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dissertation by a scholar in the year 2034, The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class has been replaced by a hierarchy that places at the top those who could advance educationally through rigid testing standards.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


Three thoughts on Naperville having “white supremacist policies”

Newly-elected Illinois State Representative Anne Stava-Murray made strong comments about Naperville:

The 81st District representative, who also has launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Dick Durbin, says what she sees in Naperville — and the Chicago area as a whole — is “white supremacy in an unclad kind of way, without its hood on.”

She points to what she calls racial profiling during traffic stops, questionable police hiring, discrimination in housing and home showings, largely white teacher populations, high rates of black student suspensions and low rates of black student enrollment in advanced placement courses as evidence of “white ignorance” in Naperville policies…

Many Naperville leaders, including Mayor Steve Chirico, who has worked to diversify membership on the city’s advisory boards and commissions, say her claims of “white supremacist policies” are far from the truth…

Some say the criticism of harboring white favoritism doesn’t fit a city becoming known as a hub of Indian-American business and culture. Naperville demographics show the city is 68.3 percent white, 17.9 percent Asian, 5.7 percent Hispanic, 5 percent black and 3.2 percent two or more races, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in July 2018.

Three quick thoughts based on my own study of the large suburb:

1. Naperville had issues in its past with race including opposition to a fair housing ordinance in the late 1960s and a discrimination complaint filed by several black workers transferred to the new Bell Labs facility in the 1960s. Some of these comments could be referendum on whether Naperville has changed sufficiently in fifty years and also reflect changing ideas about diversity over time.

2. Naperville today is certainly more diverse than in the past: it was 99.8% white in 1960 and is now 68.3% white. At the same time, the population of Naperville does not match or approach national figures in several areas. It has fewer black and Latino residents (roughly one-third of national averages) and more Asian residents (three times the national average). It is very wealthy with a median household income of around $110,000, double that of the United States as a whole. And the poverty rate is less than one-half of the country as a whole. On the whole, it has more racial and ethnic diversity than in the past but is also at a higher social class than many suburbs.

3. It seems like it would be helpful to speak less to leaders of the suburb – and leaders rarely would admit problems in their own community like racism – and more to a variety of  minorities in Naperville. For example, read “What it’s like to be black in Naperville, America.” Is there a common experience across racial and ethnic groups as well as social classes? My guess is that experiences can differ.

Defining the suburban aspects of the movie “Eighth Grade”

Defining the suburbs, whether considering geography or social life, can be complex. So when the film Eighth Grade claims to depict “the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence,” how is suburbia depicted? Here are some key traits according to the film:

  1. People live in single-family homes. Kayla is shown going from house to house and acts as if her bedroom is a personal sanctuary from the outside world.
  2. The story revolves around the lives of children, a key emphasis of suburban life. When not in a home, Kayla is at school. Her social life revolves around school. Family life is critical as the primary relationship Kayla has is with her father who tries at various points to encourage her.
  3. A land of plenty. No one in the film lacks for anything and all the teenagers apparently have phones and devices to connect with each other and broadcast their lives. Some people in the film have more than others but consumer goods are not an issue in the suburbs depicted. Everyone is middle class or above even though we see little of what people do for work.
  4. The shopping mall is part of a key scene, one of the iconic places where teenagers can interact and consume.
  5. There is a good amount of driving required to get from home to home or to the shopping mall.
  6. The teenagers and families depicted are mostly white.

On one hand, the movie depicts a fairly typical residential suburban place. Many of the features of the suburbs listed above are on my list of Why Americans Love Suburbs.

On the other hand, the film does a lot with Kayla engrossed with her phone and social media. Could this take place anywhere? Or, is the film suggesting the particular combination of suburbs and social media leads to a negative outcome (too much online immersion) or positive (the values or features of suburbia help give her a broader perspective about live)?

Furthermore, the film primarily works within a well-worn depiction of suburbia: largely white, middle-class and above, revolving around teenagers, school, and families. Thinking like a sociologist in terms of variables, would it have been too much to situate a similar story in a more complex suburbia with more racial/ethnic and class diversity and a different physical landscape?

