chapter  1
26 Pages

Meritocracy’s genealogies in social theory

ByJo Littler

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This chapter discusses the slippage between meritocracy-as-a-social system and meritocracy-as-a-discourse in a number of ways. It considers how meritocracy has changed in meaning, tracing its etymology, mapping the stunning U-turns the word has undertaken in its journey from negative slur to positive axiom of modern life. The chapter suggests that particular conceptual categories might be created to help understand the mutations of the word. It traces a journey from what it terms the 'socialist critique of meritocracy' through 'social democratic meritocracy' and then finally to 'neoliberal meritocracy' and addresses these historical formations through the usage of the word in social theory, from Alan Fox, Hannah Arendt, Michael Young, Daniel Bell and Anthony Giddens. Bell's vision of meritocracy emerged from a historical situation characterised by the presence of a strong welfare state which could offset the most extreme effects of market-produced social inequality.