28 SES 07 B, Social mobility, Equity and Meritocracy
Diversity is frequently used as an antithesis to privilege and selectivity in daily discourse. Nowadays skilfully integrated in media rapports, mainstream politics and policymaking, the term has grown beyond its early use within academia and struggles for equality. Moreover, it is also commonly accepted as an objective for educational institutions and a theme within classroom teaching. However, as scholars from different parts of the world have noticed, diversity is sometimes related to meritocracy and social mobility. In this line of reason, meritocracy is argued to produce diversity and reduce inequality (se for instance Littler 2018). This is especially true for contemporary Swedish post-16 education, with far-reaching educational marketization, vouchers, competition and school choice strictly based by merits (grades).
Since the early 1990’s school choice has become a common practice Sweden and in the capital region of Stockholm all students are eligible to choose between nearly 130 different post-16 schools – public or private (free-schools). This was instigated after a regional agreement in 2011 in which a set of common guidelines where created to formally give students and schools “equal opportunities”. Choice by merits rather than financial resources or geographical zoning has been regarded as a means to boost competition between schools, improve educational achievements and reduce the impact of educational segregation. However, much research has indicated the opposite – signifying that educational segregation is persistent (Söderström & Uusitalo 2005) and that the top echelon of elite schools still attracts students with larger degree of cultural and economic resources (Forsberg 2015). Still, the ideology of meritocracy as the path to diversity and social mobility continuous.
Internationally, several scholars have analysed the relationship between diversity and meritocracy within different settings of elite education (Khan 2011; Koh 2014; Warikoo 2016). Khan for instance, argue that many privileged students at the prestigious boarding school St. Pauls characterize themselves as hard-working and talented i.e. a product of meritocracy – rather than fortunate. However, little has been done on the theme in a Swedish context. One exception is economist Mikael Holmqvist (2017) study of Djursholm, the wealthiest community in Sweden. Holmqvist findings corresponds to those of Khan, and echoes the relationship between success, talent and hard work.
By focusing on some of the most prestigious, post-16 elite schools in Stockholm, this paper aims to challenge the assumption of the balance between meritocracy, educational marketization, school choice and diversity. This is done by displaying how diversity and meritocracy are naturalized in the elite school environment by conforming to the notion of academic selectivity, consequently concealing both class privilege and “eliteness”. On the one hand we concentrate on the institution, and how certain features of diversity become a competitive advantage to attract “the right students” by appealing to egalitarian values. On the other hand, we demonstrate how students in these post-16 elite schools have come to embody the principles of educational marketization and “diversity through meritocracy”. Thus, to a large degree disregarding and overlooking privilege while maintaining hard work and talent as the key to their accomplishments.
This paper mainly draws on the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1996), but also other scholars within sociology of education. Concepts such as field, strategy, habitus and symbolic capital is deployed to relationally analyze – on the one hand – the elite-schools as competing agents within the field of post-16 education and how legitimized forms of diversity become a symbolic gain in this struggle. On the other hand, how students have come to embody the principles of “diversity through meritocracy” – unintentionally concealing privilege while legitimize their own capability. In other words, meritocracy as an embodied and mental state of students habituses.
This paper draws on a diverse array of data, collected in different stages throughout nearly two years of field work. It combines ethnographic observations, performed within three different post-16 elite schools (located in the capital of Stockholm) and stretching over a one-and-a-half-year period. This includes daily classroom observation and participation in meetings, examinations and other related school activities. Furthermore, the study contains interviews with more than 110 students, school professionals (teachers, guidance chancellors, principals etc.) and public administrators. But also, official statistics and a collection of documents (contemporary and historical), school papers and webpages. Together these data provide well-founded context for the theme of this paper. The schools are selected both by their position within the field of post-16 education and due to their specific geographical characteristics. More concretely, the selection is based on social and academic selectivity, as well as the locational setting within the affluent parts of inner city Stockholm. The large proportion of these students have attained top-grades from their secondary education, making these schools into extremely competitive milieus. Two of the schools are highly prestigious public schools and the third; one of the oldest private schools in Stockholm. All three has a long history of educating students from socially privileged backgrounds. The fieldwork, data collection and analysis are organized with a theoretical emphasis (Wacquant 2002). In other words, it is guided by the different struggles for legitimacy and question of recognition within these elite institutions (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992). For example, which choices and actions are recognized as valuable and which are discredited as vulgar and simplistic? This also means that we take into account students different resources, i.e. cultural and economic goods, to structure the analysis more carefully.
In contrast to the intention of educational marketization and school choice, competition has not decreased segregation. Rather, post-16 elite schools strengthened their position and have in many ways become more homogenously "elite". The degree of students from highly educated families have for instance increased. Still, most students and teachers maintain that these schools are diverse, and that diversity is something essential. Furthermore, the notion of diversity has become competitive advantage in the fierce in-between school competition. Elite schools use the term in marketing pamphlets and information handouts to attract new students by the virtues of egalitarianism. But what does diversity indicate? In the case of Swedish post-16 elite schools, the concept of diversity is rather ambiguous and closely related to the opportunities of school choice. It mainly refers to ethnic, lingual and geographical diversity - without little or no reflection about student's social heritage. In some cases, this means that a child of a foreign diplomat or a student residing in an affluent suburb is bundled together with migrant students from traditional working-class backgrounds. All of these students are perceived to provide and increase diversity. This is firmly maintained by students from affluent families, who speaks of the school as a melting pot - bringing together people from different social, ethnical and geographical whereabouts and also a multitude of lifestyles. In sthis scenario, the school resembles a cosmopolitan virtue and a place for cultivation. In contrast, students from lower social classes are often less keen on speaking of diversity. However, the large degree of these students recognizes school choice by merits as a chance to equalize society and increase diversity. Especially those from privileged backgrounds embody these ideals, and by referring to the "perceived diversity" of their own school they argue for hard work and talent to become part of "the best".
Bourdieu, P. (1996). The state nobility. Cambridge: Polity Press. Bourdieu, P. & Wacquant, L. (1992). An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press. Forsberg, H. (2015). Kampen om eleverna. Gymnasiefältet och skolmarknadens framväxt i Stockholm, 1987-2011. Diss. Uppsala: Uppsala University Library. Holmqvist, M. (2017). Leader Communities. The consecration of elites in Djursholm. New York: Columbia University Press. Khan, S. H. (2011). Privilege. The making of an adolescent elite at St. Paul's school. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Koh, A. (2014). Doing class analysis in Singapore's elite education: unravelling the smokescreen of 'meritocratic talk'. Globalisation, Societies and Education. Vol 12, No. 2:196-210. Littler, J. (2018). Against meritocracy. Culture, power and the myths of mobility. Oxon: Routledge. Söderström, M. and Uusitalo, R. (2005:2). Vad innebär införandet av fritt skolval i Stockholm för segregeringen i skolan. Uppsala: IFAU. Wacquant, L. (2002). Scrutinizing the Street: Poverty, Morality, and the Pitfalls of Urban Ethnography. American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 107. No. 6: 1468-1532. Warikoo, N. K. (2016) The diversity bargain. And other dilemmas of race, admission and meritocracy at elite universities. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
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