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Types of cooperation

History of the concept

Contemporary research

Cooperation and competition


Cooperation is joint or collaborative behavior that is directed toward some goal and in which there is common interest or hope of reward. Cooperation may be voluntary or involuntary, direct or indirect, formal or informal, but always there is a combination of efforts toward a specific end in which all the participants have a stake, real or imagined. At its higher intellectual levels cooperation involves reciprocity of intent as well as jointness of behavior, and it may even become an end in itself. There is no limit to the potential range for cooperation; it is to be found in groups as small as the dyad and as large as leagues of sovereign states.

It is possible to regard cooperation as an ethical norm, as a social process, or as an institutional structure. In ethics and religion, cooperation has been among the most honored of values throughout human history. Indeed, some philosophers and religious teachers have made cooperation synonymous with the whole fabric of morality. Cooperation is stressed in all of the major religions and moral systems of the world. It is at the very heart of Hinduism and Confucianism and has a hallowed place even in such relatively individualistic religions as Christianity.

Considered as a process, cooperation is central to the formation of types and to changes in types. Studies by modern naturalists have shown this to be as true in the plant and animal world as in the human-cultural. Closely related to competition, as will be emphasized below, cooperative behavior is one of the central mechanisms of the evolutionary process; it is to be observed in conditions leading to change as well as to stability.

As a social structure, cooperation is manifest in countless organizations created expressly by man for the purpose of joint behavior toward a given goal. Such structures range in size from primitive hunting groups to modern insurance companies and in kind from criminal conspiracies, at one extreme, to the World Health Organization, at the other. They are as often religious, political, and cultural in character as they are economic. Only the fact that the modern renewal of interest in cooperation as a process and structure occurred in the nineteenth century, a century overwhelmingly preoccupied by the impact of laissez-faire capitalism on the social order, can account for the distressing tendency among social scientists even today to conceive of cooperation and competition as processes primarily economic in significance.

Types of cooperation

Five types of cooperation may usefully be distinguished: automatic, traditional, contractual, directed, and spontaneous. Each can be found in all spheres of human society—political, religious, economic, cultural—and while it is important to distinguish the types from one another, it is equally important to emphasize that rarely, if ever, does any one of them exist in isolation.


Automatic cooperation refers to the varied types of impersonal coordination, jointness of behavior, and mutuality of interest that arise directly from ecological position. Within this type fall most of the instances of cooperation stressed by naturalists (see, for example, Allee 1938). Such cooperation in the plant and animal world is almost largely sexual or commensal in nature, although among the higher orders it is related to security. It is commonly instinctual in basis. Despite traditional emphasis on the struggle for existence, observable patterns of plant and animal order would be incomprehensible apart from the premise of vital cooperative processes.

Automatic cooperation is also observable in the human world. To the eye of the social ecologist, human populations, both urban and rural, appear as directed in considerable part by processes that are unplanned and usually unnoticed by participants. Among these processes is cooperation: jointness of behavior toward a common end that arises solely from the fact of strategic location in the larger ecological pattern. Unplanned cooperation between two groups (whether national, economic, religious, or racial) may exist simply by virtue of an independently perceived threat to the security of each; such cooperation may be stimulated by action or threat of action by an outside group, but it is predicated upon a pre-existing compatibility of norms and aspirations. Defense by each group of its own position (normative or spatial) can, without any conscious effort, produce a considerable degree of cooperation that can only be called automatic. Automatic cooperation is a cardinal feature of the complex relations among the primary, secondary, and tertiary orders of the modern economy, and it is no less a feature of relations among ethnic and religious groups and of sovereign states.


