The Meaning Of Merit: The American Idea Of What We Have Earned, What We Deserve, And Whether We Got Lucky

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Journalism Studies
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This dissertation is about the notion of merit in America. I examine what it means in American culture for a person to have merit, how we assess its role in individual lives, and whether those constructions are changing as Americans’ belief that we live in a meritocracy wavers. The project draws on analyses of mediated life stories of prominent figures from politics, sports, and business, as well as on in-depth interviews with a diverse group of 60 Americans, asking in both cases how narratives are used to explain professional and socioeconomic outcomes. What I find is an ideology that is more nuanced and less blinkered to social dynamics than is implied by popular clichés about meritocracy. American stories do not typically convey that opportunities are distributed in equitable fashion or that rewards accurately reflect performance. Rather, they describe complex interactions between individuals, systems, and circumstances, and a balance between agency and accident in life outcomes. But they demonstrate a strong commitment to the idea that this parsing of internal and external factors should and can be done, and that the result of the parsing tells us something important about the deservingness of an individual. In making their assessments, the stories use a number of identifiable storylines and standards – some of which are logically coherent, some of which are not; some of which are consistent with meritocratic principles, some of which are not – to navigate the relationship between internal and external factors and individual deservingness. I argue that the ideology of merit is powerful precisely because it is accommodating to a variety of circumstances, perspectives, and conclusions. The ideology has been evolving in recent years, as our stories give more credence to the possibility that external and systemic factors are decisive in individual outcomes. To a certain extent, the ideology has also been eroding, as a few sources question the premise that determining the role of merit in individual outcomes is feasible and important. I propose that we ought to embrace this opportunity to rethink our assumptions about merit and our ability and need to assess its role in our lives.

Michael X. Delli Carpini
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