Empowerment or Alienation? Descriptive Representation and Ethnic Relations in Bolivia

Dr. Anaïd Flesken
Fritz Thyssen Foundation



Research Questions
What are the consequences of descriptive representation for political support and belonging among the majority and minority populations?

Contribution to International Research
In the past decade, Bolivia has seen drastic changes in the social and political sphere, resulting in, amongst others, the election of Evo Morales as the first indigenous president of the country as well as in a sizeable representation of indigenous Bolivians in parliament. Previous work has examined the political indigenous mobilizations leading to these changes, yet an examination of their consequences for citizen–state and citizen–citizen relations is missing. This is surprising, given that not all observers were wholly optimistic but also concerned that the mobilization of indigenous identities might have heightened ethnic tensions and undermined national unity. This project fills this gap. Informed by hypotheses on descriptive representation from the US American context, it examines whether indigenous descriptive representation in Bolivia has led to the empowerment of indigenous citizens, the alienation of non-indigenous citizens or perhaps improved ethnic relations through the deconstruction of prejudices.

The project departs in several ways from the existing literature on the effects of descriptive representation. First, most studies on descriptive representation are limited to its effects on the marginalized population. This project goes beyond this, also analyzing the reactions of members of the, up to then, more powerful ethnic category. Second, in contrast to many studies on ethnic relations in political science, which are predominantly based on aggregate-level data of behavioral outcomes such as conflict, this project focuses on individual-level data of attitudinal outcomes and is thus able to examine less extreme, and more common, outcomes than violence. Third, virtually the entire empirical literature on the effects of descriptive representation is based on African–American and Latino representation in the US American context and has been applied to only few other Western democracies. The Bolivian context will provide a comparative counterpoint able to test whether the hypotheses and concepts travel. Thus, besides shedding light on recent political and social developments in Bolivia, the project will contribute to the general literature on the effects of descriptive representation by testing hypotheses outside of the context in which they were generated. In doing so, it provides a first step to resolving an ongoing debate on the desirability of ethnic representation and to strengthening policy advice on the design of political institutions.

Research Design and Methods
The project conducts both spatial and temporal comparisons of attitudes among voters in electoral districts according to the ethnicity of their representative, using survey data collected by the Latin American Public Opinion Project shortly following the 2002, 2005, and 2009 Bolivian general elections. While the project focuses on the consequences of the 2005 elections, including all three elections in parts of the analyses brings additional methodological advantages. Not only does it raise the number of instances of descriptive representation and thus allows to draw more general inferences from the data, but it also enables an analysis of temporal dynamics. First, it is possible to consider changes over time. Within-district comparisons of changes in the ethnicity of the representative keep constant the characteristics of the electoral district and thus allow drawing inferences regarding the causal directionof the effect: if attitudes do change after a change in the ethnicity of the representative, descriptive representationis likely to be the cause of political attitudes, rather than vice versa. Second, in addition to considering changes in the independent variable (the ethnicity of the representative), this also enables examining changes in the dependent variable (political support and belonging): by analysing how long a district is being represented by a representative with a respective ethnicity, it will be possible to examine whether, for example, empowerment or threat strengthen or weaken over time.