Interrogating Meritocracy

Aashti Salman says that the discourse of merit smooths over structural inequalities, keeping everyone on an ostensibly equal playing field”.

Student assessment in practice

In modern societies, it is widely acknowledged that individuals have more opportunities to pursue their career goals and achieve the life that they desire. This means that if a person is born into a family of cobblers, they can still aspire to become an astronaut. Modern societies would provide the necessary opportunities for the person to achieve this aspiration. The upward social mobility, transitioning from one class position (cobbler) to the achieved class position (astronaut) is facilitated through education. 

According to several Western sociologists, associated with the functionalist perspective, schools in modern society play a positive and significant role, by imparting the skills that would enable pupils to participate efficiently in the modern economy. 

Mass schooling emerged in capitalist western societies to make primary and middle schooling accessible, regardless of the background of the pupils. Public schools were designed with a standardised curriculum and students were assessed based on their performance in examinations, which would demonstrate their acquired skills. Several countries in the Global South, such as India, adopted this system of schooling.

Merit would be the criteria through which coveted positions would be awarded to those individuals who excelled’ in schooling and subsequently in higher education. Taking the example of the child of the cobbler, a functionalist would show that the child be provided schooling opportunities and the space to prove their abilities through assessment. If the child is sufficiently meritorious, then they could pursue a career as an astronaut. However, if they fail to demonstrate their potential in terms of merit, then they would not be worthy of becoming one. 

Such a system, functionalists believe, facilitates the move from a society where social mobility is based on ascribed status (inherited advantages at birth, such as caste, class, religion, gender, region, and so on) to achieved status (what the child achieves through meritorious performance).

If the functionalist argument were indeed valid, one might expect to observe significantly high levels of upward social mobility in most countries. But this has not been the case. 

For instance, in India, research indicates that social mobility, as defined in terms of movement from one social class to another, has shown a tendency to be stable on average (Vaid, 2018). This suggests that social class inequalities are persistent, as those who seek mobility from the lower to upper classes find limited opportunities to do so.

We therefore have another plausible argument at hand where we need to disentangle the concept of merit. This has been done by several social scientists, for instance by the ones who could be placed in the Marxist and Neo-Marxist traditions (see Feinberg and Jonas, 2009). These social scientists argue that merit is simply a tool to legitimise inequalities in society. Under capitalist societies, such as India, economic inequalities are not diminishing. 

For instance, a recent study shows that wealth inequalities in independent India fell till the 1980s, after which they started rising, to attain an all-time high in contemporary times.1 The paper shows that income and wealth inequalities are higher in contemporary India than they were during colonial times. In addition to wealth inequalities, India remains a highly unequal society, with caste,2 regional (Dreze and Sen, 2013) religious (GOI, 2006), and gender-based inequalities,3 to name a few.

Now, how do we justify such inequalities? Would not the marginalised simply scrutinise the advantages of the rich and hold them accountable? One explanation is that the school curriculum and practices promote the ideology of merit. Students are taught that they should excel in assessments, with the promise that doing so would enable them to achieve their desired path.

Moreover, the responsibility for academic success largely falls on the students, as teachers can provide limited focus to each student. Consequently, private resources are essential for students. These resources are required to be directed towards education, encompassing access to high-quality schools (and universities), private tuitions, to complement regular instruction, and so on. 

We know that only a privileged minority can access quality private schooling in India, leaving the others to attend subpar private and public schools. The chances of moving into higher quality colleges and universities are readily available, similarly, to that privileged minority.

The argument extends to suggesting that students who fail to prove themselves in assessments are individually responsible for their inability to achieve their aspirations. The ones who attain successful careers and wield influence have earned their right place in society by proving their worth via merit. Consequently, merit is depicted as an inherent trait possessed by certain individuals, granting them rightful status within society.

During my MPhil fieldwork, I worked with low-income Muslim men who had discontinued secondary school for various reasons. I aimed to find out what these reasons were. I found that the primary reason for dropping out was their firm belief that their lack of interest in school education contributed to their dropout. They attributed this lack of interest to their inability to engage in hard work” during their school years. 

There was a significant emphasis placed on the value of hard work, with many men regarding this as the only path to a successful and fulfilling life. They fervently believed that individuals from lower-class backgrounds had an equal or higher chance of completing school compared to individuals from upper-class backgrounds. Most of the men also firmly believed that regardless of religious identity, young men in Delhi had equal chances for educational success.

