On Social Mobility and Meritocracy: articles review with a contemporary assessment

Meritocracy is strictly dependent on social mobility since it means that individuals would be rewarded according to their achievements rather than background or economic possibilities. But having a brief overview of the society today, social classes are rather changed since Marx labelled them, and although we still refer to working classes and high classes, we are living in a rather more complex world. The classes today are split by ten different definitions within any given country. To enumerate, unemployed minorities and nationals, poor blue collar working minorities and nationals, higher blue collar working minorities and nationals, white collar working minorities and nationals, and high-class minorities and nationals. The blue collar working class is split in poor and less poor because the first refers to individuals working in sanitation services and services like cleaning, while the latter refers to manual labour in construction or better-paid labouring jobs. The latter category, high-class, refers to families who inherit their economic and social status. The reason why each category is split into minorities and nationals is due to the high levels of migration and globalisation which although effects ease movement it also divides countries in different ways of working and spending, every-day life practices, views on income i.e. for a national income may seem low in a job, but for a minority high in the same job, etc.

Having said this, it is by far visible that access to meritocratic systems is complicated since not all classes receive the same treatment. Depending on where one lives (geographic location), depending on which class one is part of, and depending on their networking (which is dependent on the aforementioned), one has certain information he/she can access. Therefore, it is hard to admit that meritocratic systems are in place for everyone, but rather they may exist for white collar working classes and minority working classes and the two high classes (minority and non-minority). Social mobility has been and still is important to social science since it is one of the most influential features of the world. Thus, many scholars have been trying to assess the situation in all periods of time and this article will review the work of Philip Brown Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion: Some Observations on Recent Trends in Education, Employment and the Labour Market from 1995 and John Goldthorpe’s work The Myth of Education-Based Meritocracy: Why the theory isn’t working from 2003, followed by a brief conclusion that will link the information in the two articles to a present situation.

Philip Brown: Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion: Some Observations on Recent Trends in Education, Employment and the Labour Market 1995

The author splits his work in seven meaningful subtitles that will conclude that “the role of the state has increasingly become one of manufacturing the conditions in which market forces operate freely, rather than that of pursuing a liberal-democratic policy of ‘equality of opportunity’” and that “the middle classes remain in the ascendancy in the competition for a livelihood”. The overall points suggest that the middle class cultural capital that is needed for bureaucratic jobs is losing value because of the credential inflation. Also, there is an increase in corporate restructuring, marketisation of public services, and a high rate of unemployment. Therefore, the competition for a standard livelihood has increased in the 1990s and thus the class conflict increased as well. In 1995, Brown claims that there still is an extended privilege to family members and that the situation is more of social inequality rather than meritocracy.

His arguments are rooted in previous literature, including a short statistical part. He begins by explaining the technocratic and social exclusion theories. The first refers to the increase in higher education requirements due to the increased demand for scientific and technical jobs. Brown then quotes Kerr et al (1973) saying that “Industrialisation calls for flexibility and competition; it is against tradition and status based upon family, class, religion, race, or caste” (1973: 53) which should mean that industrialisation brought high rates of social mobility and the meritocratic system is in place disfavouring the privilege, supplying the demanded careers with skilled individuals that are objectively elected. Continuing to argue for meritocracy, he then explains that the social exclusion theory shifted from ‘collectivist’ (by class) to ‘individualist’, that there is equality in the eyes of the law, that the “entry in elite groups is, at least in principle, attainable by all through an ‘open’ competition for credentials”. P. Brown refers then to Collins (1979) who defines that there is a changing relationship between education and occupational stratification that should be understood in terms of group conflict over scarce resources (degrees, income, status). But considering that theory differs from what practically exists, Brown also argues in the following chapters that the theories are incomplete because they do not operate alone, but in a complex system of social existence: they are dependent and changing with the academic performance and the employer’s definitions of ‘acceptability’.

Therefore, in the article Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion: Some Observations on Recent Trends in Education, Employment and the Labour Market, the author underlines that there is an increased emphasis on academic credentials since the faith in career advancement and long-term employment declines along with the value of organizational assets. Then, Philip Brown argues that the mass-system education solves the issue of access for working in middle-class families, that there is a high competition in acquiring credentials and that employers find it more and more difficult to ‘absorb’ the large number of highly educated graduates. Therefore, Philip claims, employers start to recruit graduates for jobs that did not previously require degrees, in quoting Hirsch (1977: 50) there is an “excess of qualified candidates”. The author sees an issue coming from the fact that employers seek new ways of differentiating applicants, thus managerial qualities assume elements of personal charisma: “the ‘rule of entry’… become[s] increasingly ‘personalized’”. In this situation, Brown sees that the ideology of meritocracy is long lost in the favour of what himself in 1990 called the ‘ideology of parentocracy’. That is, individuals compete not only for degrees, but for attending elite universities. It is then explained that the access to capital for scarce credentials and charismatic qualities depend on market power and that the education system cannot improve prospects for disadvantaged students i.e. poor background. Therefore, “This is clearly an example of social gifts being translated into natural gifts” (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977), meaning that meritocracy seems to have failed since obtaining a degree from an elite university firstly supposes having the means to reaching the elite university i.e. prosper economic situation that is mostly defining white collar working classes and higher classes.

