The Meritocratic Paradigm: Understanding its Dynamics and Controversies


Meritocracy basically refers to a political or governmental system where responsibilities and appointments are given to people based on their merits (Polastri and Truisi, 2017). These merits are determined through objective examinations and evaluations. From the definition, meritocracy can be highlighted as a political system or structure in which political power or/and economic goods are vested in particular individuals based on their efforts, achievements and talents rather than their social or economic class. Demonstrated performance through achievements and examinations are the foundations of advancement in such systems.


There are various ways in which merit can be earned; this according to Polastri and Truisi (2017), can be either through manual or intellectual; every person in this system has their own individual talents or abilities. However, there is no clear and absolute meaning of merit in this kind of system, this is because both skill and intelligence is relative. The concept behind this type of system has brought about different views and perspectives.

Understanding meritocracy

The term ‘meritocracy’ was first coined by Michael Dunlop Young, a sociologist, in 1958 (Young, 1958). It has been understood in various ways over the years. To many, it has been referred as a system that conceptualizes merit in the manner of tested ability and competency, brought about by standardized achievement tests or IQ measurements. In administrative systems, meritocracy is a system in which progress can always be shown through merits; involving things such as intelligence, performance, education and personal credentials. The work of the sociologist Michael Dunlop Young (1958) looked at meritocracy from a merit- based tripartite education system being practiced in the UK. In his work, he claimed equations of merit with efforts on intelligence where there is a particular obsession with qualifications, quantification and test scores.

From a much more general perspective, meritocracy can be referred to as any form of examination in which an individual is based on achievement. Broader connotations to the term can be used to mean a government which runs its activities by the influence of a certain class of persons; able, talented or educated people (Oxford Dictionary). Therefore, meritocracy, in a wider sense, may be a general judgement act on the basis of demonstrated achievements. Supporters of meritocracy may not be in consensus in regards to the nature of ‘merit’, but they do tend to agree that the primary consideration of evaluation should be merit. In that regard, understanding meritocracy based on merit may extend to work ethics, physical and mental talents and even other considerations beyond intelligence.

The concept of meritocracy

In the modern society, the most common form of a meritocratic system can be seen in college and university degrees. For various reasons, higher education is an imperfect meritocratic system. This serves as a more refined methodology behind meritocracy (Furlong and Cartmel, 2009). The reason why this can be referred as an imperfect meritocratic system is because of the lack of access; which involves financial expenses which deny some people the opportunity to participate in it; and lack of scope; in which not all social processes or occupations are involved in the system. In society today, individuals can theoretically achieve any goal in meritocratic systems. In fundamental terms, resources should be allocated on the basis of merits (Tacconelli et al, 2012). Obvious superiority of this approach can be obscured in human characteristics such as personal beliefs, national regulation, bureaucratic complications and others. Meritocratic development in societies can be facilitated through government actions and policies. In some countries, professional organizations, unions and governments in regards to the promotion of the welfare of their workers actively promote meritocracy. For instance, at professional levels, the interests of the Swedish workers are protected and represented; their annual income increases at higher rates compared to other countries and the contributions made by various organizations and unions can be attributed to those favorable conditions (Polastri and Truisi, 2017).

Bruni (2017) states that merit can be regarded as a great paradox in economic and political societies today; its applicability in the economic cult of our time has always been a debatable and contentious issue. Three factors arise when it comes to merit or reward; compensation, effort and contribution. Schweiger (2014) explains the concept using the desert structure; which considers the correlation between reason for reward, the mode of treatment and the subject. From this structure, it can be derived that first, there should be equality in opportunity. Second, for it to be fair, the condition of fairness has to be fulfilled.

Perceptions of Meritocracy

Most of the proposers to meritocracy do not necessarily reach a consensus on what the term ‘merit’ constitutes of, but they do agree on merit being a foundational basis during evaluation of performance or advancement in a particular society or system.

Some people negatively view meritocracy based on morality and social class. Societal groups and individual members often support people who adhere to group norms rather than those people who do not adhere to the group’s norms but feel more deserving of such loyalty (Polastri and Truisi, 2017).People directly involved in a meritocratic system feel appreciated and valued, believing that their abilities and talents are recognized. As a result, they have incentives to improve their individual performances. Almost every individual has experienced situations where they perceive that another person gets an undeserved benefit. From one perspective, an individual has his own unique capacities; on the other, the society he lives in has its own regulations. Individual perceptions on their own capabilities may be either underestimated or overestimated; however, mediation of personal expectations may be achieved through challenges or reinforcements of such perceptions by the environment (Tacconelli et al, 2012).

