Essay: The importance of descriptive representation in regards to minorities

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  • The importance of descriptive representation in regards to minorities
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The importance of descriptive representation in regards to minorities has been the subject of many debates in the past. As countries become more and more divers, they are looking for better understanding on descriptive representation and the driving force in regards to the minorities within their nation state. There isn’t enough research on the subject, with our world becoming more diverse by the second it is important to understand what elected representatives will represent the interest of their race, socioeconomic group, geographic area of birth or if there is other and other possible factors at play in determining descriptive representation and people’s perception towards. In this critical review, the purpose is to examine and compare two critically acclaimed studies. The first is a normative study done by Jane Mansbridge in 1999, Harvard University: “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent “Yes.”” The findings of Mansbridge’s article, in sum, suggest that the benefits of descriptive representation should exceed the costs, it is not always needed, and it should be applied in an environment easy to change, fluid and dynamic in nature. The second text is an empirical examination done in 2003 by Adrian Pantoja and Gary Segura: “Does ethnicity matter? Descriptive representation in legislatures and political alienation among Latinos”, which looks at the political empowerment thesis, and at descriptive representation and its effects on levels of political alienation among Latinos in California. In line with those findings are those of Pantoja and Segura conclude that “descriptive representation alone is not a panacea for creating politically engaged persons among Latinos” (p. 441).
Before comparing the two texts, it is important to look at the context first. Mansbridge (1999) acknowledges that there is a knowledge gap about the dichotomous approach of descriptive representation. The research question she uses reads “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women?” (Mansbridge, 1999, p. 628). There is no hypothesis since this text is normative and not explanatory nor with empirical research. Mansbridge uses research done by others to discuss descriptive representation. Her arguments lie for a great deal on the terms deliberative and aggregative functions of democracy (Mansbridge, 1999, p. 634). Mansbridge also acknowledges the criticism of descriptive representation, which mainly focuses on microcosmic and selective representation, the fact that “No one would argue that morons should be represented by morons” (Mansbridge, 1999, p. 629-631), and the problem of essentialism. She finds that there are four situation in which descriptive representation is most desirable. This is when there is either mistrust towards and weak communication with the dominant groups, when the interests are not fully formed yet, when a certain group should not rule according to other groups, or when the de facto legitimacy of polity is low (Mansbridge, 1999, p. 652). Descriptive representation could in these cases lead to better vertical and horizontal communication, improvement of substantive representation, change perspectives and improve the legitimacy of the system. Mansbridge further states that descriptive representation is not always needed, that the benefits should exceed the costs, and that descriptive representation should be fluid, dynamic and easily subjected to change. She suggests that, although there are cases in which descriptive representation is useful, we should still think about the costs which will in the end decide whether it is beneficial to use. Lastly, fluid forms should be used more often to have more representation of minorities.

Pantoja and Segura (2003) aim to fill the knowledge gap about the political alienation among Latinos. They try to find answers by exploring alienation among Latinos on the individual level and in a contextual matter (Pantoja & Segura, 2003, p. 442). They hypothesise that Latinos in legislative bodies will be less likely than other Latinos to experience political alienation, and that alienation will decrease if they are more descriptively represented in legal offices (Pantoja & Segura, 2003, p. 444-445). The text uses an empirical behavioural approach. More specifically, to measure the dependent variable – alienation – they ask the question “Would you say that government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, or that it is run for the benefit of all of the people?” (Pantoja & Segura, 2003, p. 445). To test the independent variable – the impact on Latinos political normlessness of descriptive representation – they use a post-election survey made by the Toma´s Rivera Policy Institute (Pantoja & Segura, 2003, p. 445). Former research used the empowerment thesis saying that the African-Americans feel more estrange than whites, but when they experience more political participation, this feeling decreases and the trust in the political system increases. Pantoja and Segura link descriptive representation and alienation by using this research method on their Latino study. This link can be seen as problematic since there is a problem of overgeneralisation, a problem of essentialism, and the mistake that feeling empowered is the same as being empowered. In the end, they conclude that the empowerment thesis is quite reliable, but that, even though descriptive representation has a “negative, significant, and important effect on political alienation” (Pantoja & Segura, 2003, p. 455), it is not the sole solution for political participation. Furthermore, they found that the demographic, ethnicity-specific and especially political factors have an effect on alienation as well (Pantoja & Segura, 2003, p. 456). Lastly, Pantoja and Segura feel that the data set is not sufficient since it shows that levels of alienation stay the same whether groups are represented or not, and thus their hypotheses cannot be supported. The main implications advise to do further research on the “details and misgivings” (Pantoja & Segura, 2003, p. 457) of this text.

When looking at Mansbridge normative argumentation article about descriptive representation of black woman and Pontoja and Segura behavioral empirical article dealing with the alienation of Latinos in co-ethnic representation of the legislative office, you can find similarities between the two and contrast the broader links that brings them both together. Both articles take a deeper look into descriptive representation of minorities with an underlying implicit question of “what kind of benefits does descriptive representation bring?” Mansbridge normative argument with the support of other scholars compares aggregated and deliberate function of descriptive representation. In comparison to the empirical research of Pontoja and Segura use the “political empowerment approach to explore the effect that descriptive representation in legislatures has on levels of political alienation among Latinos” (Mensbridge, 1999, p.441).

The first connection between the two articles can be found with the idea of essentialism described by Mansbridge (1999) as “the assumption that members of certain groups have an essential identity that all members of that group share and of which no others can partake” (p.637). While not explicitly stated in Pontoja and Sequra article the authors do run into this problem of essentialism, by assuming that all Latinos are the same expecting them to score differently weather or not descriptively represented in legislator, “We would conclude,… that descriptively represented folks do not appear to put appreciably more (or less) stock in the importance of descriptive representation” (Pontoja and Sequra, 2003, p. 454). However throughout the article Does ethnicity matter? Descriptive representation in legislatures and political alienation among Latinos by Pontoja and Sequra they give implicit warnings about essentialism occurring.
Jane Mansbridge (1999) article: Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent “Yes” brings another implication on the study done by Pontoja and Sequra. Mansbrideg warns that descriptive representation is desirable in certain situations. The first of those situations being “communication is impaired, often by distrust” (Mansbridge, 1999, p. 652) compares to Pantoja and Segura article in two ways: first, “normlessness”, the belief that political leaders are corrupt and only serve themselves and their own interest (Pantoja and Segura, 2003), stems from distrust itself in politicians. Secondly, the coast of descriptive representation is “de facto legitimacy is low within a group”(Mansbridge, 1999) condition is also present in the conclusion of Pantoja and Segura article, as their findings support the condition that descriptive representation is a necessary condition for improving the legitimacy of the system in the eyes of the minority citizens.

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