Reframing the history of the competition concept: Neoliberalism, meritocracy, modernity

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This paper reframes the concept of competition, arguing that recent tendencies to frame it in the context of neoliberalism are too narrow to grasp its full significance. We need to see how it operates well beyond the capitalist economy, as a social and not just theoretical concept. I contextualise it in a deeper history, going back to the eighteenth century, beginning with an empirical examination of the development of the concept in English language dictionaries and encyclopaedias, using a method of ‘conceptual history’. I show how the concept, its grammatical forms, and characteristic associations have evolved substantially since the eighteenth century. This finding is placed in a broader explanatory context, arguing that it is the combined rise of a set of core institutions of modernity, not just capitalism but also democracy, adversarial law, science, and civil society, that deeply embeds competition in the modern world. The decline of aristocratic and religious authority, and the national subordination of martial power, opened the way for more ‘liberal’ forms of society in which authority is routinely contested through competition, across economy, politics, culture and beliefs. Appreciating this is a necessary step towards truly grappling with the effects of competition on modern life.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Historical Sociology
Issue number2
Early online date20 May 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 20 May 2021


  • competition
  • conceptual history
  • Begriffsgeschichte
  • neoliberalism
  • meritocracy
  • modernity
  • capitalism
  • democracy
  • social structure
  • social change


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