From a sociology for meritocracy to a sociology for democracy




It is difficult to speak to a discipline like sociology, which has a diverse set of interests and various approaches to study society. However, Kevin Leicht’s recent post on this blog did just that and very successfully. The last time I checked, the post had been shared more than 200 times on Facebook. Many sociologists find his diagnosis of our intellectual illness accurate as well as brave and refreshing.

Leicht argues that, in an era of hyper-inequality, the study of inequality should shift away from between-group inequality to within-group inequality; from education to jobs and labor market institutions; from a narrow focus on diversity and sensitivity to an emphasis on the divide between haves and have-nots.

I think Leicht’s prescriptions are right on the money, especially at a time when Donald Trump gains increasing support from working-class Americans and Hilary Clinton called half of his supporters “a basket of deplorables.”  Indeed, one can argue that the current hyper-inequality began in the 1970s when the Democratic Party started to embrace college-educated professionals over their traditional blue-collar workers as their main constituency. Working-class Americans, lured by the Republicans with nationalism and the “Cultural War,” began to vote against their class interests.

But Leicht’s diagnosis does not cut deep enough.

In my view, the sociology of inequality since the Civil Rights Movement has been a sociology for meritocracy. We have produced a vast body of research investigating the barriers individuals face in reaching their full potential but put little thought on where meritocracy will lead us to. This framework assigns the sources of inequality into two types. The legitimate ones include skills and productivity, while the illegitimate ones include ascribed status such as race and gender.

Our focus is not surprising, considering that more and more sociologists identify themselves as professionals, instead of activists. Sociologists often pride themselves on being “reflexive” but, perhaps in part because we are a highly educated group, many sociologists hold that merit (or skill and education) should dominate the distribution of rewards. As professionals we also tend think policies should be set based on expert’s opinions, even though unavoidably these opinions are mixed with self-interests.

Many sociologists of inequality treat technology and globalization as undefeatable forces while simultaneously benefiting from them. We think a democracy that goes against professional opinions is merely ignorant populism. Some of us may even agree with Clinton’s assessment of Trump’s supporters, no matter how unsympathetic the remark was.

Our professional class bias blinds us from problematizing meritocracy and from addressing “The Social Question”— how does our current socio-economic system fail to provide decent living and human dignity for the majority?

We need to acknowledge that a full meritocracy is not a sufficient condition for a just society.

The time is right for us to move from a sociology for meritocracy to a sociology for democracy and inclusion. Instead of focusing solely on the between-group disparities (while controlling for X, Y, and Z), we should pay particular attention to the individuals within each group that are excluded from the opportunity of having a decent life. Instead of recycling the same axes of inequality, we should be creative in identifying hidden categories that are extremely privileged or vulnerable (see David Pedulla’s work on nonstandard employment). Instead of pushing more people into colleges or job training programs, we should ask why a high school graduates can make a good life in Germany but not in the United States.

It is time for us to listen to the “deplorables,” since we have long dismissed them.

Of course, many sociologists have been doing so but I think we can do more. I would like to propose two directions for us to move forward:

A Fundamental Rethinking of How Economic Resources Should Be Distributed

A good starting point to study inequality is to acknowledge that, since our economic system is fundamentally supported by the state, the distribution of resources should not be determined solely by market but negotiated through a democratic process. This means that the economic resources that are assigned to individuals shouldn’t be only based on their productivity but what is sufficient for them to fully participate in the society.

At the firm level, stakeholders should gain equal rights with owners or shareholders to decide the how the income should be spent across various constituencies. The most important metric for an economic system should not be growth or efficiency but how well it supports the needs of the society.

Bring Class Back as a Main Focus of Our Research and Teaching

As much as there is more progress to be made in terms of race, gender, and sexuality, the reality is that the class divide in America has worsened significantly in the past forty years. Even though recent works such as Shamus Kahn’s Privilege, Lauren Rivera’s Pedigree, Matt Desmond’s Evicted, and Harel Shapira’s Waiting for Jose have brought our attention to the increasing significance of class, we are still far away from an America where people feel comfortable to think and talk about class.

Quantitative research, which constitutes a large segment in the study of inequality, should move away from studying the “average” and investigate the extreme ends of the distribution.

I agree with Leicht that the current inequality regime is very different from the one in the 1960s. I believe we are ready for the challenge of hyper-inequality when we begin to move from a sociology for meritocracy to a sociology for democracy.


Ken-Hou Lin is the Inequality, Poverty and Mobility Editor of Work in Progress and Assistant Professor of Sociology and Population Research Center Associate at The University of Texas at Austin.

Image: Daniel Weir via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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