A Social Anthropological Take on Cooperation & Competition

In “Cooperation and Competition in Social Anthropology” Molina et al. present a comprehensive breakdown of how social anthropology has contributed to the academic research on competition and cooperation in (particularly) human societies. After their thorough explanation of the evolutionary mechanisms of cooperation, Molina et al. go on to begin their presentation of social anthropology’s contribution to the research on competition and cooperation. To exemplify how social anthropology views the relationship between competition and cooperation, Molina et al. use three different types of society: hunter-gatherer, tribal, and peasant societies. One of the major things to note when looking at competition through an anthropological lens is that social anthropologists “traditionally consider cooperation as the starting point for every known human community” (Molina et al., 2). This means that, unlike many other schools of thought, cooperation is not seen “as an adaptive answer to competition” (Molina et al., 2). This proposition that cooperation is the basis of human societies is reflective of Mary Catherine Bateson’s view that human beings are naturally interdependent creatures who thrive on cooperation. When comparing the Bateson reading with the Molina et al. paper, there are clear differences in terms of the style and presentation of their words. As we have discussed in class, Bateson’s work reads as very informal and personal as it is a speech. This contrasts to the formal academic writing that Molina et al. employ in their paper. The reason that the styles differ is likely due to the fact that one (Bateson) seems to be a “call for action,” that is attempting to mobilize the audience to collectively work towards a goal, while the other (Molina et al.) is an academic paper that seeks to exude credibility in order to be taken seriously in the realm of scholarly research on competition. Another difference between the two readings is that Molina et al. focus on historical and anthropological examples to strengthen their arguments, while Bateson utilizes an interdisciplinary approach. In my opinion, the depth that Molina et al. go into with their examples helps a non-Anthropologist (like me) gain a better understanding of the anthropological perspective. In contrast, Bateson is able to reach a wider audience with her interdisciplinary examples (biology, psychology etc.), however, she goes into less detail, leaving me wanting more evidence to support her argument.  

This discussion of competition so far has mainly been explored at a societal level. Taking a more micro level approach to analyzing competition, Alfie Kohn’s No Contest: The Case Against Competition discusses how children are often socialized to be competitive within the family. In chapter two of his book, Kohn talks about how children are often implicitly taught to compete for love as a scarce commodity. There exists a competition between siblings to be the parent’s favourite. Kohn’s discussion of children being taught from infancy to compete reminded me of Bateson’s discussion of how children are often raised from infancy to be independent, which in turn diminishes the importance of interdependence in their lives. This micro level approach is also employed by Tobias Werron as explained in asison00′s post. This post talks about how Werron addresses competition in everyday life. I personally find the discussion of competition in day-to-day activities, such as children competing for love and attention, or students competing in academia, very interesting.  


  1. I have to agree where you say that the examples Molina et. al use help people who may not be familiar with the Anthropology field, such as yourself and me. Very good job on properly breaking down the Molina article and being able to connect it to Bateson’s approach with her paper as well as Alfie Kohn’s book, “No Contest: The Case Against Competition”. The topic of competition continues to evolve and whether or not we should be cooperating or competing, it is refreshing that there seems to be a continued interest in learning more about the idea of competition from other classmates also.

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