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Cooperation ( Latin cooperatio , “cooperation”, “participation”) is the purposeful interaction of two or more living beings, persons or systems with common goals . If the reciprocal influence of the actors is not intentional or purposeful, one speaks of interaction . Cooperation and interaction are essential features of human work in social systems .


Cooperation often leads to benefits for everyone involved. But there is also forced cooperation or cooperation that has come about under deception, in which one side derives more or all of the benefits from this cooperation and the other only has costs. Since cooperation plays a central role in the evolution of life in addition to mutation and selection, the emergence and development of higher forms of life can only be described by taking into account their forms of cooperation. For this purpose, the mechanisms of cooperation are also modeled mathematically.

Cooperation is, at least for its duration, an amalgamation in the sense of system building. A new system is (temporarily) formed on a higher organizational level - as a significant characteristic of phylogenesis . Its participants - the cooperation partners - expect behavior that corresponds to the cooperation ( quid pro quo - a balance between benefits and costs). These expectations can be negotiated and agreed as rights and obligations . No friendship, foresight or cognition are necessary for cooperation. The explanation of the creation of cooperation is an important research area in game theory .

Cooperation in nature

In nature, too, cooperation does not only occur in primates . However, it is not intentional in lower life forms. When the colony-forming insects interact - for example in an anthill - each animal has to fulfill certain tasks in order to keep the insect state system alive in its entirety (see Hymenoptera state ). The symbiosis is also a form of the functional cooperation between two organisms. But there is already a kind of cooperation between bacteria and amino acids. Cooperation can also be found on the molecular level: Amino acids combine to form longer chains by splitting off water and form proteins without which life as we know it would not be possible.

In theoretical biology , cooperation is also described as a complex adaptive system .

Cooperation among people

Preliminary stages of cooperation

Conflict is not an “exception”, “irrational” or “emotional” deviant behavior and is not necessarily destructive. Rather, conflict is a fundamental characteristic of every human being together. ( Georg Elwert )


A remarkable human skill is collaborative work on problems or tasks that could not be tackled alone. Even toddlers can develop goals and attention together with others and show the motivation to help others and to share with them. Between nine and twelve months, babies no longer only interact with either a person or an object, but rather connect them in a three-way (triadic) interaction. These early triads form the starting point for actual cooperation. This is defined by scientists from the Department of Comparative and Developmental Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology : In addition to mutual engagement, the participants are linked by a common goal, and the actors coordinate their roles with one another, including the support of the Belongs to others in his role. From a neurophysiological point of view, the mirror neurons play an important role in this process.

Comparison of international societies

A study published in 2010 examined, using data from several countries, why cooperation also takes place in large societies where people don't know each other well, i.e. between strangers. According to the authors, modern society is not based solely on an immanent human psyche; social norms - such as the development of morality - and formal as well as informal institutions have shaped people significantly. Larger and more complex societies could only then emerge and prosper to the extent that such norms and institutions enabled fair cooperation among strangers.

Economic cooperation

The Spanish Mondragón Corporación Cooperativa (MCC) is the world's largest cooperative . Their leitmotif is cooperation. “We are 60,000 people with 60,000 ideas and 60,000 or more problems. Our main task is to find the balance between economic and social requirements ”, the company sociologist of the cooperative is quoted in 2002 and thus addresses the essence of cooperation - to strive to balance the interests of all those involved.

Business administration

In business administration , cooperation is the voluntary collaboration between companies that remain legally independent. However, the companies involved are giving up part of their economic sovereignty . If partners outside the group of actors in the company are involved in the cooperation, one speaks of "intersectoral cooperation". This form of cooperation is playing an increasingly important role , especially in the area of sustainable development . Examples are the sustainability networks that were founded or internationally registered at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

From a regulatory point of view, cooperation between companies is generally to be welcomed. In particular, cooperation in trade - in a variety of forms, horizontal, vertical and conglomerate - means that thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises are secure in their existence and remain competitive. Concrete forms of cooperation in trade can relate to individual or several operational functional areas, to information, purchasing, operational provision of services, sales (horizontal or vertical), administration, financing, market organization and / or structural and technical design. In particular, through the joint use of the tools of modern trade marketing , trading companies are opening up opportunities that would be denied to them as companies operating in isolation (e.g. purchase price advantages, joint advertising, joint training or their own brands ). The inter-company cooperation with its special features also represents a challenge for traditional economic theory; because neither macroeconomics nor microeconomics adequately grasp the characteristics of the cooperation. A meso-economy as the third branch of economic theory can therefore be considered as an adequate composite theory (Schenk) . Insofar as cooperation has negative effects on competition policy, it is restricted by antitrust law , in particular corporate mergers for the purpose of harming third parties or for the purpose of restricting competition (cartels).

The so-called joint ventures , purchasing groups , occasional companies, cooperatives , interest groups and marketing cooperations also belong in this context . One speaks of symbiosis , mutual help , mutualism or collective action .

