What Meritocracy Means to its Winners: Admissions, Race, and Inequality at Elite Universities in The United States and Britain

Social Sciences. 2018;7(8):131 DOI 10.3390/socsci7080131


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Journal Title: Social Sciences

ISSN: 2076-0760 (Print)

Publisher: MDPI AG

LCC Subject Category: Social Sciences

Country of publisher: Switzerland

Language of fulltext: English

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Natasha Warikoo (Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA)


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Time From Submission to Publication: 11 weeks


Abstract | Full Text

How do winners of processes of meritocracy make sense of those processes, especially in the face of forceful public critiques of their unequal outcomes? In this paper I analyze the meaning-making with respect to merit in university admissions of White, native-born undergraduates attending elite American and British universities. I find that United States students support the “calibration” of evaluations of merit, and emphasize evaluations of applicants’ contributions to the “collective merit” of their university cohorts. British students espouse a universalist, individualist understanding of merit. While conceptions of merit differed across national contexts, students in both reproduced the notions of merit espoused by their universities. I conclude that in spite of a long history of student protest on college campuses, rather than engagement with symbolic politics on liberal-identified campuses, self-interest in status legitimation dominates student perspectives, ultimately reproducing understandings of merit that will reproduce inequality. The paper draws upon 98 one-on-one in-depth interviews with White, native-born undergraduates attending Harvard University, Brown University, and University of Oxford.