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Meritocracy refers to a social system in which individuals advance and earn rewards in direct proportion to their individual abilities and efforts. The term meritocracy was coined by British sociologist Michael Young (1915–2002) in his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033: An Essay on Education and Equality (1958). The book is a satirical novel about a futuristic society in which elites and leaders ascend to positions of dominance and authority based on their scores on intelligence and effort tests (I + E = M, where I = intelligence, E = effort, and M = merit). In this imagined society, tests have been devised that accurately and precisely identify the most capable and competent individuals within the total population. Young’s portrayal of a meritocracy is necessarily futuristic, because no such society has been realized anywhere in practice. In every known human society, nonmeritocratic factors such as seniority, inheritance, nepotism, favoritism, discrimination, and sheer randomness either wholly or partially determine who is in charge.
The neologism, meritocracy, created for Young an implicit juxtaposition with the term aristocracy. While aristocracy characterizes a system in which statuses are ascribed, meritocracy characterizes a system in which statuses are achieved. As societies industrialize, there is a gradual shift away from ascription toward achievement, however incomplete. Merit is widely seen as inherently fair, because under such a system individuals get what they deserve based on their contributions to society. Such a system is also seen as inherently efficient because it results in an optimum match between the collective tasks in society that need to get done and the available pool of talent needed to perform them.
While seemingly fair on the surface, Young portrays a system of meritocracy that ultimately degenerates into an oppressive regime. In Young’s future meritocracy, elites become arrogant and ruthless in the pursuit of their own ends while remaining callous or indifferent toward the needs and suffering of those they dominate. Self-assured in their own sense of inherent superiority, the elite feel smugly justified in their subjugation of the masses.
In a later reflection in 1998, Young noted that he wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy based on the model of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Brave New World (1932) depicts a future eugenic “World State” in which individuals are bred into one of five castes that, in turn, are assigned tasks consistent with their programmed capacities. The World State functions in essence as a meritocracy, albeit a biologically engineered one. In this futuristic world order, war, poverty, and other social ills have been eliminated. With nothing to fight over or worry about, individuals are free to derive pleasure from promiscuous sex and recreational drug use. Doped and duped into submission and complacency, however, individuals are systematically deprived of both individual freedom and intellectual curiosity. As with Young’s imagined meritocracy, there is a devastating price to pay for life in Huxley’s Brave New World—giving both novels an ironically dystopian quality.
These novels have drawn attention to the empirical debate about whether or not or to what extent meritocracy has been realized in advanced industrial societies. Several prominent books have since made the case for a rising meritocracy. In The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (1976), Daniel Bell contends that advanced industrial countries are moving beyond an industrial to a postindustrial stage of development. Postindustrial societies are characterized by a shift from goods production to service production, with an increasing premium on scientific and technical knowledge. Bell posits that a new knowledge class centered in universities is gradually replacing business and propertied elites that dominated in the industrial era. Similarly, in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray suggest that barriers to mobility based on innate talent in advanced societies such as the United States have mostly been eliminated and that a new cognitive elite is emerging. Herrnstein and Murray argue further that intelligence is largely genetically inherited and differences in intelligence are principally responsible for differences in socioeconomic status. Others, such as Paul Kamolnick (2005) and Peter Saunders (1996), have made similar arguments.
Some critics (Arrow, Bowles, and Durlauf 2000; Breen and Goldthorpe 1999, 2002; McNamee and Miller 2004; Oliver and Shapiro 1995), however, have countered that nonmerit factors still largely determine social outcomes. These nonmerit factors include the influence of family background and economic inheritance, social networks, discrimination, the number and types of jobs available in society as a whole, and random luck. Economic inheritance, broadly defined as initial social class placement, is chief among these nonmerit factors. Nonmerit advantages are passed on in varying degrees to children from families with more relatively privileged backgrounds. Parents with the most resources can invest the most in securing their children’s futures. To the extent that parents are successful in advancing the futures of their children through educational and other investments, meritocracy does not exist.
Discrimination in its varying forms is also antithetical to meritocracy. In an attempt to redress the effects of past and present forms of discrimination, various affirmative action initiatives have been adopted in advanced industrial societies. These measures, however, have themselves been labeled as reverse discrimination, to the extent that they are perceived as giving preferential treatment to so-called protected classes, especially women and racial minorities.
Central to this empirical debate is what is meant by merit and the extent to which merit factors are genetically innate or culturally acquired. It is generally acknowledged, for instance, that intelligence as measured by intelligence quotient (IQ) tests, reflects an interplay of both innate intellectual capacities and learned experiences. Beyond intelligence, other talents such as artistic creativity or athletic prowess are also probably the result of combinations of innate capacity and learned experience. Whatever innate talents or capacities that individuals have are of no use unless put into effect. And as Young initially noted, effort, apart from capacity, is also relevant to merit. In addition, social skills might in some circumstances be considered individually meritorious. Other acquired skills, knowledge, or experience could also be considered meritorious, even though the opportunity to acquire such traits is typically not equally available to all. Finally, merit has also been associated with particular attitudes or values such as diligence, perseverance, and willingness to take risks and defer gratification. It is not always clear, however, how these attitudes are acquired, how they might be causally linked to achievement, or how they interact with other factors in predicting outcomes.
The weight of the evidence suggests that both merit and nonmerit factors influence social and economic outcomes in advanced industrial societies. On the one hand, broad historical trends in industrialized societies toward a decline in overt discrimination and wider access to education have no doubt contributed to greater individual opportunity and prospects for mobility. On the other hand, the persistent and substantial influence of family background and economic inheritance, the effects of past and continued discrimination, social networks, randomness, and other structural barriers to individual mobility means that meritocracy is still far from being fully realized.
- Arrow, Kenneth, Samuel Bowles, and Steven Durlauf, 2000. Meritocracy and Economic Inequality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Bell, D 1976. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. New York: Basic Books.
- Breen, Richard, and John Goldthorpe. 1999. Class Inequality and Meritocracy: A Critique of Saunders and an Alternative Analysis. British Journal of Sociology. 50 (1): 1–27.
- Breen, Richard, and John Goldthorpe. 2002. Merit, Mobility and Method: Another Reply to Saunders. British Journal of Sociology 53 (4): 575–582.
- Herrnstein, Richard , and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.
- Huxley,  1946. Brave New World. New York: Modern Library.
- Kamolnick, P 2005. The Just Meritocracy: IQ, Class Mobility, and American Social Policy. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- McNamee, Stephen , and Robert K. Miller Jr. 2004. The Meritocracy Myth. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Oliver, Melvin , and Thomas M. Shapiro. 1995. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality.New York: Routledge.
- Saunders, Peter. Might Britain Be a Meritocracy? Sociology 29 (1): 23–41.
- Saunders, Peter. Unequal but Fair? A Study of Class Barriers in Britain. London: Institute of Economic Affairs.
- Saunders, Peter. Social Mobility in Britain: An Empirical Evaluation of Two Competing Explanations. Sociology 31 (2): 261–288.
- Young, Michael  The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033: An Essay on Education and Equality. Baltimore, MD: Penguin.
- Young, M 1998. Meritocracy Revisited. Society 35 (2): 377–379.
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