The dystopian sociological origins of the concept of meritocracy

What exactly meritocracy means requires going back to the origins of the term in the 1950s:

As the tech writer Antonio García Martínez pointed out, “It’s worth recalling that the word ‘meritocracy’ was coined as a satirical slur in a dystopic novel by a sociologist.” Martínez is referring to The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033, published in 1958 by the British sociologist and politician Michael Young. Young’s work was indeed intended as a social satire, positing a future in which trends in the British educational system were carried out to their absurd conclusions.

Written in the style of a doctoral dissertation by a scholar in the year 2034, The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class has been replaced by a hierarchy that places at the top those who could advance educationally through rigid testing standards. But those standards simply end up reinscribing the old class system, leading to a popular revolt.

Writing in The Guardian in 2001, a year before his death, Young looked back ruefully on how the irony of his coinage had been lost on the likes of Tony Blair, who was then making “meritocracy” the keystone of the Labour Party’s educational policy. “I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,” he wrote. “I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.” His book, he added, was “a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded).”…

But our friend Throgmorton didn’t simply see meritocracy as some sort of Platonic ideal—he jingoistically claimed that the United States was already a meritocracy, and the world’s only example of it. Not only did he overlook the peculiarly British irony in which Young couched the term, he also missed out on an irony much closer to home: In 1959, five years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, African Americans were still being systematically denied equal access to education across the South.

It sounds like people wanted the idea of meritocracy to be true or they could justify their existing ideologies with such a term. And then the concept simply takes on a life of its own separate from its origins. It is hard to imagine a ruling class – whether there by wealth or educational achievement or battle – that does not have an ideology that justifies their presence there and rise to that position. At what point will meritocracy fail to provide enough justification? And, if meritocracy is at some point no longer defensible, what ideology comes next to explain those in power?

This origin story also may serve as a reminder that satire is difficult to present to the public. It is a relatively lesser-known genre and can easily be misunderstood. Plenty of recent examples suggest satire is often taken as truth (think incidents with The Onion or the Babylon Bee) until a respected source goes out of their way to point out the original point.

 

UX, sociologists and anthropologists, and changing cars

Design thinking has come to Ford and with it insights from sociologists and anthropologists:

So it came as a surprise last spring when Ford Motor Company selected a chief executive who hadn’t been reared in Detroit and didn’t easily fit established CEO molds. He was a furniture maker. Jim Hackett, 63, is a product of Michigan’s other corporate cluster—the three office-furniture companies around Grand Rapids, including Steelcase, which Hackett ran for two decades.

At Steelcase, Hackett became a devotee of an approach to product development known as design thinking, which rigorously focuses on how the user experiences a product. He forced Steelcase to think less about cubicles—its bread-and-butter product when he arrived—and more about the people inside them. Hiring anthropologists and sociologists and working closely with tech experts, he made Steelcase a pioneer in the team-oriented, open workspaces so common today. In effect, he transformed an office-supply company into a leader of the revolution in the way we work…

Our lives are made up of human-machine interactions—with smartphones, televisions, internet-enabled parking meters that don’t accept quarters— that have the power to delight and, often, infuriate. (“Maddening” is Hackett’s one-word description for 90-button TV remotes.) Into this arena has stepped a new class of professional: the user-experience, or UX, designer, whose job is to see a product not from an engineer’s, marketer’s, or legal department’s perspective but from the viewpoint of the user alone. And to insist that the customer should not have to learn to speak the company’s internal language. The company should learn to speak the customer’s…

This was a profound realization. “The phone was considered an accessory you brought into your vehicle,” says Ideo’s global managing director, Iain Roberts. “Now I think the relationship may have flipped—the vehicle is an accessory to the device.” That’s the kind of insight that previously would have surfaced late in the design process, when the company would ask for customer feedback on a close-to-finished product. Discovered early, it put the team on a path to build a prototype that was ready in an unheard-of 12 weeks.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Both disciplines of sociology and anthropology could benefit from sharing how corporations use them. UX is a growing field and majors in these disciplines could offer unique skills in going after such jobs.
  2. This reminds me of the process social scientists often go through with new concepts. If they pronounce concepts or labels from above, they may then get pushback from those closer to everyday life. On the ground realities should influence how we understand larger patterns. At the same time, the reverse could be true: the user-experience/everyday realities could become so important that they overshadow the larger patterns or constraints.
  3. That Ideo is involved in this process does not surprise me. In class, I use an old Nightline clip of Ideo designing a shopping cart to illustrate how organizations could work.

