General Seminar 2019-2020

Is representation outdated?

In representative democracy, the legitimacy to govern is based on the distinction between those who govern and those who are governed and on the sometimes formal monopoly that professionals have on decisions (Manin 1996). However, “representative government” has undergone a major metamorphosis and reconfiguration over the past few decades. It has been widely observed that the growing mistrust of those in power in many democracies has fostered the emergence of a participatory and deliberative imperative (Sintomer and Blondiaux 2002), which re-examines the role of those who govern and those who are governed, and an institutional reformism that promotes opportunities for participation by ordinary citizens (Gourgues 2013; Newton and Geissel 2012; Reuchamps and Suiter 2016; Smith 2009).

Political theorists and actors are collectively reconfiguring the “new democratic common sense” and re-examining the role of deliberation (Dryzek 2000; Elster 1998; Fishkin 2009; Landemore 2017) and the participation of ordinary citizens in decision-making (Fournier et al. 2011; Grönlund, Bächtinger, and Setälä 2014; Norris 2011). The transformations are undoubtedly limited by the views and positions of elected representatives, both judge and jury, who are statutorily attached to political representation. It is evident that the call for participation that has been propagating in multiple arenas for several decades has not rekindled the link between voters and representatives. Despite strong institutionalisation, its impact may appear fragile and disappointing, and citizens and researchers alike remain sceptical of procedures and mechanisms that “create change more than they change the situation”.  The public offer of participation (coming from the political authorities) struggles to match the civil offer (coming from civil society), and criticism of delegation remains fierce in a society of equals.

Representation is therefore frequently perceived as betraying the democratic idea rather than allowing it to be fulfilled, an elitist diversion of popular sovereignty rather than a mechanism through which the democratic will of the people can emerge. The conflict between representation and its alternatives is certainly not new, but this constitutive tension has now entered a phase in which it is particularly acute. It may well be that we are witnessing the emergence of a second generation of participatory mechanisms that link participation and decision-making more closely and move us towards the “directisation” of democracies. For example, we are witnessing the increasing use of and references to drawing lots, both in institutional experiments and in the demands of social movements (Gastil and Wright 2019, Courant, Sintomer, 2019), and the widespread use of referendums in Europe (Morel, Qvortrup, 2018).

The aim of the Émile Durkheim Centre’s general seminar is to question the importance of representation in the conceptions and practices of its actors, both on the side of those who govern and make decisions and on the side of those who are governed (ordinary citizens, social movements, etc.). In their conceptions of democracy, what is the attachment to representation, why is it necessary, what are its justifications? In contemporary practices of participation, is representation outdated, or is participation invariably a continuation of representation through other means? Should we always continue to think of democracy as being based on a distinction between those who govern and those who are governed, or should we think of it in terms of interaction, hybridisation, extension or coordination?


For the 2019/20 academic year, the seminar intends to focus on the political offer before subsequently considering the conceptions and practices of civil society groups and movements (social actors, social movements). The seminar will be based around invitations to researchers whose work lies at the crossroads of political sociology and moral political philosophy and who take a position in favour of procedures for directing democracy. It is also an opportunity at each session to examine procedures that are at the heart of the tension between the demand for sovereignty and the functioning of representation: drawing lots, revocation and referenda. Going beyond these procedures, what role does representation play in the conceptions of democracy defended by these theorists? Could we imagine a democracy without representatives that functions using citizens drawn by lot and referenda?  The aim of the seminar is therefore to open a dialogue between political theory and empirical work on actors’ practices and conceptions with regard to the role of representation in democracy.


Courant, Dimitri, Yves Sintomer, "Le tirage au sort au XXIe siècle. Actualité de l’expérimentation démocratique", Participations, 23(1), 2019, p. 5-32.

Dryzek, John S. 2000. Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations. Oxford University Press.

Elster, Jon. 1998. Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fishkin, James. 2009. When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. OUP Oxford.

Fournier, Patrick, Henk Van Der Kolk, R. Kenneth Carty, André Blais, et Jonathan Rose. 2011. When Citizens Decide: Lessons from Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gastil, John, et Erik Olin Wright. 2019. Legislature by Lot: Transformative Designs for Deliberative Governance. London ; New York: Verso Books.

Gourgues, Guillaume. 2013. Les politiques de démocratie participative. Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble.

Grönlund, Kimmo, André Bächtinger, et Maija Setälä, éd. 2014. Deliberative Mini-Publics: Involving Citizens in the Democratic Process. Colchester: ECPR Press.

Landemore, Hélène. 2017. Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many. Princeton University Press.

Laurence Morel, Matt Qvortrup, 2018, The Routledge Handbook to referendums end direct democracy, Routledge.

Manin, Bernard. 1996. Principes du gouvernement représentatif. Paris: Flammarion.

Newton, Kenneth, et Brigitte Geissel, éd. 2012. Evaluating Democratic Innovations: Curing the Democratic Malaise? London: Routledge.

Norris, Pippa. 2011. Democratic Deficit: Critical Citizens Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reuchamps, Min, et Jane Suiter, éd. 2016. Constitutional Deliberative Democracy in Europe. 1st edition. Colchester, United Kingdom: ECPR Press.

Sintomer, Yves, et Loïc Blondiaux. 2002. "L’impératif délibératif". Politix 15 (57), p. 17‑35.

Smith, Graham. 2009. Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


You can view the programme for the current year here.

Updated on 10/11/2020