Overall the article tried to structure arguments that defy previous theories. Philip Brown claims through his work that there is no sign of meritocracy, that increased number of educational programmes will not lead to it as long they (universities) operate on a ‘user-pays’ system. Therefore, Brown concludes that education and thus the occupational status is dependent on the family’s economic situation, meaning that “some of the middle-class are more equal than others in the ability to exert market power”.

John Goldthorpe: The Myth of Education-Based Meritocracy: Why the theory isn’t working 2003

Goldthorpe’s article is a clear analysis of the relationship between class origin, class destination and education. The article has a couple of paragraphs for each said topic, concluding that “the guarantee of steadily increasing class mobility that the theory of education-based meritocracy might appear to offer proves to be illusory”. With clear arguments and three figures (graphs), Goldthorpe introduces meritocracy by saying that the relationship between class origin and educational attainment should weaken in favour of educational attainment and class destination, with a disappearing link between class origin and class destination. Roughly meaning that no matter where you come from and what your background is, with education, you can be anywhere in the societal hierarchy. But the article questions the theory as well.

Goldthorpe claims that “it would be nice if it [meritocracy] were true but, in fact, there is no clear consistent evidence that education-based meritocracies are actually being realised in modern societies”. Through statistical data, he argues that the children of the working class are more risk-averse than the children with privileged backgrounds, meaning that the differences in security and stability of parental income and income prospects are substantial between the classes. Moreover, the author sees how the take-up opportunities i.e. the chances of a working-class child starting university, stand against meritocracy because they lack information on the programs. Lower-classes children, minorities’ classes and blue collar working class children have little knowledge about the availability of degrees or availability of funding, fact which diminishes the number of bright students who could access elite universities.

The article The Myth of Education-Based Meritocracy: Why the theory isn’t working states that “education does indeed make a good deal of difference”, but that it also has less effect on class of destination for individuals in the more recent generations than the earlier ones, which opposes what the theory of education-based meritocracy would predict. Goldthorpe argued using statistical data and rational analysis that meritocracy is indeed a myth.


The reviewed articles have the same conclusion: meritocracy is not a working system and the various factors that affect access to education are based on privilege. The educational system itself is meritocratic, in the sense that individuals remain anonymous until after their work is marked and there are internal policies to assure equality between students. Almost all the universities have put a non-discriminatory policy in place and discriminatory behaviour should have a great effect on one’s degree. Moreover, almost all universities are ‘international’ in the sense that they are open to everyone from everywhere. It does seem to be a meritocratic system.

But the universities, as Brown was arguing, are working on a user-pays rule, which means the openness stands for those who could afford the price. And the better the university, the higher the prices. In the same time, employers for white collar jobs are looking for elite universities’ graduates, which means for the individuals who could afford to pay more for their studies. Which is what Goldthorpe says, that class origin is still tightly related to the class destination. But on the other hand, there are bursaries in place, which gets us back to the idea that it is a meritocratic system (no matter if you afford it, an organization/state would pay for your studies). But the information on bursaries is not as globalised as one would expect. Moreover, the bursaries themselves do not cover everything such as living costs if studying abroad or other expenses. Therefore, regardless if one is awarded a bursary, he/she should have a stable economic background. The loans that could make the system a bit more meritocratic are problematic as the information is not globalised either and repayment differs from system to system and one may not afford to pay it back, which then would lead to unfortunate debt, etc. Also, an individual of a poor blue collar working class family may just never realise he/she could attend a great university. This is because the schools before universities (differencing in name from country to country) have different networking options and the parents themselves choose their child’s future according to what they know best, which is dependent on their class and their own accessibility.

Overall it seems that the meritocratic system today is failing at accessibility. Meritocracy is put in place inside systems, rather than being a system itself. Looking back at both articles and their conclusion, the situation does not change between 1995 and 2003 and looking at the present situation, it can easily be claimed that the meritocratic system requires payment for access.


Brown, P. 1995. ‘Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion: Some Observations on Recent Trends in Education, Employment and the Labour Market’. Work, Employment, & Society 9 (1): 29-51.

Goldthorpe, J. 2003. ‘The Myth of education-based meritocracy: Why the theory isn’t working’. New Economy 10 (4): 234-239.

About allebsart-alexandrabucur

Creativity is in all sorts of fields and I am trying my best to show that even the academic sphere can be made interesting and that social sciences can be understood by everyone, regardless of their background! In my opinion, we, social scientists, abuse the use of jargon and referencing. Our core aim should be making everyone understand ‘what we are on about’, and yet academia forces students to deprive themselves of originality and take for granted that a social scientist must always refer to past-theories and if one would think different, refer to other theories in order to contradict the first. But this is not always the case, is it? I will disagree with a theory through my own seeing of the reality, there is no reference but me for that! Societies change at such a fast rate and sources of research have changed since the 1800s, so then, if I may ask, why be bound to always refer to such past dates? I have written a full article here (click) as well and I will always argue that “The reality begins where we state facts of individuals living through a given period, where individuals of a society confirm the theory”. This website is supposed to showcase creative sociology, with articles written for everyone to grasp, topics that are intriguing, and conclusions that may defy the common belief. Don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions, requirements for topics to be covered, or any help in understanding social processes. [Note] allebsart does not share its work, workload, or meaning with anyone or any other business. [/Note]
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One Response to On Social Mobility and Meritocracy: articles review with a contemporary assessment

  1. Pingback: Social Classes: The Western Contemporary Situation | allebsart

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