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Meritocracy: Sociology and American Dream Essay

Peter Saunders (1990, 1996) has been one of the most vocal critics of the British tradition of social mobility research encompassing studies such as those done by Glass and Goldthorpe. According to Saunders, Britian is a true meritocracy because rewards go naturally to those who are best able to ‘perform’ and achieve. In his view, ability and effort are the key factors in occupational success, not class background.

Saunders uses empirical data from the National Child Development Study to show that children who are bright and hard-working will succeed regardless of the social advantages or disadvantages they may experience. In his estimation, Britain may be an unequal society, but it is a fair one. In response to such claims, Richard Breen and John Goldthorpe criticize Saunders on both theoretical and methodological grounds. The authors conclude that individual merit is certainly a contributing factor in dterminng individuals’ class positions, but that ‘class of origin’ remains a powerful influence.

According to Breen and Goldthorpe, children from disadvantaged must show more merit that those who are advantaged to acquire similar class positions. Page 303 Sociology 4th edition by Anthony Giddens 2001 Blackwell Publishing ltd Oxford uk Meritiocracy – A system in which social positions are filled on the basis of individual merit and achievement, rather than ascribed criteria such as inherited wealth, sex or social background. Pg 693 Schools and Society – info in blue book

If the American Dream of meritocracy is our country’s promise, public education is what ensures that promise to all children. Education more than any institution is the system’s way of making certain that achievement is independently earned, not tied to one’s background. Pg 274 The American Dream does not guarantee that everyone will make it in America but it presumes that despite inequalities in their circumstances each individual will have a fair chance, an equal opportunity and no one will be unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged.

Given that we are born into different families with very different backgrounds, the system must provide some way to balance our opportunities. A major role of the institution of education is to do just that it is supposed to level out what is an initially uneven playing field. Pg 274 Education was viewed as the Great Equalizer making the American Dream real, and also as the key to the dream.

Education provides at least in theory a clear route to follow : ifi you work hard enough in school, then you can be anything, do anything, rise up to any level you choose. Pg 274 What was considered to be a “good school”? . Parents said that good schools had updated facilities and equipment, stimulating atmospheres and high-quality educational programs. They said they are safe, had teachers who are dedicated, small class sizes, computers, healthy environments and successful graduates who went on to excel academically and occupationally.

Pg 277 Sociology making sense of society 4th ed – Marsh Keating Here we can see a continuation of Durkheim’s psotiivist approach, with its emphasis on description rather than criticism. Its implication that education contributes towards a meritocratic system (in which pupils’ educational achievements are based only on ability and effort” has been severelet challenged. As research has repeatedly highlighted the profound effects of social inequalities on educational outcomes.


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