Political Behavior

, Volume 39, Issue 1, pp 31–50 | Cite as

The Symbolic Benefits of Descriptive and Substantive Representation

Original Paper


One of the major challenges in providing quality representation comes from the desire to balance the will of the majority with the needs of political minorities. Of particular importance is whether substantive or descriptive representation are necessary to create symbolic representation and perceptions that government outcomes are fair and legitimate. In this paper, we employ a novel experimental design to investigate how citizens feel about the relative importance of descriptive and substantive representation. Drawing on data from a nationally representative sample and two supplemental experiments, we show that citizens value descriptive representation independently of substantive representation. We also demonstrate that the degree of descriptive representation desired is conditional on the nature of the policy being considered.


Representation Race Legitimacy 



The authors would like to thank Bill Bianco, Eileen Braman, Christopher DeSante, Bernard Fraga, Brian Gaines, Jim Kuklinski, Jeff Mondak, Diana Z. O’Brien, and Cara Wong for guidance and feedback on earlier drafts. We would also like to thank attendees at Vanderbilt’s Experimental Methods Speaker Series as well as anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

Supplementary material

11109_2016_9345_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (146 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (pdf 145 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Indiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  2. 2.University of CaliforniaMercedUSA

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