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dissertation by a scholar in the year 2034, The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class has been replaced by a hierarchy that places at the top those who could advance educationally through rigid testing standards.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.


Shared cultural interests leads to hiring at elite firms

A new sociological study argues having the right cultural interests or pursuing certain cultural activities can lead to getting a job at elite firms:

Big-time investment banks, law firms and management consulting companies choose new workers much as they would choose friends or dates, zeroing in on shared leisure activities, life experiences and personality styles, a new study finds…

As a result, evaluators described their own and others’ firms as having distinct personalities related to employees’ extracurricular interests and social styles. Companies ranged from “sporty” and “scrappy” to “egghead” and “country club.” One outfit even specialized in hiring people with drab personalities.

Top-ranked firms uniformly favored applicants who cited upper–middle class leisure pursuits such as rock climbing, playing the cello or enjoying film noir.

Picking employees from the same cultural basket may have pluses and minuses, Rivera adds. Hiring people with common traits and interests may create a cohesive work force. But shunning prospective employees with different life histories could also make firms susceptible to reaching decisions quickly without evaluating alternative ideas.

This challenges the American ideal of meritocracy where hard work should lead to a job. While the study suggests these cultural interests don’t matter as much when organizations are hiring for more technical jobs, it does matter for white-collar and upper-class jobs. This could also challenge the role of college courses: how many college classes are about developing a “scrappy” or “country club” approach to life? In contrast, the experience outside the classroom at some colleges (plus the applicants’ earlier life history) might contribute quite a bit to learning about and then developing these cultural skills.

It would also be interesting to look more at the personalities involved in hiring and branding that companies develop. Marketing today often involves selling a brand and image more so than focusing on the particulars of a product. Is this branding simply about marketing or does it bleed through the culture of the entire organization?

Increasing racial segregation in the American workplace

Two sociologists argue there is evidence that some American workplaces have become more racially segregated in recent decades:

The results of our research found in part that there has been a trend toward racial re-segregation among white men and black men since 2000 and increased segregation since 1970 between black women and white women in American workplaces — so much so that it has eliminated progress made in the late 1960s. This is not simply an academic question, but a fundamental problem with American society. While most of us morally embrace equal opportunity and race and gender equality, we find that America is still a long way from those commitments. Only by confronting our shortcomings as a society can we address them…Distressingly, 19 of the 58 industries we surveyed — nearly one-third of all industries — showed a trend toward racial re-segregation between white men and black men over the last dozen years. Transportation services, motion pictures, construction, securities and commodities brokerages are some of the sectors that reflect this trend. In addition, re-segregation since 1970 between black and white women in workplaces has eliminated progress made in the late 1960s.

Transportation services, railroads, publishing and many low-wage manufacturing industries show increased segregation between black and white women. Unfortunately, increased access to private sector managerial jobs for black men and black women came to a grinding halt more than 30 years ago as well. Meanwhile, black women’s employment segregation from white women has actually grown somewhat, as white women made continued gains into traditionally white male jobs…

Where has there been progress? In general, African Americans tend to do better in workplaces that use formal credentials to make hiring decisions. Minorities and white women have made the most progress in professional jobs. These occupations require specific educational credentials to be considered for employment. African Americans also progress in those relatively rare large, private-sector firms that monitor their managers diversity track record.

It sounds like jobs based on social networks tend to be more segregated while jobs based on credentials allow more opportunities for non-whites. This reminds me of the sociological study Race and the Invisible Hand: How White Networks Exclude Black Men From Blue-Collar Jobs. Royster found in studying vocational schools that although black and white students were getting similar educations, the instructors and school gave white students more access to the primarily white social networks in the vocational trades while black students were left more to fend for themselves.


I would be curious to know how job segregation lines up with residential segregation, one of the more persistent features of American life in the last century. In other words, are workplaces in more diverse areas less segregated?

Since having a good job is tied to income, building wealth, accessing social networks and social capital, and new opportunities, this is important information. Also, this is a reminder fighting segregation is not a linear process.


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.

