Cooley's Theories of Competition and Conflict

Walter B. Bodenhafer
Washington University


Cooley displayed a constant interest in this subject throughout his career, and did not materially alter the central form of his theory during his lifetime. He uses the terms competition and conflict to denote a type of interaction found in all social situations. Consequently he devoted a good deal of energy to a careful analysis of the process in order to picture the realities of the situation. He does not seem to he interested in classification so much as he is in elucidating the common process found in all forms of competition. His general theory involved the belief that while competition and conflict are universal and essential in society, they are always parts of the larger social order, This made necessary the inclusion of co-operation as a correlated process in order to give a balanced account. It also implied that all forms of competition must be subordinate to the larger social order. Therefore, progress in a social order, in this respect, consists not in attempts to eliminate competition but in raising the plane of competition under rules and regulations of a higher type. The sources of Cooley's knowledge of this process were probably the intellectual milieu in economics and biology, and his own observations, in accordance with his general theory of knowledge in social science.

Cooley's interest in our subject was indicated in one of his earliest essays ("Competition and Organization," Michigan Political Science Association, No. 3 [1894] , pp. 33-45) and continued to show itself in his publications throughout his whole career. Evidently he attached a good deal of importance to it. His view was that competition is universal. It is inherent in the universe and consequently a constant factor in every social situation. Phrasing this belief in various ways, Cooley tries to impress it upon his readers. Let us listen to a few of his striking sentences:

It seems that there must always be an element of conflict in our relation with others, as well as one of mutual aid; the whole plan of life calls for it: our very physiognomy reflects it, and love and strife sit side by side upon the brow of man. The forms of opposition change, but the amount of it, if not constant, is at any rate subject to no general law of diminution [Social Process, p. 56].

Conflict, of some sort, is the life of society, and progress emerges from a struggle in which each individual, class or institution seeks to realize its own idea of good. The intensity of this struggle varies as the vigor of the people, and its cessation, if conceivable, would be death [Social Organization, p. 199].

It is not surprising, therefore, that so essential a fact, such an all pervasive principle, should be included in his analysis of all social situations. To him it was of major importance.

( 19)


Cooley does not set forth any carefully worked out classification of the forms of competition. One has to search for such a classification and attempt to abstract from his expressions evidences of such classification, if it exists at all. He speaks of "a struggle of some sort—with climate and soil, between persons, nations, or other groups, or among opposing ideas" (Social Process, p. 241), which suggests a possible classification on bases suggested by other writers, such as, struggle with nature, between individuals, between groups, between ideas. He also refers to struggles both of a physical nature and of a mental nature taking place within the individual. Thus he speaks of the struggle of our corpuscles against disease germs (Social Process, p. 35); and of the mental conflicts arising from the fact of one's participation in conflicting social situations. On the latter point lie speaks as one would expect him to, in line with his theory of the self, "Since every person is involved in several or many social groups and seeks more than one sort of success, each man's mind is the theater of a conflict of standards" (Personal Competition, Publications American Economic Association, Economic Studies, IV, No. 2 [1899], p. 127).

There are clear indications, also, that Cooley had an implicit basis of classification of competition built upon gradations of moral value. There are higher or lower forms of competition, and it is the business of competitors to raise the basis of competition from the more animal-like types to the more refined types of competition. For the latter types be sometimes uses the term rivalry as distinguished from crasser forms of struggle, but even within rivalry there were gradations of character. Like other forms, rivalry, he says, "is harmful or beneficent according to the objects and standards with reference to which it acts" (Human Nature and the Social Order, p. 277).

On the whole, Cooley uses various terms for the purpose of illustrating his central theme of competition rather than for the purpose of pointing out the boundaries of the forms Of competition. Although there are suggestions of bases of classification, his variations in terminology are stylistic attempts to introduce shades of meaning and richness of content into the central thread which he thinks runs

( 20) through them all. He seems to be primarily interested in the general idea, and consequently no detailed scheme of classification is offered.