The kind of perceptions on the negative impacts of meritocracy by some people is a reflection on the critical thinking of the human capacity. Assumptions on meritocracy are significantly influenced by demographic and personal factors; factors such as age, health status, gender and psychological states which are influenced by daily life events, constitute major factors in perceptions towards meritocratic systems (Ahn, 2012). Teklu (2018) investigated where morals and religion stands in relation to the concept of meritocracy. Despite the fact that meritocracy advocates for deservingness, questions and issues relative to distributive justices have been raised. According to Schweiger (2014), individuals can be rewarded on the basis of their contributions and efforts under idyllic conditions within the system. In actuality, however, some people are always rewarded unwarrantedly; rewards are not commensurate with the individuals’ contributions or efforts.

Additionally, people in meritocracies are not always accorded an equal start or opportunity; some merited individuals lack the options and means to contribute or advance in such a system. John Rawls also attempts to reject the idea behind meritocracy and accentuates the necessity in regards to the ‘public conception of justice’ and the concept of equality which would make use of scarce resources within a political system. He further avers that unfairness exists where preferential privileges are given to those individuals with talents and achievements. To add on his rejection, he proposes the maximin strategy unto which the benefits associated with those who are disadvantaged are maximized (Gaus and D’Agostino, 2013). The reliability of the authority and system that assesses each individual's merit is another point of concern. As a meritocratic system relies on a standard of merit to measure and compare people against, the system by which this is done has to be reliable to ensure that their assessed merit accurately reflects their potential capabilities. Standardized testing, which reflects the meritocratic sorting process, has come under criticism for being rigid and unable to accurately assess many valuable qualities and potentials of students. Education theorist Bill Ayes commenting on the limitations of standardized testing, writes, "Standardized tests can't measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning. Merit determined through the opinionated evaluations of teachers, while being able to assess the valuable qualities that cannot be assessed by standardized testing, are unreliable as the opinions, insights, biases, and standards of the teachers vary greatly. If the system of evaluation is corrupt, non-transparent, opinionated or misguided, decisions regarding who has the highest merit can be highly fallible.

Therefore, foundationally, the paradox of meritocracy lies within actuality and theoretical frameworks behind the system. Factors to do with merit and non- merit factors such as social and cultural advantages are often indifferently explained in theory and in practice (Teklu, 2018). From an idealistic point of view, opposition towards meritocracy is also based on the fact that what matters in actuality is not the hard work, talent and capabilities; which are the foundations for competitive for competition in the meritocratic system. This study agrees with such perceptions, in that a pure and just meritocracy is partially an impossibility.

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The concept behind meritocracy improves motivation levels, individuals working under such conditions engage more in collaborative behaviors, experience enhanced well- beings and show greater flexibility compared to other systems not based on merit (Polastri and Truisi, 2017). It is necessary to understand the concept behind meritocracy and establish the bases upon which meritocracy can be perceived by different people in society. Evidently, perceptions towards meritocracy in distributive justice are influenced by a number of factors. Factors such as educational levels, personal backgrounds and personal experiences are just but a few confounding factors.


Ahn, J. (2012) ‘The Influence of Gender on Professionalism Female in Trainees’, Korean J Med Educ; 24(2), pp. 153-162

Furlong, A. and Cartmel, F. (2009) Higher education and social justice. Open University Press, Mainhead

Oxford Dictionary, ‘Definition of Meritocracy’ Oxford University Press; 8 (Accessed: 21 April 2020)

Polastri, M., Truisi, M. (2017) ‘Meritrocacy? Ask yourself’, Journal of the Intensive Care Society; 18(4), pp. 276-278

Tacconelli, E., Poljak, M., Cacace, M., Caiati, G., Benzonana, N., Nagy, E., Kortbeek, T. (2012) ‘Science without meritocracy. Discrimination among European specialists in infectious diseases and clinical microbiology: a questionnaire survey’, BMJ Open; 2nd ed

Young, M. (1958) The rise of meritocracy, 1870-2033: An essay on education and inequality. Thames & Hudson, London

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