Helena Cook

Department: Politics

Project Summary




Performing Identity: Descriptive and Symbolic Representation in New Zealand and the United Kingdom


Theories of identity and representation are fundamentally intertwined and yet rarely explicitly considered together. Identity shapes the image politicians present to the public, the way they carry out substantive representation, the representative claims they make, and the degree to which they ‘stand’ as descriptive or symbolic representatives for groups of constituents. However there is a need to go beyond the identity labels of descriptive and symbolic representation to investigate the way that identity is constructed, performed, and understood by representatives themselves. This thesis argues that identity is a multi-faceted, socially constructed process that is performed in a strategic fashion by representatives, depending on the intended audience, context and objectives.


Empirically, the study focuses on public and personal performances of identity by representatives in New Zealand and in the United Kingdom. It uses maiden speeches and web biographies, as well as in-depth interview data with political representatives, to map the types of representative claims made by MPs. The variation between discussions of identity and representation that is undertaken in each context highlights the ways that identity construction and performance affect representative roles. Considering both public and personal performances of identity provides the opportunity to compare the contexts of identity-based representative claims, while the two case studies allow for a comparison between ‘representation of the self’ in two Westminster democracies with differing electoral systems and democratic histories.


This thesis argues that political representation may be a chance for MPs to ‘represent the self’ but the self they draw on is intersectional, complex and liable to change with context, audience and objectives. It is conditioned by internal factors such as the complexities around representation of identity, and external factors such as party agendas, methods of [s]election and institutional norms and culture. MPs use identity in a strategic fashion; sometimes drawing on group identification to connect with an audience of voters, and at other times withdrawing completely from performances of collective identity. There is reluctance by MPs to only perform the role of a group representative, and the normative values they ascribe to descriptive and symbolic representation are therefore tempered by a conflicting desire to avoid being labelled on the basis of identity.


Supervisory Team

First Supervisor: Professor Claudio Radaelli

Second Supervisor: Professor Jack Vowles


Wider Research Interests

Political behaviour, ethnicity and race,  political representation, identity politics, minority rights, gender issues, political participation