Meritocracy: Real or Myth?

A woman celebrating her college graduation symbolizes the promise of meritocracy.
Woman throws her cap into the air to celebrate graduation from the University of Missouri in May, 2015. Texas Inprint Photography, Inc/Getty Images

A meritocracy is a social system in which people’s success and status in life depend primarily on their talents, abilities, and effort. In other words, it is a social system in which people advance on the basis of their merits.

Meritocracy is contrasted with aristocracy, in which a person's success and status in life depend primarily on the status and titles of their family and other relations. In this type of social system, people advance on the basis of their name and/or social connections.

As far back as Aristotle's term "ethos," the idea of awarding positions of power to those most capable have been a part of political discussions, not only for governments but for business endeavors as well.

In its modern interpretation, meritocracy can apply to any field wherein the candidate that's selected for a job or task is awarded it based on their intelligence, physical strength, education, credentials in the field or through doing well on examinations or evaluations.

The United States and other Western nations are considered by many to be meritocracies, which means that people believe that "anybody can make it" if they simply try hard enough. Social scientists often refer to this as the "bootstrap ideology," recalling the popular notion of "pulling" oneself "up by the bootstraps." However, many call into question the validity of the claim that Western societies are meritocracies, based on widespread evidence of structural inequalities and systems of oppression that limit opportunities based on class, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, and other social markers.

Aristotle's Ethos and Meritocracy

In rhetoric discussions, Aristotle relates the mastery of a particular subject as the epitome of his understanding of the word "ethos." Rather than determining merit based on the modern state of affairs -- the then-current political system in place -- Aristotle argued that it should come from a traditional understanding of aristocratic and oligarchical structures that define "good" and "knowledgeable."

In 1958, Michael Young wrote a satirical paper mocking the Tripartite System of British education called "The Rise of the Meritocracy," which claimed that "merit is equated with intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications."

Now, the term has come to be frequently described in sociology and psychology as any act of judgment based on merit. Although some disagree about what qualifies as a true merit, most now agree that merit should be the primary concern for selecting an applicant for any type of position.

Social Inequality and Merit Disparity

In modern times, especially in the United States, the idea of a merit-based-only system of governance and business creates a disparity because the availability of resources to cultivate merit are largely determined by one's socioeconomic status. Therefore, those born into a higher socioeconomic standing (namely, who have more wealth), will have more resources available to them than those born into lower standing. Unequal access to resources has a direct and significant effect on the quality of education a child will receive, all the way from kindergarten through university. The quality of one's education, among other factors related to inequalities and discrimination, directly affects the development of merit and how meritorious one will appear when applying for positions.

In his 2012 book "Meritocratic Education and Social Worthlessness," Khen Lampert argued that merit-based scholarships and education being akin to social Darwinism, wherein only those given opportunity from birth are able to survive natural selection. By awarding only those who have the means to afford a better quality education, either through their intellectual or financial merit, a disparity is institutionally created between the impoverished and the wealthy, those born into socioeconomic prosperity and those born with inherent disadvantages.

While meritocracy is a noble ideal for any social system, achieving it requires first recognizing that social, economic, and political conditions may exist which make it impossible. To achieve it, then, those conditions would have to be corrected.