An expanding sociological concept: emotional labor

As society changes, sociological concepts can be used in new ways or change their definition. As one example, sociologist Arlie Hochschild is asked about the expanding use of “emotional labor”:

Beck: Since the time you coined it, have you noticed the term becoming more popular? How is its use expanding?

Hochschild: It is being used to apply to a wider and wider range of experiences and acts. It’s being used, for example, to refer to the enacting of to-do lists in daily life—pick up the laundry, shop for potatoes, that kind of thing. Which I think is an overextension. It’s also being applied to perfectionism: You’ve absolutely got to do the perfect Christmas holiday. And that can be a confusion and an overextension. I do think that managing anxiety associated with obligatory chores is emotional labor. I would say that. But I don’t think that common examples I could give are necessarily emotional labor. It’s very blurry and over-applied…

We’re trying to have an important conversation but having it in a very hazy way, working with blunt concept. I think the answer is to be more precise and careful in our ideas and to bring this conversation into families and to the office in a helpful way.

If you have an important conversation using muddy ideas, you cannot accomplish your purpose. You won’t be understood by others. And you won’t be clear to yourself. That’s what’s going on. It’d be like going to a bad therapist—“Well, just try to have a better day tomorrow.” You’re doing the right thing, you’re seeking help, but you’re not getting clarification and communicating clearly. It can defeat the purpose; it can backfire.

Sociologists and other scholars can spend a lot of time developing precise definitions for particular social phenomena. While this may seem like arcane or unnecessary work, it is a critical task: having a clear definition then often leads to more precise measurement which can then lead to more productive use of data.

At the same time, sociologists need to be nimble in updating concepts to changing conditions. A great concept from several decades might no longer fit – or it could still be highly relevant. The originator of the concept could adjust the idea (though it is easy to see why this might be difficult to do given the amount of time one invests in the original concept) or the academic community could come to a consensus. Some concepts from the early days of sociology are still regularly discussed and taught while others were abandoned long ago. Such as in the case above, concepts might be adapted by others in unique ways. This could lead to disagreement or an acknowledgement that the concept now means something different in broader circles.

It would be interesting to analyze the changing conceptualization of key ideas within sociology. The concept of emotional labor is now 35 years old. Is that a normal lifetime adhering to an original definition?

Hard to measure school shootings

It is difficult to decide on how to measure school shootings and gun violence:

What constitutes a school shooting?

That five-word question has no simple answer, a fact underscored by the backlash to an advocacy group’s recent list of school shootings. The list, maintained by Everytown, a group that backs policies to limit gun violence, was updated last week to reflect what it identified as the 74 school shootings since the massacre in Newtown, Conn., a massacre that sparked a national debate over gun control.

Multiple news outlets, including this one, reported on Everytown’s data, prompting a backlash over the broad methodology used. As we wrote in our original post, the group considered any instance of a firearm discharging on school property as a shooting — thus casting a broad net that includes homicides, suicides, accidental discharges and, in a handful of cases, shootings that had no relation to the schools themselves and occurred with no students apparently present.

None of the incidents rise to the level of the massacre that left 27 victims, mostly children, dead in suburban Connecticut roughly 18 months ago, but multiple reviews of the list show how difficult quantifying gun violence can be. Researcher Charles C. Johnson posted a flurry of tweets taking issue with incidents on Everytown’s list. A Hartford Courant review found 52 incidents involving at least one student on a school campus. (We found the same, when considering students or staff.) CNN identified 15 shootings that were similar to the violence in Newtown — in which a minor or adult was actively shooting inside or near a school — while Politifact identified 10.

Clearly, there’s no clean-cut way to quantify gun violence in the nation’s schools, but in the interest of transparency, we’re throwing open our review of the list, based on multiple news reports per incident. For each, we’ve summarized the incident and included casualty data where available.

