Cooperation is fundamental to building organizations and communities. The most common motivator for cooperation is the achievement of shared economic, material, or social goals (Kwon and Lane 2016; Fisher and Nading 2021). In practice, the most “formal” form of cooperation is via cooperatives. They form to pursue social, cultural, educational, or even utopian aims. When looking at the ways cooperatives engage in cooperation, there are three aspects that unite them: 1) cooperation as an action, where cooperation means to (attempt) to build a cooperative community or organization around a shared identity by resisting and adapting “global logics” to local culture and context; 2) cooperation as building (formal and “legible”) cooperative organizations for economic empowerment; and 3) cooperation as developing consciousness for creating more fair, ideal, and utopian communities.
In conducting an overview of cooperation, I selected sixteen ethnographic and anthropological cases of cooperation across the world. They range from indigenous and rural communities in the Americas (Faas 2017a; Faas 2017b) to urban middle class in South Korea (Lee and Lee 2021). Most studies are from the 2000s. However, some examples are from the 1980s, like the cooperatives of the Western Isles of Scotland (Prattis 1987) or the garden cooperatives in Czechia started during the country’s socialist era (1960–1990) (Fatková and Watson 2014).
First, people cooperate for reasons beyond profit-making. They incorporate values important to the culture of their members. These include the philosophy of Ubuntu as with cooperatives from the Black Women’s Economic Empowerment (BWEE) movement in South Africa (Greene 2010: 195), fostering self-reliance through cultivating the life of the Black farmer in Mississippi (Franzen 2020), perpetuating traditional forms of relationality such as ayni and minga (cooperation and mutual aid) in Andean South America (Faas 2017a; Faas 2017b), connection with rural life and countryside in Czechia (Fatková 2014), preserving traditional craft production through state-sponsored cooperatives (Nicholas 2018), or making traditional Asante norms of cooperation and hierarchy among Ghana’s Kumasi Market traders legible to Eurocentric frameworks of conducting business through setting up formal cooperatives (Clark 2010).
The parallels drawn between the Andean communities in Ecuador, the African Americans in Mississippi, and the black women in South Africa are that they all lived through forms of colonization and domination. Rather than framing the construction of alternatives as “resistance,” it is a “productive resistance” (Franzen 2020: 281). It tries to preserve some aspects of traditional cooperation and cultural identities, while adapting to the dominant social, economic, and market logics imposed by neoliberal institutions and norms.
Second, local context and conditions influence the type of cooperation. The Daughters of the Sea cooperative in rural Mexico (Peterson 2014), the Barra Community Cooperative in the Western Isles of Scotland (Prattis 1987), or the Moshi Coffee Farmer Cooperatives in Tanzania (Mhando 2014) are examples where residents of poor, rural, and remote areas pooled their limited resources to advance their economic well-being.
The state or a non-governmental organization (NGO) started most of these cooperatives with top-down initiatives, interventions, and support. They were not grassroots efforts. The exception was the Communal Childcare Cooperative where middle-class Koreans volunteered to found a cooperative with educational and ideological rather than economic empowerment aims (Lee and Lee 2021: 13).
Learning to cooperate was not voluntary. The state and the market conditioned it. The state sets expectations and standards around “corporate efficiency” (Lewis 2016: 94). Gabriela Vargas-Cetina argues that the capitalist pressures of organizing around efficiency and profitability challenge and move cooperatives away from their “notion of utopian community” (Vargas-Cetina as cited by Lewis 2016: 95) to corporate structure and management.
The state and the market require forming cooperatives, but organizational building is a long and arduous process. Despite lack of formal education and business skills, the women from the Daugthers of the Sea in rural Mexico leveraged the cooperative’s organizational structure, their gender, family ties, community networks, and local knowledge (of the sea) to grow from a small local food business to an internationally recognized women’s cooperative that manages several marine businesses (Peterson 2014: 148-163). In contrast, the cooperative members of Siyalinga and Masibambane in South Africa failed to reconcile the Ubuntu philosophy of community, cooperation, and humanness with neoliberal logics emphasizing individuality, competition, and profitability (Greene 2010: 200-212). For example, they mixed organizational with personal finances leading to internal conflict and organizational demise (Greene 2010: 209-211).
Third, cooperation aims to achieve a utopian ideal. In Argentina, they strive to build a social economy around an “idealized figure of the worker” through recovering bankrupt factories (Faulk 2016), in Korea it is balancing Western with traditional Korean philosophies in educating children (Lee and Lee 2021), in Spain it is perpetuating the image of an “economic democracy” ideal (Kasmir 1996) or in Kenya there is cooperation to manage privately owned pastures for collective grazing (Lesorogol 2010).
