Friday, February 25, 2011

A Sociology of Mutual Aid

People are social beings and they have shared needs. Throughout recorded (and likely non-recorded) history, people have associated with and helped others in a non-exchange and non-coercive fashion. This sociability or mutual aid—as Kropotkin called it—is the basis of both human and animal societies. Sustaining a community is good for everyone, not just certain individuals. Even though this is a “natural” human impulse—helping people out for group benefit, not just individual benefit—certain things (namely hierarchy) can get in the way of the social inclination towards mutual aid. Anarchist-sociologists might generally define all manner of hierarchical institutions as leading to this unfortunate end, and Kropotkin (2006) was specific in assigning blame to governments and bureaucracies:

In the guild -- and in medieval times every man belonged to some guild or fraternity [and] two “brothers” were bound to watch in turns a brother who had fallen ill; it would be sufficient now to give one’s neighbour the address of the next paupers’ hospital. In barbarian society, to assist at a fight between two men, arisen from a quarrel, and not to prevent it from taking a fatal issue, meant to be oneself treated as a murderer; but under the theory of the all-protecting State the bystander need not intrude: it is the policeman’s business to interfere, or not. And while in a savage land, among the Hottentots, it would be scandalous to eat without having loudly called out thrice whether there is not somebody wanting to share the food[…] all that a respectable citizen has to do now is to pay the poor tax and to let the starving starve. (p. 188)

Rational choice theorists (e.g. Olson 1965) have countered the sociology of mutual aid by proposing the so-called “free-rider problem”, in which it is contrary to one's individual interests to do something that contributes to the greater good if there is no requirement or immediate incentive to do so. While this purports to demonstrate the reasons for incomplete participation in societal activities and human selfishness, it actually ignores the many instances in which people are selfless. The free-rider problem turns every situation into a calculated, rational-choice scenario, even though most people do not conceive of situations as such. In order to presume that people want to slack-off and take advantage of other people's labor, one must studiously ignore the many instances—in fact the vast majority of time—in which people cooperate and participate in society without hope for reward or status. For example, people regularly join voluntary associations, help strangers by lending their know-how and resources, donate money or time to local charities, and help each other freely in the aftermath of natural and social disasters.

It would not be difficult to promote a sociology of mutual aid within the academy. It is important to allow and encourage researchers to regularly collaborate with each other, especially in respect to problem-solving. Beyond the constraints of professional sociologists, anarchist-sociology would compel those within universities and colleges to work with communities outside the academy, in particular the most disadvantaged and dominated within those communities. This collaborative, outside-facing orientation is often called “service” with the academy—reading others' research, doing peer reviews, helping to provide information and data, and so on. Certain types of research are even more important to communities, sometimes called “participant action research” or projects that lend their services to social movements to better understand their own conditions and potentials (like Howard Ehrlich's Research Group One). To anarchize the discipline of sociology, this type of community “service” would need to be evaluated and prioritized, on par with research published in peer-reviewed journals or classes taught.


Kropotkin, Peter. 2006. Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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