This is a good example of the problems of conceptualization and operationalization. The idea of a “school shooting” seems obvious until you start looking at a variety of incidents and have to decide whether they hang together as one definable phenomenon. It is interesting here that the Washington Post then goes on to provide more information about each case but doesn’t come down on any side.

So how might this problem be solved? In the academic or scientific world, scholars would debate this through publications, conferences, and public discussions until some consensus (or at least some agreement about the contours of the argument) emerges. This takes time, a lot of thinking, and data analysis. This runs counter to more media or political-driven approaches that want quick, sound bite answers to complex social problems.

Bill Gates: we can make progress with goals, data, and a feedback loop

Bill Gates argues in the Wall Street Journal that significant progress can be made around the world if organizations and residents participate in a particular process:

In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal—in a feedback loop similar to the one Mr. Rosen describes.

This may seem basic, but it is amazing how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right. Historically, foreign aid has been measured in terms of the total amount of money invested—and during the Cold War, by whether a country stayed on our side—but not by how well it performed in actually helping people. Closer to home, despite innovation in measuring teacher performance world-wide, more than 90% of educators in the U.S. still get zero feedback on how to improve.

An innovation—whether it’s a new vaccine or an improved seed—can’t have an impact unless it reaches the people who will benefit from it. We need innovations in measurement to find new, effective ways to deliver those tools and services to the clinics, family farms and classrooms that need them.

I’ve found many examples of how measurement is making a difference over the past year—from a school in Colorado to a health post in rural Ethiopia. Our foundation is supporting these efforts. But we and others need to do more. As budgets tighten for governments and foundations world-wide, we all need to take the lesson of the steam engine to heart and adapt it to solving the world’s biggest problems.

Gates doesn’t use this term but this sounds like a practical application of the scientific method. Instead of responding to a social problem by going out and trying to “do something,” the process should be more rigorous, involve setting goals, collecting good data, interpreting the data, and then adjusting the process from the beginning. This is related to other points about this process:

1. It is one thing to be able to collect data (and this is often its own complicated process) but it is another to know what to do with it once you have it. Compared to the past, data is relatively easy to obtain today but using it well is another matter.

2. Another broad issue in this kind of feedback loop is developing the measurements and what counts as “success.” Some of this is fairly easy; when Gates praises the UN Millennium Goals, reducing occurrences of disease or boosting incomes has face validity for getting at what matters. But, measuring teacher’s performances or what makes a quality college are a little trickier to define in the first place. Gates calls this developing goals but this could be a lengthy process in itself.

It is interesting that Gates mentions the need for such loops in colleges so that students “could know where they would get the most for their tuition money.” The Gates Foundation has put money into studying public schools and just a few weeks ago released some of their findings:

After a three-year, $45 million research project, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation believes it has some answers.

The most reliable way to evaluate teachers is to use a three-pronged approach built on student test scores, classroom observations by multiple reviewers and teacher evaluations from students themselves, the foundation found…

The findings released Tuesday involved an analysis of about 3,000 teachers and their students in Charlotte; Dallas; Denver; Memphis; New York; Pittsburgh; and Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa. Researchers were drawn from the Educational Testing Service and several universities, including Harvard, Stanford and the University of Virginia…

Researchers videotaped 3,000 participating teachers and experts analyzed their classroom performance. They also ranked the teachers using a statistical model known as value-added modeling, which calculates how much an educator has helped students learn based on their academic performance over time. And finally, the researchers surveyed the students, who turned out to be reliable judges of their teacher’s abilities, Kane said.

All this takes quite a few resources and time. For those interested in quick action, this is not the process to follow. Hopefully, however, the resources and time pay off with better solutions.

“Wrestling with how to get more Latinos to pick a race”

Here is another overview of the problems the US Census is having with measuring the Latino population in the United States:

So when they encounter the census, they see one question that asks them whether they identify themselves as having Hispanic ethnic origins and many answer it as their main identifier. But then there is another question, asking them about their race, because, as the census guide notes, “people of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin may be of any race,” and more than a third of Latinos check “other.”

