Competition: Even if you love to hate it, you are still a part of the game

A reflection on Werron’s “Why do we believe in competition?” by Sophia Wilson

Werronn, unlike the Hutchenon and Bateson, takes a step back to look at competition for what it is in almost every context: A social form inside of a social system. Competition is just is. His unique perspective as a sociologist appears more logical and approachable to a variety of people, as he seems accept that competition is an integrated part of modern culture that simply exists. Unlike other writers/philosophers, he is not necessarily trying to say whether competition as it is is good or bad. By choosing to frame competition as a social form that has a definition, albeit a definition and perception that evolves, we are given a framework, and some questions, that can guide discussion on competition in away that is both constructive and thought provoking.

The Scandinavian Journal of Sociology published his research article, which immediately sets the entire article to gear towards an audience that is made of professionals in the authors own field and establishes that the paper will likely be more evidence based and less deterministic, which is already a stark contrast to both Hutcheon and Bateson. Bateson’s work was a transcribed speech and Hutcheon was more of an essay, and both works read as opinion pieces meant to drum up (likely already existing) support from their colleagues. His opinion is still important since he is trying to present his own take on competition as a social form, but he is drawing on historical figures, modern sociological thought and other sociologists to lend himself and his research more credibility. He knows that his research will be subjected to the scrutiny of his peers and he structures his paper and his rhetoric to match the audience. He makes it clear that he is attempting to provide information to help answer what he sees are two key questions for his audience about competition: 1) How has competition become a taken-for-granted part of our worldview? 2) What characteristics of modern forms of competition have lead to it being viewed as a beneficial characteristic of society? His goal is not to provide a determination but to add to the larger conversation around competition.

He immediately sets the parameters for the paper by choosing define competition as a social form, a basic type of interaction that is unique from other social form, such as co-operation or conflict. Competition, in its most simple form is at least two individuals struggling for the same scarce good, where direct interaction is not necessary required. Competition as a social form is used in different social systems or circles, where forms can be adapted to suit a situation but are always identifiable because the members of the system know what the forms generally are meant to be. Unlike the way that competition is discussed in Hutcheon and Bateson, he is immediately establishing a concrete, guiding definition that is paradoxically setting boundaries for what classifies as competition yet is allowing a wide varieties of competition to co-exist. The way that he deals with competition is wildly different from Hutcheon and Bateson in a very simple yet vital way: he is not assuming that the audience will define or even conceptualize competition in the same way. An issue with Bateson that I personally and many in class has an issue with is that she equivocated competition across various fields and circumstances to mean the same thing and serve her point about how competition is unnatural. There was no definition offered or even discussion about what competition was meant to be other than a negative social construct imposed society. Werron is not trying to equivocate, he is framing his work with a definition yet simultaneously allowing for unique viewpoints on what competition means to individuals inside of a social system.

He also distinguishing completion apart from conflict as a unique social form, which is different from how the other two authors used competition as a term that inherently embodies conflict due to their negative view of what competition is. By setting these parameters, he helps reader approach his main questions: How has competition become an accepted part of the worldview and what characteristics of modern competition have made it become a welcome part of our social form? Competition is not inherently negative or positive, it simply exists and in his view, is an established part of modern society. In Hutcheon and Bateson, competition is inherently negative and society is the victim of competition, and it being framed as such serves their own context but does not allow wider application.

For me personally, I found this to be an incredibly thoughtful and intricate article. In the other two readings it was established from the get-go that competition was negative (and unnatural, in the case of Bateson). What I especially find both instrumental to the delivery of the information and personally pleasing is that he talks about the evolution of competition to what he now conceives it to mean to modern society. The main definition of competition as a social form remains but he acknowledges and tracks its historical transitions. Seeing how the word “competition” developed from an economic term to a term meant to describe a variety of social situations to its more politicized meaning today means you can understand why and how it is being discussed today.

He very adeptly points out that the way it has been discussed recently (1970’s to now) has largely been critical and popular discourse like to place the blame of its negative social impacts on neo-liberalism. While acknowledging the significant role neo-liberalism has played in perceptions of competitions, he acknowledges a longer history and allows the term to maintain its complexity. In both Hutcheon and Bateson, they place the blame of imposing competition on society on modern capitalism (which I associate with neo-liberalism), which to me validates Werron’s observation.

Werron offers a modern definition of competition that I find particularly striking: Often today, individuals are not competing for a scarce good but rather the attention of their peers or a general audience. Public opinion and attention is valuable capital and that is what most compete for even in fields where there is necessarily no need for competition. In academia, there are not a limited number of degrees or times somebody can publish or speak. Instead people want to be heard and want to make an impact on a larger audience, whatever that might mean to them. You can immediately draw this definition of competition to Hutcheon and Werron. They are both academics vying for the attention of their peers and are trying, in their own way, to make a valuable contribution to society by explaining why competition is harmful. But with this definition you can see what they are saying as an example of modern competition with a tinge of irony. While trying to persuade the audience that competition is negative, they are themselves participating and playing into Werron’s modern form of competition.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Sophia! Thanks for writing such a great post; I think you outline Werron’s article very comprehensibly. I, too, think that Werron’s explicit definitional stance in this article is one of its strongest features. You note that Werron very precisely lays out what he means by “competition,” which is different from Hutcheon and Bateson’s pieces, which assumed (perhaps correctly) that the audience would share a similar understanding of the term. Indeed, Werron, Hutcheon, and Bateson all seem to be working from different definitions of the term “competition.” I think, partly, this is because Werron’s purpose in writing this article is quite different from that of Hutcheon and Bateson. Werron seems more invested in creating a working model/theory of competition, rather than making a clear argument for or against it.

    However, I don’t think this means he is saying that competition is completely neutral—I interpreted the purpose of this research to be to convince other scholars to use his model of competition in order to make such arguments. For instance, Werron quotes Simmel on page 199, saying that “Antagonistic tension with his competitor sharpens the businessman’s sensitivity to the tendencies of the public, even to the point of clairvoyance.” Werron doesn’t only draw on discourse that posits competition positively, though: noting that competition often relies on “artificial zero-sum games” (200), Werron says that “competition, which has been praised as a ‘discovery procedure,’ could just as legitimately be called a standardization or homogenization procedure” (197). I find it interesting that Werron is able to hold these two competing (haha) perspectives in relatively stable juxtaposition throughout this article, to the point where it seems as if he is taking no stance at all. This is quite different, as you say, from Hutcheon and Bateson, who are solely interested in arguing the negatives of competition. I don’t think Werron is even trying to say anything in particular about the qualities of competition at all, except when defining its structure, which makes this research difficult to place in conversation with Hutcheon and Bateson. I wonder what would change about Hutcheon and Bateson’s pieces if they used Werron’s definition of competition? Perhaps they would have an easier time winning over the WRDS 350 crowd!

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