It’s No Game: The Idea of Competition

With Michael Schandorf

The idea of competition is so fundamental to Western culture that we often take it for granted as a natural good. Nearly every aspect of our lives involves competition: we compete in school and for jobs, we compete both socially and at work, we compete in games for fun, and when we’re not competing ourselves we spend much of our time enjoying watching others compete. But our obsession with competition has complications. For example, a world divided into winners and losers is an inherently inequitable world: there will always be more “losers” than “winners”. Competition also has interesting relationships with our need for social cohesion. Attempting to disentangle cooperation from competition, in fact, can undermine both: a lack of either can lead to unproductive stasis, and worse, but a complete integration of cooperation and competition can lead to us-versus-them thinking and even war (which American rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke called “the ultimate disease of cooperation”). This seminar will explore some of the ways that competition has been investigated in recent scholarship, and students will design and produce a research project of their own contributing to that scholarly conversation.