Cooperation of the traditional type is regulated neither by instinct, volition, nor simple location, but rather by traditional social norms. Prime examples are the joint family of India, the Chinese clan, the village community of Asia and medieval Europe, and craft and merchant guilds the world over in ancient and medieval times. The Hindu family, “joint in food, worship, and estate,” is based upon the inviolable morality of mutual aid among the generations and branches, however remote in space or time; the family in perpetuity is conceived as a cooperative relationship among the dead, the living, and the unborn. Similarly, in the agricultural village community, which is one of the most universal of institutions, such matters as the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of crops are dealt with cooperatively by the villagers. In the medieval guild, prices, techniques of craftsmanship, and standards of work were all established cooperatively by the guild masters, and direct competition was forbidden. In all such instances, cooperation—however it may have been started in the first place—is one of the mores, as binding upon the participants as any other part of morality.


In modern industrial society cooperation is more likely to be contractual than traditional in character. Terms of cooperation are specific and conditional upon the will of the participants or governed by legal sanctions, and they are precise both in terms of length of cooperation and of what is specifically required by the relationship. Contractual cooperation commonly increases sharply in historical periods during which the close ties of the traditional community are supplanted by the more individualistic and utilitarian ties of an open society. Contractual cooperation is one of the most basic patterns of contemporary Western society. The whole vast array of consumer and producer cooperatives, credit unions, cooperative apartment houses, profit-sharing plans, and the like make plain how dependent contemporary capitalism is on this type of cooperation. It is sometimes thought that informal contractual cooperation tends to wane in mass society, but the profusion of baby-sitting and car pools suggests that contractual cooperation at the grass roots is far from moribund.


Military organization is probably the oldest and most universal form of directed cooperation, but, in the modern world, the large-scale business enterprise, labor union, school system, and even religious and recreational organizations could hardly survive without the form of cooperation that arises from command or direction. The source of cooperation here is only incidentally or derivatively a common recognition of goal or a clear norm. It would be difficult to find a more dramatic instance of directed cooperation than in the great atomic bomb project of World War II; tens of thousands of persons, at all levels of skill and responsibility, cooperated under remote direction in the making of a product known to but the tiniest handful of top leaders in the project. Such an instance, although dramatic, is far from unique in the contemporary age. What Max Weber called “rationalization” is a process in modern society that has had the effect of converting a great deal of human cooperation into the directed type. It is inconceivable that complex, large-scale organizations could operate today without directed cooperation, and we are witnessing an ever increasing amount of this type of cooperation as a result of the intricate and far-reaching operations of data-processing and computer systems.


Spontaneous cooperation is the oldest, most natural, and widespread form of cooperation. Unprescribed by tradition, contract, or command, it is situational in character and practically constitutes the essence of relationships within the family, neighborhood, play group, and other close, personal forms of association. Everything we know about this type of cooperation suggests that it is most common when there is a prior basis of amity. Thus, irrespective of the type of tasks assigned, spontaneous cooperation is least likely when friendly acquaintance has not had an opportunity to arise. This type of cooperation is by no means absent from even the most regimented of organizations. In army, corporation, or government, types of spontaneous cooperation arise, given propitious conditions that may support (or negate) the planned, directed type; as every military observer has emphasized, spontaneous cooperation is the ultimate requisite of victory in battle. No matter what the sphere of activity, not even the most rationally and meticulously planned operation will altogether obviate spontaneous cooperation among participants.

History of the concept

In one form or another, speculative or reflective interest in cooperation is as old as human thought. Some of the most ancient proverbs and legends embody man's realization not only of the importance but also of the elements of cooperation. From Confucius, Lao-tzu, and Gautama in the Far East, as from the prophets of the Old Testament, the centrality of the ethic and psychology of cooperation may easily be inferred. For both Plato and Aristotle, cooperation was the keystone of the good state, and what Aristotle called stasis, or political factionalism, was the infallible sign of civic degeneration. In the writings of the Christian fathers, the imperative of cooperation was based in part on their organismic image of the world and society, but also on the remembered reality of early Christian cooperative communities—often, indeed, communistic—and on the kinds of brotherhood and interest associations that flourished throughout the Middle Ages. The theme of cooperation was a powerful one in medieval religious thought, and a great deal of modern thought on cooperation is but a secularization of this theme.

