Since Bourdieu and Passeron’s pioneering works on Higher education, admissions to elite universities are traditionaly considered as the epitomy of social reproduction processes. They also embody processes such as the categorization of individuals and the shaping of social groups by academic institutions. Drawing on cultural, economic and pragmatic sociology developed by authors such as Michèle Lamont and Luc Boltanski, this paper argues that academic judgment in elite universities is not a monolithic process mostly depending on shifting relationships with status groups. On the contrary, it appears to be highly variable according to external pressures such as the State, market competitors, and can also be related with internal pressure, such as faculty members and alumni. Similarly, merit used as a convention for justifying social reproduction in admissions’ decision process appears highly variable over time. Finally, the comparison of archives and ethnographic data on selection and decision-making process gathered at Oxford University and Sciences Po Paris allows us to determine convergent patterns of institutional change between institutions. We distinguish « three ages » of selection at the undergraduate level: The age of exclusion, the age of merit and, finally, the age of potential, all depending on means implemented by institutions to assess, compare and commensurate applicants’ worth.
Annabelle Allouch is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Picardie-Jules Verne, France and a Research Affiliate at Sciences Po, Paris. Her current research interests include sociology of Higher education and sociology of elites in Europe. Allouch received her Ph.D. in Sociology at Sciences Po in 2013. She also holds degrees in Political Science and Sociology from Sciences Po Strasbourg, Sorbonne University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), France. After being a Visiting Fellow at University of Oxford (Department of Sociology/Maison française d’Oxford), she is currently a Visiting scholar at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University.