Rational Choice Theory, Structuralism
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, status, connections.
Homanss 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,
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
BRINGING EMOTIONS INTO SOCIAL EXCHANGE THEORY
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. After identifying six
approaches from the psychology and sociology of emotion, we illustrate how these ideas
bear on the context, process, and outcome of exchange in networks and groups. The paper
reviews the current state of the field, develops testable hypotheses for empirical study,
and provides specific suggestions for developing links between theories of emotion and
theories of exchange.
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. This is epitomized, for example,
by its fundamental premise that all social life can be treated as an exchange of rewards
or resources between actors. Such nature of social life is often the rationale for the
claim that the social exchange paradigm features equivalent generality and relevance for
sociological theory. This claim is reexamined in this paper, by putting emphasis on
rational choice and behaviorist versions of social exchange theory. The examination does
not provide prima facie support for the claims of social exchange theory, especially its
economic-behavioral formulations. Instead, premised on sociological social psychology or
psycho-sociology an alternative conception of social exchange is formulated and
empirically estimated as a viable alternative to the current theory. The paper attempts to
make a contribution toward the integration of sociological and social-psychological
theory. The main conclusion is that actors in exchange can be not only individuals but
also groups, and that in-group processes and intergroup relations are more complex than
being sets of market transactions.
In contemporary sociology, notably sociological social psychology, one of the most
prominent and ambitious theoretical conceptions is probably exchange theory. In
retrospect, 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.
Presumably, such exchange transactions permeate all social phenomena, including group
processes and intergroup relations, which are conceived as sets or joint outcomes of
voluntary individual actions induced by rewards. In this view, exchange transactions
constitute the foundation and open secret of social life, of group processes and relations
Exchange theorists have elaborated and summarized the above argument as follows. Arguably,
social action is an exchange of (tangible or intangible) activities and rewards/costs
between individuals on the grounds that people have always explained their conduct by
means of its benefits and costs to them. Exchange represents the basis of human behavior
and is pervasive throughout social life. As regards the character of social exchange in
relation to economic transactions, the former is constituted by activities of purposive
actors in the case of a configuration of interests and resources, and the
latter (a market institution) by interdependent exchange transactions. Assuming that
exchange transactions are reciprocal, if reciprocity is not observed such transactions
will tend to eventually discontinue. In psychological terms, an exchange is therefore
defined as social interaction that is characterized by reciprocal stimuli or mutual
The task of social exchange theory is then to investigate the reciprocal (mainly material)
advantages that individuals draw from their exchange transactions on the premise that they
engage in and sustain most social, including noneconomic, relations in the rational
expectations of such advantages independently of normative or group considerations. In
short, exchange theory in sociology studies the mutual gratifications persons
provide one another that sustain social relations. In particular, exchange theory provides
sociology with a clear conception of the material and resource basis of social
action and thus is well-suited for grasping material/extrinsic exchange.
Conclusion: At the heart of the problematic character of social exchange theory is that
their advocates do not always theorize exchange, but rather than explaining markets
and exchange, they employ markets or exchange to explain social and economic life.
Social exchange theory is deliberately and essentially a market-economic framework for
approaching noneconomic phenomena by suggesting, for instance, that group pressure and
member conformity are to be regarded as two sides of a transaction involving the
exchange of utility or reward (Emerson, 1976; 336). The rational choice model
provides the basis for much of modern social exchange theory. Much of current
social exchange theory, especially its rational-choice formulation, appears as a
questionable interpretation and expansion of the orthodox model of economic exchange,
especially what neoclassical economists like Edgeworth call catallactics understood as the
theory of a perfect market.
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