From a sociological point of view early modern theories of society may be seen as falling within either a cooperation or conflict orientation. On the one hand, there were those who, like Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), saw the natural state of man as characterized by conflict and war of all against all, with the life of man left “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”; the absolute state was seen as man's only refuge from this conflict. There were others, however, like the great Johannes Althusius (1557–1638), who believed that amity and cooperation were basic in the human species and that the social ties of family, community, and association had long preceded the rise of the state. Down through the nineteenth century, conflict theories of society vied with those based upon cooperation; Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838–1909) was perhaps the most notable exponent of the former.

Nineteenth-century thought

The nineteenth century witnessed a major renewal of interest in the ethic and nature of cooperation. This renewal must be seen as a profoundly important reaction against three major tendencies of the age. The first, hedonistic utilitarianism, declared all human behavior to be the product of self-interest and to be governed solely by drives leading to the maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain. Similarly, classical economic theory made the units of society discrete, self-interested individuals, united chiefly by ties of impersonal competition. Finally, the doctrine of natural selection affirmed the primacy, and even the exclusiveness, of competition and conflict in the whole evolutionary process. The term “social Darwinism” was used to cover views that insisted that only through competition and struggle could society progress, although Darwin himself had reservations about this, especially as applied to human society.

The rise of the theory of cooperation is to be seen in an attack on all three of these propositions, which by mid-century had become significant in European thought. In the writings of the historical jurists Henry S. Maine, Otto von Gierke, and Léon Duguit, the ethnologists Lewis Henry Morgan and George Laurence Gomme, and the political philosophers Francis H. Bradley and Thomas H. Green, a very different view of man and society emerged: one in which the social group, not the individual, was the element of society and man was understood in terms of his interactive ties with others rather than through instinct forces presumed to be resident within the solitary individual.

The rise of systematic sociology played a major role in disabusing men's minds of the priority of economic values and of the universality of competition. What began in a quasi-utopian and even apocalyptic context in the work of August Comte and Charles Fourier became, by the latter part of the century, an ever more rigorous scientific demonstration of the irreducibility of the social bond, including cooperation, into presocial individual “atoms.” Durkheim's great work emphasized not only the long history of cooperation that was embodied in what he called “mechanical solidarity” but also the more ecological type of cooperation reflected by the restitutive sanctions of modern “organic solidarity.” He was also keenly concerned with the needs of modern society with respect to the creation of large-scale cooperative occupational associations, which, he thought, would rescue worker and citizen from the anomie and isolation of modern urban and industrial life.

Undoubtedly the most influential single work specifically directed to cooperation was Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1890–1896), by P'etr Kropotkin, the founder of anarchism. Written with extraordinary insight and based upon a vast knowledge, this book quickly achieved the status of a classic. Kropotkin addressed himself critically to the doctrines of natural selection and competitive individualism, and his book is filled with numerous instances of behavior in both the animal and human worlds that is based upon cooperation rather than conflict and struggle. It gives examples of mutual aid at all stages of evolution: in the ecological relationships of plants, the behavior of subhuman species, and in such universal human institutions as the commune, the village community, the guild, the cooperative, and the trade union.

In terms of direct human action, as well as theory, cooperation was a significant force in the nineteenth century. There were the great consumer cooperatives, of which the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers' Society in England was perhaps the best known, although it was far from exceptional in either size or influence. Consumer cooperatives, both rural and urban, were founded in Europe and the United States; producer cooperatives also arose, although these were fewer and had their chief impact on the Utopian movement. Literally hundreds of colonies were founded on the principle of producer, as well as consumer, cooperation. Although most of these were defunct by the end of the century, they were an important part of the life of that period. Furthermore, there was a profusion of mutual-aid societies and self-help and friendly associations, which dealt cooperatively with such matters as education, life insurance, and burial expenses. In sum, despite the common conception of the nineteenth century as wholly individualistic and competitive, we have to conclude that cooperation, both in thought and practical affairs, was an important aspect of this period.

