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The People

The People

Margaret Canovan

ISBN: 978-0-745-62821-9 September 2005 Polity 176 Pages


In Stock



This groundbreaking study sets out to clarify one of the most influential but least studied of all political concepts. Despite continual talk of popular sovereignty, the idea of the people has been neglected by political theorists who have been deterred by its vagueness. Margaret Canovan argues that it deserves serious analysis, and that it's many ambiguities point to unresolved political issues.

The book begins by charting the conflicting meanings of the people, especially in Anglo-American usage, and traces the concept's development from the ancient populus Romanus to the present day.

The book's main purpose is, however, to analyse the political issues signalled by the people's ambiguities. In the remaining chapters, Margaret Canovan considers their theoretical and practical aspects:

  • Where are the people's boundaries? Is people equivalent to nation, and how is it related to humanity - people in general?

  • Populists aim to 'give power back to the people'; how is populism related to democracy?

  • How can the sovereign people be an immortal collective body, but at the same time be us as individuals? Can we ever see that sovereign people in action?

  • Political myths surround the figure of the people and help to explain its influence; should the people itself be regarded as fictional?

This original and accessible study sheds a fresh light on debates about popular sovereignty, and will be an important resource for students and scholars of political theory.


1. Introduction.

Identifying the People.

The Sovereign People in Action and in Myth.

2. 'The People' and its Past.

Prelude in Rome: The People in Action.

The People in Reserve: From Shadow to Substance.

Civil War to American Revolution: the English People in Rebellion.

We the People: The American Revolution and its Significance.

Popular Sovereignty and Parliamentary Reform in Nineteenth-Century Britain.

Popular Government and the People.

3. Ourselves and Others: People, Nation and Humanity.

People and Nation.


Peoples and People.

4. Part and Whole: People, Populism and Democracy.

The Common People.

Populism in Contemporary Liberal Democracies.

Identifying Populism.

Populism, Democracy and the People.

5. We the Sovereign People.

Can Popular Sovereignty be Understood?.

Can Popular Sovereignty be Exercised?.

6. Myths of the Sovereign People.

Myths of the People.

the People as a Fiction.

The People as Myth and Political Reality.

7. Conclusion.




‘“The people” are invoked or assumed by much political theory and practice, yet the concept rarely attracts sustained analysis in its own right. Canovan's study fills this lacuna. As she notes, appeals to “the people” rarely resolve political disputes for all too often disagreement over what “the people” means lies at their heart. Consequently, taking the people seriously proves frustrating for those looking for clear solutions to political problems, but is inescapable for all that.’

Professor Richard Bellamy, Academic Director ECPR, Co-editor CRISPP, Department of Government, University of Essex

‘An immensely useful volume. Canovan does a superb job of transforming “the people” from a cliché into an important object of moral and political analysis.’

Bernard Yack, Lerman-Neubauer Professor of Democracy, Brandeis University

'Margaret Canovan's The People ... is the place to start for those who work with issues of popular sovereignty and find it difficult to come up with a coherent "theory" of the people. Canovan provides an excellent introduction to the tensions and problems involved in the idea of the sovereign people, and does so in a way that speaks both to students and professional scholars ... Canovan is most compelling in describing the tensions involved in the sovereign people. Her analysis is instructive and rich with examples ... Canovan succeeds in the difficult task of making the issue of the sovereign people accessible to a wider audience without downplaying the challenging questions that go with it.'

Political Theory

'People from various disciplines will find this book useful, whether they work in politics, political theory, social studies or social philosophy. But this is also an excellent introduction for the layperson who is simply interested in these fields ... Canovan does a superb job'

Political Studies Review

  • Excellent introduction to one of the most used but least defined concepts in political philosophy.
  • Analyses the concept of the people in relation to the concepts of history, sovereignty, democracy and the nation.
  • Only book currently available which specifically considers ‘the people’ as a political phenomenon.
  • Written in an accessible and entertaining style.