It is not all utopias. Given the diverse interests, skills, resources, visions, and levels of commitment that members bring to cooperatives and forms of cooperation, conflicts are an inevitable part of their existence. Tensions can be benign as with the Czech garden cooperatives, where issues arise in who belongs to the cooperatives (Fatková 2014: 42) or serious, as with the Siyalinga cooperative where the material well-being and members’ savings were on the line (Greene 2010: 196). Without conflict, there is no progress. Cooperation survives conflicts when the group has internal resources to weather external shocks, and the groups are homogenous in their shared identity, values, and commitment to cooperation. Tragedy of cooperation arises when members of the group seek to escape or take advantage of the shared resources for personal benefit (Greene 2010: 201-206).
Cooperation is context-based. It goes beyond the functional and mainstream views embedded in a set of principles, such as the Rochdale Principles of cooperation (Fisher and Nading 2021). The collective efforts of cooperation need not lead to cooperatives, rather it is a process of “unfolding, unruly, unpredictable, and oftentimes un-manageable process of commoning and co-becoming” (Fisher and Nading 2021: 17). The defined success of cooperation and cooperatives depends on the ability of members to collaborate and put shared over individual interests (Greene 2010). Capitalism and neoliberal economic and cultural logics place pressures on various forms of cooperation to professionalize and be efficient. Cooperatives or informal ways of cooperation need to be legible or recognized by the dominant institutions as organizations or legal entities to achieve their social or economic goals effectively within a neoliberal framework. The conflicts that arise from balancing the ideal goals with neoliberalism can subvert even the most well-intentioned groups or co-operators.
Clark, Gracia. 2010.Cooperation, Equality, and Difference. Loyalty and Accountability in Ghana’s Marketplace Commodity Groups. In Cooperation in Economy and Society Pp. 129–147. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Faas, A. J. 2017a. Reciprocity and Vernacular Statecraft: Andean Cooperation in Post-disaster Highland Ecuador. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 22(3): 495–513.
2017b. Introduction: Twenty-First Century Dynamics of Cooperation and Reciprocity in the Andes. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 22(3): 409–418.
Fatková, Gabriela, and Peter Watson. 2014. Live the Garden: Post-Socialist Transformation of Garden Cooperatives in the Czech Republic.
Faulk, Karen Ann. 2016. “Recuperar el trabajo”: Utopia and the Work of Recovery in an Argentine Cooperativist Movement. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 21(2): 294–316.
Fisher, Joshua B, and Alex M Nading. 2021. The End of the Cooperative Model (as We Knew It): Commoning and Co-Becoming in Two Nicaraguan Cooperatives. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 4(4): 1232–1254.
Franzen, Sarah. 2020. The Value of Farming: Multifaceted Wealth Generation through Cooperative Development. Economic Anthropology 7(2): 279–292.
Greene, Katrina T. 2010. Is It Possible to Overcome the “Tragedy of Ubuntu”? The Journey of a Black Women’s Economic Empowerment Group in South Africa. In Cooperation in Economy and Society Pp. 195–214. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Kasmir, Sharryn. 1996. The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Lee, Boomi, and Soo-Jung Lee. 2021. Good Things from Both Worlds and the Dilemmas They Pose: The Case of a Childcare Cooperative Movement in South Korea. Ethos 49(1): 11–30.
Lesorogol, Carolyn. 2010. Creating Common Grazing Rights on Private Parcels: How New Social Norms Produce Incentives for Cooperative Land Management. In Cooperation in Economy and Society Pp. 239–258. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Lewis, Jovan Scott. 2016. Putting Able Hands to Work: Skill, Organization, and the Cooperative Market in Jamaica. Anthropology of Work Review 37(2): 91–100.
Mhando, David Gongwe. 2014. Conflict as Motivation for Change: The Case of Coffee Farmers’ Cooperatives in Moshi, Tanzania. African Studies Monograph(Suppl. 50): 137–154.
Nicholas, Claire. 2018. Rationalizing Cooperation: Moroccan Craft, Politics, and Education. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 49(2): 210–223.
Peterson, Nicole D. 2014. “We Are Daughters of the Sea”: Strategies, Gender, and Empowerment in a Mexican Women’s Cooperative. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 19(1): 148–167.
Prattis, J. Iain. 1987. Organizational Change and Adaptation: Community Cooperatives and Capital Control in the Western Isles of Scotland. American Anthropologist 89(3): 567–580.
Stefan Ivanovski is a Ph.D. student at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University studying the democratization of ownership and management of companies that are shaping the future of work, especially those that rely on remote work and cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence. He is also a lead contributor for the Lifestyle Democracy blog, where he writes on the topics of technology, democracy, and society.