Political representation is a crucial concept in political science. In essence, representation entails something or someone (the agent) standing for an absent thing or person (the principal). Political representation thus places an intermediary (agent) between citizens (principals) and political decision-making. These agents are called representatives.
The fact that every society contains different interests and nodes that want to be represented at the government level is clearly part of all democratic processes. Political parties and their parliamentarians and ministers stand for different perspectives on society, and citizens vote for the party or person that best represents their vision. This representation of classic groups and group interests is a familiar notion: liberal parties traditionally appeal more to the liberal professions and the self-employed; socialist parties speak to the working classes; and regional parties address issues that concern specific ethnically, linguistically, or geographically identifiable groups.
The political representation of societal groups that have surfaced more recently is a great deal more problematic. This concerns groups that are distinguished on the basis of gender, age, ethic/cultural background, or sexual orientation. Classic fault lines such as class or education also rear their heads in this regard. Different studies show that these groups are often insufficiently represented in political structures. This political underrepresentation of socially disadvantaged groups is now more and more seen as a societal and political problem undermining the representativeness of political institutions and, by implication, the democratic integrity of the decision-making process. The underrepresentation of societal groups and the lack of representativeness of the political decision-making process can however manifest in different ways. The literature points to the (im)possibility of participating in elections, the physical absence/presence in representative institutions, and the (lack of) substantive representation of certain groups' interests as possible manifestations. These manifestations concern, respectively, the formal, descriptive, and substantive dimensions of representation as a concept.
There has not yet been much research into the political representation of societal groups in Belgium, and the studies that do exist have often been the work of one or a handful of researchers. In the last few years, however, several researchers have started to engage with these matters (or elements thereof). By joining the forces of different researchers in this developing research domain we hope to further build on the scientific research in this field and on the expertise these two partners have accumulated. This would then also solidify and further develop the leading role of both partners in this research domain. By joining their potential, the concerned partners aim to realize three matters in their research:
First, to continue, structurally secure, and, where possible, advance the existing collaboration between their two research groups. Researchers from both partner institutions will, where possible and when opportune, work jointly on journal articles, conference papers, and book chapters. (Further) co-advisorship of PhDs and joint memberships to supervisory research committees will also be sought where possible.
Second, the partners wish use their alliance to initiate new joint research into the political representation of social groups. Joint research proposals will address the following well-known sources of funding: the specific research funds of both their institutions, the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO), the research projects of the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office, as well as ad hoc sources of policy-related funding.
We here envisage research that is more theoretical in nature, but also empirical research in Belgium and, as much as possible, research that takes up an international-comparative perspective. The researchers concerned already have access to existing scientific networks and wish to further develop these to use them for research purposes (e.g. ECPR Standing Groups on Gender & Politics, Committee on Political Sociology of International Political Science Association, ECPR Standing Group on Political Parties).
Third, to realize these research objectives, investments will have to be made to further familiarize the two research groups with each other's expertise. Meetings and discussions will make the partners more familiar with each other's research domains and current research projects. The mutual consultation through these meetings and brainstorm sessions will also result in working out a joint research agenda and concrete initiatives in terms of project proposals. Possible connections to the international research agenda will here too, as noted above, be an important criterion.
The main research themes for this joint research about the representation of social groups are rooted in the three dimensions of representation:
- Formal dimension: this, among other matters, concerns the election regulations and techniques that are used to determine citizens' preferences and to convert those to the appointing of representatives. Relevant themes include the discussion about active and passive voting rights for certain social groups, the extent to which these voting rights are exercised, and the extent to which political parties push forward candidates from these social groups so that voters can express their thoughts on this.
- Descriptive dimension: this takes a closer look at who the representatives are, what their characteristics are, and to what extent they/these mirror the population composition. Research themes here include mapping out underrepresentation, studying the roles of parties and voters in the underrepresentation of certain groups in parliament, and examining the desirability and effects of introducing quota.
- Substantive dimension: This concerns the way the interests of social groups are represented in terms of content. The study of this dimension was long limited to analyses of the ways parliamentarians take up their mandate in terms of content and of the actions representatives take to look after the interests of the people they represent. Recent developments in the literature, however, argue for a broadening of this approach. On the one hand, scholars are suggesting studies look beyond the parliamentary arena and include other actors that take part in substantive representation - this would mean including civil society organisations, civil servants, and the media. On the other hand, some scholars defend the argument that representation need not always be a one-way process that runs from the voter to the representative; representatives can also themselves define interests and constituents that they wish to represent. Research around this dimension quite logically explores both these fields not just by mapping out to what extent (other) actors engage in representation, what the effects of this are, and which factors influence this, but also by studying which new groups are addressed by representatives, how this is done, what effects this has, and how people in these groups deal with this 'reverse' act of representation.