What is competition?

what is competition

What is the difference between conflict and competition? What is the connection between competition and cooperation?

Conflict, or Competition?

It is not uncommon for people to use the words 'conflict' and 'competition' interchangeably. However, conflict and competition are two quite different things. We could illustrate by considering a rugby football match. The game involves a lot of heavy body contact as the players tackle each other. One player will flatten another with a heavy tackle, but the tackled player gets to his feet and plays on as though this is completely unremarkable behaviour. On a rugby field of course it is. This is because the players, by taking to the field, agree to play by those rules.

But let's say during a match that an opposing player decides that he can gain an advantage by 'playing' outside the rules. He figures that if he punches his opponent he might put him off his game. If he does so, the other player's reaction will be one of anger and indignation. His opponent has gone outside the rules. Now the player who was punched might have been hurt more by some of the tackles he has endured than by this punch. Yet as we know, that is not the point. He is not angry because he has been hurt. He is angry because his opponent has cheated.

The tackling is an illustration of competition, while the punch is an illustration of conflict. One of the forms of competition in the game is tackling, and one player will try to prevail over the other. They compete for dominance. But such dominance is relative. It is only relevant within the game itself. On the other hand, punching during a game is not part of the game. So he is not playing outside the rules, for it is no longer play. He is acting outside the rules. The act of cheating occurs in the same time and place as the game, but it is not 'part of the game'.

Now that we have clarified the difference between conflict and competition, we need to consider what the relation is between competition and cooperation.

Competition, or Cooperation?

Sometimes people contrast competition with cooperation. They say, "Why do we have to compete all the time? Why can't we just cooperate?" It is not uncommon for people to use the word 'competition' in such a context when what they really mean is conflict. In that case it would be better to say, "Why do we have to be in conflict all the time? Why can't we just cooperate?"

However, there can be other times when they do mean compete, but they contrast it with cooperation, as if competition and cooperation are opposites. When people speak like this they are pointing to something real, but the waters are muddied with the implication that competition is a form of conflict.

This point can be clarified as follows:

There are two forms of cooperation, the consensual and the competitive.

Competition is not the opposite of cooperation, it is one of the forms of cooperation. Whereas conflict is the contradictory opposite of cooperation, we could say that competition is the complementary 'opposite' of cooperation.

Cooperation as the Context for Competition

We can illustrate again using the example of football. Football is a game, and as a game it needs rules. Football in various forms evolved in England during the nineteenth century. It grew 'from the bottom up', starting in schools and eventually becoming an adult pastime as well. There were numerous versions of football, as each different school or locality played its own variant. But eventually there was a desire to have wider competition, so some common rules needed to be agreed. This process led to a number of variants which have evolved into the modern codes of football we have today.

The relevant point here is that the process of establishing common rules provides an example of consensual cooperation. The rules of a game have to be agreed on by a consensual process, the outcome of which is a set of rules that then allow competition to occur. A key part of the definition of a game is deciding what will be considered legitimate competition and what will be considered conflict, and so, illegitimate. In a soccer game it would be illegitimate to tackle a player rugby-style.

The consensual form of cooperation is more fundamental, since the competitive form of cooperation depends on it, not vice versa.

Competing for the Crown of Cooperation

Just to make things less simple, there can also be competition in the establishment of consensual cooperation. In the emergence of the modern codes of football we did not end up with only one game but with several. In England the basic divergence was between what eventually became soccer and rugby. There were some early attempts at formulating a single game, but by then there had already emerged some firm preferences as to styles of play, so the two camps decided to part ways. This resulted in competition for popularity between the two games.

So we can see this interrelation between the consensual and the competitive. Within the consensual process we have a competition for ideas and influence. But if it is ultimately consensual then people agree to put their differences aside for the greater good of a united outcome. However, the process to reach consensus might not be successful, and two different groups might decide to go their separate ways. Then within each of those groups there will be competition for ideas and influence, and so on.

Of course a process like this will also often involve personal conflicts, but having the two options of consensus and competition provides a way for conflict to be reduced and moderated, even if it can't be banished altogether. So we find that the different codes of football can coexist in a friendly rivalry, and within each game there is the competition within the consensual context of the game's membership and leadership, a similar context in each club and its team, as well as the competition on the field of play, which is then symbolised in things like league championships to organise and celebrate the competition between the constituent teams.

How is competition a form of cooperation?

We need to look more closely now at why it makes sense to call competition a form of cooperation. We have already looked briefly at an example of how consensual and competitive cooperation work. It is easy to see the consensual aspect as cooperation, but it can seem counter-intuitive to call competition a form of cooperation.

Let's look again at our example. The first thing we might note is a 'negative affirmation', that is, that the different groups trying to establish codes of football reduced and pre-empted conflict by agreeing to go their separate ways. The first kind of cooperation then is simply allowing each other the space in which to flourish. It is the principle of legitimate variety. Most things in life do not have to be exclusive, but many variants can happily coexist. This happens in every field. Take music for example. There are people devoted to a wide variety of musical styles. And why not?

This raises a second way in which competition benefits cooperation: it moderates the excesses of the consensual mode. People can be inclined at times to think that competition is more messy and inefficient. Wouldn't it be better if we only had one of the relevant thing? Why couldn't we get everyone to play only one code of football? Wouldn't that be better? Actually, no. For two reasons. The first is that it could only be achieved through the conflict entailed in the suppression of legitimate variety. Secondly it would inhibit the development of beautiful and valuable things.

Keeping Each Other Honest

The fact that the consensual form of cooperation is more fundamental does not mean it is univocal. It is not a stand-alone principle. It's preeminence is because of the reality of conflict. The higher the stakes are in terms of the necessities of human life the more we see the importance of the consensual form of cooperation. But with most things there is no necessity to have only one.

The consensual keeps the competitive honest by establishing and maintaining the rules. The competitive keeps the consensual honest by insisting on space for variety, plurality and creativity.

We can see the close interrelation between them by considering those emblems of consensual cooperation, parliaments. We have parliamentary forms of various kinds in the process of government because we recognise the need to have consensus on the most important matters of the practical administration of society.

But look at what happens within parliaments: a lot of competition. Human nature being what it is these cooperative efforts are beset by real conflicts, so that it can give competition a bad name. However, if you replaced the competition with a 'unity' achieved by dictatorship, you would have even bigger problems. As Winston Churchill was quoted as saying: "... democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time ..."

A Great Deal More

There is a great deal more that needs to be said about the nature and purpose of competition, but this will have to do for the moment.