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Both of these words seem to mean much the same thing: working together to achieve some goal. I can instinctively feel a difference between them, but I can't easily put it into words.

Can you help me? Do these words come from different etymologies which might explain the difference?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Cooperating means working with someone in the sense of enabling: making them more able to do something (typically by providing information or resources they wouldn't otherwise have).

Collaborating means actually working alongside someone (from Latin laborare: to work) to achieve something.

The confusion comes from the overloaded meaning of "work with": In the "Work with me, people" sense, it means to go along with my idea - it's a passive condoning or suspension of disbelief rather than an active involvement. In the "I'm stuck, can you work with me on this problem?" sense it is a request for active commitment.

So in terms of helping achieve something, the ordering is something like collaboration, then cooperation, then passive indifference, then active obstruction.

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Well, cooperari is "to work together with" which is the same as laborare "to work", if not stronger, so etymology does not justify. I do agree with your ordering as collaboration seems stronger than cooperation; but I would say that it is more due to fact that cooperation can be passive or non-interfering and collaboration is active. I think your definition of cooperating as enabling is a bit arbitrary (for example providing information or resources can be called collaboration, too). –  Unreason Jun 6 '11 at 14:54
    
@Unreason Thank you for the etymology clarification. I really like @tastapod's examples (examples are always good!) so I'm marking this one as accepted. –  Lunivore Jun 6 '11 at 19:14

I think it has to do with ownership of the outcome. If you collaborate with me on a project, we have shared authorship. Cooperation could just mean that you've given me help on something I'm working on and that I'm ultimately responsible for.

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I think you need to emphasize that the difference is slight" if you cooperate with me on the (whole) project, if the project is a cooperation, then responsibility and ownership is not so clearly separated. I agree that you can more easily say that there was cooperation than collaboration, and that the word collaboration implies (slightly) more involvement, but thats about it. –  Unreason Jun 6 '11 at 8:49

If you start with etymologies, you can see that

cooperate

also co-operate, c.1600, from L.L. cooperatus, pp. of cooperari "to work together with" (see cooperation). Related: Cooperated; cooperating.

and

collaborate

1871, back formation from collaborator (1802), from Fr. collaborateur, from L. collaboratus, pp. of collaborare "work with," from com- "with" (see com-) + labore "to work" (see labor). Given a bad sense in World War II. Related: Collaborated; collaborating.

share the meaning coming from "to operate" and "to labor", whose meaning in the "co(m)-" sense is almost indistinguishable.

So, the actual usage is what distinguishes the two words; dictionary entries are almost the same, with the exception from the etymology, that collaborate took a specific meaning during WWII of "cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one's country."

Also, cooperate can be used for when someone is said to simply "be compliant" - without proactive involvement; where collaborate does imply a bit more active involvement ("cooperate" has slightly wider application, which might be directly related to the fact that the word started to be used almost two centuries before "collaborate").

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I agree that the distinction is "active" or "inactive" participation. People can "cooperate" with no action at all. Not true with "collaborate". I took a "Collaboration and Facilitation" class in college. We talked about the difference between "Cooperate" and "Collaborate" and felt it was distinct. For example, when facilitating a meeting where a group is trying to solve problems and make decisions, the goal is collaboration. We want each party to participate and come to a shared-ownership agreement. "Let's make decisions together." When someone only presents a solution, the other parties aren't part of the decision-making process so they are "cooperating". "Do you agree with this decision?"

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Please allow a foreign amateur to propose a slightly different angle to the problem - timing. To me co-operation and co-laboration tastes like:

  • Laboration = 'work', is short term, while
  • Operation = business as usual, is ongoing and long term.

That would lead to cooperation being linked to "partnering" (for common long-term benefits), while collaboration is linked to "agreement" (like a contract for a common short-term benefit).

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It's a cute idea, but that's not what the words mean. You can definitely cooperate for a short time, such as when enemies cooperate to prevent some disaster before going back to war immediately afterwards. In general you can't look at etymologies to decide current meaning. –  curiousdannii 5 hours ago

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