Meritocracy: Real or Myth?

A woman celebrating college graduation
Texas Inprint Photography, Inc/Getty Images

Meritocracy is a social system in which success and status in life depend primarily on individual talents, abilities, and effort. It is a social system in which people advance on the basis of their merits.

A meritocratic system contrasts with aristocracy, for which people advance on the basis of the status and titles of family and other relations. 

From the days of Aristotle, who coined the term "ethos," the idea of awarding positions of power to those most capable have been a part of political discussion not only for governments but for business endeavors as well.

Many Western societies--the United States chief among them--are commonly considered to be meritocracies, meaning these societies are built on the belief that anyone can make it with hard work and dedication. Social scientists often refer to this as the "bootstrap ideology," evoking the popular notion of "pulling" oneself "up by the bootstraps." 

However, many challenge the validity of the position that Western societies are meritocracies, perhaps rightfully so. Widespread evidence exists, to varying degrees, within each of these societies of structural inequalities and systems of oppression designed and developed specifically to limit opportunities based on class, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, and other social markers.

Aristotle's Ethos and Meritocracy

In discussions of rhetoric, Aristotle relates the epitome of his understanding of the word ethos as the mastery of a particular subject. 

Rather than determining merit based on the modern state of affairs as exemplified by the political system in place at the time, 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," declaring 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."

The term has come to frequently be described in modern day 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 any applicant for a 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, as the availability of resources to cultivate merit are largely predicated upon one's current and historic socioeconomic status. Thus, those born into higher socioeconomic standing--those who have more wealth--have access to more resources 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 argues that a kinship exists between merit-based scholarships and education and social Darwinism, wherein only those given opportunities from birth are able to survive natural selection: By awarding only those who possess the means to afford a higher-quality education, either through intellectual or financial merit, a disparity is institutionally created between the impoverished and the wealthy, those born with inherent disadvantages and those born into socioeconomic prosperity.

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