Competition: It’s No Game

The idea of competition is so fundamental that we often take it for granted as a natural good. Nearly every aspect of our lives involves competition: we compete in school, we compete for jobs, we compete at work, we compete socially, we compete in games and sports for fun, and when we are not competing ourselves we spend much of our time enjoying watching others compete. But our obsession with competition has several potential complications. A world divided into winners and losers, for example, is an inherently inequitable world – and there will always be far more “losers” than “winners”.

Competition also has a variety of interesting relationships with our inescapable need for cooperation and social cohesion. Attempting to disentangle cooperation from competition, in fact, can undermine both sides of this pair: a lack of either can lead to unproductive stasis, and worse. But a complete integration of cooperation and competition can lead to “us versus them” thinking and even war, which US rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke called “the ultimate disease of cooperation.”

To better understand the idea of competition, we will examine the ways that it has been investigated and conceptualized in different academic disciplines. For example, competition is fundamental to Business, Economics, and Political Science. But, because of its inescapable role in human society, competition is also an important topic in Psychology, in Anthropology, in Sociology, and even in the study and practice of Education. We will explore the ways that competition has been investigated in some of this recent research and scholarship, and, in the process, contribute to that scholarly conversation.

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