Psychologising meritocracy: A historical account of its many guises

Trevisan, Francesca; Rusconi, Patrice; Hanna, Paul and Hegarty, Peter (2022). Psychologising meritocracy: A historical account of its many guises. Theory & Psychology, 32(2) pp. 221–242.



Measured by psychologists, conceived in critical terms, popularised as satire, and exploited by politicians, meritocracy is a dilemmatic concept that has changed its meanings throughout history. Social psychologists have conceptualised and operationalised meritocracy both as an ideology that justifies inequality and as a justice principle based on equity. These two conceptualisations express opposing ideas about the merit of meritocracy and are both freighted ideologically. We document how this dilemma of meritocracy’s merit developed from meritocracy’s inception as a critical concept among UK sociologists in the 1950s to its operationalisation by U.S. and Canadian social psychologists at the end of the 20th century. We highlight the ways in which meritocracy was originally utilised, in part, to critique the measurement of merit via IQ tests, but ironically became a construct that, through its psychologisation, also required measurement. Through the operationalisation of meritocracy, social psychologists obscured the possibility of critiquing meritocracy and missed the opportunity to offer alternatives to a system that has been legitimised by their own work. A social psychology of meritocracy should take into consideration the ideological debate around its meaning and value and the implications of its measurement and study.

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