This book rethinks meritocracy as a form of coloniality, namely, a social imaginary that reproduces narratives of ethnic and racial difference between European centres and peripheries, and between Europe and its others.
Drawing on interviews with working and middle class, white and Black Italians who moved to Britain after the 2008 economic crisis, the book explores the narratives of Northern meritocracy and Southern backwardness that inform migrants’ motivations for moving abroad, and how these narratives are experienced within classed, racialised and gendered migrations.
Connecting decolonial theory with the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, this book provides innovative insights into the relationships between meritocracy, coloniality and European whiteness, and into the social stratification of EU migrations.
Chapter 1 situates the rise of neoliberal meritocracy within a wider historical and geographical context, highlighting its influence over Southern and Eastern European peripheries. The chapter connects scholarship on meritocracy with decolonial theory, arguing that the latter provides a more expansive theoretical and historical understanding of the links between meritocracy, neoliberalism and processes of racialization. The chapter’s second part situates Italy, and post-2008 Italian emigration, within wider histories of European whiteness, nation-building and colonialism, and within more recent histories of neoliberalism and austerity. The chapter concludes by outlining the theoretical framework of the following chapters, which focus on Italians’ unequal migrations. It elaborates on the ideas of meritocracy/coloniality, meritocracy as a doxa, and meritocracy as a category of practice, advocating for a theoretical synergy between decolonial theory and Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory.
Chapter 2 addresses how imaginaries of Northern meritocracy inform Italians’ motivations for migration and how these imaginaries are negotiated in unequal positions in Italy. The chapter introduces the concept of a field of forces to capture the interplay between migrants’ imaginaries and their experience of structural inequality, problematizing too-broad distinctions between high-skilled and low-skilled migrations. Findings show that Northern meritocracy is more salient in the narratives of younger migrants (regardless, to some extent, of class background). Italians in their 20s present migration as a project on the self and of social distinction, linking it to feelings of autonomy and control. Gender and racial inequalities complicate these narratives, but it is especially ageing (and its intersection with other inequalities) that magnifies narratives of external constraints and lack of control, which make Northern meritocracy a muted category of practice.
Chapter 3 explores how participants (re)imagine Northern meritocracy in unequal migrations, focusing on the conditions under which it remains an emotionally resonant imaginary and category of practice. The chapter shows that meritocracy remains meaningful when participants experience economic and symbolic recognition. The latter includes feeling that work is not entirely removed from one’s identity, or that hard work – in the fields of employment or education – is fairly rewarded. For Black Italians, the experience of feeling ‘like everyone else’ is central to the resonance of meritocratic imaginaries. The chapter shows that the emotional rewards of meritocracy are unequally distributed. Gendered processes of precarization affect especially women, making insecure and ‘meaningless’ work more common to their experiences. Inequalities of class background feed into classed forms of upward and downward social mobility, exposing participants to longer-term experiences of insecurity. These experiences can make meritocracy dissonant or muted, and can lead participants to revise meritocratic imaginaries.
Chapter 4 explores how participants’ investment in meritocratic imaginaries coexist with racialized and classed aspirations, reproducing distinctions between good and bad Europeans, good and bad migrants, and Europeans and non-Europeans. The chapter opens by focusing on participants’ positive experiences of ethnicization in the UK, showing how they benefit from hierarchies of European whiteness, their investment in such hierarchies, and the exclusionary character of Italianness for Black Italians and, to some extent, working-class Italians. The chapter continues revealing strong class divisions in aspirations of belonging. Middle-class participants invoke credentialized belonging, using high-status jobs and degrees as meritocratic badges. Working-class participants emphasize hard work (without middle-class credentials) or present good work as an ‘Italian’ quality (individualized and ethnicized belonging). The chapter concludes by exploring the epistemic limits of these narratives. Credentialized belonging stigmatizes working-class migrations while obscuring other inequalities among high-skilled migrants, including their limited access to ‘British’ social and cultural capital. Individualized and ethnicized belonging obscure the additional vulnerabilities that older, Black and female working-class participants experience in low-status and insecure jobs.
Chapter 5 explores how participants invoke meritocratic notions of individual (economic) contribution vis-à-vis the uncertainties opened up by Brexit, reproducing racialized and classed understandings of citizenship, national community and solidarity. Expanding the literature on Brexit and EU migration, the chapter pays more attention to unequal experiences of the referendum, problematizing academic narratives that associate middle-class critiques of the referendum with cosmopolitanism and working-class support with nationalism. I find that lower-middle and working-class Italians more frequently express some support for Brexit, but that this coexists with imaginaries of multicultural and inclusive Britain. These imaginaries, however, are premised on racialized histories of citizenship and nation-building. Graduates and professionals criticize the referendum’s anti-immigration rhetoric more explicitly, but also invoke class markers of merit (like degrees and high-status jobs) as sources of deservingness and as a legitimate means of immigration control, even when they experience inequalities of gender, race and economic capital. I conclude by focusing on the more coded ways in which high-skilled migrants talk about ‘race’ and participate to processes of racialized exclusion.
The Conclusion extrapolates from the book’s findings to broader theoretical generalizations about the links between meritocracy and coloniality, the lived experience of meritocracy, and the study of unequal migrations, suggesting possibilities for future research on these issues, particularly beyond the European context and beyond the association between meritocracy and neoliberalism.
The Introduction situates the book’s argument, contribution and methodology within academic debates about neoliberal meritocracy and intra-EU migrations, reframing these debates through key concepts from postcolonial sociology, decolonial theory and the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Furthermore, the Introduction situates the book’s argument vis-à-vis relevant debates about Italian emigration, postcolonial Italy, and class, racial inequalities and gender inequalities in post-2008 Europe and Italy.