Arnesen, S. and Y. Peters (2017) “The Legitimacy of Representation: How Descriptive, Formal, and Responsiveness Representation Affect the Acceptability of Political Decisions”. Comparative Political Studies. DOI: 10.1177/0010414017720702.


In their forthcoming article in Comparative Political Studies, Arnesen and Peters study under which circumstances citizens are most likely to show acceptance for political decisions. Do citizens perceive political actions taken by decision-makers that mirror the populations’ characteristics (e.g. concerning age, gender, or education) as more legitimate than those taken by non-representative expert groups? This research question is grounded in the literature on descriptive representation arguing that, first of all, group members protect the interests of members of the same group most efficiently and, secondly, people tend to feel more appreciated if someone alike participates in decision-making. Competing explanations for the level of perceived legitimacy refer to the expertise of the political actors and the level of policy responsiveness (or rather: getting your way). The authors make use of a survey experiment with more than 3000 Norwegian respondents to test the explanatory power of these rival arguments. Respondents stated their approval for the hypothetical distribution of public funds made by decision-makers that are (i) representative of the population or not, (ii) selected based on elections, expertise, or random choice, given that the decision (iii) does or does not equal the respondents preferred policy outcome. Based on the comparison of the level of approval for the political decision taken in these different settings, we learn that descriptive representation increases the chance that respondents perceive a decision as legitimate.

While an extensive set of research already studied how descriptive representation impacts politicians’ behavior, investigating the other side of the coin – whether citizens value similarity – was about timely. Finding that descriptive representation matters based on a survey experiment conducted in Norway (a homogenous country in which people are least likely to hold strong descriptive ties) stresses the importance of the research topic for all developed democracies and probably beyond. I hope that the authors make use of the data in the future to also study the causal mechanism underlying the relationship between descriptive representation and legitimacy. If descriptive representation only increases the chance to accept political decisions in case citizens get their way, this implies that descriptive representation matters because it appears together with substantial power. By contrast, if descriptive representation enhances legitimacy independent of support for policy outcomes, we could learn that the feeling of appreciation is the crucial determinant for the acceptance of political decisions. Understanding not only that descriptive representation matters, but also why, seems to be the most promising avenue for future research.


Author: Corinna Kroeber in January 2018

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