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Meritocracy at Work: How Evaluation Fuels Inequality

At the medialab seminar, Fabien Accominotti will present his work on the inequalities generated within meritocratic systems.

Event, Research Seminar


In a variety of social contexts, evaluating merit or performance is a crucial step toward enforcing meritocratic ideals. Yet workable evaluations often obfuscate the empirical complexity of merit and instead reify it into artificially crisp and clear-cut constructs, such as ratings and scores. Here Fabien Accominotti proposes this tendency to reify merit fuels inequality in the rewards received by the winners and losers of meritocratic contests. To test this idea, he explores how the reification of employee performance in organizations fuels inequality in employee compensation. Fabien Accominotti  reports the findings of a large-scale experiment asking participants to divide a year-end bonus among a set of employees based on the reading of their annual performance reviews. In the experiment’s non-reified condition, reviews are narrative evaluations. In the reified condition, the same narrative evaluations are accompanied by a crisp rating of the employees’ performance. Fabien Accominotti finds that participants reward employees more unequally when performance is more reified. Further analyses suggest that reification fuels inequality both by reinforcing the authoritativeness of evaluation and by making participants more accepting of the idea of a merit hierarchy. Fabien Accominotti also shows how reification interacts with traditional drivers of inequality, such as gender. These findings have direct implications for understanding the rise of inequality in societies characterized by the proliferation of reifying forms of performance evaluation.


Fabien Accominotti is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His work explores the construction of status hierarchies and their role in fueling social and economic inequality.