Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Meritocracy - Revisiting Functionalism

After the discussion on functionalism we had in class today, I feel that I have gained a better understanding for it. Although I touched on it briefly in my previous post, I left out some very important concepts. For me, the discussion in class clarified the readings.

As mentioned, according to functionalists, the function of formal schooling is to allocate individuals to their place in society based on talent, ability, and achievement. Basically, this theory reinforces inequality in our society. The inequality of individuals in our society serves a purpose and so it can be seen as useful. The purpose is to allow society to function. According to this view, society is often referred to as a machine or living organism in which all parts need to work together to maintain a balance or equilibrium. This is why inequality is necessary; otherwise, society would not be able to function. That is kind of a depressing thought….

Apart from deciding our social status, another function of schooling according to this view is to “resocialize students from ascription and particularism to achievement and universalism.” Huh? … interesting … Well, this basically means that when children enter school they begin equal. They are no longer self-centered and special; they are part of society and must prove their merit. This is where the concept of meritocracy comes in.

Meritocracy is different from other systems we have been exposed to such as aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, etc. Instead of receiving your position in society based on family, wealth, seniority or popularity, individuals are “given” their place in society based on their merit. Therefore, those who would fall in the upper class deserve to be there because of their ability and hard work, whereas those who are of a lower class deserve to be there because they did not work as hard.

Although we have not addressed the problems with this theory in class, there are some criticisms that I can think of. I do agree that people should be rewarded for hard work, but it still does not seem to be address appropriately according to this theory. My first criticism regards the notion that we all begin as equal and it is our merit that decides our status. It is a nice thought but the status you are born into often determines what is available to you. Education and schooling require resources, support and often money. This is not available to all individuals and thus they may not have the same chance to become a brain surgeon (a “crucial position in society”). It would require that they work very hard to achieve their education (i.e. having a part time job), whereas someone who has school paid for them may not have to work as hard overall. Therefore, I feel that those who are at the top or bottom of the scale do not necessarily “deserve to be there.” Natural talent and attributes play a role. There are so many factors that are left out of this theory that make it hard to buy in to. In addition, a second criticism is that merit is not defined. Who is it that judges which individuals have the most merit? How can it possibly be measured? Is it us as teachers that would determine who is to succeed based on what we individually think is impressive according to this theory? Do teachers need to pick out the student they think is the most intelligent and convince him/her to be a brain surgeon?

Well, I think I have written enough on the subject for now. I am very interested to discuss this more in class and will revisit the criticisms of functionalism and meritocracy in future posts.

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