Meritocracy, in Sociology, is the belief that a Social System largely functions on the talent and abilities of the people which comprise it. This functionalist belief sees it that the boy with the mathematical mind will go on to find a career relating to his strengths. As long as he puts in enough effort. So, let’s see this theory in motion.
Does Meritocracy exist?
Most Sociologists would say no. Functionalists would argue yes. Meritocracy is necessary to enable society to function most efficiently. Bowles & Gintis (1976) two popular Marxists argue an individuals class background largely determines where they will end up in society.
This can be supported by other works of Sociologists. Bourdieu (1984) argues Cultural Capital aids Middle Class children to progress more easily through the education system. And, ultimately aids social mobility in later life. Middle Class families tend to be better at building cultural capital by going to museums, exhibitions, reading, etc (Bourdieu, 1984).
The Myth of Meritocracy
Whilst social scientists and researchers have shown that students of differing social classes, ethnicities, and living in different areas experience different levels of attainment within education. Society, as a whole, has a vested interest in making people believe that society is an equal playing field.
One study was undertaken by NatCen Social Research (2009) funded by the British Government, to explore the cv-application process. This study found job applicants with ethnic sounding names were less likely to be called in for an interview. This is just one study showing blatant discrimination in CV-based applications (Full Fact, 2015). This could be avoided if the name part of a CV was asked to be removed before being submitted online, as has been incorporated by the government within the Civil Service.
Within the British education system, Black Carribean pupils are nearly 3 times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than White British students (Department for Education, 2018). Whilst the playing field isn’t equal, how else will you motivate people to try. Or at the very least conform to believing that those who get A’s are more worthy to become lawyers than those who get C’s.
This is where the Myth of Meritocracy comes in. The Myth of Meritocracy acts as a false consciousness. It makes individuals think their ability and effort will determine where they ultimately end up in society. This self-fulfilling prophecy can become self-defeating when an individual cannot maintain the same job, life, or standard of living as their peers. They ultimately end up blaming themselves.
Length of Stay in Education
It is largely believed (and supported by evidence to some extent) that the further you progress through the education system the greater your life chances will be, and the greater the benefits that can be reaped. Therefore someone who drops out of high school should have worse off life chances to someone who graduates with a bachelors degree from university, who should also be worse off to an individual who acquires a Ph.D.
But, life doesn’t always work out like that. Even amongst graduates, ethnic minorities face employment issues and pay penalties. In some sectors – the police, military, supreme court, and security services as well as top consultancies and law firms – there were no non-white supremos at all (Slawson, 2017).
Intelligence Quotient (IQ)
Test scores derived from standardised tests to assess levels of human intelligence. We grow up thinking IQ is some holy grail but most research surrounding this area comes from a tainted 20th century (Gladwell, 2008). Gladwell (2008) found IQ wasn’t a good determinant of future progress. The intelligence had to be in an environment where it could be fostered, developed, and honed.
To conclude, most of Society like to believe in this idea of ‘meritocracy’. However, when you look at education or employment closely you will see that meritocracy goes out of the window. Family background, ethnicity, gender, social class all can be applied as measures to better exemplify just how unequal the system is.
Meritocracy is a myth, and sadly blinding ourselves with a false consciousness only allows this system to continue.
By Shaneka Knight
Facebook: Shaneka Knight
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction. Routledge: London.
Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in Capitalist America: Education Reform and the Contradiction of Economic Life. Basic Books Inc.: New York.
Department for Education. (2018). Pupil exclusions. Retrieved from https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/education-skills-and-training/absence-and-exclusions/pupil-exclusions/latest [Accessed 07/11/2018].
Full Fact. (2015). Job applicants with ethnic minority sounding names are less likely to be called for interview. Retrieved from https://fullfact.org/economy/job-applicants-ethnic-minority-sounding-names-are-less-likely-be-called-interview/ [Accessed 07/11/2018].
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers. Penguin: London.
Slawson, N. (2017, October 7). People from ethnic minorities still facing major jobs gap in UK. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/07/ethnic-minorities-jobs-gap-bame-degrees [Accessed 07/11/2018].