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Foreign Policy Analysis
Substantive and Descriptive Representation in the Maine State Legislature (UMA Research Assignment)

Substantive and Descriptive Representation in the Maine State Legislature (UMA Research Assignment)


On September 26 2014, the National Post (the
national newspaper of Canada) describes a proposal by former Prime Minister Kim Campbell.
The proposal is to take the Canadian Parliament, and every seat in that Parliament divide it
into two seats: one for a man and one guaranteed to be filled by a woman. Why? Former Prime
Minister Campbell says this will end up being a more representative system. This is the Maine State Legislature in the
United States. Would such a change benefit the representation of Mainers in our state
government? In order to answer that question, we need to think a little bit more carefully
about what representation really is. In 1967, political scientist Hanna Pitkin
described two kinds of representation. The first is descriptive representation. Descriptive
representation happens when political leaders resemble the population in identity, in what
they look like or some other characteristic held by them. The second kind of representation
is substantive representation, when political leaders resemble the population in policy,
in what they promote in terms of ideas embodied as laws. Now imagine in this imaginary circumstance
we have eight blues and two reds in a Congress. Well, here blues would enjoy a descriptive
representation of 80%, since 8 out of 10 members are blue in their identity. But imagine that
in this hypothetical instance, the two reds and eight blues held different kinds of ideas:
pro-red policy and pro-blue policy. Here, pro-red policy enjoys a substative representation
of 60%. Now, that’s a hypothetical situation. A research
question would look at the real world and say, does descriptive representation guarantee
substantive representation? If so, the hypothesis would be that people who hold Characteristic
X are more likely to support pro-Charactieristic-X policy. If you were going to carry this research out,
what would your independent variable be? What would your dependent variable be? How would
you operationalize those variables? This isn’t a hypothetical question. I’d like
you to deepen your understanding of substantive representation, descriptive representation,
and how the two of them are related to one another by looking at the Maine State Legislature.
Particularly, I’d like you to go to Open Maine Politics at http://openmepolitics.com. This
is a freely-available mashup database of Maine state legislative for the current Maine State
Legislature. I’d like you to search for some bills on subjects that you believe have to
do with the interests of one sort of identity or another. In other words, I want you to
find a bill that, if passed, leads to substantive representation of Mainers of a particular
kind of identity. Then I want you to look at the sponsors. Find out what the identity
status of each of the sponsors is, and then I would like you to compare that to the descriptive
representation of that identity status among all senators and representatives in the entire
Maine State Legislature. Depending on which status you choose, this could be an easy or
a difficult task, so I encourage you to choose wisely! Compare the two: the status of those
who support the bill that you believe promotes the interest of a particular identity’s interest,
and the identity of legislators all together. That comparison will give you an answer to
our research question. In order to get the answer to that research question, you’ll have
to frame your hypothesis, you’ll have to operationally define an independent variable and a dependent
variable. I know you can do this. You just have to put the pieces of social research
together.

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