Fortunately, for our purposes, it is not necessary to follow Cooley into all the fields of human relations into which he carries his analysis of the competitive process. These numerous ramifications are interesting in themselves, but since his theory of the origin, nature, role, and future of competition in each is identical, it will not be necessary to call attention to many special fields except for purposes of illustration of his general theory.

His general theory is that competition is a universal aspect of life, as we have seen; that it is neither good nor bad in itself but may be either, dependent upon its relation to the larger social order and the goals of competition; that it serves useful purposes in any social order; and that, though capable of refinement, it is ineradicable. This same doctrine may be applied to the smallest social group or to international relations. It involves a vigorous individuality of the respective units, a competitive spirit on the part of each unit, and subordination of the units to a larger social whole, under proper rules governing the competition. Any form of competition, under proper conditions, becomes a good. Any form of competition, under other conditions, becomes an evil. The social problem involved in any case is that of providing proper rules for the exercise of the competitive energies in the situation. An illustration will suffice.

Suppose we take the familiar problem of the capital-labor doctrine of class conflict. Labor organization, Cooley observes, has not gone far enough even among handworkers. The professions are still less organized (Social Organization, p. 242).

Organization, of course, leads to competition and at the same time arises out of a competitive system. In turn, organization introduces class consciousness and permits a more serious type of struggle. This in itself, according to Cooley, is not bad but under certain conditions may become so. It is bad if it transcends the larger social organization. it is good if it confines itself to competition within the national order. Cooley states the matter as follows:

Class loyalty in the pursuit of right ends is good: but like all such sentiments it should be subordinate to a broad justice and kindness. If there is no class-

(21) consciousness, men become isolated, degraded and ineffective; if there is too much, or the wrong kind, the group becomes separate and forgets the whole [Social Organization, p. 242].

To the conception of a class struggle involving actual violence, seizure of power, and the suppression of the other class, Cooley was opposed on the grounds both of principle and of practicability. Such an idea or program he subjected to several criticisms. First, it is impossible to divide modern society into two classes; second, the trend is toward solidarity rather than toward class divisions, that is, society is growing more complex and our interests are becoming more widely diffused; third, a class does not have the means of arousing sufficient group devotion and ardor to hold the majority of its members; and finally, a class is not able to overcome the devotion to the nation, the larger social aggregate. A free and competitive society such as our own, conceding its shortcomings both as to freedom and competition, was for him sufficient guaranty against a violent class war and class dictatorship (Social Process, pp. 269 ff.).

Cooley deals with all forms of group conflict in much the same way. His criticisms of extreme doctrines of conflict have much the same general philosophy. Whether he deals with conflicts between nations, classes, races, industrial groups, members of a family, or individuals, his approach is something like this: Struggle is an essential and valuable social process. It is an error, however, to regard it as the sole or chief social process. The problem is one of giving it its setting in the larger social whole, along with co-operation, and bringing it under the control of the larger order, and at the same time stepping up the level of struggle from a lower to a higher plane.


We cannot leave Cooley's discussion without calling attention to his conception of the role of competition in bringing about social organization, that is, placing the individual or the group in the larger social order. As he says, "The function of personal competition considered as part of the social system, is to assign to each individual his place in that system" (Personal Competition, Publications of American Economic Association, Economic Studies, IV, No. 2, p. 78).

This role does not belong exclusively to competition, however,

( 22) since another principle is at work in all societies, namely, some form of status, some fixed mechanical rule, usually a rule of inheritance" (ibid., p. 78).

"There are no other organizing principles in society beside these, and what one does not do the other must" (ibid., p. 94).