In the administrative area one speaks of administrative cooperation .

For the New Institutional Economics , cooperation is a hybrid form of market and hierarchy, through which the parties voluntarily submit to contractual rules of exchange on both sides. These limit the options for both sides to act, but lead to a greater mutual benefit than the rules of the market alone.

Basic principles of cooperation

A fundamental distinction can be made between two basic principles of cooperation:

  1. The synergetic cooperation, in which new things are created through the cooperation, which is not possible through the individual parts (e.g. special developments, often also R&D projects) and
  2. the additive cooperation, in which processes or procedures are summarized by the cooperation partners in order to achieve an optimizing effect (for example procurement associations , in the retail sector especially purchasing cooperatives and purchasing associations of non-cooperative legal form).

Cooperation as a productive force

For classical English economics since Adam Smith , cooperation in connection with the division of labor represented an important productive force. Karl Marx speaks in the 11th chapter of the first volume of the capital that the mechanical sum of forces of individual workers is far removed from the "social power potential that is developed when many hands work together simultaneously in the same undivided operation, e.g. B. when it comes to lifting a load, turning a crank or moving a resistance out of the way. "It is not only about increasing the individual productive power through cooperation, but about the creation of a productive power that is an and for itself must be mass force ”and as such is higher than the sum of the individual forces.

For employees, cooperative tasks in a company are not necessarily solved without competition , as Marx already pointed out. Since the assessment of work performance is subject to the management of the company, paradoxically, even the demonstration of teamwork , so-called soft skills or other social competencies can be a (useful and sometimes also necessary) means of dealing with competition.

International cooperation

Adam Smith and David Ricardo applied the model of cooperation to interstate relations by highlighting the usefulness of exchanges between specialized states. In his foreign trade model , which is directed against mercantilist trade protectionism , he describes the benefits of cooperative exchange for states that have higher labor productivity in all sectors.

At the political level, attempts are made to increase the benefits of the partners involved through cooperation. Examples are B. the European Union , the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the various free trade areas .

International cooperation networks or projects emerge in the course of globalization in more and more areas, e.g. B. in university and research cooperation or in international development cooperation .


With the theory of justice, John Rawls defined society as a system of cooperation in order to establish justice in 1971, and incorporated methods from decision-making and game theory into it . It defined principles for the allocation of rights and duties and the correct distribution of social goods. Justice is "the first virtue of social institutions". Such are the constitution, freedom of thought and conscience, markets with competition and private ownership of the means of production, etc. a., so Rawl's theory of justice . In the sense of a philosophical category, the term work essentially includes the cooperation of people in collective work and action systems

Cooperation in game theory (Axelrod)

The mathematician and political scientist Robert Axelrod first described in 1981 - together with William D. Hamilton  - in a specialist article and in 1984 in his book The Evolution of Cooperation that cooperation in the sense of a system formation without consultation and without higher constraints (laws, morals ...) between egoistic elements - players - arises. Axelrod, who used computer models to research game theory and had two people compete against each other in a laboratory model of the iterated prisoner's dilemma , describes the robustness of the rule tit for tat in relation to the penetration of a competing rule, as it was known in the last century were. If a climate of cooperation has arisen and a non-cooperator intrudes in a population of cooperators, the rule can reliably exclude non-cooperators through defection . In addition, the rule is invasively successful. This means that in a world of non-cooperators, cooperators with Tit For Tat can enter and assert themselves if they are given the opportunity to cooperate with one another as freely as possible and to reliably identify and exclude non-cooperators before the interaction, said Axelrod about the interaction of groups in Times of the first use of the computer in research. His research into two-person interactions is recognized under certain conditions.

Axelrod reported extremely anti-cooperative conditions, such as the trench warfare in World War I , in which a group cooperates against a so-called enemy and yet a kind of cooperation between the enemies sometimes developed. In this way, the opposing soldiers temporarily avoided shooting at each other when food came or when the wounded were being transported away. An impressive true story of this kind is about the Christmas peace during the First World War . This type of cooperation ended when more and more artillery was used.

The Tit For Tat rule was hoped to be not just a rule in a prisoner's dilemma, but an essential social concept of reciprocal (mutual) altruism . For two-person interactions, Axelrod and Hamilton's tit-for-tat strategy is successful; However, if there are only a few in a group who do not participate ( defectors or free riders ), cooperation under this strategy will fail in the long term.

Game theory approaches such as the Axelrods are in need of explanation if a) the number of actors is very large, b) their motivations and preferences are not known to one another and are difficult to determine, c) the game is not repeated or there is an endgame , d) the relationship between the benefits and costs of a particular behavior cannot be precisely determined. Under these conditions - in the extreme case under conditions of complete anarchy - the New Institutional Economics may offer better explanatory models that show the possibilities of more or less efficient cooperation strategies.

