Workshop Report: Legitimacy and Representation, 26–27 September 2011

Alan Renwick

The latest Reading Politics Workshop took place on 26th and 27th September on the theme of Legitimacy and Representation.  Convened by Professor Catriona McKinnon, the workshop continued Reading’s tradition of pulling together normative theorists and empirical researchers in order to shed new light on core political problems.  The concepts of legitimacy and representation are both used across the subfields of political studies, but rarely do scholars from different subfields have the opportunity to learn from each other.

Our keynote speaker was Professor Andrew Rehfeld from Washington University in St. Louis, who spoke about his ongoing research into the concept of representation.  Andrew is one of the world’s leading scholars on this subject: his latest article in the American Political Science Review has just been published.  He engaged in hearty debate with the Open University’s Michael Saward, also a leading expert, whose book, The Representative Claim, was published by Oxford University Press last year.

Historical perspective was provided by Iain Hampsher-Monk from the University of Exeter, who analysed Burke’s conception of representation.  We then treated legitimacy and representation in each of three areas: international affairs, the European Union, and electoral systems.  Oisín Tansey, from the University of Reading, analysed the declining international legitimacy of authoritarian rule, while Dominik Zaum, also from Reading, considered how the concepts of legitimacy and representation play out in debates about membership of the UN Security Council.  On the subject of the European Union, Christopher Lord from the University of Oslo and Jonathan Golub from Reading both considered the circumstances that might contribute towards the EU’s legitimacy.  In respect of electoral systems, Alan Renwick from Reading analysed how politicians’ ability to reform electoral institutions may be constrained by perceptions of legitimacy, while Sarah Childs from Bristol outlined an agenda for ongoing research on the descriptive and substantive representation of women.

Broad consensus was achieved on the subject of what representation is: all participants were willing to accept Andrew Rehfeld’s notion that representation exists wherever an audience takes someone or something to be a representative of a broader class.  There was greater diversity among participants as to the aspects of representation that most deserve attention.  Iain Hampsher-Monk and Michael Saward focused on the criteria by which audiences identify representatives, particularly on whether these refer to the wishes of the constituencies that are putatively represented.  They contrasted Burke’s notion of ‘virtual representation’ with modern conceptions of democratic representation.  Sarah Childs, meanwhile, focused on debates about what substantive representation might be and how it can be measured.

Much discussion concerned the oft-noted divide between normative conceptions of legitimacy as the right to rule and empirical conceptions of it as the perceived right to rule.  Even within the empirical form, wide variation was found in usage: indicators included EU member states’ willingness to stay in the club, popular support or consent or acquiescence, and the perceptions of external actors.  These approaches differed in terms of whose judgements were considered and what evidence was used to determine what their judgement was.

Turning to the nexus between legitimacy and representation, the discussions emphasized that the connections are less straightforward than has sometimes been supposed.  Given Andrew Rehfeld’s definition of representation, the concepts of both legitimate and illegitimate representation are meaningful – a point that has been obscured in some work influenced by Hanna Pitkin’s Concept of Representation.  Precisely what counts as legitimate representation is a substantive and important question.  Similarly, representation is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for legitimacy in all circumstances.  For example, whether the notion of representation is meaningful at all in debates about Security Council legitimacy is far from clear.

The workshop thus provided all participants with opportunities to think beyond their accustomed boxes and reflect upon possibly unrecognized assumptions.  Theorists were able to consider how their conceptualizations apply in unfamiliar contexts.  Empiricists were asked to re-evaluate the coherence of their conceptual underpinnings.  The value of such informal workshops was once more reaffirmed.

Note that this post is a personal recollection of the workshop discussions.  Please refer to the participants’ own publications for authoritative accounts of their thinking.