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Rafael Wittek: what is the key to successful, sustainable cooperation?

What is the key to successful, sustainable cooperation?

Cooperation, or the joint production of mutual benefits, is essential at any level of society, and comes in many forms. Marriages require it; colleagues will not get anywhere without it. Cooperation makes neighbourhoods become better places, and cooperative arrangements between societal stakeholders in a country can make a huge difference in ensuring a high level of social welfare.

Rafael Wittek

Many forms of cooperation are designed to be short-term transactions, and there is no need for the interactions to persist after the joint objective has been realized. However, an essential part of cooperative arrangements is meant to be durable, and much of a society’s welfare depends on its ability to sustain them. The problem is that many cooperative arrangements, despite being intentionally designed to last, nevertheless break down. Finding out why cooperation is sustainable in some settings, but deteriorates and breaks down in others, poses a major challenge for social scientists and policymakers. Marriages end in divorce, friendly neighbours slide into legal battles about their boundaries, collective labour agreements end in protracted clashes between employers and unions, and workgroups dissolve before the project objectives are realized. Finding out what keeps cooperation going is the new frontier of the science of cooperation.

So why do such intentionally stable cooperative arrangements break down? There is both an obvious and a less obvious answer to this question. The first, more obvious one, is that the external circumstances that helped the cooperative relation to emerge may have changed. Such ‘external’ shocks are a fact of life, and happen at all levels. Business or other partners may discover more attractive alternatives and decide to enter a new relationship at the expense of a long-standing ongoing cooperation. Sudden unemployment may force us to look for cheaper housing, with negative repercussions on the ties that bind us to our current neighbourhood.

However, cooperation may also break down in situations in which the external circumstances that initiated it have not changed. This is the second, less obvious, reason for a deterioration in cooperation. In fact, the conditions that initiate cooperation are often not sufficient to maintain it. The reason for this is that all cooperative arrangements are inherently brittle. Cooperation is founded on everybody’s willingness to live by the underlying rules and norms – including in situations in which there is no one to monitor and sanction us if we do not ‘behave’. Such situations abound. Hence, most cooperation partners constantly need to find the strength not to give in to temptations to breach a promise; not to contribute less than agreed; or not to interpret an agreement in their own favour just because no one is watching. Cooperative arrangements need continuous maintenance, no matter what the level and the parties involved. In the long-term research programme on Sustainable Cooperation (SCOOP), scientists, policymakers and practitioners have just started their quest to better understand what keeps cooperation going

R.P.M. (Rafael) Wittek, Prof
First name
Full Professor
Sociology of organizations - sociology of work - sociological theory - economic sociology - sociology of aging

Sustainable cooperation - governance - organizational control - organizational change - administrative reform - institutional change - decentralization - social network dynamics - humanitarian action
Last modified:09 September 2019 1.42 p.m.
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