Contemporary research

Since the nineteenth century the behavioral sciences have steadily expanded the investigation of the processes of cooperation and their varied contexts. In reference to the schema of types of cooperation described above, it can be said with only a few reservations that the earliest scientific investigations were studies of the first three types. Interest in automatic cooperation was manifest early in the century in the works of the human ecologists who followed Robert E. Park and the Chicago school. Traditional cooperation among pre-literate and folk peoples was studied by ethnologists and in agricultural areas by rural sociologists. Types of contractual cooperation and the social norms underlying them constituted the subject matter of some of the works of Roscoe Pound and other legal sociologists.

More recent have been the studies of directed and spontaneous cooperation. The field of industrial relations, which burgeoned as an academic discipline in the United States during the 1940s, contains most of the research of the former type; specifically, studies of patterns of cooperation in industry and bureaucracy followed the style of the earlier and justly heralded work of Elton Mayo, Fritz Roethlisberger, and their colleagues (see Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939). Until the 1950s virtually all study of spontaneous cooperation was in the field of child psychology or psychology of learning, with small schoolchildren the inevitable subjects.

Two areas of research have cut across those listed above and appear to be the most relevant to present and emerging tendencies: research in social interaction and comparative-historical research. Studies of interaction are undoubtedly the most valuable and suggestive investigations of cooperation to be found anywhere at the present time in the behavioral sciences: investigations that seek the molecular or microcosmic elements of the process, its sources of motivation, and the effects upon it of changes in the quality and intensity of interaction. It is unfortunate that progress in micro-social analyses of cooperation is not matched by that in studies of the macrosocial: that is, the actual structures through which the process of cooperation has revealed itself in such diversity throughout the ages and in all cultures. This imbalance, it is worth noting, has its parallel in the biological sciences, where interest in microevolution has virtually displaced older but still needed inquiries into macroevolution.

Studies of social interaction

Two recent studies best portray the kind of analysis of cooperation that occurs in the field of social-interaction research. The first is Morton Deutsch's notable study (1953) of the effects of cooperation and competition upon group process. Fifty college men from an introductory psychology course were given personality tests, and on the basis of the results they were divided into ten groups of five men each; the groups were matched according to their members' range of ability and personality. On the basis of a further test involving a problem in human relations, the ten groups were divided into two sets of five groups, with each set containing the same number of high-scoring and low-scoring individuals. All of the groups within the two sets, meeting each week, received a logical puzzle and a problem in human relations to work on. One of the sets was given “competitive treatment,” and the other set received “cooperative treatment.” In the former set, each student was made to understand that his grade would depend strictly upon how well he did as an individual in solving the given problems; in the latter, each student's personal grade was made contingent on how well the group as a whole did in meeting the problems. Differences in both group and individual results between the two sets of groups were carefully noted by trained observers, and questionnaires about results, spaced a week apart, were given to the students themselves.

Given the difference in rewards promised to the participants in each set, there is nothing surprising in the finding that there was a manifestly greater cooperativeness and sense of group cohesion in the one set and a greater degree of competitive individualism in the other; the same is true of the differences in the degree of friendliness within groups of the two sets. However, there were more striking conclusions. The cooperative groups met the puzzle problem more efficiently and contributed in more detail to the analysis of the human-relations problem, although not necessarily with more insight. Within the cooperative groups there was more differentiation of individual function, that is, more division of labor; in the competitive groups, on the other hand, duplication of effort was considerable, for all were equally on their own to do all that was required. Communication was smoother in the cooperative group; there was, however, as much interaction in the competitive group, a condition resulting from the fact that merely in order to demonstrate individual ability on the human-relations problem, spirited contribution to a discussion was mandatory. Despite the contrasting environments of the two sets of groups, no significant differences were discernible in the amount of psychology learned by individuals in the two sets. Such are a few of the conclusions; obviously they say nothing, nor are they intended to, about the ultimate values of competition and cooperation in a society, for such values are related to the entire normative order [seeGroups, article ongroup behavior].

