Book Review – The Meritocracy Myth

When one teaches introduction to sociology courses, one is always on the lookout for a good, readable book that makes a powerful case for the relevance of sociological analysis without dumbing it down or turning it into “you can have better relationships thanks to sociology” kind of drivel. After all, introduction to sociology textbooks are mostly horrendous and I don’t know who could ever be drawn to sociology just by reading a textbook (hence my own personal revolt and work-in-progress).

One of the things that sociology does well is debunking: take commonly accepted ideas and show systematically and with data how these ideas are actually false. That’s why when my new colleague mentioned The Meritocracy Myth by Stephen McNamee and Robert K. Miller jr., I was immediately interested because if there is one thing American students reject outright, it’s the durkheimian idea of social facts that are constraining on individual behavior or the supposed “natural” idea that some people are just smarter than others (I teach at a community college, you’d think they’d be more critical of that one, but nope, and rationalizations abound) or that people’s social positions reflect their moral worth.

In the book, McNamee and Miller review the roots of meritocratic individualism and then proceed to deconstruct all the different aspects of meritocracy and explore how social privileges and disadvantages are socially allocated based on a variety of factors mediated through various social institutions. They provide a strong demonstration for the power of the social structure. Seamlessly combining social theory (like Bourdieu on social and cultural capital) and recent data, the authors mercifully work towards a welcome “everything you believe is wrong” conclusion.

“The acceptance of meritocracy in America is predicated not on what ‘is’ but on the belief that the system of inequality is ‘fair’ and it ‘works.’ According to the ideology of meritocracy, inequality is seen to be fair because everyone presumably has an equal (or at least adequate) chance to succeed, and success is determined by individual merit. The system supposedly works because it is seen as providing as individual incentive to achieve that is good for society as a whole; that is, those who are most talented, the hardest working, and the most virtuous get and should get the most rewards.” (4)

This is the mark of an ideological construct that it is promoted by a variety of institutional arrangements (schools, media, etc.) so much so that it becomes natural (after all, how different is this from the structural-functionalist view of inequalities). And like many ideologies, this belief is a cultural underpinning of the maintenance of the status quo, politically, economically and socially while making increasing levels of inequalities acceptable. And like many such ideological constructs, they are based on scrapping from view the nasty side of the history of social privilege, as perfectly illustrated by this Ampersand comic found at Eric Stoller’s website:

So, McLemee and Miller deconstruct this belief, taking on the sub-arguments one by one and showing how they do not survive scrutiny. They demonstrate how social privileges and disadvantages are allocated before birth and are accumulated every step of the way as the privileged accumulate social, economic and cultural capital by sending their children to “the right kind” of kindergartens, pre-schools and schools. Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Chamboredon’s thesis on Social Reproduction is well known: schools reward upper-class habitus and privileged kids’s possession of the right kind of social and cultural capital and allow them to accumulate more of it.

The authors also examine and discard the “attitude” argument (“those with the right attitude succeed”) as well as the moral argument (success comes to the virtuous, those who postpone gratification, as opposed to the poor who, as often repeated, have the wrong values, go for immediate gratification and have their own self-defeating subculture, as the culture-of-poverty argument goes). One would think that with the economic collapse and the exposure for the whole world to see of the incompetence and immorality of the financial class, that argument would have been put to rest, but no, the mortgage crisis was the fault of all these poor people who could not defer gratification and had to buy houses they could not afford (never mind that reality shows otherwise and points the blame higher on the social ladder).

“But,” my students often argue, “what about athletes, and Oprah?” (Why do they ALWAYS have to bring Oprah to the conversation??):

“One could argue that these ‘elites’ are truly talented and have extraordinary physical qualities not available to the average person (e.g., size, speed, agility, hand-eye coordination). Raw talent alone, however, is not enough. Talent has to be cultivated through recruitment and opportunities for training. Potential talent can go unnoticed, particularly in the absence of opportunities to develop and exhibit it. Training may be expensive and not easily available to people of modest means, particularly in such sports as golf, tennis, swimming and figure skating.” (28)

And then, there is, of course, the question of inheritance, the most obvious mechanism of transmission of privileges. Advocates of meritocracy should militate for the abolition of any form of inheritance, after all, it is unearned. Of course, it would be impossible to scrap any unearned privilege from one generation to the next as it would be impossible to eliminate social and cultural capital. Indeed, what is captured under the “silver spoon” expression covers a wide range of behavioral and dispositional traits and symbolic advantages that go beyond material wealth.

There are also all the different forms of structural discrimination by race and ethnicity, gender and sexual preference, age and others. Being part of the dominant group constitutes an invisible (and therefore deniable) form of unearned privilege (as the comic above also illustrates) that has cumulative effects.

And then there’s luck, just plain and simple: being born in the right place at the right time, at times of economic transitions (as opposed to economic recession… the structure of opportunities is pretty bleak right now, especially for those already disadvantaged because they have nothing to fall back on, which is another advantage to the privileged who can then engage in greater risk-taking behavior with bigger potential pay-off because they have greater resources to fall back on).

“In thinking about who ends up with what jobs. Americans tend to first think about what economists call the ‘supply side.’ In labor economics, the supply side refers to the pool of workers available to fill jobs. The ideology of meritocracy leads Americans to focus on the qualities of individual workers: how smart they are, how qualified they are, how much education they have, and so on. These ‘human capital’ factors, however, represent only half of the equation. The other half, the ‘demand side,’ is about the number and types of jobs available. How many jobs are available, their location, how much they pay, and how many people are seeking them are important but often neglected considerations in assessing the impact of merit on economic outcomes.” (137)

So, once we have the picture of an unequal system that is a far cry from the claims of the meritocratic ideology, why should we care? We should care because increased stratification, first, is unfair. Some people are gaming the system intentionally or not, and for others, the system is gamed in their favor. So, basic social justice applies. As the book demonstrates, most of the privileges are unearned.

More than that, as demonstrated in The Spirit Level, social inequalities are bad for society on a variety of indicators. An unequal society is even bad for those who benefit the most from unearned privileges, so egalitarian policies are the solution to provide equality of opportunities, or even, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett recommend, equality of results (somehow, always a more controversial claim). Most of the remedies McLemee and Miller suggest are well-known: progressive taxation, government spending, etc. Nothing really new here.

As I mentioned above, this is a book really for undergraduate students. The professional sociologist will not find anything really new in the book, but clear conceptual definitions and some pretty nice argumentative retorts to usual students defending the meritocracy myth. It’s a book that should be mandatory reading for any sociology department’s undergraduates.

7 thoughts on “Book Review – The Meritocracy Myth

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  3. A very good review, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book as well. I talk about meritocracy with intro students as our distinctively good old American form of ideology. I find the race track metaphor to be beneficial in conveying the advantages of privilege. Throw Paris Hilton in there and they “seem” to get it, but who knows. I agree that McNamee and Miller is a definite must-read for sociology undergrads.

    • @Matt,

      I always thought that we should (at least full-time faculty) select a sociology book (apart from textbooks) that we would all have our intro to soc students read.

      We would collectively design assignments for it and would use it on a 3/4 years cycle. Just to give our students a taste of “real” sociology

      This one would seem appropriate because it is not too long, very readable and covers a lot of the stuff we already cover in intro to soc classes. And it is current.

      If we wanted, we could even use the assignments as continuous data that we could insert into our program review or just try to get published ourselves in places like “Teaching Sociology” or Contexts.

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