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The Social Exchange Theory in Interpersonal Relationships

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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.

Blau (1964) gives examples of social exchange as neighbors exchanging favors; children’s’ toys; colleagues assistance; acquaintance courtesies; politicians’ concessions; discussants’ ideas; and housewives recipes. These types of exchanges are rather strong in real life and tend to create enduring links. Many of these social exchanges are readily recognized and described by those taking part in them through speech. For instance, the reference to such words as “indebted”, “owe”, among others, points to the exchanges that take place in real life.

The social exchange theory controls our behavior as well as the reinforcement for our actions because before we act in most circumstances, we will weigh the rewards and costs of the behaviors. The behavior that we use is the one believed to produce the highest reward and the lowest cost. What we may perceive to be acceptable or unacceptable in the relationship is our comparison level that we weigh the rewards and costs against. The comparison level of alternatives is when we weigh the rewards and costs relative to the perceived alternatives. People also have a comparison level for the alternative relationships. With a high comparison level, we may believe the world is full of lovely people just waiting to meet us. When this level is low, we may stay in a high-cost relationship simply because we believe we could not find any better elsewhere. Molm (1991) shows that in recent research on individual judgments losses have a greater effect on people then gains.

Social exchange according to Blau (1964) can be observed everywhere once we are sensitized about it. It is not only present in market (economic) relations, but in friendships and in love. This shows that social exchange is pervasive in social life. Yet Blau has pointed out that not all social behavior is social exchange, and not all exchange in social life is social exchange. His concept of exchange essentially includes that category of social exchange in which all actions are contingent on rewarding reactions. There are strengths and weaknesses employed in some concepts of exchange. One of strengths indicated, is that ideally exchange theory is supposed to operate under the principle of distributive justice. “The rule of distributive justice is based on the idea that rewards should be proportional to their costs, and profits proportional too their investments” (Canda et al., 1998, p. 338).

Unfortunately, this does not always occur due to biases in the social system, which may also serve as a weakness. “Investments can be ascribed, which means the investments can be bestowed upon individuals or groups on the basis of some characteristics such as race or gender. This concept has been used in exchange theory to explain why males, on the average, are paid more that females for the same type of work, or why whites typically receive higher wages than blacks and Hispanics do.” (Canda et al., 1998, p. 338) Exchange theory can be insensitive to problems that have to do with diversity. Another weakness is that it may be the thought that it is a person’s own fault if they do not take advantage of the rewards that society gives them based on their contributions.

The idea behind that probably came from “survival of the fittest.”Exchange theory may have the tendency to ignore variables that impacts a person’s value in society. For example, poor people can be seen as worthless and the wealthy may be acknowledged as powerful. An acknowledged strength of exchange theory is that it be used as a solution-focus to of empowerment. The theory can be utilized to figure out reasons for an uneven transaction between people and their environments. A paradigm can be used to pinpoint what main resources are needed in order to develop an even exchange, or to put it into economical terms, the goal may be to maximize benefits and minimize costs. Whoever uses this idea should keep in mind that factors including economical status, ethnicity, and gender may play role in the cause of a non-reciprocal transaction.

While I thinking about the exchange theory in regards to relationships I am able to apply the concept to a relationship that I was involved in about a year ago. My idea of a well-balanced relationship involves a certain level reciprocity. I want my investments in a relationship to be more rewarding as opposed to punishing. Now, on the other end, my partner was not very reciprocal, especially when it came to gift-giving on special occasions and paying for meals, movies and concerts.

The gift-giving issue for example, for Christmas, my partner received a gift from me that cost me over a hundred dollars and guess what was given to me in return was nothing. That is definitely an example of uneven exchange in relationships. The pay-offs in that relationship did measure against the costs. This resulted to my serious anger with that relationship which had the ultimate impact on the decision to end the relationship. Had I felt that there was an even transaction between that both of us the relationship would probably still exist. I had to way my future encounters with my current encounters.


Blau, 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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