Hot Issues of Skills Development

This page provides summaries of previous and relevant research on skills development.

SKY[Skills and Knowledge for Youth] home Hot Issues of Skills Development Meritocracy and Assessment

Meritocracy and Assessment Yujiro Yamazaki
  • Training Quality and Relevance

“Meritocracy” is a term coined by M. Young in his satirical novel, The Rise of Meritocracy, which would appear that “the formula: IQ+Effort=Merit may well constitute the basic belief of the ruling class in the twenty-first century” (Young 1958). It is currently used as a social principle of “achieved status” as opposed to “ascribed status” which is dependent on the social hierarchy. In this article I would like to summarize the debate on meritocracy in terms of (1) achieved status vs. ascribed status and (2) the expansion of meritocracy.

(1) Achieved Status vs. Ascribed Status
Although achieved status assumes that individual opportunities should be given according to ability, regardless of innate social class, ascribed status always affects individual’s achievement. Halsey (1977) called it “the myth of meritocracy” and cast doubt on meritocracy because individual abilities are strongly influenced by social hierarchy. Similarly, Willis (1977), who wrote about the reproduction of social hierarchy between generations, and Brown (1990), who pointed out that an individual’s educational attainment is determined by the wealth and aspirations of his or her parents rather than by the individual’s ability and effort (so-called “parentocracy”) argued that meritocracy is just a name and in fact depends on ascribed status. Likewise, Spence (1973) described “signaling effect” of higher education on the labour market. Educational achievement is firstly seen as an outcome of meritocracy, but from the employer’s point of view, the achievement becomes the ascribed information as a signal. Thus, it has been pointed out that perfect meritocracy is difficult to achieve as a social principle based on achieved status since there is a causal relationship between achieved-ascribed statuses.

(2) Expanding the Meritocracy
As the trend of meritocracy is expanding and society changes, there is no limitation to generate various abilities in response to the changes in society. Today, the meritocracy is developing into a form of hyper-meritocracy that quantifies various personality elements that were previously difficult to measure, such as the “strength to live” and communication skills (Honda 2005). Originally, personality and individual trait elements were only used to measure tendencies such as “susceptibility to do something,” but as a result of expansion of meritocracy, they became the “ability to do something” (Hirota 2011). As society changes constantly, abilities are treated as a tool to predict the future of individuals, and new abilities are continuously being created by quantifying individual characteristics.

Based on the above discussions, Hirota (2011) pointed out that it is difficult to realize meritocracy as a social principle (with an absolute ability evaluation), from the following three points of view: (1) the uncertainty of ability itself, (2) the impossibility of considering the evaluation of an individual’s inborn environment, and (3) the existence of various evaluators rather than a single one. Although the meritocracy concept is suggestive in that it moves from an ascribed status to an achieved status, which opens up opportunities for individuals, it is also important to consider how the assessment of abilities in an uncertain and changing society can have an effect on individuals and contribute to utilizing their abilities in an appropriate manner for their lives.

Brown, P. (1990) The Third Wave: Education and the Ideology of Parentocracy, British Journal of Sociology of Education. Vol.11. No.1, pp.65-85.
Halsey, A.H. (1977) Towards Meritocracy? The case of Britain, in Karabel, J. and Halsey, A. H. eds. Power and Ideology in Education. Oxford University Press: New York.
広田照幸 (2011) 「能力にもとづく選抜のあいまいさと恣意性―メリトクラシーは到達していない」宮寺晃夫編『教育機会の再検討』岩波書店.
本田由紀 (2005)『多元化する「能力」と日本社会―ハイパー・メリトクラシー化のなかで―』NTT出版.
Spence, M. (1973) Job Market Signaling, Quarterly Journal of Economics. Vol.87, pp.355―374.
Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour. Saxon House: Farnborough.
Young, M. (1958) The rise of the meritocracy, 1870-2033: an essay on education and equality, Thames and Hudson: London.