What Is the Social Exchange Theory?
Social exchange theory proposes that social behavior is the result of an exchange process. The purpose of this exchange is to maximize benefits and minimize costs.
According to this theory, people weigh the potential benefits and risks of their social relationships. When the risks outweigh the rewards, they will terminate or abandon the relationship.
Most relationships are made up of a certain amount of give-and-take, but this does not mean that they are always equal. Social exchange suggests that it is the valuing of the benefits and costs of each relationship that determine whether or not we choose to continue a social association.
This theory of social interaction has been used across a variety of fields, including sociology, psychology, and even economics.1
The notion of "social behavior as exchange" was first identified by American sociologist George C. Homans in 1958.2 Homans was a pioneer in behavioral sociology and held several roles of distinction in his career, including serving as president of the American Sociological Association (1963 to 1964) and chairman of Harvard's Department of Sociology (1970 to 1975).
Homans is known for being rather matter-of-fact. For example, although a sociologist himself, if asked, he would respond that "most sociological theorists are idiots."3
Other figures that contributed to the development of Homans' social exchange theory, albeit in different ways, were John Thibaut, Harold Kelley, and Peter Blau. Thibaut and Kelley were both social psychologists and Blau was a sociologist and theorist.
While Homans approached the study of social exchange by starting with groups, then working down to individuals, Thibaut and Kelley started with individuals and worked up to groups. Blau subscribed to neither of these approaches, instead, warning that the aspects of social exchange shouldn't be blinded by psychology.2
Aspects of Social Exchange Theory
To truly understand social exchange theory requires recognizing the aspects on which it is based.
Costs vs. Benefits
Social exchange theory suggests that we essentially take the benefits of a relationship and subtract the costs in order to determine how much it is worth.
- Costs involve things that you see as negatives, such as having to put money, time, and effort into a relationship. For example, if you have a friend who always borrows money from you and does not repay it, this might be seen as a high cost.
- Benefits are things that you get out of the relationship, such as fun, friendship, companionship, and social support. Your friend might be a bit of a freeloader, but bring a lot of fun and excitement to your life. As you are determining the value of the friendship, you might decide that the benefits outweigh the potential costs.
Expectations and Comparison Levels
Cost-benefit analysis plays a major role in the social exchange process, but so do expectations. As people weigh benefits against the costs, they do so by establishing a comparison level that is often influenced by past experiences.
For example, if your previous romantic partner showered you with displays of affection, your comparison level for your next relationship is going to be quite high when it comes to affection. If your next romantic partner tends to be more reserved and less emotional, that person might not measure up to your expectations.
If you have always had poor friendships, your comparison levels at the start of a relationship will be lower than a person who has always had supportive and caring friends.
Expectations can appear within work relationships as well. Research indicates that there is an "expectation of reciprocity" within workplace settings between management and staff.4 If an employee doesn't feel that their effort is being reciprocated from higher-ups, this can affect their work.
Impact of Social Exchange on Relationships
The idea that relationships are based on an exchange can affect how we relate with others.
The Honeymoon Phase
The length of a friendship or romance can play a role in the social exchange process. During the early weeks or months of a relationship, often referred to as the "honeymoon phase," people are more likely to ignore the social exchange balance.
Things that would normally be viewed as high cost are dismissed, ignored, or minimized, while potential benefits are often exaggerated. When this honeymoon period finally comes to an end, there will often be a gradual evaluation of the exchange balance.
At this point, downsides become more apparent and benefits start to be seen more realistically. This recalibration of the exchange balance might lead to the termination of the relationship if the balance is tipped too far toward the negative side.
Evaluating the Alternatives
Another aspect of the social exchange process involves looking at possible alternatives. After analyzing the costs and benefits and contrasting these against your comparison levels, you might start to look at other options.
The relationship might not measure up to your comparison levels, but as you survey the potential alternatives, you might determine it is still better than anything else available. As a result, you might reassess the relationship in terms of what may now be a somewhat lower comparison level.
Equity Determines Health
Since social exchange theory is based on give and take, if this back and forth exchange is not considered equitable, it can affect the health of the relationship.1 The primary giver may feel resentful while the primary receiver may be riddled with guilt.
If this type of exchange happens only once or twice, it likely won't impact the relationship. However, if it becomes a pattern, feelings of resentment and guilt can start to build, creating a point of contention between the two.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is social exchange theory in communication?
The communication theory of social exchange says that people communicate with others with the expectation that their communication will be equally reciprocated.5 For example, if you reach out to someone at a networking event, you might assume that they will respond with the same desire and enthusiasm.
What is an example of social exchange?
One of the most basic examples is being asked on a date. If you feel that the benefits of going on the date outweigh the costs (there are more pros than cons), you will say yes. Conversely, if the costs outweigh the benefits (more cons than pros), you'll likely say no.
How does altruism factor into social exchange theory?
Typically, being altruistic means giving without expecting anything in return, which contradicts the basis of social exchange. However, research indicates that there are two types of altruism: true and reciprocal.6 While a true altruist gives solely to give, a reciprocal gives with some expectation of a return.
How does social exchange theory affect racism?
Some suggest that since social exchange theory was crafted based on the White middle class, it neglects the realities of other race groups.7 This helps form the basis of systemic racism, forcing other races to deal with a system that doesn't take their cultural differences into consideration—and be judged negatively for these differences.