Belief in Meritocracy Reexamined: Scrutinizing the Role of Subjective Social Mobility



Despite decreasing intergenerational mobility, strengthening the ties between family background and children’s economic outcomes, Western citizens continue to believe in meritocracy. We study how meritocratic beliefs about success relate to individuals’ social mobility experiences: Is subjective upward mobility associated with meritocratic attributions of success and downward mobility with structuralist views? Whereas previous studies addressed the relevance of individuals’ current position or objective mobility, we leverage diagonal reference models to disentangle the role of subjective mobility, origin, and destination. Surveying a representative Dutch sample (n = 1,507), we find, echoing the Thomas theorem, that if people experience social mobility as real, it is real in its consequences: subjective upward mobility is associated with stronger meritocratic beliefs, and downward mobility is associated with stronger structuralist beliefs—but has no bearing on people’s meritocracy beliefs. This helps understand the muted political response to growing inequality: a small share of upwardly mobile individuals may suffice to uphold public faith in meritocracy.
Date made available2022

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