Meritocracy vs. structures illustrated by a British rapper who chose LSE over Cambridge

I have seen a number of stories in recent days about a 17 year old British rapper from a disadvantaged area, Franklyn Addo, who had a choice to study at five British universities, including Cambridge. In The Guardian, Addo explains why he chose to study sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE):

The real reasons that lead me to my decision – one I did not take lightly – are much more significant than the lack of a “music scene”. Having meticulously assessed the content of the courses offered at LSE and Cambridge, I decided I would be more suited to the course in London. Crucially, studying at LSE also makes more financial sense, as I would not have to pay for accommodation.

Obtaining an offer from Oxbridge is such a rarity, especially for people like me who come from a relatively deprived area. This causes some to believe that the interview process is bound to be extremely scary. Contrary to this, I found the interview was not frightening; the environment was pleasant and the interviewers welcoming. I enjoyed having a formal conversation about concepts within sociology, a field I am passionate about. After being given time to digest a case study, two interviewers quizzed me about the information I was given and assessed my ability to make links between sociological, psychological and political concepts. If you are knowledgeable about the subject you’re applying for, the interview process is likely to be enjoyable, although indubitably challenging.

Indeed, from my personal experience, Cambridge appears to be meritocratic and non-discriminatory, although the demographics of current undergraduate students may suggest differently. Some of my peers view Oxbridge as a desirable goal to which some aspire, but others see it as an elitist institution; perhaps due to the false belief that it is impossible for them to receive offers to study there. People from deprived areas must assess their way of thinking and begin to understand that society is becoming increasingly meritocratic and that anything is possible with hard work.

Furthermore, schools and colleges should encourage people who have the academic ability to apply and help them with the process – as my sociology teacher at Woodhouse College in Barnet, Nazia Rahim, did with me. She provided me with extracurricular help, a mock interview for Cambridge and was pivotal in developing my understanding that I can achieve what I set my mind to. Schools and authority figures should be active in empowering the local community to aim high from a young age and encourage young people to take part in extracurricular activities so they are attractive applicants to whichever university they decide upon, or whatever career they decide to pursue.

What interests me in this account is how he describes reactions to Oxbridge (referring to Cambridge and Oxford): are they elitist or meritocratic? Addo seems to subscribe to the meritocratic argument, suggesting “society is becoming increasingly meritocratic and that anything is possible with hard work.” But would this be the viewpoint of many sociologists and those who study sociology? On the whole, sociologists would talk about the difficulties of social mobility and how class structures, both in wealth and cultural disparities, influence life chances. But here Addo describes his chances as the result of “hard work” and the efforts of his sociology teacher.

If sociologists were asked about their own successes and not about life chances in the abstract, would they suggest it was because of their own hard work and efforts (the meritocratic side) or because they had structural advantages (the elitist side)? When talking with students or their kids, can sociologists teach about broader structures but then suggest to individuals kids that their life chances are highly determined by their own efforts? Perhaps this is taking the agency vs. structure debate to a personal level to ask whether individuals attribute their successes or maybe just their failures to structures.

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