Cooperation and Competition in Cooperation and Competition

There are many different views on competition and cooperation and their relationship to each other. It ranges from them being mutually exclusive to them being able to co-exist. However, there has not been a source yet exploring if their relationship may not be only that but more, if they are not inevitably linked and dependent on each other. Molina et al. brought strong arguments for this view forward, but weakened them in the conclusion. I will reflect on these arguments to show my understanding, which us that we create competition between those two concepts and during that we overlook how much these concepts actually cooperate. That competition is in regard of finding out what the superior concept is. In many cases that is cooperation. However, the possibility has to be considered, that cooperation is not superior but has to be kept in check by competition. 

First, we already explored many different definitions and views in our class which  I am going to summarize. Bateson claimed that competition has to be eliminated and cooperation has to takes its place for the (natural) world to thrive again. Hutcheon wished for less competition and more cooperation, claiming competition has to give a little for cooperation to take. Werron and Molina et al. both classify competition and cooperation as co-existing phenomena, Molina et al. going as far as calling them “two separate dimensions”. J.L Molina, M.J. Lubbers, H Valenzuela-Garcia and S. Gómez-Mestres Cooperation’s research paper “Cooperation and Competition in Social Anthropology”, published in Anthropology Today, Vol. 33, 01.02.2017 , provides a social anthropological view on the issue of the relationship based on historical societal phenomena and coming to the conclusion that competition and cooperation are not opposite, they merely co-exist. 

ll of these sources provide excellent insights and theories, however, none truly incorporate what I observe in life about competition and cooperation: Just because they are the very concepts, does not mean they cannot act what they describe. More clearly: Cooperation and competition do not simply co-exist. They simultaneously compete and cooperate with each other. Competition and cooperation stand in a inevitable and intrinsic relationship to each other. They are linked not by being two different sides of the same coin (by being opposites), but by being prerequisites for each other.

Society makes simple and hypocritical mistake when evaluating competition and cooperation: We make those two concepts compete. Most research/thought experiments focus on trying to determine which concept is superior, that is to say which should be favoured, which predates which, which is more natural, … We might not think about it, as we are so used to this line of thought (either by nature or social conditioning is irrelevant), but by creating this artificial competition it makes it impossible for us to see their relationship in a different light. This is why most people have only come so far forward as to say they might be co-existent. However, since many theories and ideologies are normative, often the conclusion also entails that cooperation is superior for the good of society. 

That is reflected in how we teach children about those two concepts. Cooperation is at the forefront of every kindergarten education. Competition is categorized as being part of life, however, it is the part of life that is unfair and that should only happen in controlled parameters. Already in the sand box we are taught not to fight over molds and shovels (= compete), but instead take turns and share (= cooperate). Later, in school it gets taken a step further, our cooperation goes from mere sharing to helping others, working together on for example group projects. Eleanor uses the same example: Cooperation and Competition: Two Sides of the Same Coin So that means we share ideas during group projects, but are under no circumstances allowed to do it during exams. We have to compete to be in the Top 5% of the class, but we still have to keep good relations to our class mates and cooperate and help where we can. Competition is singled out and strictly controlled and monitored, while cooperation becomes a prerequisite. Regarding this, it is easy to comprehend why people theorize that those two concepts not only do not truly overlap, but also not truly work with each other. 

Taking away the prejudice that cooperation is inherently better, we can see how the concepts actually cooperate. Molina et al. touched on this during their discussion of Multilevel Selection: Competition between groups makes individuals cooperate for the good of the group to ensure superiority over the other group. Meanwhile, however, there is competition within the group. That competition singles out the best suited individuals for certain positions in the group which in turn helps the success of the group. That could be considered competitive cooperation, as seen in tribes. We observe this phenomenon too in our daily lives, taking soccer as an example. Professional players simultaneously compete and cooperate: They cooperate while facing the opposing team. They compete during that act of cooperation to achieve a personal goal (e.g. impress the right people to be made team captain or be picked for the national squad). In the national team, players of opposing teams cooperate, but only because they are facing external competition (“a bigger threat”). No soccer team would be good if they would not simultaneously balance both concepts.

The easiest way to get humans to interact and cooperate is by letting them face a threat (= a bigger competitor than the former), something icebreakers and political leaders use. While icebreakers seek to create friendly competition (opposing team as threat) in order to get amicable cooperation, some political leaders provide a scape goat (= threat) in order to have the population cooperate. Humans are an unstoppable force when they work together. It is why Orwellian societies aim to control interaction between its people. During the Nazi regime, many different classes in society cooperated to create one of the biggest genocides in history. Cooperation and lack of competition made this possible. They were not challenged enough, because competitors (opponents) were not able to recognize each other and formulate an adequate response. 

Regarding that, we have to ask ourselves if full cooperation is even desirable. If cooperation truly is more desirable or superior than competition. Cooperation is a powerful tool, one that can be wielded in many different directions. Competition keeps cooperation in check, opens up new possibility and makes groups to work for their supporters. The German political systems nowadays relies on that cooperation within competition and vice versa: Parties are forced to compete for power and then have to cooperate to use that power, since no one party gets the majority of votes. Germans have learned in their history that they have rather a lot of parties competing and either getting weeded out or cooperating to find a compromise. 



Bateson thinks competition and cooperation are mutually exclusive. Molina et al. argue they co-exist, are two different dimensions. I do not agree with either, arguing the following:

During the exploration of competition and cooperation, we make the mistake to make them compete artificially, making us overlook that the concepts also cooperate. 

Competition is the prerequisite for cooperation since it provides incentive to form a group.

Cooperation is the prerequisite for competition since it provides the support system for the individual to succeed.

Not one of them is superior to each other, as they co-evolved and rely on each other in our modern western society. 



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  1. Nothing is “good” and nothing is “bad”. It just depends on our purpose and how we use them. In my opinion, cooperation and competition are never on the opposite sides of each other. They are just different ways of interactions among humans to achieve certain goals. We use them according to various situations. Our enemies may not always be our enemies, and our friends may not always be our friends. The outside world is always changing, so the conclusions are always temporary.


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