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Descriptive representation revisited

Anne Phillips, London School of Economics

Tue 13 February 2018

11:00am - 12:00pm

The Dryzek Room, Building 22, University of Canberra


It is now part of the shared assumptions of liberal democracy that representation involves some component of what has come to be known (though it’s not a term I much like) as ‘descriptive’ representation. Politicians, political commentators, and citizens now routinely comment on the gender and ethnic composition of elected assemblies, and take it as self-evident progress when an election generates a higher proportion of women representatives or a more ethnically diverse legislature. The normative arguments are by no means settled, as is evidenced by the slow progress towards anything approaching parity, but my focus in this seminar is more specifically on the challenge posed by the recent rise in populism.  Populism derives its power from a sense of not being represented by a political elite perceived as in some way not ‘of the people’: as metropolitan, intellectual, establishment, etc.  To that extent, it seems to express a feeling of marginality and under-representation of the kind that fuelled claims for descriptive representation, though with an emphasis more on class than gender or racial exclusion. But in invoking ‘the people’, populist movements also typically reject preoccupations with anti-racism, LGBTQ rights, multiculturalism, gender equality , all of which are represented as elite preoccupations, at odds with the concerns of ‘working’ or ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ people. The turn towards populism then seems simultaneously to confirm the importance of descriptive representation and to reject much of its founding principles. The point of the seminar is to think about this.

About the speaker

Anne Phillips is the Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science in the Government Department at the London School of Economics. Her work engages with issues of democracy and representation; equality and difference; feminism and multiculturalism; and the dangers in regarding the body as property. Her publications include The Politics of Presence (1995), Which Equalities Matter? (1999), Multiculturalism without Culture (2007), Our Bodies, Whose Property? (2013), and The Politics of the Human (2015). She also co-edited, with John Dryzek and Bonnie Honig, the 2006 Oxford Handbook of Political Theory. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2003, and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2012, and in 2016 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the PSA.

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