“Meritocracy: A social system in which status is achieved through ability and effort (merit), rather than ascribed on the basis of age, class, gender, or other such particularistic or inherited advantages. The term implies that the meritorious deserve any privileges which they accrue. In practice it is difficult to find reliable measures of merit about which social scientists can agree.
The term was coined by Michael Young in The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) to refer to government by those identified as the most able high achievers, with merit defined as intelligence plus effort. His fantasy attempted to foresee the extreme consequences of a society which fully implemented the goal of equality of opportunity through the educational system, with the most able rising to the upper echelons, leaving intellectual dullards to carry out the humble manual work. The book warned that the new focus on intelligence and ability in the educational system merely institutionalized inequality of intellectual ability in place of inequality based on social class. Since judgements about what constitutes effort are inescapably moral (does a lazy genius merit rewarding? And, if so, why not reward a hard-working dullard?) the term remains highly contested (see, for example, John Goldthorpe, ‘Problems of “Meritocracy’) in Robert Erikson and Jan O. Jonsson (eds.). Can Education be Equalized?, 1996).”
Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.