In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mechanisms of Representation

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Literature Reviews
  • Pluralism

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Political Science Mechanisms of Representation
Will Jennings
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0032


“Mechanisms of representation” relate to the organization of politics and its consequences, and the processes through which interests or preferences are represented in the political system and the outcomes of public policy. This article explores a diverse set of mechanisms through which politics is organized, and through which the preferences or interests of the public, voters, groups, and economic interests are either advanced or obstructed. Traditional approaches of political science often adopted a narrow focus on the formal democratic qualities of elected government and the pluralism of the political system in incorporating different interests or preferences into the decision-making process and policy outcomes. Later waves of research sought to explore bias in mechanisms of representation, such as the disproportionate influence of interest groups in the governmental process and the power of agenda setting in determining which issues make it onto the decision-making table and when. Nevertheless, there continues to be considerable interest in the role of formal political institutions in determining the performance of representative democracy, how political parties act as vehicles for representation, and how elections can provide mandates to governments and enable voters to reward or punish political parties or candidates for the quality of their representation or performance. Indeed, a growing field of enquiry identifies a direct link between the preferences of the public and their representatives, either in the representation of constituency opinion or in the responsiveness of the political system as a whole. Despite this pervasive concern throughout the discipline of political science with the functioning of democratic politics, important changes in modern states, economies, and societies occurring outside elected institutions also shape representation, particularly as executive governance and politics has assumed increasing importance. The conventional understanding of mechanisms of representation is built upon shifting sands, with the emergence of the “regulatory state” and the decline of traditional distributive and command activities of government, and with ever more “networked,” “nonhierarchical,” and “transnational” modes of governing—often by unelected authorities. These changing institutional arrangements also reflect a response to the rise of risk as a focus of organization, as traditional social and economic cleavages are redrawn and reconstructed around questions of risk—often manmade, created through scientific innovation or economic progress. These changes point toward the changing battleground for representation both of public and political interests and the increasing importance of understanding questions of bureaucratic politics and control, transnational regulation, the management of risk, and the preoccupation of officeholders with the avoidance of blame. Mechanisms of representation shed light on all these things and more, encompassing the role of institutions in reflecting public or private interests in the decision-making process.

Introductory Works

“Who gets what, when, and how?” is the classic question posed by Lasswell 1936, which lies at the heart of all modern political science. Mechanisms of representation relate to the organization of politics and its consequences. Whose interests or preferences are represented, and when and how are they represented? The mechanisms of representation are numerous and diverse in their character and implications. Some accounts are rooted in theories of homo economicus, derived from assumptions about vote-seeking politicians and utility-maximizing citizens (see Downs 1957). Others stress the importance of collective action (Olson 1965), and institutions (North 1990 and Ostrom 1990). What unifies this field of enquiry is a concern with the mechanisms through which policy is made and policy outcomes are affected. Policies determine politics, Lowi 1972 argues. That is, particular sorts of policy tools—such as distributive, redistributive, or regulatory mechanisms—tend to be associated with certain configurations and expectations of outcomes, serving as a focal point for the mobilization of political preferences and interests. Distributive policies with few direct losers might be rather more consensual and less debated than those imposing compliance costs on industry or raising taxes, for example. As such, public policies set the parameters in which the conduct of politics takes place. Variation in policy domains leads to varying degrees of conflict and consensus. Policies are the “variable” of interest across a wide range of theoretical perspectives and empirical studies. The mechanisms of representation include, for example, political institutions, elections, parties, interest groups, public opinion, social movements, bureaucracies, judiciaries, legislatures, regulators, media, and technology itself. At the same time, understanding the mechanisms of representation requires us to understand the obstacles to change: the exclusion of certain groups from office or from the decision-making process, the power of the definition of alternatives through agenda setting and the expansion of conflict (Schattschneider 1960), and blame avoidance by officeholders. Further, the organization of politics is constantly testing boundaries and entering new spheres of mobilization, whether it is in the retrenchment of welfare states that followed postwar expansion, the government of risk, or the reshaping of the tools of governance in the digital age.

  • Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.

    Downs’s economic model of political competition is a founding work of rational-choice approaches to understanding democracy, outlining theoretical expectations regarding the spatial, left-right, distribution of voter preferences and the strategic reasons why parties have incentives to converge around the median voter.

  • Lasswell, Harold. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1936.

    One of the founders of modern political science, Harold Lasswell defined the study of politics as “the study of influence and the influential.” His is a broadly elitist conception of politics, but this work presents a framework for starting to unpick the question of who is represented.

  • Lowi, Theodore J. “Four Systems of Policy, Politics, and Choice.” Public Administration Review 32.4 (1972): 298–310.

    DOI: 10.2307/974990

    Building on a classic article published in World Politics in 1964, Lowi formulates a taxonomy for classification of public policy—the means of coercion of government—distinguishing between distributive, regulative, redistributive, and constituent forms of policy.

  • North, Douglass C. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    A seminal contribution for understanding the formation of political and economic institutions, and how these affect economic performance over time. North argues that institutions serve to reduce uncertainties and shape path dependence in economic development.

  • Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

    An economic analysis that highlights the collective action problem for coordination of interest groups, as benefits from lobbying are a public good and there are incentives for participants to free-ride.

  • Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    A major contribution on collective action and institutional design. Considers the collective management of resources, suggesting that such “common pool resources” (CPRs) do not necessarily imply a “tragedy of the commons” and instead highlights the design principles of systems associated with successful management of CPRs.

  • Schattschneider, Elmer E. The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Reinhardt and Winston, 1960.

    One of the seminal works on agenda setting, and politics, more generally. Schattschneider’s ideas still resonate today as a challenge to pluralism and a thesis on the power of agenda setting: “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.”

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