The Robbers Cave experiment. The second social-interaction study is that of Muzafer Sherif and his associates (see Oklahoma, University of … 1961). The setting was a summer camp, and the subjects were twenty boys of homogeneous background. The boys were divided into two groups, and the first stage of the experiment consisted of welding each of the groups into a unity. This was done by separating the groups and ensuring that each group had experiences of a kind that would bind its members into prideful unity. The second stage of the experiment was designed to intensify group cohesiveness by putting the two groups into situations where sharp competition would develop: athletic contests, raids on each other's camp areas, slogans of hostile character. The result was a rising tension between the two groups, combined with strong “we group” loyalties in each. In the third stage of the experiment, an effort was made to heal the breach between the two groups. First, they were brought together in a series of purely passive encounters, such as eating or watching a movie together; however, competitive friction only increased. Then, in the final and crucial stage of the experiment, members of the two groups were brought together for the performance of tasks that clearly required cooperation between the two groups for successful completion: repairing a damaged water tank, fund raising, and so on. The changes were quite striking. Whereas near-hostility had been the relation between the groups by the end of the third stage, in the final stage a majority of cross-group judgments by members were favorable, and the number of friendships went up correspondingly. Such experiments as Sherif’s and Deutsch's give microcosmic sanction to what (in military combat or professional sports, for example) has long been clear: that the most effective way of reducing intergroup tensions lies in mobilizing individuals into activities where cooperation is absolutely vital to success—where, in short, it is functional.

The comparative-historical approach

The value of social-interaction studies would be greatly enhanced if their results could be placed against studies that deal, not with contrived or experimental situations, but rather with actual, institutionalized groups in all ages and cultures. Unfortunately, the comparative-historical approach to cooperation is not well developed in terms of methodology, nor is it represented by a significant number of studies. Kropotkin's great work at the beginning of the century pointed to some of the social structures (guilds, cooperatives, and similar associations) through which human cooperation has been carried on historically, and he offered many valuable insights into their functioning and context. His objective, however, was more moral than scientific. A few followers of the French sociologist Frédéric Le Play, most notably Patrick Geddes and his students, in England, also did some work in the field. One should also note the too little known field studies of Demetrius Gusti (1941) in Rumania, whose investigations of rural villages included informal systems of cooperation among villages as well as internal patterns. In India the early work of Radhakamal Mukerjee (1923) and his students gave much attention to processes of cooperation through which interfamily and intervillage projects were carried on in such areas as irrigation.

In the United States it is chiefly in the works of the earlier rural sociologists that any attention to cooperation is to be found in significant degree. Scattered throughout historiography and ethnology, there are, of course, specific references to the various cooperative enterprises that have marked man's struggle for existence. But nowhere have these been brought together, and nowhere has a systematic, scientific effort been made to deal with cooperation as a cultural and historical force. Margaret Mead, in her notable work Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples (1937), showed what could be done among preliterate peoples, but few have chosen to follow. In a remarkable monograph Mark A. May and Leonard W. Doob (1937) made a distinguished effort to summarize existing knowledge on the subject and to arrive at central principles. This work provided an analysis of experimental approaches to cooperation and competition as well as an evaluation of existing anthropological and sociological studies; and it covered a wide range of types of cooperation in military organizations, Utopian communities, and varied clubs, associations, and economic enterprises. However, what was chiefly lacking in this pioneering work was a sense of history.

