Sunday, 12 August 2012

Politics of 'merit'

The article below throws light on the arguments around 'merit' and has special significance for us in understanding reservation politics. - Spurthi

Madan, Amman: Sociologising merit. Economic and Political Weekly 42, 29 (2007): 3044-50.

The idea of ‘merit’ is one of the most controversial issues in Indian social and political life today. The promotion of merit is regarded as a great improvement over nepotism, based on the one hand on an argument of efficiency, and on the other on an argument of equality. There is also a moral argument embedded in the debate on merit.

This article examines the meaning of merit in a society which has a strong commitment to values of equality and freedom, while at the same time being highly stratified. According to the author, the notion of merit is problematic for several reasons:
(i) it is based on an assessment of individual actions, instead of seeing individuals as part of a social structure, drawing from the cultural and social resources available to them;
(ii) it legitimizes a sharp inequality of rewards;
(iii) it legitimizes an economic system based on injustice;
(iv) it promotes the advantages of birth, rather than of deeds;
(v) it claims technical efficiency, which may be more apparent than real;and
(vi) it legitimizes status group politics.

The real challenge should be to create a society where merit really speaks for goodness as well as for equality of opportunity and does not serve as a label that legitimizes systematic inequality and injustice.
The main argument of this article is that ‘merit’ is a component of a discourse emerging from stratified societies that have a widely held faith in the possibility of social mobility. It is part of a cultural system of individualism and stresses the importance of effort. At the same time, merit is a part of an assumption and acceptance of inequalities and of the unequal distribution of resources at one end, while giving equal opportunity to everyone at another end –celebrating equality while at the same time opposing it.  It is a concept that requires re-thinking.

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