Rivalry as a social relationship : conceptualizing the micro-foundations of competition


*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


Recent sociological conceptualizations of competition emphasize its discursive or institutional aspects, such as rankings. Although macro- and meso-sociological takes on competition are more or less well established, micro-sociological approaches are less so. What does it mean to be in competition from the perspective of everyday social relationships and interactions? A possible answer is provided by the concept of rivalry. In this paper, I examine the evolution of the concept of rivalry and its development in the sociological tradition in the early to mid-twentieth century, especially in the work of Georg Simmel, Leopold von Wiese, Karl Mannheim, but also, later, Erving Goffman. I argue that a micro-sociological focus on rivalrous social relationships and interactions is able to address at least some of the issues concerning a micro-sociology of competition. Grounded in an examination of this tradition, I discuss how rivalry relates to sociological notions such as social knowledge, action, worth, and evaluation. I distinguish two intersecting logics of competition, namely, the logic of action and the logic of observation. I argue that a typology of rivalries cutting across various domains of social life can be worked out according to this intersection. A micro-sociology of rivalries can make a genuine contribution to the sociological investigation of competition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-110
Number of pages24
Issue number1
Early online date27 Oct 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2023
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author is grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and suggestions. The author also owes a debt of gratitude to Hendrik Vollmer, John Levi Martin, Rita Samiolo, and Leon Wansleben, who on multiple occasions have engaged in reading manuscript drafts, comments, and discussions. The author has greatly benefitted from their critical insights.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • action
  • competition
  • interactions
  • micro-sociology
  • rivalry
  • social knowledge
  • social relationships


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