Nothing of comparable stature has been done since May and Doob's contribution. Given the seemingly assured place of cooperation as the subject of social-interaction studies, it may therefore be said without reservation that the most urgent sphere of research in the future must be the comparative-historical. Types of cooperation drawn from all ages and social orders must be distinguished, their structures and internal processes analyzed, their relations to the surrounding scene investigated, and their impact upon members assessed. Moreover, such studies should be coordinated with inquiries into the dynamics of social development. One of the major aspects of the rise of new nations is the impact—often dislocative— of the emerging administrative structures of national authority upon cooperative systems that have been in existence for centuries.

Cooperation and competition

Although cooperation is commonly contrasted with competition (a process in which efforts toward a common objective are separate and in rivalry with one another), it must be emphasized that the two rarely, if ever, occur separately. Indeed, each may have a contributory relation to the other. Competition requires at least the degree of prior cooperation that is necessary for the setting of rules and imposing of sanctions without which competition would dissolve into open war. Conversely, it is doubtful that cooperation would be the major force it is were it not for pressures of competition that spur some to cooperate with others as a means of enhancing their effectiveness in the struggle for existence. In any event, a purely cooperative or purely competitive relationship would be hard to imagine.

In each of the types of cooperation outlined above—ranging from the automatic to the spontaneous—elements of competition are to be found side by side with, indeed often embedded in, those of cooperation. However dependent two orders or types may be upon one another in natural or human ecology, competition is always a latent possibility. Within traditional cooperation, role rivalries are legion; contractual cooperation draws its very efficacy from the fact that it represents legally specifiable surcease from normal competition; within directed (and especially bureaucratic) cooperation, competition of roles and strata goes on constantly. Even in the most elemental, spontaneous types of cooperation—that of the small, conjugal family, for instance—there cannot help but be competition between members: between parents for affection of children, between children for rewards from parents. The same is true in the largest of political and economic systems. Capitalism, commonly thought of as competitive, would founder if it were not for vast systems of economic and legal cooperation within it that help give it direction and stability; and, at the opposite extreme, all that we have learned of socialism in practice indicates that competition can be a powerful force in bringing the various sectors of society to desired levels of performance.

Robert A. Nisbet

[See alsoCooperatives; Ecology; Industrial relations, article onhuman relations; Integration; Sociometry; and biographies ofDurkheim; Geddes; Kropotkin; Le Play; Park; Tocqueville.]


Allee, Warder C. (1938) 1951 Cooperation Among Animals, With Human Implications. Rev. & enl. ed. New York: Schuman. → First published as The Social Life of Animals. A paperback edition was published in 1958 by Beacon.

Bakke, Edward W. 1950 Bonds of Organization: An Appraisal of Corporate Human Relations. New York: Harper.

Blau, Peter M. 1956 Bureaucracy in Modern Society. New York: Random House.

Deutsch, Morton (1953) 1960 The Effects of Cooperation and Competition Upon Group Process. Pages 414–448 in Dorwin Cartwright and Alvin Zander (editors), Group Dynamics: Research and Theory. 2d ed. Evanston, 111.: Row, Peterson. → Condensed from two articles that appeared in Human Relations in 1949.

Gusti, Demetrius 1941 La science de la réalité sociale: Introduction à un système de sociologie d'éthique et de politique. Paris: Alcan.

Hare, A. Paul; Borgatta, E. F.; and Bales, R. F. (1955) 1964 Small Groups: Studies in Social Interaction. 2d ed. New York: Knopf.

Homans, George C. 1961 Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. New York: Harcourt. → See pages 130–138 for an evaluation of Deutsch 1953.

Kropotkin, P'etr (1890–1896) 1955 Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Boston: Extending Horizons. → Thomas Huxley's “The Struggle for Existence” is included in this book.

May, Mark A.; and Doob, Leonard W. 1937 Competition and Cooperation: A Report. Bulletin No. 25. New York: Social Science Research Council.

Mead, Margaret (editor) 1937 Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples. New York: McGraw-Hill. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Beacon.

Mukerjee, Radhakamal 1923 Democracies of the East: A Study in Comparative Politics. London: King.

