Book Review: Beyond the Culture of Contest

As a telecommuting programmer and father of a two year old, I am not the most social of creatures. But I do have several family members who would likely describe themselves as social activists of one stripe or another. I recall one particular conversation on a late night a few years ago with a cousin of mine where I asked whether protest had ever achieved any real change. I am very sorry to say that I do not remember her answer, but by that time I had been exposed to ideas that suggested that there were more constructive ways of effecting change.

In that light, a few months ago I finished reading Beyond the Culture of Contest, by Michael Karlberg. I thought I’d write about it, as I feel it should be on the reading list of anyone interested in sociology or social change.


After a lengthy discussion on what he means by the word “culture” in his title, Karlberg starts his thesis on a discussion on the dual nature of the word “power.” In common, everyday language, we use the word power to mean two very different things, depending on whether we are using it in an adversarial or cooperative context. In adversarial contexts, power denotes coercion, or between equals, a stalemate or at best a compromise. In cooperative contexts, power indicates constructive capacity – the power to accomplish a mutual goal.

Karlberg takes these two notions of power (which he shorthands as “power over” and “power to”) and takes them into the rest of his book to show how the currently dominant cultural institutions reinforce the “power over” mindset. He cites three broad areas of society where the culture of contest is assumed the natural state of things: in politics, the economy, and in legal disputes.

The Hegemony of Contest

For most people in the West, the idea that politics, the economy and legal disputes are competitions needs no explanation. From birth we are surrounded, unawares, by the language and practices of adversarialism. Karlberg demonstrates further how this “normalization” of competition is reinforced by commercial mass media (the “spectacle of conflict”), academia (grades as score-keeping, scholarly debate), and social protest (litigation, factionalization).

He points out that even in where we expect argumentation to produce useful results, as in scholarly discourse, that there are perfectly good ideas and suggestions that go unproposed simply because those who might bring them to the table are not comfortable with the character of the discussion. Rigor is still desired of course, but there are certainly ways to think critically about ideas without the adversarialism. And rather than dismiss these people as wimps, it is more useful to focus on the fact that we as a group are not benefiting from their potential contributions.

Karlberg does admit that there are times when the exigencies of a situation merit conflict in order to prevent disasters large or small. Yet he points out that such times are rare, and the need for adversarialism should not be seen as desirable; such actions can’t address much beyond the immediate crisis, and the residues of conflict can be corrosive to achieving longer-term goals.


But the book really starts to get interesting when Karlberg starts introducing us to living, working examples of the principles he is promoting in the book. It’s a glimmer of a way of interacting with each other as we might choose, rather than settle for what we’ve been told is the normal, natural and inescapable culture of self-interest and score-keeping.

The mutualistic practices he introduces us to come from a variety of sources: from cultural movements such as Feminism and Environmentalism, to general techniques such as Alternative Dispute Resolution. And he takes us on a comprehensive tour of the social implications of widespread mutialism as expressed in the Baha’i Faith.

The revelation of these practices as existent and successful was both stunning and inspiring for me. I’m conflict-averse at the best of times, but I had generally taken for granted that we lived in a rough and tumble world, even if I trusted that individuals are intrinsically good. That it is possible to choose another way, and a way that is still potent for solving problems and effecting change, gives me hope that I am not irreparably maladapted for making my way through life.

That’s not to say that mutualistic constructs are easy. Yet often the challenge lies in our development as individuals rather than struggle against external forces. Take, for example, the Baha’i practice of Consultation (collective decision making). It reads like a lifelong task in patience, selflessness, open-mindedness and trust. In brief:

  • It seeks to build consensus in a manner that unifies constituencies rather than divides them
  • It views diversity as an asset for decision-making; opinion and knowledge are widely solicited
  • Upon sharing an idea, an individual has ceded it to the group; neither the flaws nor the merits of the idea reflect on the individual, and the individual must detach themselves from the ideas they offer.
  • As an ongoing goal, participants try to moderate the tone and character of the discussion, in order to respectfully seek the best solution, not as a method to superficially paper over conflict.
  • If a consensus cannot be found, a majority vote will be accepted; it is then expected that every individual will attempt to enact the decision in a unified manner, regardless of their vote. In this way the implementation of the decision may be evaluated solely on its own merits, without doubt as to whether individuals are passively or actively sabotaging it.
  • By extension, ideas can be readily reconsidered if in their implementation they are revealed to be the wrong one.

I find it important that the challenges presented by such a model can develop qualities in each of us that a great many people consider unalloyed virtues. Compare them with a few of the adjectives we often hear associated with being effective in the province of competition: aggressive, cut-throat, ruthless, and dominating; qualities that are more likely to win you sycophants and enemies than friends.

Karlberg is careful to rigorously define the vocabulary with which he describes the subject of cultural interactions, and includes generous endnotes and a lengthy bibliography. In his quest for accuracy, though, Karlberg hews to a style that is dense, precise, and methodical. It is not light reading. I found I absorbed his ideas best piecemeal, leaving myself time to ponder their implications a few pages at a time.

Ultimately his thesis does not discard the notion of competition wholesale. A quick etymology search on the word uncovers the latin origin -– “Strive together.” Competition can be useful when its venue is limited, and done in the proper spirit. What Karlberg proposes is that adversarialism is not our natural social state, but rather only seems so because our current cultural institutions have accreted over time to reinforce conflict rather than mutualism. We have lost much of the togetherness, and are left with only the striving. He asks us for a certain mindfulness, so that we might maintain an awareness of when we find ourselves slipping into the memes of conflict, and what we might do to bring us closer to a world of mutualism.

Personally, I am starting to wonder if our habits of adversarialism developed at a time when the world was far less crowded. It was both possible and easier to separate yourself, spatially or socially, from those you did not agree with rather than work to live with each other in harmony. Now, there is no “going away” – you just wind up in someone else’s back yard. What would the world be like if we all started treating everyone we met as someone we would have to live with for the rest of our life?

I do not think, given the entrenchment of our current cultural institutions, that we can expect a shift to begin with any sort of top-down change. Indeed, such mandates may be fundamentally antithetical to mutualism, which governs by consensus rather than by edict. This is grass-roots stuff. It requires individuals to take it to heart – bring it into their families, their peer groups at work and in their community. Living in this way is a learning process, and you can’t learn by proclamation, only by practice.