May 06, 2019

The Sociology Everyone Knows: Meritocracy and Gentrification

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

Perhaps you’ve heard that sociology just explains the things we already know about in the everyday world just in less accessible ways. But what if I told you that the everyday world already had a couple of very sociological ideas already in circulation? In my last blog post I wrote about a term that is used in everyday language that is sociological in origin: the self-fulfilling prophecy. For this post I want to write about two more everyday terms we don’t think of as sociological in origin: meritocracy and gentrification.

You have likely heard and even used the term meritocracy, believing that it is part of the foundation of the American education system. The term has certainly been in the news lately due to the college admissions scandal. (Todd Schoepflin recently wrote an Everyday Sociology blog post about it.)

And yet, what you might not know is that the term was coined by sociologists over 60 years ago. (There’s some debate on who aptly coined the term. John Fox used it two years prior than Michael Young did, but Young ran with it a bit more, writing a fictional account of a sociologist in 2034 to tell the story of how society came to embrace the term. No matter.) I doubt that these men are taught in many introductory classes, but the term lives on.

Meritocracy is the idea that society’s wealth, power, and privileges are meted out according to individual achievement and not based upon one’s inherited social status. This notion is firmly engrained in our American DNA: That raw grit and talent are the things that define success, not what family we were born into. We can hold up examples of the meritocracy in action, from Bill Gates to Barack Obama.

Both Young and Fox, however, used the term in a satirical way, as a warning. Both believed that the advancement away from the ascription model (i.e., one remains in the social status they were born into) and toward an achievement model (i.e., based on merit) only blinds us from the inequalities that will be perpetuated through its more refined ordering system. Oodles of sociological research demonstrates this. (Also, as a side note: Psychological research shows that the more you believe in meritocracy, the more likely you are to be, scientifically speaking, kinda a jerk.)

Let’s turn now to another term that is often used in discussions of contemporary cities, gentrification, and mostly for good reason. Actually, of the three terms I have written about recently, you can see here on Google Trends that gentrification has been the most used term since 2004. It shows up in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and PBS.

British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term to describe new residential patterns in London in the 1960s. The term is meant to point to the process of rich folks (i.e., the gentry) move into urban areas. As my co-author and I try to point out in this essay, rich folks moving into cities is not always a problem. Sometimes cities (particularly in the American South) have city centers that were once the place for long-gone manufacturing, which could use new residents. The real problem is not just gentrification, but what often comes after it: the displacement of marginalized and under-represented minorities.

Some excellent recent research on gentrification has been tackling this topic (for example, a recent book called Taking Back the Boulevard on the arts, activism, and gentrification by Jan Lin). But it is also important to note that there are lots of kinds of gentrification: there’s rural gentrification, “new build” gentrification, tourist gentrification, and retail gentrification.

I think it is safe to say that wider usage of sociological concepts is certainly a great thing! It is a relief that people use our terms, and it gives me hope. The idea of meritocracy, for example, was initially ignored by scholars but was embraced overnight by the public and eventually scholars returned to the idea.

As I noted in my previous post, when these sociological terms are adopted broadly they lose some of their meaning. Gentrification too. That term is used too broadly, to the point of not having meaning (and ignoring a more serious concern--displacement--which is not the flip side of that coin). And poor meritocracy. Meritocracy is now taken as a goal, quite the opposite from its intended purposes as a satirical critique of changes in our highly stratified education systems.

I suspect that there might be other sociological concepts that could be discussed. Are there any terms that you think could be infused into the wider linguistic mainstream that you can think of?


They are all new definition for me, thank you for the interesting article. I learned a lot from the insight you shared.

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