Fabien Accominotti, LSE
In a variety of social contexts, measuring merit or performance is a crucial step toward enforcing meritocratic ideals. At the same time, workable measures are bound to obfuscate the fuzziness and ambiguity of merit, i.e. to reify performance into an artificially crisp and clear-cut thing – a rating for example. This paper explores how the reification of employee performance in organizations breeds inequality in employee compensation. It reports the findings of a large-scale experiment (n = 2,844) asking participants to divide a year-end bonus between a set of employees based on 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. The paper shows that participants are willing to reward employees more unequally when performance is reified, even though employees’ levels of performance do not vary across conditions. Further analyses suggest that reification acts by making participants more accepting of the idea that there is such a thing as a hierarchy of merit, thereby increasing their willingness to reward employees unequally. This has direct implications for understanding the legitimacy of inequality in contemporary societies – and ultimately for working toward curbing this inequality.
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Fabien Accominotti is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics. His work explores the construction of status hierarchies and how they sustain social and economic inequality. He has studied the formation of value beliefs in the art world, the emergence of cultural capital as a status marker in the Gilded Age, and processes of consecration that entrench faith in hierarchies of worthiness. His research appears in the American Journal of Sociology, the American Behavioral Scientist, or Poetics. His first book, on revolution and hierarchy in the market for modern art, is under contract with Princeton University Press.