Scholars interested in theorizing about political representation in terms relevant to democratic governance in mid-twentieth century America find themselves in a quandary. We are surrounded by functioning representative institutions, or at least by institutions formally described as representative. Individuals who presumably “represent” other citizens govern some 90 thousand different political units—they sit on school and special district boards, on township and city councils, on county directorates, on state and national assemblies, and so forth. But the flourishing activity of representation has not yet been matched by a sustained effort to explain what makes the representational process tick.
Despite the proliferation of representative governments over the past century, theory about representation has not moved much beyond the eighteenth-century formulation of Edmund Burke. Certainly most empirical research has been cast in the Burkean vocabulary. But in order to think in novel ways about representative government in the twentieth-century, we may have to admit that present conceptions guiding empirical research are obsolete. This in turn means that the spell of Burke's vocabulary over scientific work on representation must be broken.
To look afresh at representation, it is necessary to be sensitive to the unresolved tension between the two main currents of contemporary thinking about representational relationships. On the one hand, representation is treated as a relationship between any one individual, the represented, and another individual, the representative—an inter-individual relationship. On the other hand, representatives are treated as a group, brought together in the assembly, to represent the interest of the community as a whole—an inter-group relationship. Most theoretical formulations since Burke are cast in one or the other of these terms.