Summary of "Cooperation and Competition"

Summary of

Cooperation and Competition

By Morton Deutsch

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Morton Deutsch. "Cooperation and Competition." Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bas Publishers, 2000, pp. 21-40.

Most conflicts involve a mix of cooperative and competitive motives, and so Deutsch develops a theory of cooperation and competition in order to better understand conflict processes and resolutions.

A key element in understanding cooperation/competition is the type of goal interdependence found between the involved parties. Parties goals' may be negatively interdependent--one party's success correlating with the other's failure. Such situations tend to yield competitive relationships with a win-lose orientation. Parties' goals may be positively interdependent--success correlating with success, or failure with failure. These situations tend to yield cooperative relationships where the parties have a win-win orientation.

Cooperative relationships display a number of positive characteristics, including more effective communication and coordination, open and friendly attitudes, a sense of mutuality and a willingness to increase the other's power. Competitive processes tend to yield the inverse, negative effects: obstructed communication, inability to coordinate activities, suspicion and a lack of self-confidence, desire to reduce the other's power and to dominate them.

Deutsch's research "suggests that constructive processes of conflict resolution are similar to cooperative processes of problem solving, and destructive processes of conflict resolution are similar to competitive processes."(p. 27) A key question then is how to foster cooperative relationships. In response Deutsch offers his eponymous Crude Law of Social Relations: "The characteristic processes and effects elicited by a given type of social relationship also tend to elicit that type of social relationship."(p. 29) Friendly, empowering gestures tend to evoke cooperative responses. Suspicious, domineering attitudes tend to provoke competitive responses.

Deutsch identifies some of the implications that this theory of cooperation and competition has for our understanding of conflict, for our practice of conflict management, and for training in conflict resolution. A cooperative orientation on the part of the parties will facilitate constructive resolution of a conflict. Social support is key to creating and maintaining such a cooperative orientation. Constructive resolution is also more likely when the parties can reframe their understanding of their goals and conflict, coming to see their respective goals as positively interdependent and the conflict as a joint problem. This initial reframing, and so constructive resolutions, will be facilitated by the parties' adherence to the norms of cooperation. These norms include honesty, respect, responsiveness, acknowledging responsibility and extending forgiveness, emphasizing the positive and seeking common ground. Constructive conflict resolution rests on the very basic values of reciprocity, human equality, human fallibility, shared community, and nonviolence. These values are widely shared, and can provide common ground between otherwise starkly opposed parties.

In addition to these attitudes and values, effective conflict management requires skills and knowledge. First are the skills required to establish and maintain effective working relationships between the various parties and third parties to a conflict. Second are the skills needed to sustain a cooperative conflict resolution process over the course of the conflict. Third are the skills for developing effective group problem-solving and decision-making processes.

These theoretical insights also have implications for practitioner training. The teaching methods and the learning context itself should embody the cooperative, constructive problem-solving orientation. Practitioners will also need access to a supportive environment, if they are to maintain their own cooperative attitudes in the face of unfavorable or even hostile conflict situations. Finally, Deutsch emphasizes the need for practitioners to reflect upon their own practice and their own frameworks for conflict resolution, so that they may both learn from and contribute to the growing understanding of conflict and its resolution.