Meritocracy, deficit thinking and the invisibility of the system
Faculty of Social Sciences. Sociology
British educational research journal / Europa publications limited. - Supplement
, p. 796-819
University of Antwerp
Socio-ethnic stratification and segregation processes present in Flemish society are reflected in the everyday school environment. Pupils with a different socio-ethnic background than the dominant majority and middle class seem to be confronted with a lot of difficulties in this school system. The dominant meritocratic discourse frequently applies a deficit thinking perspective to frame educational success and failure, focusing on deficiencies originating outside of the school. In this paper we analyse newly collected survey data (N = 11,015 pupils) and a large amount of qualitative data (from pupils, parents, teachers, principals) to answer our two main research questions: (i) how is educational success/failure defined, and (ii) how is educational success/failure explained? The factor analyses as well as the qualitative analyses illustrate how the idea of meritocracy relates to individualistic features such as effort, merit and competence. However, the findings also reveal that this individualistic approach goes hand-in-hand with a focus on the family environment and culture which seems to limit individual agency to a large extent. In these discourses, pupils, parents and even teachers are presented as being largely determined by their direct social environment with almost no regard for social inequalities within the educational system. The paper ends with a discussion on how processes of victimization and the denial of systemic bias, influence educational trajectories and proposes a different approach to multiculturalism and the appreciation of cultural background and specific family resources as positive elements in these trajectories.