Sustainable Coooperation

Society’s core institutions – families, communities, organizations, and states – all require cooperation. Research on cooperation is thus of vital importance for virtually all aspects of society. All core institutions are quite frequently confronted with cooperation failures, with gradual or abrupt decline in the ability to jointly achieve desired results. Yet social scientists and policymakers still seem ill-equipped to understand the conditions under which cooperative arrangements will either endure or go into decline. One of the top research puzzles of our time, viz. “How does cooperative behavior develop?” (Science 2005) needs to be taken to the next level of ‘‘What keeps cooperation going, what makes it sustainable over time?” 

Research on cooperation has made much progress in successfully explaining what gets cooperation going, and our behavioural models of the motives, cognitions, and emotions that make people cooperate have greatly improved. Much is already known as well on the influence of social networks, and the normative and institutional foundations.

The cumulative evidence provided by recent research stresses the exceptional ability and innate tendency of human beings to cooperate. Some scientists even call humanity “a cooperative species” or a set of “super-cooperators”. However, simply replacing the old strong assumption of a self-interested “homo economicus” with an equally strong opposite conception of a cooperative “homo reciprocans” does not solve the theoretical and empirical problems often encountered in research on cooperation: it only shifts the burden of proof. Two critical questions remain. (1) Why do we often observe far less cooperation in practice than recent research would lead one to expect? And, even more pressing: (2) Why do some cooperative arrangements remain impressively stable, and thrive, whereas others fall subsequently into - sometimes dramatic - decline? Indeed, in certain settings, cooperation creates “virtuous cycles”, in which the joint production of collective goods constantly reinforces participants’ willingness to contribute. In other instances the initial cooperative arrangements may end in self-defeating vicious cycles of mutual distrust, cheating, and indifference towards the collective good. Taken together, these two questions constitute the puzzle of sustainable cooperation, which thus far research and policymaking has neglected and failed to solve. Together with my colleagues from the SCOOP Consortium, I work towards solving some of these problems.


Labun, A., R. Wittek & C. Steglich (2016). The Co-evolution of Power and Friendship Networks in an Organisation. Network Science 4 (3), 364-384.

Van Veen, K. and R. Wittek (2016). Relational Signalling and the Rise of CEO Compensation. Long Range Planning 49 (4), 477-490.

Sondang Silitonga, M., L. Heyse, R. Wittek (2015). Institutional Change and Corruption of Public Leaders: A Social Capital Perspective on Indonesia. Pp. 233-258 in Decentralization and Governance in Indonesia, edited by R. Holzhacker, R. Wittek, and J. Woltjer. New York: Springer.

Wittek, R. and R. Bekkers (2015). The Sociology of Altruism and Prosocial Behaviour. Pp. 579-583 in International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences (2nd Edition), edited by James Wright. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Wotschack, P., A. Glebbeek & R. Wittek (2014). Strong boundary control, weak boundary control and tailor-made solutions: the role of household governance structures in work–family time allocation and mismatch. Community, Work & Family 17(4), 436-455.

Djundeva, M., M. Mills, R. Wittek, & N. Steverink (2014). Receiving instrumental support in late parent–child relationships and parental depression. Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 70(6), 981-994.

Ellwardt, L., C. Steglich, and R. Wittek (2012). The Co-evolution of Gossip and Friendship in Workplace Social Networks. Social Networks 34 (4): 632-633.

Pauksztat, B. & R. Wittek (2011). Who Speaks Up to Whom? A Relational Approach to Employee Voice. Social Networks 33 (4), 303–316.

Wittek, R. and J. Armstrong. (2009). Culture, Cognition, and Conflict. The Case of the Bakiga-Banyoro Conflict in Uganda. Recht der Werkelijkheid (special issue on Legal Anthropology from the Low Countries, edited by A. Boecker, W. van Rossum and H. Weyers), 101-124.

Wittek, R., T. van der Zee, P. Mühlau (2008). Client Acceptance Decisions of Dutch Auditing Partners. Journal of Management and Governance 12, 93-115.

Thau, S., K. Aquino, R. Wittek (2007). An Extension of Uncertainty Management Theory to the Self: The Relationship between Justice, Social Comparison Orientation, and Antisocial Work Behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology 92 (1), 250-258.

Wotschack, P. and R. Wittek (2007). Negotiating Work and Household Demands. Effects of Conflict Management Strategies in Dutch Households on the Labor Supply of Male and Female Employees. Pp. 105-123 in Labour Market Transitions and Time Adjustment over the Life Course, edited by D. Anxo, C. Erhel, and J. Schippers. Amsterdam: Dutch University Press. 

Fetchenhauer, D. and R. Wittek (2006). Solidarity in the Absence of External Sanctions: A Cross-Cultural Study of Educational Goals and Fair-Share Behavior. Pp. 191-206 in Solidarity and Prosocial Behavior. An Integration of Sociological and Psychological Perspectives, edited by D. Fetchenhauer, A. Flache, A. Buunk, S. Lindenberg. New York: Springer.

Wittek, R., M. van Duijn, and T. Snijders (2003). Frame Decay, Informal Power, and the Escalation of Social Control in a Management Team: A Relational Signaling Perspective. Research in the Sociology of Organizations 20, 355-380.

Wittek, R. (2003). Violations of Trust Norms and Strategies of Informal Social Control in Organizations. Pp. 168-195 in The Trust Process Within Organizations: Empirical Studies of the Determinants and Process of Trust Development, edited by B. Nooteboom and F.E. Six. Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar. 

Wittek, R., and A. Flache (2001). Solidarität am Arbeitsplatz. In: Solidarität, Konflikt, Umwelt und Dritte Welt, H. Bierhoff and D. Fetchenhauer (eds). Opladen: Leske und Budrich, p. 149-182. 

Wittek, R., H. Hangyi, M. van Duijn, and C. Carroll (2000). Social Capital, Third Party Gossip, and Cooperation in Organizations. In: The Management of Durable Relations. J. Weesie and W. Raub (eds). Amsterdam: ThelaThesis.

Wittek, R. (1990). Resource Competition and Violent Conflict: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Socioecological Approach. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 115, 23-44.