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Name: David Civil

PhD: History

Thesis Title: The Rise of Meritocratic Discourse: Appropriation, Adaptation and Transformation, 1958-2000


Thesis Description:

My doctoral research explores the origins, development and trajectory of the concept 'meritocracy' in post-war Britain. Meritocratic discourse has become fundamentally important to Theresa May's political project but whilst her desire to build a 'Great Meritocracy' has provoked interest from academics, journalists and social commentators the concept itself has received little scrutiny. Very few of those who discuss and debate the polices intended to bring about meritocracy analyse the desirability of a meritocratic order and even fewer explore its origins. The term was coined by the British sociologist Michael Young in his fictional 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. The book is set in 2033 and traces the rise of a new elite, chosen on the basis of the formula 'I.Q. + Effort = Merit'. These new meritocrats crystallise into an entrenched ruling class on the basis of a narrow definition of intelligence and, believing they have morality on their side, arrogate to themselves virtually unlimited rewards.

Theresa May's embrace of the concept is hardly a significant break with the past. It builds on decades of appropriation, adaptation and transformation by various political actors from Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair. Despite the centrality of the term to post-war British politics and society, historians have never studied meritocracy in its own right.

My research is a conceptual history of meritocracy, demonstrating how political and social organisations appropriated the term to serve diverse ends. This conceptual framework, studying society by examining how concepts change their meanings over time, demonstrates how meritocracy was deployed in political discussions and how it acquired new meanings in the process. By employing meritocracy as a lens through which to view Britain's changing intellectual politics the project touches on fundamental issues which still dominate contemporary Britain such as the welfare state, education reform and economic efficiency.

Supervisors and Institution(s): 

Dr Dean Blackburn (University of Nottingham) 

Dr Laura Beers (University of Birmingham)


I studied for a BA (Hons) in History at the University of Nottingham (2012-15) before receiving a Warwick Taught Masters Scholarship to study for an MA in Modern History at the University of Warwick (2015-16). In October 2016 I began my PhD at the University of Nottingham and the University of Birmingham and received funding from the AHRC Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. 

My Masters thesis was entitled: 'Michael Young and The Labour Party, 1945-1958'. This research explored the origins of the term 'Meritocracy' and the political thought of the neologism's creator, British sociologist, Michael Young (1915-2002). It analysed how the themes embodied in Young's 1958 dystopian novel The Rise of the Meritocracy were a product of his often fraught relationship with the post-war Labour Party. The research used this relationship as a lens through which to reach broader conclusions about the nature of the Party's political thought in the 1950s.

My undergraduate thesis was entitled: 'The Crisis of Capitalism and the Search for Alternatives: The British Left, Democracy and the Soviet Union, 1930-1940'. This research explored the development of socialist thought in Britain during the economic and political crises of the 1930s through the prism of the British Left's engagement with the Soviet Union.


Scholarly / Public Engagement Activities:


  • January: 'Meritocratic Myth-making: The Birth of Meritocracy in Post-War Britain' - Paper presented at the inaugural East Midlands History Network Conference: 'Identity and the Other' 


  • December: Co-founder and appointed General Editor of the Midlands Historical Review, a multi-disciplinary history journal being established at the University of Nottingham in the Spring of 2017. 
  • November: Awarded the University of Warwick MA Dissertation Prize for thesis entitled 'The Birth of Meritocracy: Michael Young and the Labour Party, 1945-1958' 
  • October: Appointed Chairman of the University of Nottingham Post-Graduate Learning Community Forum. 
  • February: 'Meritocracy and the British Left' - Paper presented at the University of Warwick 'Contested Histories' Postgraduate Conference

Other Research Interests:

  • Ideology in 20th Century Britain 
  • Progressive political thought in post-war Britain 
  • The inter-war, wartime and post-war Labour Party 
  • History of sociology in post-war Britain




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