The myth of meritocracy is increasing inequality, book argues

October 25, 2017 by Ed Grover, City University London
Credit: kmlmtz66 /

Society is becoming more divided because wealthy and powerful figures are promoting the notion of a meritocracy while failing to address inequality, according to a new book by a sociologist at City, University of London.

Dr Jo Littler says people in Britain, as in a wide range of countries from the US to Singapore, are being told that they live in a meritocracy – a 'fair' society in which citizens can achieve anything with enough , regardless of their at birth.

However, she argues this is a myth because many people are increasingly disadvantaged in various ways, often by their gender and ethnicity, as well as their levels of financial wealth.

The book, Against Meritocracy: Culture, power and myths of mobility, traces the history of the idea of meritocracy and uses case studies from Dr Littler's own research to show how popular culture and advertising are being used to support the notion.

She said: "My research shows the meritocracy is an inescapable part of our culture. It's all around us, not just in the political world, but in media, education and in stories told about work. It contains a grain of truth and a whole heap of mystification.

"I am particularly interested in what I call the 'meritocratic deficit' – or how those already socially disadvantaged in terms of gender, ethnicity and class have been doubly disadvantaged over the past few decades by being incited so forcefully to climb the ladder."

Meritocracy and neoliberalism

The first part of Against Meritocracy discusses the history of the idea and where it comes from. The second part discusses case studies that present myths of social mobility and the 'parables of progress'.

The examples include the idea of the 'mumpreneur', a mother who juggles childcare while running her own business, the row over racial diversity on HBO reality TV show Project Greenlight, and representations of the 'deserving' rich in programmes like The Apprentice and CEO autobiographies.

Dr Littler, a Reader in the Department of Sociology at City, says the rise in the promotion of meritocracy has come with the rise of neoliberalism – the political theory that suggests society works best if people are encouraged to take individual responsibility and public services are privatised.

"The book argues that under neoliberalism, the idea of meritocracy has been marketised and used as an ideological weapon by a wealthy elite," she said.

Against Meritocracy argues is the key cultural means of legitimation for contemporary neoliberal culture – and that while it promises opportunity, it in fact creates new forms of social division.

"People are encouraged to internalise the idea that if they fail to climb the ladder, it is their own fault, at the same time as the chances of being able to climb it are falling on a daily basis," she said.

Explore further: 'Achievement gap' cannot be closed, solution lies in transforming how we educate, professor writes

Related Stories

Women in academic medicine 'manage femininity' to succeed

August 26, 2015

(HealthDay)—Women tend to manage their femininity so as to be considered adherent to the unspoken code of the non-gendered worker, according to research presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, ...

Why are there so few women screen composers?

August 1, 2017

Just 13 percent of those composing music for screen are women, according to membership figures from APRA AMCOS, the organisation that looks after copyright for songwriters, composers and music publishers in Australia.

Sociologist examines a new American elite

March 22, 2011

Shamus Rahman Khan, an assistant sociology professor, is interested in elites. As a graduate of St. Paul’s School, one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the nation, he thought that by going back there for a ...

Recommended for you

Study: Social media sways exercise motivation

January 17, 2019

It's January – a time when students are looking for that extra bit of oomph. For some, time spent on social media might provide the necessary inspiration to get up and exercising – but that time can come with consequences, ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (2) Oct 25, 2017
"It's not what you know, it's who you know" would not have such currency if many, many, many did not benefit from it.
And, face it, things would be far better if position was connected to ability, and, frankly, if more people wanted to be capable rather than doing little if anything.
There is a tie in to the issue of Harvey Weinstein here. It's described that Weinstein, and, frankly, it seems, everyone else in Hollywood, would withhold riles unless someone procured for them, provided sex are gave it themselves. But it goes beyond that. Scripts are accepted solely on the basis of "a bottle and a broad". Quality is completely ignored. At least able writers are discarded because they didn't bribe their way in. Only connivers decide what to put on the screen.
5 / 5 (2) Oct 25, 2017
Hollywood is a garbage dump, certainly. But it's also irrelevant in comparison to the fact that neoliberalism is the core of republican ideology, and infects the "moderate" portions of the democratic party as well.
not rated yet Oct 25, 2017
It's just more excuse-making. No matter what is done it will never be enough. So to hell with it. We had a pretty good run, nearly a quarter millennium long. Let's divide it up, peacefully or otherwise, and find out whose economic and social models work and whose don't.
2 / 5 (4) Oct 25, 2017
Like many free nations, the U.S. and Britain are democracies with a capitalist economic system that has a high degree of freedom. The term "meritocracy" doesn't in any way describe these systems. It's a social science term invented by progressives to criticize capitalist economic systems and promote their notion that a "fairer" society is one which spreads wealth equally among its citizens. They simply refuse to accept the lessons of history which show this is a spectacularly bad idea.

The last few centuries are littered with governments that tried to implement that economic model, all the way back to the Plymouth Colony in 1620. Every single one of them failed. They did, however, succeed at spreading poverty and misery relatively equally. The countries that rapidly grew in wealth per capita and general standard of living did so because they adopted freedom, allowing people to own private property and reap the rewards of their labor, which also resulted in—gasp!—inequality.
not rated yet Nov 02, 2017

Read the article before you comment.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.