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That's what friends are for: how intergroup friendships promote historically disadvantaged groups’ substantive political representation

Journal article
Authors Andrej Kokkonen
David Karlsson
Published in British Journal of Sociology
Volume 68
Issue 4
Pages 693-717
ISSN 0007-1315
Publication year 2017
Published at School of Public Administration
Pages 693-717
Language en
Keywords Contact hypothesis; representation; friendship; equality; politics; groups; representative democracy; local government
Subject categories Public Administration Studies, Sociology, Political Science


The interests of historically disadvantaged groups risk being overlooked if they are not present in the decision-making process. However, a mere presence in politics does not guarantee political success. Often groups need allies to promote their interests successfully. We argue that one way to identify such allies is to judge politicians by whether they have friends in historically disadvantaged groups, as intergroup friendships have been shown to make people understand and feel empathy for outgroups. In other words, intergroup friendships may function as an important complement to descriptive representation. We test our argument with a unique survey that asks all elected political representatives in Sweden's 290 municipalities (response rate 79 per cent) about their friendship ties to, and their representation of, five historically disadvantaged groups: women, immigrants, youths, pensioners and blue-collar workers. We find a strong correlation between representatives’ friendship ties to these groups and their commitment to represent them. The correlation is especially strong for youths and blue-collar workers, which likely can be explained by the fact that these groups usually lack crucial political resources (such as experience and education). We conclude that friendship ties function as an important complement to descriptive representation for achieving substantive representation.

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