Understanding Meritocracy from a Sociological Perspective

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Oct 10, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Meritocracy is an ideology wherein those who work hard are rewarded for their ability and efforts. From a sociological perspective, the meritocratic system believes that successful people are fully deserving of such.

A meritocratic society is one where jobs and pay are allocated to individuals based on their talent and achievement rather than their ascriptive factors, like social class, gender, ethnicity, or wealth.

In contrast, those who do not work hard are seen as undeserving and will not be rewarded. The idea of meritocracy was first coined by British sociologist Michael Young in 1958 and has received much attention since.

Young reflected that meritocracy would result in dystopia and that societal status being dependent on natural abilities and hard work would establish further inequalities. However, many societies have increasingly recognized meritocracy as a positive system.

What Does Meritocracy Mean In Society?

It is often claimed that modern industrial societies are more meritocratic than in the past.

The allocation of rewards is justified

Reward allocation is justified by meritocratic ideology in that whoever performs best deserves the highest reward. It provides a moral basis for allocating rewards such as money, status, and societal success. 

Meritocracy corresponds to the functionalist idea that ascription should be replaced by achievement. This contrasts with rewards given through nepotism and bribery, among other methods. This means that for society to perform most efficiently, differences in achievement should lead to different rewards (Mijs, 2016). 

Davis and Moore (1945) formulated this principle in the following quote: ‘Social inequality is an unconsciously evolved device by which societies ensure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons.’

There is an incentive to work hard

One of the main purposes of a meritocratic society is to incentivize people to work harder. Its purpose is to stimulate effort and motivation. 

The stronger the practice of nepotism and bribery, the less likely people feel motivated to spend their effort to attain the impossible.

Ascription implies that reward is allocated to people independent of their achievements, whereas meritocracy values individual achievement (Mijs, 2016). 

The belief in equal opportunity

Meritocracy believes that the world is just and fair, meaning everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. A meritocratic society would suggest that anyone can succeed regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, and social status.

Social mobility

A major principle of meritocracy is the concept of social mobility (Liu, 2011). This means there is the understanding that individuals can achieve social status through their abilities and contributions. 

A meritocratic society allows those from lower socioeconomic status to aspire to a higher social class, status, and place in the hierarchy (Kim & Choi, 2017).

Individuals will believe that achieving social mobility is possible with the idea that they should work hard and display certain abilities.

Meritocracy In Education

There is debate over whether the education system is believed to be meritocratic or not, with functionalists believing that it is

The meritocratic view of education means that the system is fair and supports all students. A meritocratic education system gives students equal opportunity to accomplish and receive rewards regardless of outside factors (Erivwo et al., 2021). 

If education is meritocratic, the hardest working student gets the best grades, gets into the best university or college, and goes on to get the best job.

Suppose students believe they will be assessed and rewarded meritocratically. In that case, this can be considered a positive thing, as, without this belief, it may be harder to motivate themselves to put in the effort at school (Mijs, 2016). 

Why the education system is not meritocratic

While many schools promote the idea of meritocracy, that the hardest working gets the best grades and thus gets to go into further education and a good career, there are many suggested reasons why education is not truly meritocratic and that everyone does not have the same opportunity. 

Each school differs in the quality of instruction and in the population of students attending the school. Even within integrated public schools, the educational experiences of students vary due to students often being placed into ability groups (Mijs, 2016). This can affect the quality of class instruction and the atmosphere of the learning environment. 

Schools are often rated according to the quality and achievement levels their students attain. Therefore, if one student attends a highly-rated school and another attends a low-rated school, these students are likely to have different learning experiences, regardless of how similar they may be in natural intelligence. 

The resources available to students are also likely to affect their education. A student who lives in an area with a good internet connection, their own computer, and a school which has the funds for quality textbooks and other learning resources is likely to have a different educational experience than a student who lives in an area with a poor internet connection, shares a computer with other family members, and in which their school does not have the funds for quality learning resources. 

Research suggests that parents play an important role in their child’s education. It has been shown that even when children are similarly talented, their different social backgrounds mean they may end up with different quality education (Jackson et al., 2007).

