Sunday, June 5, 2011

Revealed the keys that give rise to hierarchism in society

Sociologist Harkaitz Zubiri rejects that social status depends exclusively on individual merits, according to his Ph.D. defended in the University of Basque Country

In the words of sociologist Harkaitz Zubiri, it is currently accepted that social hierarchy is constructed of individual merits, but the reality is quite different. He thus rejects meritocracy. There is no equality in opportunities, nor neutrality in the rules of the game, nor objectivity in the parameters of evaluation, nor of justice; but paths carved out by persons under the effect of a context full of ups and downs. This is what Mr Zubiri argues in his PhD thesis, presented at the University of Basque Country and entitled, Ibilbide akademiko-profesionalak prekarizazio estratifikatuaren garaian. Meritokrazia auzitan (Academic-professional careers in times of stratified precariousness. Meritocracy questioned).

Mr Zubiri studied the mechanisms causing social discrimination. To this end, he carried out in-depth interviews with members of the public of about thirty years old from the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, placing emphasis on their academic-professional trajectories (APT). Concretely, he analysed four social organisations: the educational system, the family, the individual and employment. According to the researcher, these are four key factors for studying the APT of each person. Negotiations, the degree of conflict (either coherence or confrontation) and the relationships of power that exist, either within these four organisations or between them, condition these APT, as well as, consequently, the social status of each individual.

Education, the family, the individual

The PhD thesis shows that the educational system copies the social hierarchy. The overall number of potential students is heterogeneous, but the system homogenises and stratifies them. Thus, the school functions with efficacy for those who adapt to it, but discriminates against the rest. The researcher talks of social Darwinism. Moreover, the interviewees themselves give legitimacy to this discrimination: if an individual has difficulties in some sphere, he or she considers that they themselves are responsible for this. Thus, there exists great tolerance with respect to the competence-ergo-destiny discourse defended by the meritocracy.

The second key studied is the family, which has a big influence because, amongst other things, it chooses the school and takes on the role of the transference of knowledge and aspirations. Mr Zubiri states that the family can produce the future. For example, the progenitors tend to transmit to their children their social position as reference, and so the perception of being predestined can have more influence on the individual than academic results. However, the researcher stresses that this transmission is not always successful: the fact that the family has a strategy in concrete does not guarantee that it is capable of transmitting all the elements thereof to their descendents.

As regards the individual, the thesis holds that the key lies in the interpretation. As the researcher makes clear, the previously cited factors and a number of others, condition the individual, but does not precisely determine it; and he believes it important to make this distinction. There is active interpretation work going on by the individual in the processes that goes from the position arising from the conditions to the one that is finally taken and, thus, is where the opportunity to create is provided.

The culture of precariousness

As regards employment, the last key, Mr Zubiri explains that all those sharing the age group with the interviewees are prey to precariousness. In fact, beyond precariousness in employment, he makes mention of a culture of precariousness. He explains that precariousness is a generalised and stratified phenomenon; not only does it affect employment, but it has also extended to the family, to education and to other spheres.

The researcher explained that it is meritocracy that hides, precisely, behind the culture of precariousness. According to meritocracy, diversity or the difference between individuals becomes discrimination in the process of construction of APTs; as an excuse for hierarchising society. A large group of persons, full of singularities, are unified and stratified to create a social space and, thus, take possession of the whole richness produced by these persons. The culture of precariousness is a product of this.

So, how does each individual take up position within this social space? Mr Zubiri underlined the importance of economic, cultural, social and symbolic capital, as well as of gender and the language. But he reiterates that the key could be in the work of the active interpretation of each individual; a work of interpretation that is undertaken in the context marked out by the four, previously mentioned social organisations.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Revealed the keys that give rise to hierarchism in society". EurekAlert. Posted: May 23, 2011. Available online:

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