When the Man was Weighed as in a Balance:
Assessment as Social Science

This site designed and maintained by
Prof. Glenn Fulcher



An Inaugural Professorial Lecture 2013

Inaugural lectures are designed to be informative and (hopefully) entertaining, for a very wide audience of non-specialist academics, students, and the general public. If you have an hour to watch my inaugural, I hope you enjoy it. I have also provided some contextualisation in the "meritocracy debate" below, before you play the video.

Glenn Fulcher

How do we select people for jobs, or to attend good Universities? An extraordinary thing has happened in the last 150 years. Almost all societies and cultures have adopted a meritocratic approach to this social question, and those that still depend on the practices of nepotism are perceived as being "backward". The word "meritocracy" was coined in 1958 by Michael Young in his book The Rise of Meritocracy. He charted the change in how people "get on in life" from the growth in public schools in Victorian England to the immediate post-war period. He linked "meritocracy" to the massive growth in tests and the use of certificates, which became the new way of climbing the ladder. But Young argued that this was dangerous. He claims that it has created a new privilaged self-perpetuating class that uses education to maintain its status, and ensure social immobility. In this 2001 Guradian Interview Young argues that meritocracy has led to the disengagement of the working classes with politics, as only the new elite have access to power. There are also many testing experts who believe that the power of tests need to be monitored and controlled.

Even though the term "meritocracy" is relatively new, meritocratic ideas and practices have existed throughout history. And this is partly what this lecture is about. But before you listen to the lecture, consider the other grounds upon which we might make selection decisions. The most obvious is birth - the system of patronage that existed in Britain prior to India Act of 1853 that introduced competitive examinations. Edwin Chadwick recounts Lord Grey standing up in parliament to argue against the use of examinations. They would, he argued, eradicate the consideration of moral character as a primary requirement for holding responsible office - values which only the British system of patronage would protect. What other criteria might one use for selection? Here are a few, drawn from page 21 my 2010 book Practical Language Testing

  • Wealth
  • Social Class
  • Sporting Prowess
  • Parental Occupation
  • Life Expectancy
  • Motivation
  • Ethnic Background

For each of these we could create an argument for using it for selection instead of examinations and certificates. But would such a choice lead to more or less fairness in society? You may wish to watch this video from 2012 in which the Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg argued that British Universities should admit poorer students with lower qualifications in preference to other applicants in order to increase social mobility. The Universities immediately hit back, and the country was up in arms over the suggested change in the criterion from evidence of achievement to socioeconomic status (and by implication, class). The policy move was quickly killed off.

The power of meritocratic feeling is so strong because of its long history, from ancient Greece and China, to Victorian Britain, and the rest of the world. "In imperial China, the 'Dragon Gate' was also the actual name of the front doorway of the civil service exam hall. As was true of so many other images in ancient China, this imagery found its way to Korea and Japan....The image is now thoroughly embedded in the concept of meritocracy in both national cultures" (Zeng, 1999, pp. 1 - 2). And indeed, it is now virtually universal.

In this lecture, I explore the role that testing and assessment has played in meritocratic societies. For it is a tool that regulates the operation of selection processes, and therefore the distribution of social, political, and economic goods. This inevitably brings testing and assessment into the realm of policy and politics. To make sense of testing and assessment, we therefore need to see it in a larger historical and social science context.

References and Further Reading

Allen, A. (2011). Michael Young's The Rise of Meritocracy: A Philosophical Critique. British Journal of Educational Studies 59(4), 367 - 382.

Fulcher, G. (2010). Practical Language Testing. London: Hodder Education

Shohamy, E. (2001). The Power of Tests: A Critical Perspective on the Uses of Language Tests. Harlow: Longman.

Young, M. (1958). The Rise of Meritocracy. London: Thames and Hudson.

Zeng, K. (1999). Dragon Gate: Competitive Examinations and their Consequences. London: Cassell.

Web Pages

Meritocracy on Wikipedia