Lesson Plan: Descriptive Representation, Substantive Representation and Gender in the Maine State Legislature

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, learners will have:

  • Examined the difference between descriptive and substantive representation through observation
  • Assembled data from an existing source
  • Operationalized variables for substantive representation of gender in a legislative setting
  • Assessed the contingent proportions of political behavior


Introduction: An Audacious Proposal

A proposal for gender parity in the Canadian parliament, described in the National Post in 2014On September 26, 2014, Canada’s newspaper The National Post described an audacious proposal by former Prime Minister Kim Campbell (Kenez 2014).  Campbell’s idea: to take the Canadian Parliament as it is and divide each seat into two seats: one for a man and one guaranteed to be filled by a woman. Why? Former Prime Minister Campbell says the change will create a more representative system.  “It’s the simplest, least disruptive way,” Campbell explains. “It’s a practice well-known in the Maritimes.  There it was used for the Catholics and Protestants; they used to elect members of each group and it guaranteed equal representation.”

Kim Campbell’s argument can be applied beyond Canada to MaineStateHouseany representative legislature.  In the state capital city where the University of Maine at Augusta is located, we are represented by the Maine State Legislature. Would a division of seats in the Maine State Legislature lead to a better gender representation of Mainers in state government? In order to answer that question, we need to think a little bit more carefully about what representation really is.

This lesson considers two kinds of political representation related to identities like gender, religion, and race: substantive and descriptive representation.  The video you see below presents this lesson in a visual format.  A text alternative also appears below.

Hanna Pitkin and the Concept of Representation

In 1967, political scientist Hanna Pitkin described two kinds of representation in her book The Concept of Representation (Pitkin 1967). The first of these 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 their policy preferences.  A politician substantively represents those who support Policy X when she or he acts to support Policy X.

To make the distinction clearer, imagine an imaginary circumstance, a simplified legislative body in which we have eight blue members and two red members. Here blues would enjoy a descriptive representation of 80%, since 8 out of 10 members are blue in their identity.

A Congress of Ten, with 8 Blues and 2 Reds

But imagine that in this same hypothetical instance, the two reds and eight blues held different kinds of ideas: pro-red policy and pro-blue policy. As depicted in the example below, pro-red policy enjoys a substative representation of 60%.

A Congress of Ten in which Six support Red interests and Four support Blue interests

Now, that’s a hypothetical situation, but we could engage in empirical research to look at real legislative bodies and ask the research question: does descriptive representation leads to substantive representation?  If so, we might generate a research hypothesis that politicians who hold Characteristic X are more likely to support pro-Characteristic-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?

Although this is a question about a hypothesis, my question to you isn’t purely hypothetical. 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 actual data regarding the Maine State Legislature.

Particularly, I’d like you to go to use the tools on this website, Open Maine Politics. This is a freely-available mashup database of Maine state legislative information 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 gender identity or another. In other words, I want you to find a bill that, if passed, leads to the substantive representation of the interests of Mainers who are identified as men, or women (or transgender individuals, to cite an newly emergent gender identity).

An arrow highlighting the search box at Open Maine Politics

Once you have made a successful search and identified a bill that you think clearly is related to the interests of some gender identity, I want you to take a close look at the sponsors for that bill. Find out what the gender identity of each of the sponsors is, and then compare that to the identity of status of 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 gender of those legislators who support the bill that you believe promotes the interest of a particular gender interest, and the gender of legislators altogether. 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, and you’ll have to gather data. If you have taken or are taking a course in social research methods, you should be able to accomplish this task: all you have to do is put available pieces of information together in the right way.  If you haven’t taken a course in research methods yet, you may find David Witt’s notes on hypotheses and operationalization to be a helpful guide.

Once you’ve completed your work, don’t keep your findings all to yourself!  Share what you’ve learned with others using the interactive “Padlet” you see below.  Just double-click on the main Padlet area and you may either type in text, add an image or share a document like a spreadsheet or report that contains your data and findings.


Kenez, Hayden. 2014. “Two Paths to Gender Parity in the House.” The National Post September 26: A1.

Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. 1967. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Author Profile

Assistant Professor James Cook

University of Maine at Augusta (Social Science)
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I am an Assistant Professor of Social Science at the University of Maine at Augusta. My areas of interest in teaching include social research methods, social network analysis, and the examination of social facts more broadly. My areas of interest in research include social networks, social media, and social relationships in politics.

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