Social Justice Research

, Volume 29, Issue 1, pp 14–34 | Cite as

The Unfulfillable Promise of Meritocracy: Three Lessons and Their Implications for Justice in Education

  • Jonathan J. B. Mijs


This paper draws on a literature in sociology, psychology and economics that has extensively documented the unfulfilled promise of meritocracy in education. I argue that the lesson learned from this literature is threefold: (1) educational institutions in practice significantly distort the ideal meritocratic process; (2) opportunities for merit are themselves determined by non-meritocratic factors; (3) any definition of merit must favor some groups in society while putting others at a disadvantage. Taken together, these conclusions give reason to understand meritocracy not just as an unfulfilled promise, but as an unfulfillable promise. Having problematized meritocracy as an ideal worth striving for, I argue that the pervasiveness of meritocratic policies in education threatens to crowd out as principles of justice, need and equality. As such, it may pose a barrier rather than a route to equality of opportunity. Furthermore, meritocratic discourse legitimates societal inequalities as justly deserved such as when misfortune is understood as personal failure. The paper concludes by setting a research agenda that asks how citizens come to hold meritocratic beliefs; addresses the persistence of (unintended) meritocratic imperfections in schools; analyzes the construction of a legitimizing discourse in educational policy; and investigates how education selects and labels winners and losers.


Meritocracy Educational institutions Educational policy Social stratification 



I am much obliged to the late Daniel Bell for interrogating me on the topic of meritocracy on a cold Boston winter day 3 years ago, and for thereby consolidating my interest in writing this article. I thank Jason Beckfield, Thijs Bol, Filiz Garip, Sandy Jencks, Chris Marquis, Beth Truesdale, Herman van de Werfhorst, and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions and comments on prior versions of this manuscript. Errors and conclusions are my own.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology, William James HallHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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