De meritocratische leugen

richard sennettRichard Sennett had an interesting column in Le Monde yesterday regarding the impact of stratification and absence of meritocracy on organizations.

For Sennett, the main challenge of our societies is to create the conditions under which individuals with different political, religious and cultural backgrounds can cooperate. New information and communication technologies can maybe facilitate this, but this has yet to be seen despite the use of these technologies in the current protests across the Middle East.

As he notes, in the 19th century, historian Jacob Burckhardt defined modernity as the era of savage simplifications: increased sophistication of material social conditions accompanied by an impoverishment of social relations (the Burckhardt paradox). For Sennett, the complexity of ICTs is beyond our capacity to make good use of them, especially to use them to establish true cooperation. Modern society, then, creates a material complexity it does not know how to use.

For instance, for Sennett, an inability to foster true cooperation in all its complexities was one of the reasons that Google Wave failed as the software was designed in too linear a model of communication and cooperation. In that sense, Google Wave and its failure illustrates something that Sennett’s studies of labor processes have already shown: the capacities of workers are superior to their institutional use. This is congruent with Amartya Sen’s theory of capabilities.

Similarly, inequalities are based on savage simplifications that limit communication and cooperation. When the capabilities of an individual are superior to their functional use within an organization, this leads to an impoverishment of social relations, as is the case when a subordinate has to work under the authority of a less competent individual. In institutions, the consequences of such inequalities can be disastrous. The subordinates become embittered and misunderstood and their communication with their hierarchical superior become more and more simplified.

Of course, the meritocratic ideology cannot conceive of such a situation (neither does functionalist theory on social stratification): only competent people can reach positions of authority precisely because of their competence. After all, merit gets rewarded with social, economic and political capital. But this meritocratic system is a lie. More often than not, highly skilled craftsmen are accountable to individuals less competent than themselves and with whom communication is limited to institutional processes.

Managerial theories often deplore this as a the silo effect: a dysfunction in which workers operate in isolation (silos) without communicating or communicating only to a minimum, without cooperation. A multiplication of silos is, of course, detrimental to the organization as a whole.

In order to study the links between the silo effect, inequalities and the meritocratic lie, Sennett and his research team spent two years studying the world of the City in London, especially the communicative relations between managers and subordinate technicians, especially the programmers who designed the algorithms applied to derivatives. This is a particularly glaring case of superior incompetence where the managers have no clue as to the mathematics involved in these financial instruments. So, they often turned a blind eye as to what was going on in their departments and just enjoyed the money coming their way. This is Burckhardt paradox: technical capabilities are way more complex than their use and led to a silo effect.

In financial firms, this absence of mutuality and cooperation undermined authority as those who could do maths challenged the legitimacy of their superiors and communication then takes the form of passive-aggressive jabs behind the managers’ backs. So, when the firm is ready to collapse, there is no solidarity to be found (beyond the promise of taxpayer-funded meg-bonuses which then substitute for firm loyalty).

It is in this context of inversion of the relationship between competence and hierarchy that inequalities lead to savage simplifications as the complex web of confidence, trust and mutual respect loses its density and structure under the silo effect. The organization weakens for the lack of true cooperation.

This analysis resonates particularly in the context of current debates regarding education (k-12 and higher) where accountability (simplified – yet relatively meaningless – measurements) is supposed to provide greater efficiency and where the administrative levels (more and more populated with individuals with no educational credentials or experience) foster silo effects and Mertonian retreatism and ritualism rather than true cooperation and communication.

What the education example reveals, and in that, Sennett is right, is that a true social capabilities approach would mean to challenge the forms of knowledge and power that modern capitalism imposed in unequal and arbitrary fashion. That is, the meritocratic lie needs to be publicly called out.

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    Leuk hoor, maar overdreven ingewikkeld geschreven, en al heel lang geleden krachtiger verwoord in het Peter-principle: “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence” (met dank aan Wikipedia). Koppel dat aan de voorkeur die menig manager heeft voor types met een grote bek en we hebben geen pomosocjargon nodig om de de merkwaardige verhoudingen binnen organisaties te verklaren.

    Dat de meritocratie niet bestaat, is natuurlijk ook gewoon observeerbaar. Anders waren al die bankjongens allang ontslagen, om nog maar te zwijgen van tv-tak van Philips, de ambtenaren die de JSF maar blijven pushen, etc.