Concept started in 1919, hit field in late
1950’s to 1990’s and is still present today.
The basic concept is that human social
relationships can be understood as
resolving around the exchange of
resources valued by the participants.
Frazer concluded that social structures
result from the economic needs of
individuals within the system. He studied
aborigines and found men were too poor
to provide a bride price, so they would
trade a sister or other female relative for a
He found what people want and need can
be obtained only through exchanges with
others and that we try to get those things
at the lowest possible causes to ourselves.
Homans was the most influential scholar in
bringing exchange theory to general sociology
(Started late 1950’s)
Adapting principles of behaviorism, he said that
reinforcement and punishment were the driving
forces of human behavior. Sociology should pay
more attention to those dynamics instead of
People are motivated by self-interest.
Seek things and relationships that are
beneficial to ourselves.
Engage in things we enjoy; avoid those we
Individuals are constrained by their choices.
Individuals seek to maximize profit while
Expectations and past experiences assist in
Humans are rational beings.
analytic ability to calculate the ratio of
rewards to costs.
Look at different alternatives and choose the
outcome with the least cost.
Different things are rewarding to different
Social relationships are characterized
All parties get rewards in order to keep
There are expectations or norms of
reciprocity and fairness.
Rewards: All of the things in a person’s
physical, social, and psychological worlds
that are experienced as pleasurable are
Costs: any status, relationship, or feelings
that the individuals does not like is
considered a cost.
Profit: the outcome in terms of rewards
and costs. People strive to obtain the most
rewards with the fewest costs.
Comparison level: the evaluation of our
profit against what we feel we deserve.
Level of alternatives: Individuals compare
their outcomes with alternative
relationships, statuses, etc.
Reciprocity: The social expectation that
people should help those who have helped
them, and that they should not injure those
that helped them.
Sources of Rewards
Rewards and Costs
Value, opinion, and belief
Common Areas of Research
Gender differences in sexual behavior.
Males are more likely to exchange
rewards (money and marriage for sexual
access). Sex is more profitable for males.
Pregnancy is more costly for women.
Males achieve orgasms more consistently
than do females.
Provides a context for predicting and
explaining a great deal of human behavior in
Straightforward methodology clear and easy
to “get a handle on”.
idea that family is just a collection of
individuals is too simplistic.
Humans rarely act in ways that could be
classified as truly rational and objective.
Terms are defined by each other and make it
impossible to scientifically disprove
Does not deal with love and other emotional
elements of family life.
Maximizing profit ignores altruistic behavior.
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