Cooperation and Competition in Social Anthropology

In the paper, Cooperation and Competition in Social Anthropology, authored by J.L Molina et al. Molina, et al, writes about the ways in which Social Anthropology and other pieces of literature differ in their approaches to why humans cooperate so extensively. J.L Molina et al’s paper has been published in Anthropology Today, a peer-review journal directed mainly to anthropologists. By doing so, Molina, et al, is able to not only demonstrate to anthropologists the different answers different lenses can provide towards the question concerning cooperation. But it also implements a call to action for anthropologists all around the world to put it upon themselves to look into how human cooperation and competition are not opposing mechanisms, but rather interdependent mechanisms geared towards the thriving of a community.

If we compare Molina, et al, and Bateson, another anthropologist, Bateson approaches the idea of competition through an argumentative structure, proposing that competition among humans is a threat to our environment. This is done through continual examples that demonstrate the detriments associated with competition, as well as personal experience. Whereas Molina, et al, approaches the concept of competition by breaking it down and delving into the anthropological history of both what is cooperation, and competition, as well as why does it occur. Molina, et al, achieves this through exploring concepts of kin selection, reciprocity, and its appearance in human history regarding hunter-gathering groups, tribal connections, as well as our modern day ‘moral economy’. This difference in approach allows for Molina, et al, to serve her purpose of informing to a greater degree. This is because compared to Bateson, whose purpose is to persuade through argumentative structures and motivational appeals of pathos. Molina, et al, dives into explanation and analyses of different non-anthropological and anthropological literature to answer the question: why is it that humans cooperate so extensively? By greatly focusing on concepts such as reciprocity; generalized, direct, indirect. As ideas of kin selection and moral economies to illustrate the beginnings of such ideas that surrounded competition and cooperation including their place in human interaction, Molina, et al, is able to foster these concepts into examples to educate the reader into the different perspective anthropology withholds as compared to other disciplines. As montylussow discussed, Molina’s, et al, references to combative competition encompass what Bateson viewed to be a dysfunctional piece of society which needed to be pulled out in order to save what is left of our environment. However, unlike Bateson, Molina also states that competition coexists with cooperation and like every observable society that has both, societies do not form with just simply cooperation.

Furthermore, the style and content of writing of both Molina, et al, and Bateson can be seen to be quite different as well. Bateson draws upon many sources of examples to illustrate her point of competition being detrimental to society. She draws from the Bible, specifically the Tower of Babel, scientific literature from Darwin and the history behind it, as well as her own personal anecdotes. However, when looking at Molina, et al, personal anecdotes are completely void. Only evidence and examples from anthropological literature are seen. One example of this is her extensive analysis into how though cooperation may have been largely accepted as an answer to competition amongst anthropologists, that the two coexist in every known society. Molina’s, et al, explains this through the concept of generalized reciprocity, where history has shown us that cooperation amongst humans from dates considered ancient to us have implemented features of generalized reciprocity, which still apply to modern day societies. Generalized reciprocity, as explained from the paper, is “deferred repayment of a favour or gift in a non-predetermined form, not only underlies observed exchanges among hunter-gatherers however, but can also be observed in expressive forms of unequal and competitive exchanges in stratified societies.” (Molina et. al)

Moreover, one of the thing Molina, et al, highlights so greatly is how competition interacts with certain forms of social interaction. This can be seen evident through the idea of a moral economy. A moral economy can be defined to be an economy whose goal lies in trying to be as fair as it can be. In this type of economy, the social interactions that go along with it, investments in workforce community celebrations can be defined as competition, in the sphere of politics where one can claim a role in the said sphere. In addition, asymmetric dyadic relationships which constitute the exchange of loyalty of an individual of lower status for protection from an individual of higher status can be considered to be competitive in nature. Where the pursuit of protection from a patron, one of higher status, can drive competition between ‘clients’. Molina, et al, is able to demonstrate how nuanced our interactions with other individuals are and that cooperation coincides with competition though it may not seem as such. Competition is no longer something that you can just take out as Bateson discussed, but something that is inherent to cooperation and the pursuit of truth as Bateson describes.

Image source:


  1. Hi,

    Lets get the basic complement out of the way…I consider your review as very organized. I like the fact that you pointed out the different perspective that those two authors used. I guess after reading your response we can said that Baterson’s more subjective one, but I guess that’s not really a fault. As you said, they have different end goal and audience, therefore their presentation must be altered to the purpose. But just a little question from me…personally who do you think present the best case to their field? Which for both of them is anthropology

    Ryan Sum


  2. I totally agree when you say that being subjective is not a fault and that it is up to their specific goal that determines whether a certain style of writing is suitable, effective, or ineffective. In response to your question, I think that in order to determine who presented the best case to their field, is to look to the audience and see what best fits them. as well as the context behind presenting their commentary and article, for both Bateson’s and Molina, et al. Bateson’s commentary was originally a presentation, made to sway people into action. Thus, the utilization of motivational appeals such as pathos, argumentative reasoning, as well as the utilization of public knowledge such as the Bible, Darwinist theory, and the fundamentals of Biology; endosymbiosis, is greatly effective. As it not only encompasses knowledge that the audience already knows but puts it into an argumentative structure, allowing for the audience to build on what they know, as behavioral scientists who already know the basics of biology and the broader context of Christianity in regards to the Bible through the presentation being located in the US. In this way, her arguments prove only more persuasive and serve as an extremely effective way to bring her idea that no human is independent to the field. Whereas Molina is trying to inform of other Anthropologists through the context of a review article in a peer-reviewed journal. Through this, the presentation of evidence and conclusions made as a result of an analysis of the evidence proves most effective as it removes aspects of bias, as conclusions want to be extrapolated to the larger scale instead of simply being relevant to one set of evidence. Her detailed explanations of the history of cooperation, giving context to other anthropologists and proposition of new aspects such as tribalism and moral economies to explore through an anthropological lens is what ‘grounds’ her conclusion and helps solidify her intent to educate and inform. Therefore, I actually do not think that one is better than the other. In fact, I think that pertinent to their specific contexts, audiences and intents as authors, I believe that they both present the best case they could to their respective fields.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s