Competition as Cooperation

In their paper, Cooperation and Competition in Social Anthropology, J.L Molina et al. use classic ethnographic examples from Socio-cultural Anthropology, to argue that cooperation and competition work in tandem in every society, past and present, known to humankind. Published in Anthropology Today, a peer-review journal for anthropologists, this paper speaks directly to its audience. After summarizing the ways that Anthropology has added to the academic discussion of cooperation and competition so far, J.L. Molina et. al. call on their audience to conduct more research that focuses on cooperation and competition not as opposites, but, as coexisting strategies for survival.

As milavan pointed out, both Bateson and Hutcheon cite cooperation as the solution to a problem caused by competition. After reading their paper it would be easy to say that J.L. Molina offer a counter argument to Bateson and Hutcheon notion, that competition and cooperation can be separated and are mutually exclusive. However, when we take into account the definition of competition provided by Werron, we can see that when they refer to competition Bateson and Hutcheon are talking about something entirely different than J.L. Molina et. al.

Werron’s definition of competition; “competition for the favor of an audience that is (re-) produced by public compositions of performance”, fits with how J.L. Molina understand the competition that exists within human societies. My favorite example of this is the competitive ceremonies held by what J.L. Molina et. al refer to as, “tribal” societies. In this type of competitive setting, leaders compete for the attention of their audience by holding extravagant ceremonies and distributing large amounts of food and gifts. If they win the attention of the audience they win prestige, not material wealth. In this case the competition takes place between the individual competitors and the audience, the competition is the giving of gifts to the audience by the competitors, not between the competitors in front of an audience, as is the case for a debate. When Hutcheon’s talks about competition, her understanding seems to involve more than just a competition for the attention of the audience. When Hutcheon uses the example of the department of philosophy and the combative questions asked to colleagues during their presentations, she implies that competition is combative and therefore not additive to academic discourse. Bateson cites independence training as the cause of competition. However, when we look at the examples given by J.L. Molina et. al. of competition existing within societies that do not have independence training, we can understand that Bateson is saying that independence training causes competition to exist within substance spheres as well as prestige spheres. She uses the example of oil companies being competitive. Oil companies compete for the accumulation of wealth, not the favour of their audience. Therefore the kind of competition Bateson views as detrimental to our survival is the combative competition that takes place between the two competitors to win money, not the attention of an audience.

What we learn from reading this paper within the context of the previous articles we read, is; by Werron’s definition of competition, collaboration and competition are two sides of the same coin. If we look at competition as merely the attempt to gain the favour of an audience we see that in every society this involves collaboration. With this understanding we can see that Bateson and Hutcheon were arguing for the restructuring of this cooperation/competition relationship, rather then the complete abolishment of competition. If we understand that cooperation and competition coexist as effective survival strategies and then return to Bateson’s issue of how to survive the Anthropocene, we can arrive at a more nuanced understanding of how competition and cooperation can be crucial elements utilized in figuring out how to face this global threat. For example the video I linked to in my other blog post ( is an example of how social competition, can be used to incentivize climate action in a non combative way. Being able to see how much energy their neighbours use, a household feels incentivised to lower their own energy consumption. Thus the competition is not combative and takes place without any confrontation between competitors.

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