Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer

In the article “Cooperation and Competition in Social Anthropology”, Molina et al. explore the contributions of social anthropology in the field of human cooperation. Although the article is primarily descriptive, it goes so far as to support the idea that cooperation and competition “coexist in every known society”, where competition is regulated by institutions such as the ‘moral community’. From an anthropological perspective, cooperation is not “an adaptive answer to competition”, as it is “the starting point of every known human community”.

However, this reasoning appears incomplete, as competition and cooperation both exist outside the parameters of community, thereby allowing for an investigation into the dynamic between the two outside of a societal context. Exploring these concepts from a socially anthropological perspective can therefore be limiting rather than eye-opening if other perspectives are disregarded. 

I believe it can be argued that even as humans learned to cooperate to survive, the underlying individualistic ambitions remained intact, indicating the competition takes precedence over cooperation. Therefore, cooperation is a reactionary measure to ensure survival, achieved through the acquisition of scarce resources. In the example of the “stag hunt”, wherein the individuals must collaborate to take down a larger prey (the scarce resource), the success of the group is equated with the success of the individual. In my classmate Eleanor’s response, she highlights the need for teamwork in finishing an assignment for school where students are expected to share a common goal, delegate tasks between them, and avoid conflict. However, while I agree with her partly, I believe the intra-group competition, which is still in play regardless of the common goal, has been neglected in discussions, just as in the original article. Despite it appearing as though the group’s interests become the interests of the individual, the concern for other group members’ welfare roots itself in the fact that the long-term benefits of cooperating usually outweigh the short-term benefits of competing amongst individuals, as cooperating may provide greater insurance. Following this logic, it could be asserted that cooperation stems from selfishness (or a sense of self-preservation), meaning if an individual’s survival was at risk, all their commitments established through reciprocity would be abandoned in favour of saving their own life. Any form of organisation would disintegrate were it not in the interest of the individual.

This conclusion directly contradicts the article’s claim that cooperation is the starting point of every human community, as it suggests that cooperation and competition did not develop in tandem. Instead, cooperation was born out of a need that arose as a result of competition. In this case the assumption is that humans can exist in communities without cooperating to begin with, just as we compete against each other in our communities today. To simplify, competition can exist without cooperation, but cooperation to acquire a scarce good cannot exist without competition. For example, in economics we sometimes witness “teamwork” when firms cheat the system and find ways to collude and monopolise the market in their favour. There is a framework of competition which incentivises the firms to work together to achieve higher profits as a unit before collusion actually occurs. Once cooperation comes into play, a circular dynamic emerges where cooperation and competition see a growing interdependence between them, as the level of collaboration adapts to the level of competition, leading (in the bigger picture) to more complex societies with social norms, institutions, and practices. However, cooperation still plays the role of a competitive strategy rather than a complement.

In “Myths of Independence and Competition”, Mary Catherine Bateson adopts a more black-and-white approach to competition and cooperation, pitting them against each other as opposites. Through her argument she seems to imply that competition and cooperation are mutually exclusive, meaning she promotes a greater level of interdependence between people and even states but fails to entertain the idea of interdependence between competition and cooperation. Her call to action encourages a shift in cultural attitudes toward competition, individualism, and interdependence, whereas Molina et al. view competition as foundational in a society alongside cooperation. Bateson’s pathos-riddled speech allows her to create a more compelling argument in favour of her course of action. Yet, Molina et al.’s argument is more supported due to the genre and format of an academic article and the opportunity to delve deep into the relevant theory,  approaching the issue from different angles. In regard to their purposes, their genres were more facilitating that restricting, producing two vastly different insights into the subject of competition.We have now discovered how competition and cooperation can coexist, and moving forwards into the next phases of our research we must pay attention to how we personally interpret the dynamic between the two before we jump to hasty conclusions.

2 Comments

  1. I agree with you argument that competition takes precedence over cooperation because if we only always agreed with each other’s ideas it would be hard for an individual with new ideas to step out and be expressed. Competition helps stimulate innovation among individuals and their peers, constantly raising the bar to outbeat others. Yet along the way they might encounter obstacles and need to cooperate and consult with their peers, but nevertheless ideas are still fueled by human’s constant desire to always be the best.

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  2. I like your view about competition. Instead of simply stating that it’s bad and may cause conflict, you ask why we need to compete. Competition grows from our basic instinct to get scarce resource, and cooperation is just an easier way for us to achieve better result, when we compete with a larger group.

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