Good Symbolic Representation

Good Symbolic Representation: The Relevance of Inclusion

by Emanuela LombardoMadrid Complutense University, and Petra MeierUniversity of Antwerp

Defining good representation requires spelling out the normative criteria necessary to count as representative. According to Dovi (2007, 5), good representation must advance the legitimacy of democratic institutions “to resolve conflicts within a pluralist society fairly and peacefully.” This contribution investigates good symbolic representation, a dimension which has often been neglected in representation studies. We argue that the understanding of good representation requires taking symbolic representation into consideration due to its relation to the substantive and descriptive dimensions, and we propose inclusion as our normative criteria of good symbolic representation.

Symbolic representation is traditionally defined as the representation of a principal, a nation for example, through a symbol, such as a flag, that evokes particular meanings and emotions about the nation (Pitkin 1967). Starting from this definition, we take a constructivist approach that reveals how the construction of public symbols makes some people feel included and represented in a political community while others feel excluded (Young 2000). In line with other scholars working on political symbols (Puwar 2004; Rai 2011), we argue that symbolic representation influences how particular social groups are recognized as members of a political community. Consequently, symbolic representation underlines the subtle power dynamics that may affect the other dimensions, namely descriptive and substantive representation. Symbolic representation sets the context of symbols and norms that surrounds a representative’s position and action, influencing her or his legitimacy. Such context articulates power relations that may constrain the representative through the meanings, norms, and emotions that symbols shape and evoke, without these constraints being directly palpable. Symbolic representation should thus be considered when reflecting upon good political representation. We propose that good symbolic representation advances the value of inclusion of non-hegemonic social groups in the symbolic representation of the nation so as to counterbalance the power of the privileged (Dovi 2007).

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PS: Political Science & Politics / Volume 51 / Issue 2 / April 2018