Defining middle class in an era of economic uncertainty

Understanding the middle class requires looking not just at resources but also how the middle-class life is lived:

By the 1990s, the world that Mills had documented was coming apart as corporate downsizing and disinvestment upended the neat equation of secure work and praiseworthy home life. Social thinkers writing in that decade, including the sociologist Katherine Newman and the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, followed Mills in charting the social and psychological shape of that in-between class. But they found that loss had replaced dependency as the most conspicuous feeling associated with middling workers’ place in the hierarchy.

Today anguish over lost social standing has, in turn, been replaced by a pervasive sense of insecurity…

Aspiring to stability and respectability today means not only navigating the landscape of eroded and contingent work, but of managing debts. Trying to give children a shot, parents take on financial burdens that can destabilize their own future security.

Class has always been partly about income, but debt is now an equal component of the middle-class story, leading to a central paradox of aspirational lives: Striving for stability and respectability means inhabiting insecurity both socially and psychologically. Economic metrics alone can only tell a shallow story, but at the very least, debt should join income in any attempt at definition.

If this is true, perhaps social class should be accompanied by a different sort of measure. Here are a few options:

  1. Economic security or economic insecurity. Perhaps there would be a certain bar to meet – having a certain amount of savings, the ability to find another job, or something else.
  2. Some measure of anxiety or well-being about current economic conditions.

Two households with similar sets of resources could be quite different on these measures based on the particulars of certain jobs, family situations, debt, etc.

The biggest downsides to such measures could be that they remove the baselines that social class measures often have as well as affect the value judgments made about social class. We know that less income or lower wealth matters; a household with $20,000 of income is going to be different than one with $100,000. (Yes, this could be contextual based on cost of living.) But, if we start including some measures of the lived experience of class, is there a baseline? Similarly, what if financial measures were similar for two groups but one group had a higher level of anxiety or insecurity; would researchers and pundits be quick to judge whether that anxiety is justified?

Of course, if the insecurity/anxiety questions are asked alongside more traditional measures of social class, researchers can look at the relationships and determine what a consistent and valid measure of social class should be.

Indicating social class by having no leaves present on the lawn

Now that blooming dandelions are not a threat and warmer weather and thick green grass is less common, how can the suburbanite indicate his social class through his or her lawn in the fall and keep it a notch above his or her neighbors? No leaves may be present.

Within the next month or so in the Chicago region, leaves will fall at varying rates and cover lawns. These could be leaves from trees in that yard or, given occasional high winds, leaves from several houses away. They could be wet or dry, big or small, green, red, orange, or other shades. And Americans will spend countless hours trying to corral them all, stuff them in bags or bins, and ship them somewhere else.

Why? Because even in the fall, a season that can be good for growing grass, the sanctity of the lawn must be upheld. Even as trees and bushes grow sparse and the flowers that once adorned the property wither, the well-kept lawn is important. Rakes must be employed. Blowers can be even better (at least when the leaves are drier) to efficiently move large amounts. Mowers can be used not only to keep that grass looking uniform but to mulch leaves.

And the best fall lawns, the ones showing the suburbanites of a higher social class or those who care the most about their property (values), will have no visible leaves. They are a blemish and may be removed daily. Carpets of leaves may be pretty in more natural settings but not on the suburban lawn: it must continue to show off the home and its owner until either covered by snow or gone dormant for the winter.

Divorce down, marriage down, telling a full story

Recent sociological work highlights how looking past the initial findings – divorce rates are down in America – reveals a more complicated reality:

In the past 10 years, the percentage of American marriages that end in divorce has fallen, and in a new paper, the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen quantified the drop-off: Between 2008 and 2016, the divorce rate declined by 18 percent overall…

The point he was making was that people with college degrees are now more likely to get married than those who have no more than a high-school education. And the key to understanding the declining divorce rate, Cherlin says, is that it is “going down some for everybody,” but “the decline has been steepest for the college graduates.”

