In assessingthe extent to which British society can be deemed ‘meritocratic’, this essaywill draw an important distinction between what can be deemed anempirically-verifiable set of truths describing aspects of a society’scondition, and what can be deemed the truth regarding itsdiscursive-ideological organising principle (Foucault 1980). With regard to theformer, insofar as we take Jonsson’s (1992) ‘Increased Merit Selection’ (IMS)hypothesis to be a valid operationalisation of ‘meritocracy’, I will argue thatBritain is in objective terms some way from being meritocratic. Regarding thelatter, I will show how the discursive structuring of British society is indeedmeritocratic.
Ironically, this discursive reality serves not only to mask theunreality of meritocracy as an objective condition of British society, but alsoboth discursively crowds out a non-educational policy agenda which might helppromote meritocratic objectivity and legitimates a societal condition whicharguably undermines such an end. As apreliminary caveat, it is worth problematising the conceptual possibility of aperfect meritocracy. As a starting point, let us take the definitions of’meritocracy’ given by the two seminal works most famous in delimiting itsmeaning. Young (1958) used ‘meritocracy’ to describe a society in which merit,composed of ‘intelligence and effort’ (1958:94), becomes the key determinant ofoccupational position, while Bell (1972), in his ‘post-industrial’ formulation,describes it as one where differential status and income are based on highereducation attainment. Two points are of particular significance here withregard to the problematic of meritocracy’s conceptual possibility.
First, meritocraticachievements – as both Young and Bell describe them – need be ‘genuinely earned,deserved rewards’ (Bell 1973:453), yet, as Mijs (2016) argues, opportunitiesfor meritocratic achievement are not themselves deserved. Since the allocationof unequal natural endowments (both intelligence and ability to work hard) by thenatural lottery is not itself a meritocratically deserved distribution (Rawls1972:310-315), meritocracy in practice ‘violates its own merit principle’ (2016:26). Second, merit is not a neutral and naturally observable ‘social fact'(Durkheim 1950) but is rather historically, situationally and institutionallyconstructed (Mijs 2016:20-21). A key question here is who is able to define andset the standards for merit and, as Karabel (2005:550) notes in exploring howmerit has been variously defined within elite US educational institutions, ‘those who are able to define ‘merit’ willalmost invariably possess more of it’. Denaturalising meritocracy as a socialconstruction, intrinsically embedded within relations of power, challenges itsplausibility as an ideal type, for its very meaning is both fluid and subjectto contestation. However, while important, this theoreticalproblematisation is not to say that a particular interpretation of themeritocratic ideal cannot be, or has not been, realised or approximated towardsin Britain.
To answerwhether it has been, we need first an empirically measurable operationalisationof meritocracy. A crucial question in such an operationalisation is that of how’merit’ is to be measured, yet it is important to note the problems inundertaking such a task. While proponents of the meritocratic thesis havetended to index merit through educational attainment, based on the assumptionthat educational institutions play a leading role in discovering talent(Goldthorpe 1996, Bell 1972), to do so is ‘not an unproblematic assumption’ (Marshalland Swift 1996:382), challenged most notably by Saunders (1995:27-38), who positsthat IQ is a preferable mode of indexation.1Nevertheless, this essay takes the line of argument pursued by Breen andGoldthorpe (2001): given the data available, the issue of meritocracy can mostproductively be addressed if ‘considered in its tendential form’ – that is,through Jonsson’s (1992) ‘Increased Merit Selection’ (IMS) hypothesis – ‘evenif the exact extent of its approximation to a `true’ meritocracy would stillremain contestable’ (2001:81). Thus, we can treat meritocracy as an issue of whethermerit, here understood in terms of educational achievement, ‘is growing inimportance in processes of social selection’ (2001:81). The hypothesis works interms of the ‘OED triangle’: hypothetically, amidst increased equality ofeducational opportunity through expansion and reform, the relationship betweenclass origin and educational attainment weakens. At the same time, due toincreasing meritocratic selection based on educational credentials in thelabour market, the association between education and occupational destinationstrengthens (Goldthorpe 2016:101), and the overall influence of an individual’sprovenance on their class destination will decline as it is ‘irrelevant to themeritocratic selection procedure’ (Goldthorpe 1996:666).
Thus, relative mobilityrates equalise (Goldthorpe 2016:101).Nevertheless,the empirical data available would seem to disprove that the IMS hypothesis holdsgood in the UK. For example, Bukodi et al.
