FOCUS: Merit and Meritocracy

FOCUS: Merit and Meritocracy

Anselma Gallinat, Lisa Garforth and Geoff Payne

2018 marks the 60th anniversary of Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, which introduced the term meritocracy to public and political discourse. This ground-breaking text depicted a society ruled by those deemed to have merit – and described the violent uprising of those who were not. Rooted in 1950s debates about schooling, the role of government in social welfare, and the emergence of a post-industrial society, the book projected the development and entrenchment of a fully-blown meritocratic system in the UK in the early part of the 21st century.  Young’s sociological dystopia was an imaginative, satirical and passionate combination of historical record and futurology, told in the voice of a fictitious researcher.

The ambiguity of the format partially obscured Young’s own opposition to traditional class inequalities and to the repressive meritocratic system that he imagined could develop if the educational policies of the 1950s were continued.  His book left scope for alternative views of meritocracy including positive associations of merit-based systems with social justice.  Whichever way people read his text, Young’s intervention had a considerable influence on policy and education in his time and posed questions about social equality, social systems and sociological knowledge that continue to resonate in our own.

In acknowledging the anniversary of the original publication of a book, which sold over one million copies, this special issue recognises Young’s unique contribution to British society. It neither intends to be a hagiography, nor does it aim to simply demonstrate that the future he imagined did not come to pass, at least not exactly as he told it.  This special issue rather considers how notions of merit and meritocracy have been adopted and changed, and their utility as analytical tools in critical debates about social in/equality today.

The Rise of the Meritocracy first appeared in the UK with the sub-title An Essay on Education and Equality, reflecting Young’s concerns with secondary education and social justice. The 1959 American edition replaced this with The New Elite of Our Social Revolution, which emphasised Young’s dystopian vision of the power structure in a future meritocracy. While each sub-title reflects one aspect of the book’s core concerns, subsequent deployments of meritocracy have tended to build on the former’s implication that it is morally just that individuals with merit, people with intelligence who work hard, should benefit from opportunities. That ideal of meritocracy continues to circulate, even as a rich seam of Anglophone academic writing has demonstrated that neither Britain nor America has equalised meritocratic opportunity.

The book’s alternative American sub-title stays closer to the original meaning of merit-ocracy (i.e. a system of rule by those deemed to have merit) but has received less attention. Indeed, in many discussions merit and meritocracy are elided, and meritocracy is treated as the inherently valuable goal of providing opportunity for those with ‘ability’ who work hard, regardless of their origins. This multiplicity of meanings is well-demonstrated in Jo Littler’s recent book Against Meritocracy [1], a history of the term’s conceptual and political life. Like The Rise of the Meritocracy, her book is a passionate polemic against meritocracy, but this time against the ways in which the idea now serves primarily as a fig-leaf for economic and political systems that are not only failing to address structural inequalities but are actively exaggerating and extending them.

Young wrote very little that directly addressed the concept of meritocracy following the book’s publication.  Instead he focused on setting up organisations that had the potential to actually deliver the educational opportunities that he thought were lacking, and which had partly prompted the book in the first place. A restless and innovative thinker, researcher and social entrepreneur, his remarkable achievements [2] included significant roles – and workloads – in the establishment of the Open University, the National Extension College, the Open College of the Arts, the Advisory Centre for Education and the University of the Third Age.

However, in an article in The Guardian, ‘Down With Meritocracy’, written two years before his death in 2003 Young tried to rescue the meaning of his book. But the discourse and the political moment had already moved on. While Young popularised the term meritocracy he had not invented it (Civil), nor was he its keeper. Young’s bequest of the concept to political and social discourse is both contested and substantial. Today, in a time of austerity policies, rising inequality, and intensifying neoliberal reform of education, benefits and welfare, the questions Young’s text raised, and the imaginative form of the intervention he sought to make, matter more than ever.

The articles in this special issue consider how versions of meritocracy are playing out in politics, policy and public institutions; in culture, discourse and consciousness. For the most part the authors find an indisputable absence of realised meritocracy in education (Morrin) and the labour market (Gallinat). Some individuals may achieve at school, university and work based on merit (‘M’ in Young’s famous equation, mocking the bogus scientism of psychology and IQ testing): that is, due to their intelligence (‘I’) realised through hard work or effort (‘E’). But reward is not socially distributed on the basis of merit; social institutions are not structured meritocratically, rather, life-chances are distributed unevenly (Shields). Upward social mobility between generations happens because of large-scale economic and social changes (the rapid growth of white collar occupations in the post-war period), or because already comfortable families have the resources to protect and extend privilege for their children (Payne).