This argument over identity has gained momentum with the growth of the Latino population, which in 2010 stood at more than 50 million. Census Bureau officials have acknowledged that the questionnaire has a problem, and say they are wrestling with how to get more Latinos to pick a race. In 2010, they tested different wording in questions and last year they held focus groups, with a report on the research scheduled to be released by this summer.

Some experts say officials are right to go back to the drawing table. “Whenever you have people who can’t find themselves in the question, it’s a bad question,” said Mary C. Waters, a sociology professor at Harvard who specializes in the challenges of measuring race and ethnicity…

Latinos, who make up close to 20 percent of the American population, generally hold a fundamentally different view of race. Many Latinos say they are too racially mixed to settle on one of the government-sanctioned standard races — white, black, American Indian, Alaska native, native Hawaiian, and a collection of Asian and Pacific Island backgrounds.

American conceptions of race usually center on black and white without having much room for middle or other categories. There is a long history of this in the United States as various new groups struggled to become labeled as white.

I like the admission here that the Census needs to find a definition that also fits Latinos’ own understanding. Imposing social science categories on the world can be problematic, particularly if they are not understood in the same ways by all people. Survey questions are not that great if people don’t understand the answers or see where they fit in the possible answers.

This isn’t the first acknowledgment that the Census Bureau has issues here. I would be curious to hear sociologists and others project forward: how will the Census and others measure race, ethnicity, and culture in 2050 when the United States will look very different? Are there ways to measure race and ethnicity in the Census without the pressure of it being tied to federal dollars?

How to measure happiness (“prosperity”) across countries

Here is a topic just perfect for a Research Methods class discussion about conceptualization and operationalization: how to measure happiness across countries. Here is a quick summary of how the Legatum Institute measured this and found that Norway is the happiest country in the world:

With this in mind, five years ago researchers at the Legatum Institute, a London-based nonpartisan think tank, set out to rank the happiest countries in the world. But because “happy” carries too much of a touchy-feely connotation, they call it “prosperity.”

Legatum recently completed its 2010 Prosperity Index, which ranks 110 countries, covering 90% of the world’s population.

To build its index Legatum gathers upward of a dozen international surveys done by the likes of the Gallup polling group, the Heritage Foundation and the World Economic Forum. Each country is ranked on 89 variables sorted into eight subsections: economy, entrepreneurship, governance, education, health, safety, personal freedom and social capital.

The core conceit: Prosperity is complex; achieving it relies on a confluence of factors that build on each other in a virtuous circle.

Ultimately how happy you are depends on how happy you’ve been. If you’re already rich, like Scandinavia, then more freedom, security and health would add the most to happiness. For the likes of China and India (ranked 88th), it’s more a case of “show me the money.” What they want most of all? The opportunity to prove to themselves that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Some quick thoughts on this:

1. This is a lot of dimensions and indicators to consider: 89 measures, 8 subcategories.

2. The change from “happiness” to “prosperity” is an interesting one. Happiness is indeed a fuzzy term. But prosperity often refers to material wealth in terms of income or buying power. This prosperity defined more broadly: material wealth plus freedoms plus level of services plus social interactions. The Legatum Website suggests the Index is “the world’s only global assessment of wealth and well-being.”

3. I would be curious to know how comparable the data is across countries and across the organizations that form and ask these survey questions.

4. In this complexity, it is interesting to note that prosperity means different things to countries in different stages.

5. Even with all of these measures, which measures are used and how this Institute weights these particular factors would matter for the outcome. For example, the story at Forbes suggests that improving a nation’s entrepreneurial culture could make a big difference in these rankings. And the United States is ranked #1 in health care because “$5,500 a year in per-capita health spending has resulted in excellent vaccination rates, water quality and sanitation.” The Legatum Institute itself seems to put a big emphasis on business.

6. How come so many of these lists come from Forbes? Beyond the answer that Yahoo has a deal with Forbes for content, this is an interesting way to drive web traffic: top ten lists that catch people’s attention. How useful these sorts of lists are is debatable but they are often interesting and quickly summarize complex areas of life.