Sociology Index


Social exchange theory is a theory associated with the work of George Homans and Peter Blau and built on the assumption that all human relationships can be understood in terms of an exchange of roughly equivalent values. Social exchange theory is linked to rational choice theory and structuralism, and features many of their main assumptions.

According to social exchange theory all human relationships are formed by the use of a subjective cost-benefit analysis and the comparison of alternatives. George Caspar Homans, Richard Emerson, Peter M. Blau, Peter Ekeh, and Karen Cook are credited with the consolidation of the foundations of Social Exchange Theory.

Again social exchange theory posits that these exchanges are seldom monetary, rather they are frequently intangibles like intimacy, social status, connections.

Homans’s article entitled “Social Behavior as Exchange” is viewed as the most important work on social exchange theory. "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 in exchange theory, 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."

Social Exchange Theory as a Conceptual Framework for Teaching the Sociological Perspective. - O'Brien, Jodi A.; Kollock, Peter - Teaching Sociology, v19 n2 Apr 1991
Abstract: Uses social exchange theory as a conceptual framework for developing the sociological imagination. Explains this counters a trend toward an emphasis on social forces as behavioral determinants and the omission of values in the classroom. States exchange theory emphasizes how individual action collectively changes the social structure. Applies theory to personal relationships, power, institutions, and social dilemmas.

Edward J. Lawler, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and Department of Sociology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
Shane R. Thye, Department of Sociology, University of South Carolina
Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 25: 217-244 (Volume publication date August 1999)
Abstract We analyze and review how research on emotion and emotional phenomena can elaborate and improve contemporary social exchange theory. How these ideas bear on the context, process, and outcome of social exchange theory in networks and groups. The current state of the field, develops testable hypotheses for empirical evidence study, and provides specific suggestions for developing links between theories of emotion and social exchange theory.

Some Amendments to Social Exchange Theory: A Sociological Perspective
Milan Zafirovski, Department of Sociology, University of North Texas
Theory & Science (2003) ISSN: 1527-5558
Abstract: The exchange paradigm entertains high aspirations concerning its place within social psychology and generally sociology and psychology. The rationale for the claim that the social exchange theory paradigm features equivalent generality and relevance for sociological theories. This claim is reexamined in this paper, by putting emphasis on rational choice theory and behaviorist versions of social exchange theory. The examination does not provide prima facie support for the claims of social exchange theory.

Social exchange theory has been introduced to sociology by psychologically and economically minded sociologists, as well as in psychology by social psychologists and partly in cultural anthropology by economic anthropologists. The key tenet of social exchange theory is that human behavior is in essence an exchange, particularly of rewards or resources of primarily material character and secondarily of symbolic attributes.

Reference Bibliography:

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.

Cook, K. S., and R. M. Emerson. (1978). "Power, Equity and Commitment in Exchange Networks." American Sociological Review 43:721-739.

Ekeh, Peter Palmer. (1974). Social exchange theory : the two traditions. London: Heinemann Educational.

Elster, Jon (1998). Emotions And Economic Theory. Journal of Economic Literature 36: 47-74.

Emerson, Richard (1976) Social Exchange Theory. Annual Review of Sociology 2: 335-362.