The Candidates – Methods

Analyzing Political Careers (chapter 2)

Data & Methods

What was the career path of Members of Parliament prior to their election? The question may seem simple. In the press, on Wikipedia, on specialized websites or the official website of the Assemblée, one can find a wealth of information on the professional careers of elected officials. But it is not so easy to find out exactly. There are several reasons for this. One is asymmetry: some politicians are well-known public figures, and many others are not. In addition, parliamentarians themselves tend to emphasize certain characteristics over others. And because of the stigma attached to political professionalization, people tend to emphasize experience outside of politics rather than work in politics, at least in recent years.

We therefore had to painstakingly trace the careers of these elected representatives. This is the task I set myself with Sébastien Michon and Julien Boelaert. For MPs of 5 legislatures, separated in time by more than 4 decades, we investigated the careers of the MPs, year by year. This work was the subject of a first publication in 2018, in the Revue Française de science politique.

These data were then processed using a method known as sequence analysis. A classic technique in the sociological toolbox, sequence analysis is a quantitative descriptive tool. The intuition is that each individual is represented by a “sequence” of events that happen to him or her over time. The goal of sequence analysis is to bring together individuals whose trajectories are partially different yet close to each other, and to separate those from the others. To do this, we measure the distance between each of the sequences, two by two. Then we apply a clustering method to the dissimilarity matrix to group the closest sequences together.

In this case, the sequences were coded into five possible states. One represents years spent in local office (mayor, city council, other local office). Another represents a national position: deputy, senator, European representative. A third indicates that the person had a paid, non-elected job in politics. This is the case, for example, of the staff of elected representatives. The fourth status denotes people who were not paid in politics. The fifth refers to the years before the twentieth birthday.

The Political Trajectory of the 2017 MPs

One of the results of the sequence analysis is the graph below, which clearly distinguishes between the different types of careers. The graph reads as follows: each row represents an elected official in 2017. Each column represents one year. The color indicates, for each person and for each year, the type of political involvement he or she had in that year.

Before 2017, some MPs had never been elected and had never held a political job. They are mainly in category 1, which represents almost 30% of the elected members. They are quite different from the other groups, such as those in category 3, who have been local elected representatives for many years, or those in category 5, who have worked as assistants to elected representatives.

These different labels, and the social and political characteristics of those they group, are explained in the second chapter of the book.

Figure 2.1 Multiphase sequence analysis of careers of MPs elected in 2017

(Code for MpSA: T. Collas, 2018)