However, when looking at all-India data for reasons for dropout for Muslim men through an analysis of the 71st round of National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, I found that the most important factors were financial constraints and engagement in economic activities.

In India, research indicates that social mobility, as defined in terms of movement from one social class to another, has shown a tendency to be stable on average, which suggests that social class inequalities are persistent, as those who seek mobility from the lower to upper classes find limited opportunities to do so.

In my PhD, which built upon some of the themes from my M Phil, I interviewed a respondent named Hashim4 who strongly believed in the ideology of merit. Hashim belonged to a socio-economically vulnerable background. Due to various health issues his parents ceased to work, which forced Hashim to migrate to Delhi with his older brothers, to work loading and unloading vegetables at a wholesale market. 

Despite these challenges, Hashim’s efforts paid off as he was placed in touch with a neighbourhood NGO, working with vulnerable youth. This NGO facilitated his schooling through bridge courses. The NGO also assisted Hashim with admission to Delhi University for an undergraduate degree and later to Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi for his post-graduation.

Involved in mentoring at-risk youth at the NGO, Hashim found inspiration from his life and the few success stories of youth like him. This made him gain confidence and optimism about his future, keeping hope for a better life alive.

Through his affiliation with the NGO and Delhi University, Hashim gained social networks and cultural capital that fueled his aspiration to become a professor. In 2020, he was preparing for admission into PhD courses at Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

While Hashim’s story is emblematic of upward social mobility through high aspirations, he endured debilitating hardships as he continued to be a full-time labourer during his school and college education. This would give him only a few hours of sleep and almost no time to study, but he believed the effort worthwhile. 

Extreme disciplining of the self through regulation and deprivation spelled hard work for youth such as Hashim. Youth like Hashim, therefore, firmly believe that hard work and meritocracy are the only routes to upward mobility in contemporary times. 

Youth like Hashim had the support of the NGO whose members continue to mentor him. What about others like Hashim for whom supportive networks and resources are absent?

Extreme disciplining of the self through regulation and deprivation spelled hard work for youth such as Hashim (a respondent interviewed by the author) who firmly believe that hard work and meritocracy are the only routes to upward mobility in contemporary times. 

Now consider the cobbler’s child once again. They want to become an astronaut but so does the child of the doctor who stays in the posh building across the road from where the cobbler sits. Assume there is only one seat available in a prestigious institution of higher learning. Can we truly compare the resources available to these two children to help them to eventually access this institution?

The answer to that would likely be no. Now, in addition to the economic disadvantage of the cobbler’s child, they may also belong to a historically marginalised caste. 

Additionally, they may also have to work after school hours, contributing to their meagre family income. These intersecting disadvantages faced by the cobbler’s child may compound their challenges. Let us also assume that the doctor’s child belongs to a caste that has historically held several socio-economic advantages. Their caste can then be used as a resource or capital, which gives the child distinct advantages over and above their social class (being a doctor’s child). The class and caste capital would compound to provide a significant competitive edge to the doctor’s child over the cobbler’s child. 

This finding has grounds in empirical work, as Ajantha Subramaniam (2019) argues in the context of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. Her study shows that for several generations, the caste composition of the students at IIT has largely been upper caste. 

She highlights how upper castes have converted their caste resources, or inherited privileges associated with hailing from an upper caste background, into a supposedly innate competence over others, to enter IIT Madras through competitive examinations. This innate competence is grounded in the abstract concept of merit. 

Merit smooths over structural inequalities, keeping everyone on an ostensibly equal playing field. There are inherent flaws and contradictions within the system of meritocracy which we must remain cognisant of even when we celebrate its success within contemporary society.


  • Dreze J and Sen A (2013). An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions. London: Penguin
  • Feinberg, W. and Jonas S. S. (2009). Marxist Theory and Education. In School and Society (43−56), 4th Edition. New York and London: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
  • Government of India (GOI) (2006). Social, Economic And Educational Status Of The Muslim Community Of India: A Report. Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India (popularly known as Sachar Committee Report), New Delhi.
  • Subramanian A (2019). The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • Vaid D (2018). Uneven Odds: Social Mobility in Contemporary India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Aashti Salman is an MA in Education faculty member at Azim Premji University. She is interested in understanding the career pathways that education creates for people from different social backgrounds and the educational strategies of the middle class where she wants to examine the extent of social reproduction.



  2. looks into some indicators of caste-based inequalities in united Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.↩︎

  3. Only in the recent years has India’s rank on the gender inequality index fallen somewhat below the world average.↩︎

  4. Name changed to protect identity of the respondent.↩︎