Jonathan Hearn


This study confronts the pervasive role of competition in liberal societies today. But it sees this as a complex historical outcome, which it aims to understand better, by mapping the genealogy of conceptions of competition across the social sciences, and laying groundwork for substantiating the following social evolutionary thesis: Rather than viewing the elaboration of competition as an effect of the rise of modern market economies, I view the rise of the modern economy as one effect of a multi-dimensional transformation of ideas and practices around competition, in which competition becomes not just a fact of life, but an object that can be conceptualised, harnessed, and artificially created to a much greater degree than hitherto. This transformation is evident in the growing theorization of competition in the social and other sciences, from Adam Smith on. This shift is linked to the decline of traditional forms of authority and legitimacy anchored in ideas of personal rule, divine election, and natural hierarchy, and the rise of the idea of the self-ruling demos, around the 18th century. Competition becomes a crucial way of regulating, allocating and adjudicating power relations across society, in the absence of agreed ultimate authority. It also has the effect of ratcheting up performance across an array of institutional practices, enhancing aggregate social power within societies/states, while sharpening competition between societies/states. Modern liberal societies work by artificially cultivating competition across an array of institutional spheres, in the marketplace, in the political order, in knowledge production, etc., in ways that legitimate outcomes without requiring a clear and challengeable locus of authority. Competition, despite being highly artificial, is perceived as being grounded in nature, circumventing problems of authority. This is our current condition. Ultimately this study aims to help us understand, assess and address that condition.

The Research Idea

This research will investigate the pervasive governing role of competition in modern liberal society. First it will survey, compare and theoretically integrate conceptions of competition operating across the social sciences, treating competition as an idea and institution integral to the workings of such societies. It will also compile historical sources for substantiating the following social evolutionary thesis:

The emergence of the modern, self-governing demos in the 18th century, poses a permanent power problem of how to establish authority and legitimacy in societies composed of plural beliefs, interests and opinions. In this context competition comes to the fore, particularly in the realms of economy and politics, but also more broadly across social life (sciences, the arts, education, entertainment, etc.) as a mechanism that can legitimately resolve differences and allocate goods, while remaining relatively agnostic about underlying values. Moreover, from the 18th into the 19th century competition increasingly becomes a reflexive institution, i.e., competition is conceptualised and theorised as something that can be deliberately cultivated and harnessed, to the general advantage of society. This development involves the extensive ritualisation of competition, as a core institution regulating and validating power relations. Finally, this harnessing of reflexive competition yields social evolutionary advantages for societies/states that follow this path, because it accelerates innovation, and channels and diffuses social and political conflict, enabling these relatively flexible and open sociopolitical systems to continue evolving. In short, if social evolution involves competition between social forms, societies that internalise and institutionalise competition, will acquire an advantage.

The Focus

The theorisation of competition is uneven and often not ‘joined up’ in the social sciences. It is most prominently theorised in fields such as economics, international relations, political economy, and game theory, but often in highly specialised and algebraic ways. More fragmentarily, theorising competition figures in some economic sociology, economic history, the historical sociology of geopolitics, and recent theories of the rise of the ‘competitive state’ (see P. G. Cerny’s work). In the fields I am closest to, sociology, anthropology and history, competition unfortunately is not well or systematically theorised, despite these fields claims to comprehensive understandings of human social life.

Important theoretical foundations for this study can be found in the work of Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Joseph Schumpeter, F. A. Hayek, and Istvan Hont. The concept of competition is also basic to attempts to theorise social evolution (e.g. by W. G. Runciman, Gerhard Lenski). But these do not add up to a general theory of competition. They do not confront the evolution of competition as a reflexive social institution as argued above, nor do they adequately specify its role in the development of modern liberal society.

This project aims to address these limitations. We need a conception of competition that can help integrate such diverse fields of social research. Ultimately, this study will lay groundwork for a broader ‘sociology of competition’ in its many forms, and support the development of a constructively critical ‘sociology of liberal society’.


