition and threshold insurance voting explain strategic voting in Belgium?

    A first exploration of the complex strategic motives of voters was an analysis of voting motive questions that were part of an Exit Poll that we organized for the 2012 Belgian municipal elections. From this data we learnt that a substantial part of the voting population in fact attributes strategic considerations to their vote choice. Based on this evidence we added a question to the 2014 surveys for the Belgian federal and regional elections in order to investigate the link between voters’ perceptions of parties’ coalition potential (i.e. government viability) and their vote choice. Our analyses showed that there is indeed a significant and substantive positive effect of parties’ perceived government viability on vote choice. A third project used an online experiment in the period leading up to the 2014 Flemish regional elections to investigate the effects of parties behaving as agents who try to (positively) influence their perceived coalition potential by sending coalition signals to voters. The results indicate that these signals have an appeasing effect on voters in their choice between parties they like and therefore increase the rate of sincere voting among their supporters.

  • This broad theme relates to the output-dimension of democratic governance against the backdrop of the increasing pooling of powers at the EU level. Under investigation in this work package are ways in which different values and objectives (environmental, economic, social…) are and can be integrated into policymaking. Empirically, researchers under this theme work on a range of key challenges in modern societies and democracies, including environmental and climate policy, energy policy, migration and integration policy, eGovernment policy, and economic and competition policy.

    Claire Dupont works on the integration of environmental and climate objectives into other sectoral policy areas at the EU level, and the challenges posed to democratic political systems by long-term, cross-sectoral problems, such as climate change. With a focus on the energy sector, she investigates how climate objectives are balanced against energy security and economic concerns in the EU. Claire Dupont has also worked on the implications of long-term political decisions to decarbonise the EU’s economy for both internal policies in the EU and external relations with energy partners. She has also started working on the representation of future generations in political decision making on energy and climate issues, and how or whether the interests of future generations (who cannot vote) can or should be considered when making policy on the choice of energy source and environmental or climate goals.

    Ferran Davesa’s doctoral research analyses the EU’s participatory governance reliance upon Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). The European Commission’s White Paper on Governance (2001) outlined some good governance principles to lead EU rules, processes and behaviour to a path of enhanced legitimacy. These principles are: openness, participation, accountability, coherence and effectiveness. Using both a classical and a computer-based content analysis strategy, Davesa’s research generates empirical insight into the salience of such principles and the framing developed by EU institutions. The research is planned as a case study based on a proposal of enhanced dialogue between citizens and policy-makers: that is EU’s Youth Strategy. By doing that, the research addresses how EU governance relates to European youth after more than ten years since the White Paper was approved. In order to test good governance principles against policy-makers’ views, a set of semi-structured interviews will be conducted in the Council, the Commission and the Parliament during the following stages of the research. Finally, using the settings of the European Youth Event (EYE) and Commission’s Youth Conference, Davesa uses a survey approach for testing youth participants' evaluations against their own expectations.

  • With this theme, research space is created for investigating the consequences of growing interdependence of Europe with other countries and regions worldwide. Both the input and output-dimensions of the external/foreign policies of the EU and its member states are in focus, within an evolving international context. Specific topics of investigation include the underpinnings, performance and democratic legitimacy of external policymaking in international institutions towards partner countries or regions or in international crises, and internal policy diffusion among levels of governance in the EU.

    Many of the research projects already described under the previous themes are closely linked to advancing understanding of democratic and policy processes in the context of multi-level governance. Several researchers work on the EU in an international context, with corresponding analyses of how policies are uploaded to the international level from the EU or downloaded from the international level, and on the quality of the EU’s external policies and policy-making. This work has also been closely related to a focus area on the performance of the EU in international institutions over the past decade, especially at the Institute for European Studies.

    Our research also focuses on the Belgian political system, which is a complex and multi-layered set of institutions that are also embedded into the EU-system. The capacity of decision-making of the complex institutions, the degree of responsiveness in a fully split party system, the relation between territorial identities and voting behavior and the effect of the federal-type structures on policy choices – on migration and integration in particular -  have all been analyzed in the framework of EDGE.

    Serena D’Agostino’s PhD research project investigates the Europeanization of Roma Women Organisations in Central and Eastern European Member States, namely Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Based on a bottom-up research design, this study mainly relies on an inductive and interpretative epistemological approach and applies a qualitative comparative case study methodology. Starting from the investigation of Roma women organisations in the four country case studies, Serena’s research explores the patterns of change that occurred in the Roma women movement in the light of the so-called EU “Eastern Enlargement”. Her study has an important fieldwork component, mainly focused on in-depth, semi-structured interviews with both State and non-State actors. Referring to Roma women organisations as a common denominator, this doctoral research mostly builds on theories of Europeanization, Social Movements and Intersectionality in order to comprehensively identify the interactions between domestic and European patterns. The project contributes to the study of EU enlargement and its implications as well as to the integration of “Romani Studies” in a wider and more multi-disciplinary study framework.

  • This fifth work package cuts across the others. This is actually the place where we try to connect our work on very different specific topics into a broader reflection on the way in which democratic governance functions.

    Very relevant under this heading is the exploration of deliberative forms of democracy, in particular in societies that are divided and where the literature (on consociational democracy) suggests elite-led consensus-seeking rather than public deliberation. As part of an international project on deliberative democracy in divided societies we have conducted deliberative experiments in Belgium and found that deliberation does function well across language groups.

    The most tangible progress made by the team is the book on ‘Mapping the edges of political representation’ that we have been preparing in the past few years and that will be finalized in 2017. This edited book volume aims to map the extent, evolution and limits of the concept of representation in political science.


    The table of contents:

    Mihnea Tanasescu & Claire Dupont: Introduction

    Kris Deschouwer: Electoral representation

    Karen Celis: From Underrepresentation to Ideal Representation. The Feminist Story.

    Sebastian Oberthür: Representation and Accountability of the European Union in Global Governance Institutions

    Eline Severs: Groups in representation theory: should they stay or should they go now?

    Mihnea Tanasescu: Political Representation through the Prism of the Person

    Claire Dupont: Representing future generations (in climate policy)

    Ferran Davesa & Jamal Shahin: Political engagement and the Internet in the European Union: when participation (en)counters representation

    Ilke Adam, Soumia Akachar, Karen Celis, Serena D’Agostino & Eline Severs: ‘Black Pete’ and ‘Fat Maggie’. Cases of contested symbolic representation

    Claire Dupont & Mihnea Tanasescu: Conclusions