The value of inheritances

Megan McArdle talks through issues of inheritance in the United States:

I don’t see by what right people should be allowed to order living people how to dispose of their stuff after they’re beyond caring.  I think people should be allowed to make generous gifts while they’re still alive, without gift tax. (Though I think the recipients of those gifts should have to pay income tax on it; I don’t understand why we’d want to tax income people get by working, but not income people get by being born.  Being born is about the most tax-inelastic thing you can think of.)  But once people are dead, then I can make a pretty compelling case that in a modern economy where extended families are not a major economic unit, there’s little justice case for inheritance…

Inheritance not only hands people valuable income in return for something we don’t really want to further reward–being born lucky–but also, in doing so, it entrenches the least attractive feature of our economy: the fact that people who are born to affluent parents are much more likely to themselves be affluent than children born to the less well-heeled.  Lack of economic mobility is generally regarded as a bad thing that we should combat.
Yet so many of our institutions, from the geographic organization of our schools, to the financial distribution of our inheritances, reinforce it.  Some of those things are not going away (we should not, and will not, order affluent people to move into poor school districts, or shut down research universities for conferring unfair advantages on the mostly affluent students who have the ability to gain admission).  But what are the social benefits that inheritance conveys to offset its drawbacks?  I think they have to be pretty large to justify letting dead people order us to perpetuate the economic status quo.

So I can make a moral case for a 100% estate tax.

McArdle then goes on to talk through specific situations where inheritances might make sense and suggests in the end that she is wary of putting this into practice because it is unclear how it would turn out.

I think her earlier points are of more interest as Americans talk about meritocracy but inheritances seem to go against this ideal. From the beginning, Americans have had the populist idea that class doesn’t matter in the same way that it did in England. We argue that there should be mobility between classes (presumably this also means people can go down), not more rigid classes where money is passed down for decades. But we have a less flexible system than we imagine – some people can move up but the numbers are relatively low. This is exacerbated when we look at disparities in wealth between different groups: wealth is not then just about passing along hard-earned benefits to future generations but rather about reinforcing the large existing wealth inequalities that hamper American society.

I would be interested in seeing more data regarding what Americans mean when they say they want their children to have a better life: does this come from actions during their lifetime, like by promoting education or particular values like hard work, or from an inheritance that is passed along in a will?

What can 90% of Americans agree on?

The answer: not much. Pew Research has an article about the small number of issues in which 90% of Americans agree:

Yet there are some opinions that 90% of the public, or close to it, shares — including a belief that citizens have a duty to vote, an admiration for those who get rich through hard work, a strong sense of patriotism and a belief that society should give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. Pew Research’s political values surveys have shown that these attitudes have remained remarkably consistent over time.

The proportion saying they are very patriotic has varied by just four percentage points (between 87% to 91%) across 13 surveys conducted over 22 years. Similarly, in May 1987, 90% agreed with the statement: “Our society should do what is necessary to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” This percentage has remained at about 90% ever since (87% in the most recent political values survey).

Interestingly, these cited figures are about foundational values in American culture. Exactly what some of these things mean could be up for debate: how should one express their “very patriotic” feelings? What exactly should it look like so that “everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed”? But as values, voting, patriotism, and meritocracy are quite powerful. (And it would also be interesting to see who doesn’t agree with these values.)

We could also ask why exactly 90% is a cutoff we should care about. Here is an explanation:

[R]eaching the 90% threshold is a rare occurrence in public opinion surveys. In part, this reflects the tendency of polling organizations to focus on current issues about which there are often considerable differences of opinion. Nonetheless, even on issues where one would expect to find near-total agreement, the public’s views are far from unanimous.

This is why Pew highlights a recent finding: “fully 90% of the public said that they were hearing mostly bad news about gas prices.”

It would be interesting to see more data on this to know just how rare 90% agreement is. How often might we expect to see this out of all survey responses? How different is the 90% occurrence compared to 80% or even 70%? Is this lack of 90% agreement unusual only for the United States or does this apply to other nations as well?

Line-drawing and merits in job hunting

Although not tailored to the specifics of the legal job market, an analogous debate concerning the mechanics of the academic job market is taking place over Inside Higher Education (hat tip:  Tax Prof Blog).

First up:  Joshua A. Tucker in Academe as Meritocracy, arguing

  1. that only the paternalistic would stifle the dreams of potential Ph.D students, and
  2. that a robust meritocracy exists within the academy.