While both these processes are at work in varying proportions in all societies, Cooley thinks competition is the active element; and status or inheritance the static element (ibid., p. 81). Cooley is unable to visualize a society organized on either basis exclusively. He recognizes, however, that a proper balancing of the two is a nice problem. Each principle has its advantages and disadvantages. The advice he gives may not be practicable but it does give us his theory at least. "Either of these principles may work well or very badly. We must try to combine the better forms of each in such a way as to produce the best general result" (ibid., pp. 93-94). How this is to be done, he does not tell us.


Since the limits of our subject have necessitated abstracting the theory of competition and conflict front Cooley's theories in general, it may not be amiss to remind ourselves that such an abstraction does injustice to his thought. In fact, Cooley was himself of the opinion that that very error had been committed frequently. He endeavors to make us understand that it is impossible to isolate competition from another correlated social process, namely, co-operation. "The two are easily seen to be inseparable in everyday practice" (Social Process, p. 37). Any tendency to separate the two does not "correspond with the facts." They are "inextricably interlaced in human life" (Personal Competition, Publications Of American Economic Association, Economic Studies, IV, No. 2, p. 95). "Everyone Of us is a competitor in several or many fields, while at the same time a member of various co-operating groups; and we are likely to compete with the very persons with whom we co-operate" (ibid., p.95).

His general organic philosophy brings him here, as in other places, to the conclusion that competition and co-operation are phases Of a larger, living, moving, Organic whole. "The two, of course, are supplementary, and each has its proper sphere" (ibid.,

( 23) p. 95). This as we should expect. Conflict and co-operation are phases of one organic whole, and it is difficult for him to find any social situation which is not a mixture of the two. For this reason, he felt it was futile to assume that either is any more natural, any more inherent in human society. "The more one thinks of it the more he will see that conflict and co-operation are not separable things, but phases of one process which always involves something of both" (Social Process, p. 39).

It would be possible to cite passages from Cooley's discussion to support the assertion that he tends to give competition a somewhat lower moral role in society. While he asserts the inevitability and value of competition and conflict, still he suggests that they are somewhat in the nature of means to an end, co-operation. As he states it in one of his essays: "The function of struggle is to work out new forms of co-operation, and if it does not achieve this but goes on in a blind and aimless way after the time for readjustment has arrived, it becomes mere waste" (ibid., p. 41).

Again, he states: "If we can do this (control competition) we may look for an era of deliberate and assured progress, in which conflict is confined and utilized like fire under a boiler" (ibid., p. 42).

In summarizing briefly Cooley's doctrine of competition and conflict, the following seem to be essential elements of his theory.

1. These processes are inherent and constant in human society.

2. Their forms may vary but the processes remain.

3. They must always be conceived as phases of a larger whole and, therefore, in practice, they must be subordinate to the larger unit, obedient to its rules and regulations. ,

4. Competition and conflict are consistent with general social progress because under changing rules and regulations, the planes of competition rise with general development. Hence the wastes and the cruder forms give way to the more ideal type.

5. The chief functions of these processes are (a) stimuli to effort and (b) a means of social organization, i.e., placing the individual and the group in society.

Before closing, reference should be made to two questions. First, how did Cooley get his knowledge of these processes? Second, what is the value of his discussion?

He does not tell us exactly the source of his knowledge, but we

(24) may venture a few guesses. His essays give evidence of familiarity with the usage made of the competitive process in both economics and biology. We also know that he espoused and practiced the philosopher's method of gaining knowledge by intuitive, random, uncontrolled observations of social events. That is, he used the same method the economists and biologists had used. This method furnishes what some have called "common-sense" knowledge and has whatever virtues and limitations such knowledge usually possesses. Its convincingness rests on the quantity of agreement among casual observers.

As to the question, what is the value of his whole discussion? I fear we have no very adequate objective measure. I suppose the only possible answer to date is the opinion, of the reader of his essays, as to whether one's conception of the social order seems to be clearer and more adequate after the reading. I am aware that such an answer does not amount to much, but I should like to hazard the remark that, so far as I can introspect, Cooley adds something to my conceptual world.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2