The reason that’s the case is that college graduates tend to wait longer to get married as they focus on their career. And they tend to have the financial independence to postpone marriage until they’re more confident it will work. This has translated to lower rates of divorce: “If you’re older, you’re more mature … you probably have a better job, and those things make it less likely that you’ll get into arguments with your spouse,” Cherlin says…

Chen connects this trend to the decline of well-paying jobs for those without college degrees, which, he argues, makes it harder to form more stable relationships. Indeed, Cohen writes in his paper that marriage is “an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” The state of it today is both a reflection of the opportunities unlocked by a college degree and a force that, by allowing couples to pool their incomes, itself widens economic gaps.

It would be interesting to see how many of those who might celebrate the finding that divorce rates are going down also discuss the reasons linked to financial stability, education levels, and inequality.

Take more conservative Christian churches as a possible example. Evangelical Protestants are often proudly in favor of marriage (between a man and a woman). They work hard to provide programs for families as well as classes and sermons about marriage and family life. They would generally be opposed to divorce or at least view it as less than ideal. But, having conversations about how marriage is less attainable for some Americans or the evolving idea that one needs to be financially independent before marrying might be less common. How often do topics of social class and inequality come up from the front in many congregations? Or, discussions could turn to why Americans do not make correct individual choices rather than focusing on social pressures and structures (financial independence, it is more acceptable to cohabit) that influence all Americans (including conservative Christians). Ultimately, the findings may not be that good for evangelicals: divorce is down because Americans are getting married less and cohabiting more. If they want to encourage more marriage, they would have to respond to these larger social forces at work.

Why Americans love suburbs #4: middle-class utopia

If race and ethnicity in the suburbs has often served to keep residents out, the more inclusive message of the American suburbs is this: it is a place where the middle-class can live a good life. Of course, there are issues with this, including numerous exclusive wealthy communities as well as a lack of affordable housing or rental units for those who are not quite middle-class. Yet, the suburban life is held up as both attainable and ideal for the American middle-class.

It wasn’t always this way. Early suburbanites had to have the resources to make it back and forth to the city. This changed with the numerous transportation inventions (railroads, streetcars, electric lines) that steadily brought the costs of traveling in and out of the city down as well as led to the development of more land outside the city. With other developments, particularly the quick spread of cars and highways and mortgages with fewer upfront barriers, the suburbs became the space for the middle-class by the 1950s.

The key to the middle-class suburban dream is its affordability. The typical logic is that the farther a family moves from the big city, the cheaper and bigger the home can be. This explanation echoes the Chicago School and the concentric rings model developed by Burgess: land is more expensive in the city center and the progressively cheaper in zones further from the city. While moving further from the city has its costs (owning and maintaining a car is not cheap, the costs of providing city services in a sprawling location can be pricey), the goal is to get a sizable home.

This middle-class paradise has drawn its share of critics due to its mass-produced nature, lack of highbrow taste and sophistication, and façade of pleasantness that supposedly hides all sorts of sordid activity. Particularly in comparison to lively urban neighborhoods, the suburban middle-class life is often portrayed as dull if not outright oppressive. My favorite response to this is in sociologist Bennett Berger’s 1960 study of a working-class California suburb:

The critic waves the prophet’s long and accusing finger and warns: ‘You may think you’re happy, you smug and prosperous striver, but I tell you that the anxieties of status mobility are too much; they impoverish you psychologically, they alienate you from your family’; and so on. And the suburbanite looks at his new house, his new car, his new freezer, his lawn and patio, and, to be sure, his good credit, and scratches his head bewildered. (103)

Almost sixty years later, this rings true: many Americans still believe their suburban home full of stuff makes for a good life.

Protecting this middle-class land can be quite a task. Suburbanites are often opposed to new development near their homes, smaller housing, apartments, or affordable housing that could possibly lower their property values and threaten the middle-class character of the community. Some of the concern with people of difference races and ethnicities involves class. As anthropologist Rachel Heiman suggests, there is plenty of class-based anxiety in the suburbs, even in better-off ones. Open conflict should be avoided even as social control is desirable. The rise of homeowner’s associations to help police the actions of neighbors through a third party is one way to keep nearby residents in line.

For a society where the vast majority of citizens say they are middle-class (recent data here and here), the suburbs are the primary geographic and social space for middle-class lives. Obtaining a suburban single-family home still signals a middle-class life.