The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Science

Authors: Bogdanor
Summary: In just over 1100 words, this entry defines representation, discusses the concept's evolving meaning, and concludes by considering the quality and effectiveness of representation.
The entry defines representation as "the making present again, in some non-literal sense, of some entity, whether personal or abstract." Political representation specifically refers to the decision making process in which small groups of individuals act on behalf of much larger groups--even society as a whole.
The exact meaning ascribed to the term representation has evolved as assumptions about society and politics have shifted, and the entry succinctly introduces a variety of illustrative examples. During medieval times, religious and supernatural beliefs led to a hierarchical system in which individual rights were subordinated to 'estates' or 'orders.' This concept of representation was deeply permeated by a notion of property ownership as well as Burke's idea of the political trustee. The radical ideal of an equal vote for each individual citizen emerged from this background. As a result, the meaning of representation shifted and now refers to delegates directly responsible to their electoral constituencies.
Political scientists differ about the efficacy of contemporary representation. Pluralists believe open competition among organized interests will lead to outcomes in the public interest. Others, however, point to the unavoidable oligarchical tendencies present in such a political system. Increasingly, attention is turning to alternatives for responsive, participatory representation in new contexts like the workplace.