Competition, Cooperation, and their anthropological coexistence

Competition and Cooperation, at first, sound like two sides of the same coin (in a context of either heads or tails), but when we dig a little deeper through JL Molina’s article ‘Competition and Cooperation in Social Anthropology’, we understand that cooperation and competition are not exactly the ‘black and white’ kind of terms. Cooperation is typically understood as a response to competition. The how can we, ever label, cooperation and competition as opposites?

JL Molina’s article attempts to gather enough evidence about the coexistence of cooperation and competition in societies known to all mankind in an anthropological context. She does so by 1) investigating why humans cooperate on such a broad scale from a literally and then an anthropological perspective to describe and distinguish the contribution of social anthropology to the field of competition and 2) gathering evidence through means of theories (Darwinian theories of Natural Selection), evolutionary concepts (kin selection, reciprocity, group selection) and quoting the work of different scholars (Woodburn, Hill, Gouldner, Schweizer, et cetera) to give a credible and a relevant base to her point. As compared to other articles, Molina refrains from taking a biased view of competition, thereby leaving all the possible paths of the conversation open, and at the same time also justifying her main perspective.

Looking from a literal eye, we understand that there are three main mechanisms that have shaped the evolution of cooperation: kin selection, reciprocity and group selection. Be it gains from altruistic behavior (kin selection) or mutual dependence (reciprocity) or natural selection acting on a group (group theory), these literally approaches share a common concern with the emergence of cooperation as opposed to ‘natural’ or competitive behaviors. Molina, however, through the weapon of anthropology, has attempted to change this view by tackling this issue in a different manner – 1) Social Anthropology considers cooperation as the starting point for every known human community and 2) Empirical research in the field of anthropology has gathered enough evidence to demonstrate co-presence of competition and cooperation through the history of mankind.

The first kind of society that Molina points to is that of Hunter-Gatherers, organized in bands composing of an average of 28 (genetically related and unrelated) individuals. The main features of this society were generalized reciprocity (altruistic transactions with no expectation of return) and egalitarianism (social equality). Hunter-Gatherers also share some common traits with the modern society: reciprocity, transitivity,, a skewed degree distribution, degree assortativity, geographic decay, and homophily. Through citations of Graeber, Molina also identifies Baseline Communism or ‘the moral obligation to share the resources available to the small group’ as the product of human evolution. These characteristics have helped to promote sharing and cooperation and prevent competition in small groups.

The second society that Molina mentions is the Tribes with prestige economy and agonistic institutions being the main pillars of the human community. Accumulation and distribution of wealth (brass rods, primitive money) by individuals to acquire prestige within the group indirectly paved a way to inequality. The huge amount of valuables exchanged in the tribal society with the ultimate goal of acquisition of the most precious valuables without compromising trust is the embodiment of the co-existence of cooperation and competition.

The last society that Molina points to is the ‘Peasants’ working towards shaping a ‘moral’ economy. Moral Economy is an economy based on fairness, where, reproduction of community and its members, rather than maximization of profit, is considered paramount. The existence of cooperative institutions, investment in ritual expenses, and acceptance of patron-client relationship for land, water, and better prices are prevalent but it never grows to the point of annihilating the opponents. This sheds light on a different way in which competition and cooperation can work together in the same sphere.

The aforementioned demonstrations of Anthropological Evidence make competition and cooperation two sides of the same coin, now, in the context of both heads and tails. Competition and Cooperation regulate and balance each other, shown by Molina as two separate dimensions coexisting under their own rules. The outcomes of various tasks in a society are always vulnerable to the complex interactions of the two dimensions.



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