On Cooperation and Competition – 1

Question: Why are some people more inclined to cooperate while others are more inclined to compete?

Answer: It’s all in the socialization.

Let me explain how I arrived at this conclusion.

I went to Malaysia for the first time about fifteen years ago. I saw in every government office I entered placards on the walls with guidance from the Prime Minister – Be Nice or Be Honest or Make Malaysia Great, etc. What surprised me was the seriousness that public servants accorded such messages.

It struck me immediately that this kind of thing would never fly in the Punjab with which I was familiar – it would become the butt of jokes. There is a very evocative term in the Pakistani Punjab that captures this attitude – Rikard Lagaana, the word ‘Rikard’ standing for Record. I have no knowledge of how this term emerged but it certainly dates to the days of the 78 RPM disc because the alternative usage is Tawwa Lagaana and ‘Tawwa’ was the vernacular for the 78 RPM disc. The word ‘Tawwa’ itself in its proper usage refers to black metal plate on which rotiis are made in the Punjab and which has a certain resemblance to the disc.

That started me thinking. How was it that the same messages that were treated with such respect in Kuala Lumpur would invite nothing but cynicism and ridicule in Lahore?

I was aware that in a Confucian culture there was great premium on respect for the leadership and for the elders in society. But although there were a fair number of Chinese in Malaysia, it was nonetheless a Muslim country like Pakistan. The Prime Minister and the majority of the public servants were ethnic Malays.

So there had to be some other explanation. I had to wait a number of years during which I kept turning this puzzle over in my head. It was while reading a book on cultural anthropology that a plausible answer came to my attention.

The following was the simple hypothesis of the author. Take a rice-growing society and a wheat-growing society and think of what kind of social organization is needed to get the crops to maturity.

Traditional paddy rice could not be grown without a very high degree of cooperation amongst the village population especially when the crop had to be transplanted during a very short interval of time. Wheat on the other hand has no such requirement – every farming family can take care of their 12-acre plot independently of the other families in the village.

Over generations, this variation in labor requirements socializes a rice-growing community into cooperative behavior while a wheat-growing community develops a much more competitive ethos. The village leader in the former community has the task of organizing and coordinating the cooperative effort and flouting his authority can lead to collective loss. In the latter community, the concept of leadership itself is quite alien – everyone is the lord of his domain and people attempting to exercise authority are not looked upon kindly and made fun of behind their backs.

I don’t know if this hypothesis has been subjected to any formal test but it does provide the starting point for a lot of fruitful thinking. One can think of variations between Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan where the land holdings in the latter are much more unequal. What impact does that have on social attitudes towards village leaders? How do social attitudes vary on the cooperation-competition spectrum as one travels from the wheat growing areas of India towards the rice growing ones? What can one say about Sri Lanka or Bangladesh?

It would be interesting to speculate along these lines. Is culture the emergent outcome of our everyday activities? Are we really what we grow and eat?

This post is written to acknowledge a debt to the writer who opened a new window of the mind and provided a lot of space for flights of fancy. Unfortunately I do not remember either the name of the book or of the author but I do thank him with much sincerity.

Continued: On Cooperation and Competition – 2


  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 00:26h, 08 June Reply

    The last few posts have been very insightful. One question I would pose for the post above is how you would extend such an argument to urban settings where most of your readers are likely to be. In urban settings – for example, in corporate settings or at universities – one sees both intense competition as well as significant cooperation within teams. Pedagogically, given such an argument for one setting, how would one extend it to new settings?

    A related question is what role the particular social interaction a person faces plays in eliciting cooperative or competitive behavior. If a cooperatively socialized rice farmer has to participate in a race, will he be ineffective or will his behavior alter to suit the situation’s demands?

  • Para Hunzai
    Posted at 13:17h, 10 June Reply

    I really enjoyed this peice, I was a little dissapointed that you did not remember the name of the author though.

    I agree with the ‘mysterious’ author and yourself to a degree, but there seems to be something about competition that is very much South-Asian and muslim. Having lived in Malaysia and Bangladesh and being Pakistani, I totally agree there is a sea of difference between the way Malay’s cooperate and have values of loyalty/honesty and respect for rule of Law and the aggressive competition of a Pakistani. But the Malay’s have always been the upper class in malaysia, they have run state affairs and have been educated, there have been very few lower class malays (or so it has been in my experience) therefore this culture of cooperation i would argue is that exactly; the education.
    Now if we think of a Bengali or a Pakistan which in my view are similiar in this argument; while they may be muslim which entails upon men ( the drivers of state matters) a sense of respect which is so strong that his respect is dependent upon for example his sister’s ‘izzat’ or his mother’s repuation etc. I say this because i feel due to these characteristics of Islam ( or collective misconception of Islam), the muslim man (South asian) wheather he is growing rice or not will have alot to fight agaisnt to keep his respect afloat. Therefore the nature has been competitive amongst the men rather than cooperative.

    While a Malay muslim man might have the same influences (Islam and izzat), he has also enjoyed relatively good education or just any type of education for that matter. Along with power. A saying very famous in Malaysia is ” the Malay have all the power and money, the chinese does all the work and the indian gets all the blame’. this is very much respresentative of the Malay’s position in the country which is why they are in all the high position.
    Now this education and power/money of a Malay person works to erod some of the muslim inheritance of a ‘man’ and the troubles and the drama that follows, thus allowing him to cooperate ( not amongst chinese or Indians living in Malaysia in high numbers ) but amongst other Malays also in power, in order to keep that power.
    Nonethless, I am a very big fan of your blog, I hope to see you in Pakistan this time.


    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:19h, 10 June

      I want to reply to the comments by Arun and Para together because I feel they share a common response.

      Arun has asked how urban living affects behavior and Para has asked if higher education might explain some differences. In my view socialization is a very slow process while urbanization and education are very, very recent developments. The global urbanization level in 1900 was just 13 percent and reached 29 percent by 1950. Education levels in Asia could not have been much higher. What we are talking about is 10,000 years of socialization in agricultural societies. In fact, we still carry traits that derive from the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer era. In this context, individuals certainly adapt to new circumstances but the underlying traits have very deep roots.

      Arun has asked an additional question about how a cooperatively socialized rice farmer would react to a competitive event. I feel that this kind of adaptation falls into a different category. A cooperatively socialized farmer can fully understand that a particular event has a competitive format and adjust his response accordingly. There are some nuances that I will take up in a later post.

      Para has mentioned that Muslim Malays were dominant in Malaysia. This is not my impression. Malaysian commerce was dominated by the Chinese and the professional services by Indians both of which were urban groups. The peasantry was entirely Malay and amongst the poorest, but important because it was a numerical majority in an electoral system. There was a Malay political elite that had to institute a ‘Bumiputra’ (sons of the soil) policy to raise the economic status of Malays. When we talk of socialization we are referring to this Malay peasantry that was socialized in a rice-based agriculture.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:17h, 24 July Reply

    This series of five posts which was started in 2009 and is still incomplete advanced the hypothesis that agriculture and climate had a lot to do with human social attitudes and organization. A new study in 2011 provides support for the argument. In particular, it relates variations in gender roles to variations in agricultural technology, a view the Ester Boserup had offered as far back as the 1970 in her seminal book Women’s Role in Economic Development.


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