The Social Exchange Theory in Interpersonal Relationships

Topics: Sociology, Social exchange theory, Exchange Pages: 5 (1562 words) Published: November 30, 2008
Interpersonal communication is a form of communication that takes place between two people who have an established relationship. There are many different levels of interpersonal communication and theories of interpersonal communication. One of the theories that is used to explain changes in social behavior is the social exchange theory. The social exchange theory proposes that social behavior is the result of an exchange process between two people. The basic concept of the exchange theory is that it emphasizes the cost between the interactions of people and their social environment. Exchange theory attempts to explain human behavior under the content of a balanced-equal ratio within the distribution of giving and receiving. "At the heart of exchange is the notion of profits. Profits can consist of benefits (or rewards) with less costs (or punishments). Rewards may be material (economic) or symbolic (such as attention, advice, or status). They are generally things defined as something that either has value or bring satisfaction and gratification to the individual." (Canda, Chatterjee, & Robbins, 1998, p. 337). Some rewards can be granted based on either a person's acquirements or attributes. For example, a college student can achieve good grades due to their ability to possess excellent study habits and writing skills (acquirements), or the student can possibly receive good grades based primarily on their qualities such as race, gender, or economical status (attributes.). People receiving merits depending on their attributes may have the tendency to show an uneven or non-reciprocal exchange.

An exchange may include exchange of services, love, information, money and symbols of approval. The purpose of this exchange is to maximize benefits of one person and minimize costs of one person. People that give to others try to get from them, and people that get from others are under pressure to give to them. According to this theory, people weigh the potential benefits and risks of the relationship. When the risks outweigh the rewards, the person will terminate or abandon that relationship. There have been a lot of arguments about this theory because it places the relationships in a liner structure. This would mean that relationships are always moving forward and they can not regress. The theory is also seated in an individualist mindset and this may limit its application in relationships. As Knapp and Vangelisti (2005) explain we psychologically reinterpret one's position so it no longer seems under benefited. The theory also reduces human interaction to a purely rational economic process.

A number of scholars have dissected the theory, concept and process of social exchange. The scholar that devoted more time to the social exchange theory was Peter Blau in his book Exchange and Power in Social Life (1964). Blau conceives of social exchange as a "social process of central significance" in social life. This process is derived from simpler processes. Social exchange involves the voluntary actions of individuals, which are motivated by the returns they are expected to bring and in fact do typically bring from others. People enter into new social relations and expand their interaction with them because they find doing so rewarding. This would assume that a person would not enter a relationship or unless they can benefit from the relationship.

The theory also states that the relationship is based on reciprocation the individual will seek to maximize their gains and minimize their losses, and the couple participates in the relationship out of mutual benefit. This would mean that a person is in a relationship for purely economic benefits. If the costs are out weighing benefits the person will terminate the relationship. Rusbult (1983) found that during the early 'honeymoon' period of a romantic relationship, the balance of exchange was largely ignored. Only later were costs related to satisfaction with the relationship.


References: lau, P. (1964). Exchange and Power in Social Life. New York: Wiley & Sons.
Knapp, M. L., Vangelisti, A. L. (2005). Interpersonal Communication and HumanRelationships. (5th ed.) Boston: Pearson.
Molm, L. D. (1991). Affect and Social Exchange: Satisfaction in Power-DependenceRelations. American Sociological Review. (Vol. 56, No. 4).
Robbins, S. P., Chatterjee, P., & Canda, E. R. (1998). Contemporary human behavior theory: A critical perspective for social work. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Rusbult, C. (1983). A longitudinal test of the investment model: The development (and deterioration) of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (Vol. 25).
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