Worlds Apart? Political Theorists, Parliamentarians and the Meaning of Unequal Representation
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University of Warsaw
Polish Academy of Warsaw
Publication date: 2011-09-27
Polish Sociological Review 2011;175(3):301–314
Although political equality is guaranteed in the Constitutions of modern democracies, few members of disadvantaged groups are parliamentarians. Political theorists, free to imagine varieties of democratic processes, increasingly pay critical attention to this problem and to the idea of representation of social groups by members of these groups, i.e. descriptive representation (DR). Yet, surprisingly few political theorists have asked the parliamentarians themselves how they conceptualize and debate the merits of DR. We use the constructivist approach to explore the meaning of unequal representation by comparing the claims of political theorists to data from a recent survey of Polish parliamentarians.We find that parliamentarians and theorists overlap in many of the basic arguments for and against descriptive representation, but with two major differences. First, parliamentarians embed their arguments in the practicalities of their job to such an extent that it is impossible to meaningfully separate theoretical ideas from their relentlessly practical approach. Second, many parliamentarians have an unyielding faith in existing democratic processes, and believe that the democratic system will, eventually, lead to equal representation. That theorists and parliamentarians inhabit different social worlds is one of the main reasons why so many theoretical ideas on how to improve contemporary democracy are rarely implemented: many of them are simply at odds with the people who are supposed to do it.
The authors thank Kazimierz M. Słomczyński and Colin Odden for their assistance in writing this paper. A version of this paper was presented at the ECPR Standing Group on Politics and Gender Conference January 2011 in Budapest, Hungary; the authors thank the participants of that session, especially Melanie Hughes and Bairavee Balasubramaniam, for their helpful comments.