Representing Diversity

I’ve recently stumbled on an interesting paper by Bob Goodin from BJPS 2004 (full text in draft form here):

Abstract: ‘Mirror representation’ or a ‘politics of presence’ presupposes relatively modest levels of diversity among those being represented. If the groups to be represented are too numerous, internally too heterogeneous or too cross-cutting, too many representatives will be required for the assembly to remain a deliberative one where ‘presence’ can have the effects its advocates desire. In those circumstances, what is being represented ought be conceptualized as the ‘sheer fact of diversity’ rather than ‘all the particularities of the diversity among us’. The appropriate response to that is legislative reticence.

Goodin starts the paper by affirming the difference between the Federalist and Anti-federalist perspective at the Philadelphia Convention: the Federalists “thought it unnecessary (as well as unwise) for the legislature to mirror the population at large”, whereas the Anti-federalists thought it desirable but ‘wildly impractical’ in so large a union. Goodin cites Hamilton’s rejoinder to the Anti-federalist argument (Federalist 35, para 9):

It is said to be necessary, that all classes of citizens should have some of their own number in the representative body, in order that their feelings and interests may be the better understood and attended to. But we have seen that this will never happen under any arrangement that leaves the votes of the people free. Where this is the case, the representative body, with too few exceptions to have any influence on the spirit of the government, will be composed of landholders, merchants, and men of the learned professions. But where is the danger that the interests and feelings of the different classes of citizens will not be understood or attended to by these three descriptions of men?

According to Goodin, the reason the Anti-federalists did not pursue their argument vigorously was because the resulting legislature would be so large that it would inhibit deliberation. Nevertheless there was a marked difference in desiderata between the two competing factions.

Goodin’s paper goes on to explore the problem of the size of the legislature based on ‘representing with mirrors’. His starting point is Anne Phillips’s Politics of Presence, which is concerned with the representation of particular ‘disadvantaged groups’ such as women and ethnic minorities: given that the composition of legislatures fails to mirror these groups in the electorate, then their interests will fail to be respected (the implicit assumption being that a legislature composed of white males will adequately reflect the interests of all white males). The emphasis on specific ‘disadvantaged groups’ means that Goodin fails to consider sortition as the solution.

I haven’t got round to reading Politics of Presence yet, but notice that Phillips does consider sortition in the introduction. Is she sympathetic to it or is the problem that sortition is not sufficiently radical to meet the agenda of those seeking to improve the lot of whatever disadvantaged group happens to be the focus of activist interest at any particular time (proletarians, women, ethnic minorities, gays/lesbians etc etc)? Can anyone enlighten us further on this?

5 Responses

  1. I haven’t read the Phillips book, but it certainly seems logical that compared to election, sortition would produce legislative bodies that were much less over-representative of *any* advantaged groups, and much less under-representative of any disadvantaged groups. Several commentators at the end of the Callenbach and Phillips book write approvingly of their proposal for exactly this reason.


  2. Yes, but from a activist perspective (such as Anne Phillips), whatever disadvantaged group was flavour of the month would need to be actively gerrymandered in order to promote the policies that they favour. Sortition, by contrast, tends to privilege the Average Joe, and I think this is why those with a radical agenda fail to advocate sortition. I attended a representation workshop in Reading a few months ago where one of the speakers lamented how all-women candidate lists were introducing conservative-minded women MPs who failed to promote “our” values.


  3. I’ll be making a presentation on sortition in Reading soon … Reading, Pennsylvania.
    I’m trying to find in this Equality-by-Lot blog the reference made some time ago to a study — at Oxford, as I recall — indicating that including non-specialists among experts (engineers, was it?) predicted better outcomes than if the experts are left to themselves. Can anyone point me to that study, please?


  4. There have been a number of studies providing this sort of evidence, details in Scott Page, The Difference; James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds; and Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment. All worth reading in full.


  5. Two other angles about diversity and non-expert inclusion…

    Cass Sunstein’s book, “Why Societies Need Dissent” makes some important points about how diversity is helpful for avoiding “group think,” polarization, etc.

    Also, some current research shows how including uninformed members in a group decision process can be beneficial for democratic decision making. See:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: