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Is meritocracy possible? Is meritocracy acceptable? Answers from the book 'The rise of the meritocracy'

Some times ago, I read a book about Agile. I found this reading inspiring. However, an idea struck me: some teams prefer hierarchy and some others meritocracy.

This is not the first time I see the word meritocracy used in software development or in data science. Sometimes, I also see articles bringing the idea that Agile enhances meritocracy.

But what is meritocracy? Is it something desirable?

Back to the origin

Where does this word come from ?

If you look deeply to the term meritocracy, you will notice something weird. The prefix is latin and the suffix is greek. This gives you a clue to the origin. The word meritocracy is a neologism.

Mickael Young is the sociologist that creates this term. In 1954, he wrote a book named The rise of the meritocracy. This book is a political fiction that looks like Brave new world or 1984.

Mickael Young raises the question : is meritocracy acceptable ? What I really like about this story is that the writer, using fiction, supposes that meritocracy is possible. This way, he can ask : is it desirable ? Short answer : no.

The word meritocracy was created to criticize this idea. However, it is often used in a positive way. That was not the purpose.

Why is meritocracy not supposed to be a positive idea ?

You are considered as meritant in a specific context. In The rise of the meritocracy, you are seen as a valuable person because you are able to be productive in a given society. If this one is built around hunt and you’re a good hunter, you will be an accountable person. Otherwise, you are useless. I would say that this is the first problem raised by the author: meritocracy is relative. You can have qualities in a field that is not the most useful for a context. This doesn’t mean that you are not valuable.

Then, the ideology of meritocracy leads to validate inequalities. If you are less paid, this is because you deserve it. On the contrary, if you have a good job or a good position, this is because you have the abilities for that. This is the reward you deserve. This situation brings sadness for lower people in the society and arrogance for higher people. This is not something desirable.

Is meritocracy possible ?

Mickael Young didn’t answer this question in this book, but others tried to do it. I’m thinking of Pierre Bourdieux, another sociologist that writes many books on this subject. However, I’m not sure he has ever used the term. I may be extrapolating.

To summarize the idea of Pierre Bourdieux, you are the result of an economical and cultural inheritance. This means that you are not equal when acting in the world.

Some people know more how to deal with it and access high positions because they were unconsciously trained to do it. They have cultural habits that not everyone has.


To conclude, the purpose of this article was to speak about a book not famous enough (from my point of view) called The rise of the meritocracy. This book is the origin of the word meritocracy, a negative word.

I’ve discovered the concept of meritocracy recently and wanted to share it. In my humble opinion, it’s always better to know the origin of a concept you use. And we sometimes use the concept of meritocracy in software development or data science.