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What Competition Does: An Anthropological Theory

Leo Hopkinson and Teodor Zidaru


Anthropologists, like neoliberal economists, have often assumed that competition (re)orders society in broadly predictable ways. By contrast, we contend that competition always facilitates changes beyond its anticipated outcomes and disciplinary effects. We argue that the outcomes of competition are contingent on the varied and co-existing interpretations of audiences, arbiters, and competitors about the nature of competition, what is worth competing for, and how to go about it. Hence, although it is often instituted with the intention of authoritatively determining value, generating order, or engineering predefined changes, competition inherently affords alternative and unexpected possibilities for sociality. In doing so, competition mediates divergent social orders and modes of relating, rather than instituting one order or another.