As Tucker puts it:

Like major league baseball, a successful academic career is a very good gig. Do we really owe every 22-year-old who is admitted to a Ph.D. program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a Ph.D. program? Or is it enough to give them a chance to succeed, knowing full well that not all of them will?…Like it or not, academia is a meritocracy. It may be a highly flawed meritocracy susceptible to overvaluing labels or fads of the day, but ultimately tenure is bestowed on those who earn the respect of their peers, and the more of your peers that respect you, the more job offers you are going to get and the more money you are going to make.

Tucker does recognize that a certain amount of truth-in-advertising is necessary, but he seems comfortable with letting admitted Ph.D students decide for themselves whether they should actually attend:

I fully believe we need to be honest with graduate students about what they are getting themselves into — the same way a minor league baseball player needs to know what the odds are of making it to the majors — but if they want to take a shot at achieving success in this kind of a career, I see no reason why we should excessively limit the number of people who have the opportunity to do so. And at the end of the day, that’s the trade-off here: the fewer students we admit to Ph.D. programs, the earlier we make the decision regarding who gets to be the next generation of professors.

While I sympathize with Tucker’s paternalism argument, I think his analysis fails to appreciate that lines must be–and are–drawn somewhere.  All of us are unfit for certain occupations, and each of us must either (1) realize this ourselves or (2) be told this by others.  Moreover, this must happen (1) sooner or (2) later.  Tucker does not escape the inevitable moment of line-drawing simply by choosing “later”, i.e., after his Ph.D. admission committee has sent out its acceptances.

Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean by expanding on Tucker’s example of professional baseball.  Personally, I am objectively unfit to play for a minor league baseball team, let alone to be drafted into the majors.  Let us suppose that, for whatever reasons, I am too deluded to realize this for myself and will need to be told by others that I will never be a major league baseball player.  Should a minor league team still admit me to its roster?  What about a college team?  High school varsity team?  At what point should I be told, “Kid, you don’t stand a chance of ever playing in the majors.  You should pursue another career”?

This is a difficult question that will need to be answered differently for different individuals based on their own specific circumstances.  Tucker, however, does not attempt to answer this question or provide guidelines on how it should be answered under various circumstances.  Rather, he simply implies that Ph.D. students should be admitted first and allowed to sort themselves out later, regardless of changing job market conditions or the odds of success.

In contrast to Tucker’s faith in the meritocratic process, “Dean Dad” responds in “Meritocracy and Hiring” that the academy is NOT the sort of meritocracy that should be generating smug feelings of superiority:

As someone whose job it is to actually hire faculty, I can attest that merit is only a small part of the picture….In this funding climate, we can only afford to staff a few of the positions (whether faculty, staff, or administration) that we need. If the position doesn’t exist, then the relative merit of the prospective candidates means exactly zero….Of course, there’s also the basic incompatibility of life tenure with the idea of meritocracy. If incumbents don’t have to keep proving themselves against newcomers, then you do not have a meritocracy. Tenure violates the foundational assumption of meritocracy.

The key is to recognize that hiring is always more about the employer than about the employee. Employers hire to solve problems they consider important. If you’re the best darn German professor who ever walked the planet, congratulations, but I don’t need you. I don’t doubt your brilliance, your hard work, your civic virtue, or your habit of helping old ladies across the street. They just don’t matter. It’s not about you.

I think Dean Dad is onto something here.  In discussions about job markets, the “right-place-at-the-right-time” factor is far too often overlooked .  Despite, for example, evidence that simply graduating from college in the middle of a recession can permanently lower lifetime earnings.  Dean Dad helpfully reminds his readers that failure to land a job in one’s chosen profession does not necessarily have moral overtones:

I’m convinced that one reason some people won’t let themselves let go of the dream, despite years of external signals suggesting that they should, is a sense that it would reflect a personal moral failing. They’ve identified so completely with the ‘meritocracy’ myth that they feel a real need to redeem themselves within it….[T]hey see the status of “tenured professor” as a sort of validation of everything they’ve done. Leaving the academy would be admitting defeat and accepting failure; lifelong “A” students, as a breed, aren’t very good at that. It’s not what they do….[L]et’s recognize the academic job market as the uneven, unpredictable, often unforgiving thing that it is. Good people lose. Frankly, some real losers sometimes win. It’s not entirely random, of course, but it’s a far cry from a meritocracy.

Although Dean Dad is writing about the academic job market, I think this is also a helpful point for recent law graduates to remember, especially in the midst of a recession.  Things don’t always work out, and that’s OK.  Sometimes, you just have to let it go and try something new.