Mukerjee, Radhakamal 1964 The Destiny of Civilization. New York: Asia Publishing House.

Oklahoma, University of, Institute of Group Relations 1961 Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment, by Muzafer Sherif et al. Norman, Okla.: University Book Exchange.

Roethlisberger, Fritz J.; and Dickson, William J. (1939) 1961 Management and the Worker: An Account of a Research Program Conducted by the Western Electric Company, Hawthorne Works, Chicago. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Wiley.


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Cooperation, wrote Karl Marx (18181883), occurs when numerous workers work together side by side in accordance with a plan, whether in the same process, or in different but connected processes ([1867] 1977, p. 443). What he describes in this passage about the economic realm is the superficial appearance of cooperation rather than the diverse cultural practices, social relations, and modes of production that underwrite it. He then proceeds to point out the diversity of those forms. Marx was acutely aware that people cooperate for other reasons besides the production of goods or the satisfaction of needs defined narrowly as economic rather than more broadly as intellectual development, aesthetic stimulation, play, or the fulfillment of social functions, to name only a few.

Authors with quite different ontological standpoints have written about cooperation. On the one hand, early theorists of liberalism, such as Thomas Hobbes (15881679) or John Locke (16321704), who presupposed that individuals existed before society, sought to explain the conditions under which innately competitive, natural men came together to constitute a society in order to pursue collectively life, liberty, and property. For intellectual descendants, like neoliberal policymakers or socio-biologists, the problem is to explain the development of cooperative (altruistic) behavior; their solution resides in exchange broadly writtenthe market for policymakers, the transmission of genes for sociobiologists. On the other hand, critics of liberal social theoryGeorg F. W. Hegel (17701831), for examplepresupposed the existence of sociality from the beginnings of humankind and sought to explain how the actual conditions of human existence have been transformed by the collective social activity of human beings. The problem from this perspective is to account for competition in a world that exhibits enormous amounts of cooperative activity.

Recent discussions of cooperation may be further obscured by six epistemological tendencies that are frequently encountered either explicitly or implicitly: (1) a philosophical reductionism which postulates that explanations framed in terms of lower-order molecular, neurobiological, or psychological structures (e.g., a universal human nature) are preferable to those couched in terms of emergent social and cultural phenomena; (2) a denial of sociohistorical change which postulates, for example, that the structures of meaning characteristic of the Roman Republic have persisted unchanged for millennia and are effectively the same ones that exist in the West today; (3) an assertion that cultural identities and logics of difference are forged largely in the unequal power relations and oneway discourse between colonizer and colonized; (4) a largely unexamined assumption that earlier writers in the anthropological tradition did not understand what they saw or were told, especially when their accounts differ from the social relations that exist in the same region today; (5) a related assumption that, since people find it difficult to think outside the analytical categories of their own intellectual tradition, it is also difficult for them to understand other intellectual or cultural traditions; and (6) a belief that all forms of cooperation are structurally equivalent to those of Western capitalism and hence can be adequately explained in terms of capitalist models. Such epistemological presumptions need to be examined carefully and justified, especially as they underpin discussions of cooperation.

Cooperation manifests itself in diverse ways and is buttressed by a variety of social forms. Let us consider briefly a few examples: (1) the factory described by Marx where a number of workers put into motion more or less elaborate technical divisions of labor to produce commodities for the owner; (2) the long-discussed and carefully planned hunting expeditions of San men of southern Africa, which are complete with details of how and with whom meat will be shared; (3) the annual, week-long fiestas in highland Andean communities that are constructed around cleaning and repairing local irrigation canals and terraces; (4) the rotating credit associations, pooling of resources, and almost continuous swapping of goods to defray the costs of everyday needs in rural settlements along the U.S.-Mexico border; (5) the Maasai women in eastern Africa who prepare food and drink for the age-set initiation ceremonies of their sons and husbands; and (6) the improvisations of jazz musicians in a jam session. Cooperation does not always mean that the interpersonal and social relations of the participants are harmonious; frequently, they are tense, and individuals may be cajoled or feel compelled to participate. Nevertheless, not cooperating may be unavoidable, unadvisable, or even unthinkable.

