Friday, June 16, 2006

Lani Guinier on Meritocracy

In this inteview by Rebecca Parrish, Prof. Lani Guinier of Harvard Law School talks about her new book (to be published in 2007) titled Meritocracy Inc.: How Wealth Became Merit, Class Became Race, and College Education Became a Gift from the Poor to the Rich. Here's the opening salvo:

Rebecca Parrish: What is meritocracy? What is the difference between the conventional understanding and the way you are using the term in Meritocracy, Inc.?

Lani Guinier: The conventional understanding of meritocracy is that it is a system for awarding or allocating scarce resources to those who most deserve them. The idea behind meritocracy is that people should achieve status or realize the promise of upward mobility based on their individual talent or individual effort. It is conceived as a repudiation of systems like aristocracy where individuals inherit their social status.

I am arguing that many of the criteria we associate with individual talent and effort do not measure the individual in isolation but rather parallel the phenomena associated with aristocracy; what we're calling individual talent is actually a function of that individual's social position or opportunities gained by virtue of family and ancestry. So, although the system we call "meritocracy" is presumed to be more democratic and egalitarian than aristocracy, it is in fact reproducing that which it was intended to dislodge.

Michael Young, a British sociologist, created the term in 1958 when he wrote a science fiction novel called The Rise of Meritocracy. The book was a satire in which he depicted a society where people in power could legitimate their status using "merit" as the justificatory terminology and in which others could be determined not simply to have been poor or left out but to be deservingly disenfranchised.

Here are two   profiles of Prof. Guinier. The Wikipedia entry is here. An incomplete list of her publications can be found here.


  1. Anonymous said...

    There are some quantitative studies of meritocracy in USA which may give some pointers. But they are too technical for me. Bowles and Gintis have followed up their 75 book with the following article from around 2001 "Schooling in capitalist America revisted" available in the papers section of
    There is a popular article in the Economist a couple of years ago "Ever harder society, ever harder to ascend" at

  2. Anonymous said...

    Abi, the link to the Amrtya sen paper in the previous post is incorrect

  3. Abi said...

    Gaddeswarup: Thanks for those links. While the Economist article has stuff that I knew quite a bit about (and it's largely about economic inequality and lack of economic mobility), the other one was new. Thanks again.

    AKA: Thanks for pointing out the error in the previous post. It's fixed now.