Turning Privilege Into Merit : Elite Schooling, Identity, and the Reproduction of Meritocratic Belief

Abstract: Previous research on meritocratic ideology and elite adolescent identity has mainly approached it from the outside, understanding meritocratic identity as a rhetorical cover to justify privilege. Through a frame analytic approach this study nurtures a phenomenological insider perspective, exploring through a one-year ethnography how adolescents at an elite high school experience, negotiate and perform identity in the tension between the school’s institutional definition of identity and their everyday life as young adults.The findings show that the students relied on a ‘meritocratic frame’ to make sense of situations in the school. First-year students framed situations as meritocratic competition, which positioned them as individual antagonists. The students were engrossed in competition, which reinforced their belief in meritocracy as unequivocal and in themselves as genuine meritocrats. Third-year students framed situations as if meritocratic competition was over—they had endured it together—engrossing them in the shared sense of being a meritocratically tested elite collective. These findings indicate how elite schools contribute to reproduce belief in meritocracy, shaping the students’ sense of who they genuinely are and what the world truly is. Furthermore, the meritocratic frame hides certain aspects of situations, so that students tacitly agree to find social class and ethnic background, ‘irrelevant’ and ‘un-noticeable.’ This inattention denied students from disadvantaged backgrounds to challenge the exclusion they experienced, and simultaneously allowed advantaged students to experience elite belonging as achieved rather than inherited. Nonetheless, the impression of meritocracy was fragile and sometimes doubted and challenged as when students evoked the ‘privilege frame,’ bringing class, ethnicity and exclusion back in.In addition to the situational condition of shared engrossment, the thesis points to two central conditions that contribute to foster and maintain belief in the meritocratic impression. On the one hand, the study shows how the students learn a local and institutionally supported definition of merit and are tacitly trained in the meritocratic game, acquiring the skill to turn social background, popularity and self-confidence into legitimate merit. On the other hand, the study points out the relation between situational framing and structurally determined socialization patterns, indicating that the class and ethnically privileged students have learned the meritocratic frame from experiences in families and previous schooling, while students from dominated backgrounds tend to have been socialized into applying the privilege frame, being more prone to see through the meritocratic impression by drawing attention to how social background structures inclusion and exclusion.

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