Rather than address a specific social problem, this study theorises a general condition that is connected to many different problems. It initiates an historical investigation into origins, but is ultimately concerned with our present situation, because competition is constitutive of contemporary liberal societies. This is something we must understand better. Competition can contribute to the refinement and improvement of many social practices (economic, political, intellectual, artistic). But it is also involved in dangerous and destructive social processes such as poverty, social inequality and environmental damage. To take one pressing example, the current global economic crisis has been driven by competition: between banks, between nation-states, and between citizens seeking higher consumption. More generally, various public debates about driving up academic performance, the gravitation of parties toward the political centre, the monopoly of news media, and to return to the previous point, the moral hazards posed by ‘banks too big to fail’, all ultimately concern our understandings of competition, what it’s good for, and how it works. We need a more systemic understanding of the role of competition in our lives.

Theory & Evidence Base

My thesis challenges the views that: (1) Competition is an institution particularly characteristic of the modern market-based capitalist economy, and that the presence of competition in other areas of life is primarily an extension of the market ethos, colonising other dimensions of social life. (2) Competition is an aspect of an a-historical human nature that comes into its own with the emergence of the modern market economy, which provides an ideal model for social practice in other walks of life, and has radiated out into them for that reason.

In both these approaches competition tends to be misconceived, either critically or supportively, as primarily linked to and caused by markets/capitalism. Against these my thesis argues that competition is a pervasive aspect of social life, but that its rise to prominence in the modern period is better understood in terms of the systemic shift toward reflexive competition, triggered by the emergence of the modern demos and its ‘power problem’, not narrowly by economic transformation.

This thesis engages two kinds of evidence: (1) It argues that diverse theoretical conceptions of competition across the contemporary social sciences are nonetheless all products of the same socio-historical environment, and can be profitably analysed as such. They share a genealogy of ideas that should be mapped and explored through the comparative study of representative texts. (2) It hypothesises a history of elaboration, institutionalisation and ritualisation of competition in the formation of modern liberal societies. These changes should be reconstructed using historical studies and primary documents.


The primary objective of this project is to produce a critical overview, and where possible synthesis, of the histories of concepts of competition operative in contemporary social sciences. To do this I will compile a sample of influential and representative texts across multiple disciplines (see ‘working bibliography’ for an initial indication). I will work in English, but be sensitive to any suggestions of significant differences in conceptualisation in other languages. I will aim to: (1) characterise how the concept is formulated and used in different fields; (2) discern underlying commonalities and divergences between fields; (3) trace intellectual influences within and across fields; (4) situate processes of conceptualisation and reconceptualisation in their historical context of events and debates. In doing this I will be drawing on my established skills in the comparative analysis of social theory, evident in my last two books on theories of nationalism (2006) and of power (2012) (see cv).

The secondary objective is to lay groundwork for substantiating the social evolutionary account outlined at the beginning. This involves compiling a systematic body of historical studies and primary sources in order to identify crucial case studies for supporting my thesis. For example, the Federalist Papers and the formation of the American political party system (c.1776-1809) provide a prime example of the institutionalisation of competition in the political sphere. I need to identify several such key cases. For this purpose I am asking for support to employ a postgraduate researcher for source searching and bibliographic work under my guidance.


This study and its outputs would be components in a broader and longer-term research agenda concerning the role of competition in the social organisation of power, authority and legitimacy in contemporary liberal society. From this research I will aim to:

  • Write a book and several high profile academic journal articles.
  • Present findings in international seminars and conferences.
  • Organise interdisciplinary workshops and conferences on the theme of competition to promote and develop the research agenda (with some support from the postgraduate researcher employed by this grant).
  • Raise interest in the topic and approach beyond academia, through preparedness to talk on my findings and their implications in the media.

Competition bears heavily on everyone’s daily lives and experiences, in myriad ways. I want to stimulate and contribute to a more reflexive and critical public discussion about this fact.


While I am a political and historical sociologist, I was trained as an anthropologist, and have worked in politics, so I am well situated to promote better exchange of ideas between diverse but overlapping fields. My aim is to offer a new theoretical approach to our understanding of the role of competition in the formation and reproduction of modern, liberal societies. Such theoretical and historical research is necessarily removed from the immediate solution social problems, but it has profound implications for how we conceptualise many contemporary problems in which competition is central. I want to stimulate a new, cross-disciplinary, and critical theory of competition, how it works, its benefits and pathologies, which would equip us better to put it to use.