Social exchange

Social exchange theory

Social exchange theory is a social psychological and sociological perspective and that explains social change and stability as a process of negotiated exchanges between parties. Social exchange theory posits that all human relationships are formed by the use of a subjective cost-benefit analysis and the comparison of alternatives. For example, when a person perceives the costs of a relationship as outweighing the perceived benefits, then the theory predicts that the person will choose to leave the relationship. The theory has roots in economics, psychology and sociology.

Social exchange theory is tied to rational choice theory and on the other hand to structuralism, and features many of their main assumptions.


The early variations of Social Exchange Theory stem from Alvin Ward Gouldner's (1960) norm of reciprocity, which simply argues that people ought to return benefits given to them in a relationship. Peter M. Blau built on the work done by George C. Homans in Exchange and Power in Social Life (1964) and by Thibault and Kelley in 'The Social Psychology of Groups' (1952).

Later modifications to this theory focus attention on relational development and maintenance rules (see Murstein et al.). Other contributions to social exchange theory, including more detailed examination of motivations and processes by which relationships grow or dissolve, were made by many scholars.

A related theory, Social Penetration Theory, was introduced in the social psychology field in the 1970's by Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor. Social penetration theory is strongly tied to the communication field.

Important works

American sociologist George Caspar Homans is usually credited with the consolidation of the foundations of Social Exchange Theory. Homans’s article entitled “Social Behavior as Exchange” is viewed as the seminal work on this theory. Works by Richard Emerson, Peter M. Blau, and Karen Cook are also important and often reference Homans, as do many other articles and books on the subject.

Another important work is Mark Knapp’s Social Intercourse: From Greeting to Goodbye. In this work, Knapp specifically defines stages of relationship development, including initiation, experimentation and bonding. In addition, Gerald Miller and Mark Steinburg’s book, Between People, added to the theory by noting the differences in the types of information we have about one another: cultural, sociological and psychological (Miller, 2005).


Katherine Miller outlines several major objections to or problems with the social exchange theory as developed from early seminal works:

  • The theory reduces human interaction to a purely rational process that arise from economic theory.
  • The theory favors openness as it was developed in the 1970s when ideas of freedom and openness were preferred, but there may be times when openness isn’t the best option in a relationship.
  • The theory assumes that the ultimate goal of a relationship is intimacy when this might not always be the case.
  • The theory places relationships in a linear structure, when some relationships might skip steps or go backwards in terms of intimacy

It also is strongly seated in an individualist mindset, which may limit its application in and description of collectivist cultures.


Currently, Social Exchange Theory materializes in many different situations with the same idea of the exchange of resources. Homans once summarized the theory by stating:

Social behavior is an exchange of goods, material goods but also non-material ones, such as the symbols of approval or prestige. Persons that give much to others try to get much from them, and persons that get much from others are under pressure to give much to them. This process of influence tends to work out at equilibrium to a balance in the exchanges. For a person in an exchange, what he gives may be a cost to him, just as what he gets may be a reward, and his behavior changes less as the difference of the two, profit, tends to a maximum ("Theories Used in Research").

Other applications that developed include fields such as anthropology, as evidenced in an article by Harumi Befu, which discusses cultural and social ideas and norms such as gift-giving and marriage.

See also


  • Blau, P. M. (1964). Exchange and power in social life. New York: Wiley.
  • Befu, Harumi (1977). Social Exchange. Annual Review of Anthropology, 6, 225-281.
  • Gouldner, A. W. (1960). The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement. American Sociological Review, 25, 161-178.
  • Homans, George C. (1958). Social Behavior as Exchange. American Journal of Sociology, 63, 597-606.
  • Michener, H. Andrew. (2004). Social Psychology. Toronto: Wadsworth.
  • Miller, Katherine. (2005). Communication Theories. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Murstein, B. I., Cerreto, M., & MacDonald, M. G. (1977). “A theory and investigation of the effect of exchange-orientation on marriage and friendship”. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 39, 543-548.

External links

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