(2015) argue that there has been a high degree of consistency as regardsrelative rates of mobility for cohorts born between 1946 and 1970. To shedlight on this trend, Bukodi and Goldthorpe (2016) look to disaggregating thechanging associations within the OED triangle. They argue that if wereconceptualise education as a ‘positional’ rather than an ‘absolute’ good – inthat the ‘value of a particular level of educational attainment is dependenton the levels of attainment of others’ (2016:6) – then a number of points in contraventionof the IMS prediction become clear. First, there has been ‘no change’ in therelationship between class origin and educational attainment. More advantagedparents actively respond to educational expansion and the perceived decline invalue of a particular qualification level by deploying their superior financial,cultural and informational resources to helpensure their children’s educational success (Francis and Hutchings 2013). Indeed,research has shown that socio-economic differentials in secondary education attainmentremain particularly marked (Social Mobility Commission 2016), and there remain vastsocioeconomic differences in ‘relative rates of progression to highereducation’ (Boliver 2017:423).
Second, in takinga relative view of education, there appears ‘no clear trend of change’ in therelationship between educational attainment and class destination (Goldthorpe2016: 103). To explain this, we might take a cue from Goldthorpe (2014), whonotes that employers are free to define merit with regard to prospective employeesin whatever way they wish. Educational credentials do not operate in a single modefor employers, and may be employed alongside or in lieu of other selectioncriteria such as work experience or ‘soft’ skills such as ‘fit’ (Rivera 2016). Thiswould make sense in the context of the ‘credential inflation’ (Brown 2013) resultingfrom the recent dramatic increases in higher education participation: employersmay take a relative view of education, with the most elite employers targetingonly a very small number of higher education institutions (Savage 2015).
Finally, the essentially unchanged associationson each side of the OED triangle have produced a situation where there has beenvery little change, if any, in either the overall or direct association betweenclass origin and destination over time (Bukodi and Goldthorpe 2016:14). Thus, whilerecognising both the conceptual limitations of this approach and that theempirical studies and data available do not prove conclusively that Britain isnot meritocratic, insofar as we aim to usefully address this issue and takeeducational attainment to be an indexer of merit, to say that Britain is not isthe safest conclusion to be drawn.Importantly,however, meritocracy can have an ontology beyond its descriptive relevance fora society’s objective condition if it serves as a ‘regime of truth’ for thatsociety (Foucault 1980) – a discourse intrinsically linked to forms of hegemonywhich holds the power to define reality. Meritocracy has certainly served as animportant organising principle and policy focus in British society, permeatingrhetoric across the political spectrum since the 1980s and mobilised as a way oflegitimating the status quo (Beck 2008) and delimiting what might be describedas a cognitive frame of policy possibility and desirability (see Hall 1993).
Inparticular, New Labour adopted the idea of a ‘meritocratic society’ with gusto:its priorities were highlighted as increasing ‘aspiration’ and ‘opportunity’ (Beck2008:13) and, famously, Blair declared that the biggest change under New Labourwas that ‘the country is basically more willing to advance people on merit today'(quoted in Beck 2008:16). The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition toodiscursively manufactured the notion of an ‘aspiration nation’: in his 2013party conference speech, Cameron explicitly spoke of Britain as a country whichfights ‘for all those who work hard and want to get on’ (quoted in Littler 2013).And only last year Theresa May exalted the importance of pushing even furtherfor a society ‘where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talentand their hard work will allow’ (May 2016). Even if ‘meritocracy’ inaccuratelycaptures the condition of British society, in its discursive ‘truth’, then, Iwould argue that Britain is indeed meritocratic.Importantly,however, we cannot see this meritocratic discursive ontology purely as arhetorical strategy which exists in counterpoint to the ‘unmeritocratic’ objectivecondition of British society.
