New publication: How to measure the substantive representation of traditionally excluded groups in comparative research?

FOTO CREDIT:  RobinOlimb/Getty

How can researchers measure the substantive representation of ethnic minorities and women in comparative studies? Most research studying to what extent representatives and parliaments are considerate of traditionally excluded groups’ political interest focuses on single countries. This makes it difficult to study important questions such as whether or to what extent electoral incentives moderate the motivation of belonging legislators to advocate for their group’s political interests. Or, in which manner women’s or minority organizations outside parliaments promote feminist or minority-friendly legislations. To close these and similar research gaps, it is necessary to compare traditionally excluded groups in different country contexts. In a recent publication in the Journal of Representation, I address some of the methodological challenges that make comparative research in this field such a hard task and present a new data set for ethnic minorities that sets the ground for cross-country comparison. This brief blog contribution ´summarizes some of my main arguments.

Among the various indicators for substantive representation that the broad set of single country studies use are

  • representative claim analysis,
  • self-reported preferences and activities based on surveys,
  • committee membership and positions in committees,
  • the content analyses of parliamentary speeches, questions, and websites,
  • bill sponsorship,
  • voting behavior,
  • laws passed,
  • the size of public spending in certain sectors,
  • or ideological congruence.

Since these measures capture different ways representatives and parliaments might consider the interests of ethnic minorities and women, it requires studying a broad variety of them to gain comprehensive insights into the concept of substantive representation. However, in a comparative research design, not all these indicators can be equally well applied, because their meaning might vary with the country- and group-specific context. By reflecting on the problems of comparability of the set of measures used in single country studies, I aim to increase awareness about the strength and weaknesses of indicators in comparative studies and, in addition, to enable studies making use of different measures to speak to each other more explicitly.

Two attributes determine the comparability of indicators for substantive representation: the level of analysis and the means to identify group interests. Firstly, some indicators relate to the micro level of substantive representation – if they describe individual representatives’ behavior, e.g. the topics of speeches and parliamentary questions – and others to the macro level – if they are concerned with the collective action of all legislators, e.g. in terms of congruence but also policy outputs. Since the efforts of individual MPs to promote group interests are restricted by the institutional, political and cultural opportunity structures, the micro-level is particularly challenging for comparative research, while the macro-level is easier to compare. Secondly, researchers might either presume to know the policy preferences of traditionally excluded groups (e.g. all women favor feminist policies or care about family policies), or identify them empirically on the grounds of population surveys and expert-based information. While the first option provides easily accessible short-cuts to group interests, it risks essentializing group members, in particular in comparative studies. Empirical information about group preferences (e.g. the policy position of citizens of immigrant origin on immigration policies as identified in population surveys) in turn, provides more nuanced pictures of within-group diversity in both single countries and across countries.

To provide researchers with the necessary means to study the quality of ethnic minorities substantive representation from a comparative perspective (in Western developed democracies more specifically), the article further introduces a new data set. It contains three measures: (1) the introduction of new minority rights, (2) policy congruence between minority citizens and parliaments, and (3) membership in minority committees. All of them identify the minority preferences empirically, and ensure equal meaning across different country contexts. Some insights comparatists might gain from using this data have been presented earlier in this blog, answering questions such as whether proportional electoral systems are as favorable for the initiation of minority-supported legislation as we think they are or to what extent growing numbers of representatives of immigrant origin influence policy congruence between parliaments and citizens with immigrant backgrounds.

If you are interested in helping to close the persisting gap in the literature and study ethnic minorities’ substantive representation across countries, you can access all data at Harvard Dataverse. Moreover, fifty free copies of the full paper at the Journal of Representation, are available here! Enjoy reading and researching!

Corinna Kroeber in August 2018



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