Even when educational opportunities expand and schools become more inclusive, it is found that a student’s social class background remains an important predictor for the quality and level of education they get within the school system (Lucas, 2001). 

Likewise, there is an over-representation of students from affluent families being accepted into Ivy League education. A study from 2013 found that 14% of Harvard students in their freshman year have an annual household income of over $500,000 (Anasu & Ledecky, 2013). 

Does Meritocracy Fuel Social Inequality?

A meritocratic system takes the best talent and performance on the assumption that everyone has an equal opportunity to be the best when that is not always the case (Mijs, 2016). Factors such as wealth, geographic area, and quality of schooling all have an influence on the abilities of an individual.

Meritocracy does not consider the structural inequalities and systems of oppression that one can face in society. This means that individuals can have limited opportunities based on their social class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other social markers. 

The core idea of meritocracy is that it is intended to avoid inequalities based on social markers. However, it has been suggested that attempts to implement meritocracy leads to the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate. Adopting meritocracy convinces successful people that they are morally superior, and they thus become less inclined to examine their behavior for signs of prejudice (Castilla & Benard, 2010). 

In a meritocratic society, it would be justified to blame individuals for their failings rather than putting part of the blame on society (Mijs, 2016). For example, if someone is unemployed, this is viewed as a personal trouble, and their character and skills can be scrutinized.

They may be described as ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated’ or that they deserve less. Meritocratic policies lead people to forget that personal troubles often reflect wider public issues (Mijs, 2016). 

The belief in a meritocratic world describes the human tendency to accept inequalities as deserved. This allows people to maintain their belief that they live in a fair world rather than having to address why those inequalities exist (Jost et al., 2004). 

A society that promotes the idea that success comes from talent and effort suggests that people with less opportunity are given false hope. If someone does not succeed, this can be seen as justly deserved and can lead to negative effects on a person’s self-esteem (Mijs, 2016). 

The myth of meritocracy

Marxists believe that there is a myth of meritocracy, which was made up to legitimize the unjust class system. In this system, the bourgeoise is in charge, whereas the proletariat is exploited. Marxists argue that meritocratic ideology sets up a way for working-class acceptance that they are working class and always will be. 

Marxists also believe that working-class children have disadvantages before starting schools, such as material deprivation and fewer resources.

There is also cultural capital (e.g., skills, knowledge, and attitudes) provided by middle-class parents, meaning they have been more able than working-class parents to use their skills to get their children into the best schools. Therefore, the working class cannot have the same chances as people from higher social classes. 

It is worth noting that Michael Young, who coined the term meritocracy in 1958 was not advocating for meritocracy. He reflected on the consequences of a meritocratic system where societal status depended on natural intelligence and hard work. He concluded that meritocracy would result in dystopia and establish prolonged inequality (Young, 2001).

How would meritocracy be possible?

A meritocratic society without flaws would be possible only if everyone truly started off on a level playing field. This would only happen if everyone had the same opportunities and an equal share of resources.

As such, there are too many variables that can give some more opportunities to succeed over others, such as family wealth, social class, race, gender, and nutrition.

What is an alternative to meritocracy in the education system?

An alternative to meritocratic education would be to compensate for lower talent with a bigger investment of educational resources (known as the principle of need).

Or students can be offered the same educational opportunities regardless of their abilities (known as the principle of equality) rather than certain opportunities offered to the high achieving students (Mijs, 2016).

What is an example of meritocracy?

A common example of meritocracy is when it comes to hiring someone for a job. If the employer chooses the candidate who has the highest qualifications and most experience in the field, this would be a meritocratic choice. This would be in comparison to hiring someone because of bribery or nepotism.

Who benefits from the idea of meritocracy?

It is thought that meritocratic beliefs serve individual or group interests. For instance, those who are successful societal elites or groups that have an interest in maintaining their advantages over others (Mijs, 2016).

Those who already have vast wealth in their family, who then go on to succeed, can ascribe their success to their own efforts while not attributing to any other influences such as money and parental encouragement.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Oct 10). Understanding Meritocracy from a Sociological Perspective. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/meritocracy.html


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