Rather, there is a dynamic tension between thetwo in that the former undermines the latter, and we can see this in two distinctthough interconnected ways. First, politicians’ rhetorical mobilisation and policypromotion of meritocracy has manifested itself in an incredibly focused andsingle-minded policy emphasis on expanding (certain kinds of) educationalopportunity, while addressing the sources of opportunity inequalities thatexist beyond the educational domain is discursively crowded out by themeritocratic emphasis on educational reform – reform which becomes in somedegree a surrogate for equalising opportunity tout court. As Beck (2008) pointsout, Blair’s reform of educational institutions became the ‘royal road’ to thismeritocratic goal. Education as the keystone of measures to widen opportunityhas too been central to Conservative Party policy rhetoric, and to some extentpractice, aimed at increasing social mobility under the explicit banner ofpromoting a ‘meritocratic’ Britain (Gove 2008). In very recent times, there hasbeen a further renewal of education-based meritocratic discourse and policy,and May’s current administration’s aims ‘to build a school system that truly worksfor everyone’ was considered in some quarters ‘the hallmark of a trulymeritocratic Britain’ (May 2016). It is clear, however, that in reality whatcan be achieved only or mainly through educational policy to equaliseopportunity has considerable limitations. As noted above, widespreadeducational expansion has not in actuality led to a reduction in educationalattainment inequalities (Bukodi and Goldthorpe 2016). A ‘basic source of inequality of educationalopportunity lies in inequality of condition’, and solong as there is a high level of inequity within society there will be a highdisparity of various resources ‘existing among families with differentlocations within class structure’ (Goldthorpe 2016:107) which are transformedinto educational inequities (Ball 2010).
What is, or rather would be, requiredto effectively widen opportunity are social and economic policies directlytargeted towards ‘class abasement’ (Marshall 1950, Goldthorpe 2016:107) or atany rate radically redistributive economic measures.2It is certainly significant that societies in which social mobility has been mostsuccessfully realised are significantly more equal with respect to levels ofwealth and income (Andrews and Leigh 2009), and have seen a policy emphasisfall not so much on educational policy per se as on the reduction of classincome and income security differentials (Goldthorpe 2013:446). While suchinequalities have important repercussions for the objective condition ofmeritocracy – as measured by the IMS – in British society, ironically, the secondimplication of the discursive mobilisation of meritocracy in Britain is that itserves ‘to both disguise and gain consent for such economic inequalities’ (Littler2013:69). Under meritocratic rhetoric and processes, inequalities of rewardthemselves are seen not as a problem so much as an inevitability (Savage 2015:401).
Further, meritocratictropes are deployed by what Crouch (2004:72-77) calls an ‘ellipse’ of interlocking business, political and financialelites as a key source of legitimation for policies aimed at increasing inequalities between individuals and groups,arguing that their assets reflect significant achievement. Meanwhile, ‘losers’ of the meritocraticcompetition – those living in poverty – internalise the hegemonic meritocraticorthodoxy of responsibility individualisation and poverty stigmatisation, and bothdeny their own poverty and castigate ‘the poor’, rather than challenge thestatus quo (Shildrick and MacDonald 2013). As a result of these processes, rewardsflowing to the most highly rewarded elite groups have grown considerably morein recent years than to those at the bottom of the income ladder (Savage 2015), yet theseheightened inequalities of condition bear significantly and negatively on the equalityof opportunity necessary for meritocracy to function (Goldthorpe 2013).To conclude,notwithstanding its conceptual and empirical limitations, insofar as we takeJonsson’s IMS hypothesis to be an effective operationalisation of meritocracy,this essay has demonstrated that it would be inaccurate to state that,objectively, Britain is meritocratic. An important distinction is to be made,however, between a description of objective condition and the discursive andorganisational ‘truth’ of a society, and in this latter respect, in thatmeritocracy exists as a powerful ideological and discursive force, it couldcertainly be said that Britain is indeed meritocratic. Importantly, though,this essay has further argued that this discursive reality and the objectivecondition of British society do not exist in isolation, but rather in tension inthat the discursive meritocratic ‘myth’ promulgated by politicians servesrather ironically to undermine the conditions under which Britain might objectivelybecome more meritocratic. 1 Two points are noteworthy here. First, wecould conceive of merit as, for example, ‘innate intelligence or motivation, butas Marshall and Swift (1996: 378) point out, we ‘do not have available datameasuring these, so turn instead to evidence of individuals’ educationalattainment’.
Second, Goldthorpe (1996: 670) highlights the problem inherent inany IMS operationalisation in that it necessitates the adoption of a single anduniversal conception of merit. The problem is, as he notes, that in societieswith a market economy and pluralistic polity, the ‘concept of merit, even ifwidely invoked and applied, can’t be specified in consistent or objectivemanner, but rather has to be defined in large part situationally in ways whichnecessarily involve subjective judgement’.2 Goldthorpe (2013:445) draws on the Scandinavian example, where redistributiveeconomic measures consist of ‘redistributive fiscaland welfare policies and…employment protection that help maintain the securityand stability of incomes…and on models of political economy that…prioritisefull employment’.