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Circulation of Elites, Social Justice and Socio-economic Development

23 August 2017 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


If you are a Sinhala music lover, close your eyes and listen to a few of Nanda Malini’s best songs. And then, reflect on her widely reported humble beginnings in a disadvantaged settlement in Colombo. Fortunately, for her and us, her innate talents were in music, not in any other institutionalized area of professional work where the rise to a higher level of competence and recognition has long been dependent on access to social and financial resources, besides having attended a privileged school. 

The education system does not help develop the full intellectual potential of children and youth in the country

Yet, in general, Sri Lanka has been more egalitarian since independence than other South Asian countries, largely thanks to universal free education introduced in the early 1940’s. Since then, many people from humble backgrounds have risen to higher positions in diverse fields. University professors, top public servants, lawyers, medical doctors, engineers, etc. have hailed from diverse social backgrounds including disadvantaged social groups. Yet, increasing inequality within the education system and rapid population growth made upward social mobility more difficult in recent decades.

The experience of social marginalization and the inability to satisfy social aspirations encouraged many youth in all parts of the country to join violent rebellions since the early 1970’s. Some of the protests that are on going in the country are also manifestations of the same unjust competition.   

Circulation of elites, a concept introduced and elucidated by a well known Italian Sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, is a characteristic feature of modern egalitarian societies. In simple terms, this means that the individuals with the aptitudes and talents, can achieve elite status in diverse fields irrespective of their birth status. Given the fact that the elites in diverse fields in general constitute a minority of individuals with exceptional talents and attributes, those members of the privileged upper stratum who do not achieve such qualities have to give way to the former. This is what circulation of elites is all about. By contrast, traditional societies where birth status mostly determined the life chances of individuals, privileges and positions were reserved for those who belonged to traditional elite groups such as higher castes and feudal aristocratic clans. 

Pre-colonial Sri Lanka was not an exception in this regard. Western colonial rule, however opened up some avenues for people outside traditional elite circles to achieve upward mobility but, as historians have documented, such mobility was not necessarily accepted without resistance. So, even when modern education was embraced by natives as an avenue of social mobility, educational institutions they helped build were used by them to protect their newly acquired privileges rather than to create opportunities for the underprivileged. So, the education system remained highly unequal until the introduction of the C.W.W. Kannangara reforms.   

Circulation of elites is widely recognized in modern societies as a positive feature not only due to ideological reasons. Societies that place a high value on equality and equality of opportunity support policy measures that create equal opportunities. When people demand equal opportunities, policies and practices that deny them are resisted, at times even violently. On the other hand, extending equal opportunity to all segments of society is an effective way to develop the full human potential for the benefit of the entire society. This is what many developed egalitarian societies have demonstrated in no uncertain terms. 

Education and other social policies in Sri Lanka today do not create equal opportunities for upward social mobility. Firstly, the education system does not help develop the full intellectual potential of children and youth

On the other hand, upward and downward mobility of individuals is not a smooth process even in highly individualistic capitalist societies as many structural factors facilitate the reproduction of privileged groups to a large extent through processes of intergenerational transmission of wealth and cultural attributes. But this can be neutralized to a considerable extent by effective and deliberate measures of redistribution of wealth and opportunities such as progressive taxation and equal educational opportunities.  

Education and other social policies in Sri Lanka today do not create equal opportunities for upward social mobility. Firstly, the education system does not help develop the full intellectual potential of children and youth in the country. Rural and urban disparities in education create many divisions among upwardly mobile youth and they have highly unequal life chances. 

While many youth leave school early and take up jobs that guarantee no decent and stable future for them, those who remain within the system and reach the university level end up having highly unequal life chances. Compare the life chances of an engineer or doctor with those of an average arts graduate. While the language skills of educated youth play an important part in determining employment and other opportunities, the failure to impart language skills to school children has continued to be a major source of frustration among youth contributing to various social issues including violent conflicts in the country. As is well known, the lack of language skills is also an important factor impeding educational advancement among youth leading to many adverse consequences. This is an issue that can be easily resolved if effective measures are taken.   

The phenomenon of elite circulation is not confined to the field of education and employment. It is equally relevant for politics, civil society, arts, and science. Free upward and downward movement of individuals based on their talents and capabilities is critically important for the well being of people and social and political stability of countries. What happens when dictators capture power and share power and privileges with a small coterie of relatives, friends and acquaintances? The entire state apparatus decays. The same can happen in civil society organizations, political parties, businesses, etc. Manipulation of political parties by those who capture them to bring in their own kind lead to their degeneration as we have witnessed in this country. 

The likes of Amaradeva and Nanda Malini have enriched the lives of millions of Sri Lankans and their music soothes us on a daily basis

Former Singapore PM allowed his son to replace him only when he had acquired his own impeccable credentials and gained maturity. Though regimes micro-managed by dictators may eventually fall, the lost opportunities can not be easily retrieved because they are often permanently lost. The value of unconstrained development of talents is clearly evident in the field of music. 

The likes of Amaradeva and Nanda Malini have enriched the lives of millions of Sri Lankans and their music soothes us on a daily basis. If their humble beginnings prevented them from reaching the highest level of achievement, the whole country would have been poorer. Why not create the same conditions for youth with diverse talents to do so in a whole range of other fields ? That would benefit not only them but the entire society as well.     

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