Public discourses on meritocracy do not challenge this situation but rather have adapted to reproduce it (Smith). In recent years merit has become indexed by having a middle-class occupation, and intelligence by academic qualifications. Effort, increasingly, is understood and judged in terms of its absence; political rhetoric focuses on the supposed lack of ambition and hard work of those who struggle to find permanent employment, a graduate job or university qualifications. Considered to be failing and lacking merit, it becomes justifiable to deny them material or cultural reward [3; 4] and to burden them with the cost of austerity policies. When collective social outcomes are mis-attributed to personal limitations or the strengths and weaknesses of individuals (Civil; Chapman), questions of power, structural inequalities and community are ignored. It is tempting to see parallels between the riot against the meritocrats, a second Peterloo, which kills the narrator in The Rise of the Meritocracy, and the supposed ‘revolt of the working-class Leaver-voters against the cosmopolitan, highly educated elite’ in the EU Referendum.

The articles in this special issue bring power back into view. They show that a persuasive discourse of meritocracy operates at multiple sites in our collective lives. For Littler, meritocracy is an ideology. It masks the realities of, and mobilises support for, a neo-liberal system that distributes enormous rewards to the few and fails to look after the many. In this guise, meritocracy shapes institutions and policy (Morrin; Shields) and infuses media accounts of social success, opportunity and failure (McVittie).

As (Left) social scientists and commentators we are able to analyse and critique meritocracy’s deleterious effects in our social worlds. We may be able to challenge and contest the broad injustices of supposedly meritocratic social policies by raising our voices, in our writing, and in our politics. And within the university we are sometimes able to open doors to students who don’t and can’t conform to the stereotype of the well-qualified and hard-working striver, to support them while they juggle jobs, family life and their studies (Shields).

However, we also need to explore and understand how meritocracy works on us subjectively and culturally, how it speaks seductively to ideals of, and feelings about, fairness and dessert (Littler) This is what has made meritocracy and related ideas so powerful in public discourse in the UK and beyond (Gallinat). As social scientists we need to understand its appeal in everyday life and individual experience – including in our own biographical narratives, especially when we have benefitted to even a small degree from ‘meritocratic’ avenues to social mobility and feel tempted to use the discourse to justify our own relative privilege (Graham).

The articles in special issue emerged from a one-day symposium at Newcastle University in 2018 and a related education stream plenary at this year’s British Sociological Association’s Annual Conference. What came out in discussions at these events was a sense of frustration at the multiple ways in which a careless neo-liberal discourse of meritocracy has become embedded in our collective lives – and a need to actively find ways to contest it.

A major challenge is to imagine alternatives and find practical ways to resist meritocratic reasonings that support and reproduce inequalities. This is a sociological as well as a political challenge. Young’s own approach was to use dystopian satire to present the evils of meritocracy and encourage us to explore different approaches to social justice based on community and solidarity. Radically utopian alternatives are one way to help unsettle the seeming common-sense of meritocracy and to explore alternative values (Garforth).

We might also follow up on the positive political ideals that Young drew on and developed in The Rise of the Meritocracy, and more explicitly espoused in other areas of his work (Civil), which belong to rich traditions of fraternal post-industrial socialism. This is the path Hugo Radice takes in his piece proposing alternatives.  We need also to think about smaller ways to contest meritocracy, embed different values in our institutions, and enable people to imagine better futures in new ways. A useful starting point would be to re-read The Rise of the Meritocracy.

[1]     Littler, J. (2018) Against Meritocracy, London: Routledge.
[2]     Briggs, A. (2001) Michael Young: Social Entrepreneur, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
[3]     Lawler, S. (2018) ‘Social mobility talk: class-making in neo-liberal times.’ in S. Lawler and G. Payne (eds) Social Mobility in the 21st Century, Abingdon: Routledge.
[4]     Reay, D. (2018) Miseducation, Bristol: Policy Press.


Anselma Gallinat is a social anthropologist, at Newcastle University with interests in fundamental regime-change, narrative and rhetoric. She is the author of Narratives in the Making (2016, Berghahn) and co-editor of The Ethnographic Self as Resource (2010, Berghahn). Lisa Garforth lectures in Sociology at Newcastle University. Her research centres on utopianism, the imagination of environmental futures, and future-making in social theory and fiction. Her book Green Utopias was published by Polity in 2017. Geoff Payne is a Research Associate in Sociology at Newcastle University. His recent books include The New Social Mobility (2017, Policy Press) and Social Mobility for the 21st Century (2018, Routledge: co-edited with Steph Lawler).

Image: Wonderstuff, for this issue