Cooperation agreements


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  • Kevin Riemer: Trust in the context of sustainable consumption: With special consideration of bisectoral cooperation of WWF Germany. AVM, Munich 2015, ISBN 978-3-86924-624-6
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  • Alexander Schmidt: Co-Opera - Filling collaborations with life. Carl Auer, Heidelberg 2007, ISBN 978-3-89670-384-2 .
  • Christoph Spehr : Same as others. A foundation for free cooperation. Karl-Dietz-Verlag, Berlin 2003, ISBN 3-320-02039-0 .
  • Michael Tomasello : Why we cooperate. Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2010, ISBN 978-3-518-26036-4 , (Original title: Why We Cooperate. ).
  • Peter Kropotkin: Mutual Aid . Ed .: Henning Ritter . Nevertheless publishing house , Grafenau 2005, ISBN 3-922209-32-7 (with an afterword by Henning Ritter).
  • Peter Kropotkin: Mutual help in the animal and human world . Nevertheless publishing house, Grafenau 2011, ISBN 978-3-86569-905-3 (with a foreword by Franz M. Wuketits).

Web links

Wiktionary: Cooperation  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b Martin A. Nowak: Five rules for the evolution of cooperation . In: Science . tape 314 , no. 5805 , December 8, 2006, p. 1560–1563 , doi : 10.1126 / science.1133755 , PMC 3279745 (free full text).
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  3. Dirk Helbing, Sergi Lozano: Phase transitions to cooperation in the prisoner's dilemma . In: Physical Review . tape 81 , no. 5 , May 10, 2010, p. 057102-1-057102-4 , doi : 10.1103 / PhysRevE.81.057102 ( [PDF]).
  4. Tibor Antal, Hisashi Ohtsuki, John Wakeley, Peter D. Taylor and Martin Nowak: Evolution of cooperation by phenotypic similarity . In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . tape 106 , no. 21 , May 26, 2009, p. 8597-8600 , doi : 10.1073 / pnas.0902528106 ( [PDF]).
  5. Christoph Hauert & Michael Doebeli: Spatial structure often inhibits the evolution of cooperation in the snowdrift game . In: Nature . tape 428 , April 8, 2004, p. 643–646 , doi : 10.1038 / nature02360 .
  6. Michael Doebeli, Christoph Hauert, Timothy Killingback: The Evolutionary Origin of Cooperators and Defectors . In: Science . tape 306 , no. 5697 , October 29, 2004, p. 895–862 , doi : 10.1126 / science.1101456 ( [PDF]).
  7. ^ A b Robert Axelrod: The evolution of cooperation . 7th edition. Oldenbourg-Verlag, Munich 2009 (English, a [PDF; 3.8 MB ; accessed on September 24, 2015] Original title: The Evolution of Cooperation . Basic Books, New York 1984. Translated by Werner Raub and Thomas Voss, original full text). a ( Memento of the original from September 25, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice.  @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  8. ^ A b c Robert Axelrod : The Evolution of Strategies in the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma . In: Lawrence Davis (Ed.): Genetic Algorithms and Simulated Annealing . Morgan Kaufman / Pitman, London / Los Altos, CA 1987, p. 32–41 (English, [PDF; 50 kB ; accessed on September 24, 2015]).
  9. Joachim Bauer: Principle of humanity - Why we cooperate by nature. Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg 2006, ISBN 3-455-50017-X .
  10. Michael Tomasello, Katharina Hamann: Cooperation with small children. Research Report 2012 - Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Retrieved November 28, 2014.
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  13. ^ Rudolf Stumberger : The utopian company. Focus on collaboration. In: Issue 1. brand eins, 2002, accessed on September 23, 2015 .
  14. Christa Etter: Post-foundation dynamics of newly founded companies in Berlin in an interregional comparison . Interaction effects between companies, business environment, cooperation relationships and business success. FU Berlin 2003, Chapter 3, p. 42–44 ( [PDF; 232 kB ; accessed on September 19, 2015] Similarities and differences between the different concepts of cooperation).
  15. Hans-Otto Schenk: Market economics of trade. Wiesbaden 1991, ISBN 3-409-13379-8 , p. 363 ff.
  16. ^ Karl Marx: The capital. 11. Chapter
  17. ^ David Ricardo: On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. London 1817, 7th chapter.
  18. John Rawls : A Theory of Justice. 1971, revised version 1975. (German: A theory of justice. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1975, ISBN 3-518-27871-1 , p. 19.)
  19. ^ Robert Axelrod , William D. Hamilton : The evolution of cooperation. In: Science . Volume 211, No. 4489, 1981, pp. 1390-1396, doi: 10.1126 / science.7466396 .
  20. Ernst Fehr: Human behavior: Don't lose your reputation . In: Nature . No. 432 , November 25, 2004, p. 449–450 , doi : 10.1038 / 432449a (and much more edu [PDF; 345 kB ; accessed on September 15, 2015]).
  21. ^ Douglass C. North: Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge University Press 1990, ISBN 978-0-521-39734-6 , pp. 12 f.