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Social Exchange Theory

Major Contemporary Concepts

The major exchange concepts can be classified as falling into the following broad categories:

Rewards, costs, and resources. Exchange theories make use of the concepts of rewards and costs (which were borrowed from behavioral psychology) and resources (which were borrowed from economics) when discussing the foundation of the interpersonal exchange. Rewards and resources refer to the benefits exchange in social relationships. Rewards are defined as the pleasures, satisfactions, and gratifications a person enjoys from participating in a relationship (Thibaut and Kelley 1959). Resources, on the other hand, are any commodities, material or symbolic, that can be transmitted through interpersonal behavior (Foa and Foa 1980) and give one person the capacity to reward another (Emerson 1976). The costs of social exchange relationships can involve punishments experienced, the energy invested in a relationship, or rewards foregone as a result of engaging in one behavior or course of action rather than another (Blau 1964). Satisfaction with exchange relationships: outcomes and comparison levels. Satisfaction with an exchange relationship is derived, in part, from the evaluation of the outcomes available in a relationship. Outcomes are equal to the rewards obtained from a relationship minus the costs incurred. Although it is generally the case that the higher the level of outcomes available, the greater the satisfaction, these concepts are not equivalent. To account for satisfaction, both the experiences of the outcomes derived from the relationship and the expectations that individuals bring to their relationships are taken into account (Nye 1979; Sabatelli 1984; Thibaut and Kelley 1959).

The concept of Comparison Level (CL) was developed by Thibaut and Kelley to explain the contributions that previous experiences and expectations make to the determination of how satisfied an individual is with a relationship. Individuals come to their relationships with an awareness of societal norms for relationships and a backlog of experiences. The CL is influenced by this information and, thus, reflects (a) what individuals feel is deserved and realistically obtainable within relationships, and (b) what individuals feel is important for them to experience within a relationship. When the outcomes derived from a relationship exceed the CL (particularly highly valued outcomes or ones that are important to individuals), global assessments of a relationship are likely to be high (Nye 1979; Sabatelli 1984; Thibaut and Kelley 1959).

Relationship stability: comparison level for alternatives, dependence, and barriers. According to exchange theorists, satisfaction with a relationship alone does not determine the likelihood that a relationship will continue. Thibaut and Kelley (1959) developed the concept of comparison level of alternatives (CLalt), defined as the lowest level of outcome a person will accept from a relationship in light of available alternatives, to explain individuals' decisions to remain in or leave a relationship. The CLalt is an individual's assessment of the outcomes available in an alternative to the present relationship. When the outcomes available in an alternative relationship exceed those available in a relationship, the likelihood increases that person will leave the relationship.

Hence, staying in or leaving a relationship is not simply a matter of how rewarding that relationship is. Relationships that are rewarding are more likely to be stable because a high level of outcomes reduces, in terms of expectations, the likelihood of a better alternative existing. Unsatisfactory relationships, in turn, may remain stable for the lack of a better alternative. These relationships have been conceived of as nonvoluntary relationships by Thibaut and Kelley (1959). Married individuals who stay in violent relationships can be thought of as participating in a nonvoluntary relationship—that is, the relationship stays stable in spite of the violence because of the absence of better alternatives (Gelles 1976).

The CLalt is also related to the experience of dependence. Dependence is defined as the degree to which a person believes that he or she is subject to or reliant on the other for relationship outcome. The degree of dependence evidenced is determined by the degree to which the outcomes derived from a relationship exceed the outcomes perceived to be available from existing alternatives. Dependence may be experienced as one of the costs of participating in a relationship, but this is probably determined in part by the level of satisfaction experienced with the relationship. Dependence, in other words, is tolerated in highly rewarding relationships.

Dependence is further influenced by the barriers that increase the costs of dissolving an existing relationship (Levinger 1982). Levinger proposes the existence of two types of barriers—internal and external—that discourage an individual from leaving a relationship by fostering dependence even if attraction is low. Internal barriers are the feelings of obligation and indebtedness to the partner that contribute to dependence by increasing the psychological costs of terminating the relationship. Internal constraints might involve the moral belief that a marriage, for example, is forever or that children should be raised in a home with both parents present. External barriers are things like community pressures, legal pressures, and material or economic considerations that foster dependence by increasing the social and economic costs of terminating a relationship.

Norms regulating exchange relationships: exchange orientations and rules. Exchange relationships are governed by both normative and cognitive exchange orientations that delineate acceptable and appropriate behavior. Normative orientations refer to the societal views on acceptable and appropriate behavior in relationships. These norms refer to the broader consensus that exists within a culture about how exchange relationships should be structured.

Cognitive orientations represent the beliefs, values, and relationship orientations that an individual associates with various types of exchange relationships (McDonald 1984). These orientations serve as the standards for interpersonal behavior that an individual brings to his or her personal relationships. Among the more prominent of the cognitive orientations discussed in the exchange literature are the norms of distributed justice, or fairness, norms of reciprocity, and norms of equity (Blau 1964; Homans 1961; Walster, Walster, and Berscheid 1978). Each of these has to do with the expectation that within a close and intimate relationship, the rewards experienced by partners should be more or less proportionately distributed. When these norms are violated, as when housework is unfairly distributed within a marriage, people are apt to complain more about the relationship and pressure their partners to restore a more just and fair pattern of exchange (Berardo, Shehan, and Leslie 1987).

Trust and commitment. Trust refers to the belief on the part of individuals that their partners will not exploit or take unfair advantage of them. When relationships conform to the norms of reciprocity and when the pattern of exchange is perceived as being fair, individuals are more likely to come to believe that they will not be exploited (Blau 1964; McDonald 1981). Trust is proposed to be important in relationship development because it allows individuals to be less calculative and to see longer-term outcomes (Scanzoni 1979). Put another way, through trust an individual is able to expect fairness and justice in the long-term and therefore does not have to demand it immediately.

Commitment is characterized as central in distinguishing social and intimate exchanges from economic exchanges (Cook and Emerson 1978). Commitment involves the willingness of individuals to work for the continuation of their relationships (Leik and Leik 1977; Scanzoni 1979). Exchange theorists would expect commitment to develop within a relationship when partners experience high and reciprocal levels of rewards that facilitate the experience of trust (Sabatelli 1999). Commitment builds stability into relationships by increasing partners' dependence on their relationships—in part because the emergence of commitment is thought to be accompanied by a reduction of attention to alternative relationships (Cook and Emerson 1978; Leik and Leik 1977; Scanzoni 1979).

Exchange dynamics. The exchange framework also provides insight into the dynamics found within intimate relationships. In particular, the exchange framework has been used to explain the patterns of power and decision-making found within relationships. Fundamental to the exchange views of power are the assumptions that dependence and power are inversely related, and resources and power are positively and linearly related (Huston 1983; McDonald 1981; Thibaut and Kelley 1959). This is to suggest that exchange theorists address the bases of power by focusing on the constructs of resources and dependence. The partners least interested in their relationships tend to have the greater power in large part because they are less dependent on the relationships. The partners with the greater resources, also, tend to be the ones with the greater power—here largely because they have relatively greater control over the outcomes available to the partners. In other words, the essential point of the discussion of the patterns of interaction observed within exchange relationships is that the relative levels of involvement, dependence, and resources contribute importantly to the different patterns of interaction observed within relationships.


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesSocial Exchange Theory - Core Assumptions Made Within The Exchange Framework, Major Contemporary Concepts