Anthropology, Politics, and Academics – An Interdisciplinary Approach to Competition and Cooperation

By exploring the question of ‘why humans cooperate so extensively’, the authors (J.L. Molina, M.J. Lubbers, H. Valenzuela-Garcia, and S. Gomez-Mestres) of the article Cooperation and Competition in Social Anthropology review fundamental scientific truths regarding human society and its development; which pertain to a multitude of contemporary examples. Through the method of defining the factors of kin selection, reciprocity, and group selection in the context of social anthropology, the article describes key concepts in the way humans have perpetuated both competition and cooperation throughout history. By examining these universal concepts, we may extrapolate the information unearthed in the school of anthropology and apply it to other fields which study human interactions, such as those of politics and political science, as well as academics.

The authors describe kin selection as the evolutionary phenomenon which favors the altruistic behavior between individuals who are “related”; providing mutual benefit and progressive societal development to those who choose to form positive relationships with each other. If one is to view this factor of behavior in contrast with the contemporary political arena, they will notice great similarities between historical examples of kin selection and modern-day political parties. Within political parties, individuals consciously choose to exhibit altruistic behavior towards those of similar economic and moral beliefs (similarly to those who are genetically related in examples of kin selection) so that they may further progress their political agenda in order to have a greater impact on society; inevitably moving closer to their collective goals. For example, if the Conservative Party of Canada defines its common collective goal as defeating the Trudeau government, individual Members of Parliament will agree to act cooperatively towards each other in order to come closer to achieving that shared goal, progressing their agenda. This concept is relevant not only to party politics but also NGO’s and other collective bodies with shared goals, mirroring the significance of kin selection in historical societies.

In the way which the article describes the idea of reciprocity and the impact it has on the pursuit of self-interest, as well as shaping morality and social norms, this concept can also be applied to the modern political arena. Demonstrated through the relationship between elected officials and lobby groups, (or advocacy organizations) the impact of “returning favors” can be clearly examined, primarily in the context of the governmental system found in the United States. If, for example, a lobby group representing a given ideology has reason to want certain legislation passed in their favor, in order to benefit their economic, social, or moral objectives, they may “do a favor” for an elected official with hopes that the individual will vote and act in accordance with the motives of the lobby group. This “favor” may take the form of a large party or campaign donation by groups such as the National Rifle Association, to individuals such as those affiliated with the Republican party, in order to achieve an objective such as that of keeping firearms largely unregulated. Reflective of the concept of reciprocity in historical examples of developing societies, this contemporary political instance involves the exchange of favors between parties so that each side becomes better off in pursuing their individual interest. By forming a sort of union through the favors enacted towards each other by both the lobby group and the politician, each body gains an advantage in working towards their private endeavors; utilizing cooperation in order to perpetuate competition within specific fields.

In terms of the theory of group selection, in which individuals within a group setting become dependent on the specializations of one another in order to maintain collective survival, various models of democratic government can be observed to follow this theory. Within the model of the Westminster parliamentary system such as that which is present in Canada, the proper function of the governing party is dependent on the specialization of the cabinet ministers who are appointed by the Prime Minister. By separating responsibilities among individuals who are experienced in their respective schools of expertise, members of government are able to rely on each other to focus on issues which fall into specific categories, efficiently delegating tasks and collectively benefiting from this specialization. It can be argued that this concept of mutual benefit through specialization in government is most efficient in accomplishing successful legislative tasks, especially in contrast with the authoritarian regimes which exist in the world; in which a single individual makes all the decisions. As a “group”, a government under the Westminster legislative system theoretically thrives because of the interdependence that exists among cabinet ministers. Through becoming dependent on each other, these officials are able to focus more efficiently on their given responsibilities, and therefore allow the government as a collective to be “selected” to evolve further towards an ideal state (however that may be defined given the circumstance).

In the work Rhetoric and Competition by Linda Hutcheon, a situation is described in which the three primary mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation are not fully present in their complete forms. In criticizing an academic environment in which competition is too strongly emphasized among academics, with the absence of a coinciding factor of cooperation, Hutcheon is most strongly advocating for a properly functioning “group selection” dynamic. Hutcheon indicates a significant presence of self-determination and individualism which exists in the motivations of researchers, which is typically characteristic of the specialization aspect of the group selection theory. However, while this component is crucial in maintaining specialization, the interdependent attitude which is necessary for the group selection theory as described in Cooperation and Competition in Social Anthropology is absent from her workplace, contributing to the cause for unhealthy competition and rivalry among faculty members. Contrary to the way many political structures have been organized and have evolved based upon the three specified mechanisms, Hutcheon’s example is one which rejects the given theories in favor of a purely self-determinant social structure. Through analyzing the dynamic of academic institutions as described by Hutcheon, the importance of basing social systems upon the evolutionary mechanisms of kin selection, reciprocity, and group selection is demonstrated to be evident.

By studying specific ideas and theories surrounding the relationship between competition and cooperation from an interdisciplinary approach, we are able to gain universal insights into the way they affect human development from a multitude of perspectives. As we take theories developed within practices such as anthropology and apply them to our understandings of alternate doctrines, such as those of politics and academics, we are able to broaden our knowledge in terms of the way society functions as a whole. By researching the anthropological mechanisms of evolution and testing them in the contexts of other fields with regard to group competition, we are able to learn that the concepts of cooperation and competition are not in opposition to each other, but instead must work in tandem for a society to develop and succeed.  Eleanor describes this necessity for balance in her article – Cooperation and Competition: Two Sides of the Same Coin where she states: “In cases of extreme competition, individuals in groups are led to cooperate and increase their chances of success. Also, to be in conflict with a group member would be a disadvantage over competition with other groups, therefore members share resources and collaborate.”


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  1. Thank you! When reading Molina and learning about the concept of reciprocity, I couldn’t ignore that example within the political context because of how well it demonstrates the key concept.


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