SEE ALSO Altruism; Altruism and Prosocial Behavior


Leacock, Eleanor. 1872. Relations of Production in Band Society. In Politics and History in Band Societies, eds. Eleanor Leacock and Richard Lee, pp. 159170. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, Richard. 2005. Power and Property in Twenty-first Century Foragers: A Critical Examination. In Property and Equality, eds. Thomas Widlok and Wolde Gossa Tadesse, pp. 1631. New York: Berghahn Books.

Marx, Karl. [1867] 1977. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. New York: Vintage.

Woodburn, James. 1998. Sharing is Not a Form of Exchange: An Analysis of Property-Sharing in Immediate-Return Hunter-Gatherer Societies. In Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition, ed. Chris Hann, pp. 4863. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Thomas C. Patterson


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131. Cooperation

  1. Achaean League federation of Greek cities formed in 280 B.C. to resist Macedonian domination. [Gk. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 6]
  2. Allies, the 1. in World War I, nations, initially Russia, France, and Great Britain, allied against the Central Powers. 2. in World War II, those allied against the Axis, including Great Britain, Russia, and U.S. [Eur. Hist.: Colliers, VIII, 457]
  3. Axis in World War II, the affiance of Germany, Italy, Japan, etc., opposing the Allies. [Eur. Hist.: Colliers, VIII, 457]
  4. Central Powers in World War I, the alliance of Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, and Turkey. [Eur. Hist.: NCE, 493]
  5. Common Market association of western European countries designed to facilitate free trade among members. [Eur. Hist.: EB, III: 1001]
  6. Confederacy the eleven Southern states that seceded from the U.S. and banded together. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 623]
  7. Entente Cordiale agreement between Great Britain and France to settle their disagreements over colonies as diplomatic partners. [Eur. Hist.: WB, 21: 367]
  8. Helsinki accord agreement between Soviet bloc and the West for economic, commercial, and scientific cooperation and for respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms. [World Hist.: News Directory (1977), 177179]
  9. League of Nations world organization for international cooperation. [World Hist.: EB, 6: 102]
  10. NATO free-world mutual security pact against Soviet bloc. [World Hist.: Van Doren, 520]
  11. Nazi-Soviet Pact nonaggression treaty freed Hitler to invade Poland. [Ger. Hist.: Shirer, 685705]
  12. OPEC cartel of nations whose economic livelihood depends upon the export of petroleum. [World Hist.: WB, 14: 646]
  13. Pact of Steel German-Italian treaty established common cause in future undertakings. [Eur. Hist.: Shirer, 646648]
  14. Potsdam Conference unconditional Japanese surrender demanded; war crimes trials planned (July, 1945). [World Hist.: Van Doren, 507]
  15. SEATO organization formed to assure protection against communist expansion in Southeast Asia (19551976). [World Hist.: EB, IX: 377]
  16. Tinker to Evers to Chance legendary baseball double-play combination (19021910). [Am. Sports: Turkin, 474]
  17. Triple Entente association among Great Britain, France, and Russia; nucleus of the Allied Coalition in WWI. [World Hist.: EB, 10: 128]
  18. United Nations world organization for international discussion and peacekeeping. [World Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 1116]
  19. Yalta Conference Allies developed plan for reconstruction of Europe (February, 1945). [World Hist.: Van Doren, 504]


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cooperation An association between two or more members of the same species (intraspecific cooperation), or between individuals of different species (interspecific cooperation), in which all members benefit. An example of interspecific cooperation is the relationship formed between ants and aphids: the aphids gain protection by living in the ant colonies, while the ants feed on secretions from the aphids. Interspecific cooperation is a looser association than mutualism.

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