Social Exchange Essay

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Acquiring needed resources is critical for survival, and social exchange is one means of doing so. Communication is a tool by which exchanges are negotiated as well as a means for providing resources. Researchers have used social exchange frameworks to study communication in close relationships (see Roloff 1981), organizations (see Cropanzano & Mitchell 2005) and social networks (see Cook & Rice 2003).

A social exchange occurs when individuals provide each other with resources. Tangible resources, such as money, goods, and services, involve transfers by which one person gains a resource while another loses it. Symbolic resources, such as love, status, and information, can be exchanged without loss. In contrast to purely economic exchanges, social exchanges are guided by informal expectations and social norms which can make social exchanges more difficult to negotiate and enforce. Restricted social exchanges are those in which members of a dyad provide each other with resources. In contrast, generalized exchanges involve several partners, none of whom returns resources to those from whom they received resources. In some cases, social exchanges involve distributions in which resources from a common pool are provided to members of a social system.

Several social exchange theories exist that differ in their academic origins and assumptions. Regardless, a set of shared ideas embodies a social exchange perspective. First, people are self-interested and pursue actions that have allowed them to gain needed resources and/or they anticipate will do so. Second, to prevent exploitation, groups develop and enforce norms that guide social exchanges. Restricted exchanges follow the norm of reciprocity that dictates that individuals should return resources and are obligated to treat their benefactors with respect until they have done so. Generalized exchanges are guided by group norms aimed at helping members of a social system and often create feelings of social solidarity. Resource distribution is often guided by norms of distributive justice such as equity, equality, need, and status. The negative outcomes of violations of distributive justice may be offset by following rules of procedural justices, such as letting those affected by the distribution have voice into it or achieving interaction justice by providing a full and sensitive accounting of how a decision was made. Third, social exchanges influence relationships. Individuals form and maintain relationships with others who are available and dependable resource providers. There are also emotional byproducts of stable relational exchanges such as trust, gratitude, caring, and affection. Another relational consequence of social exchange is dependency. In some cases, individuals possess valuable resources and many 582 social exchange people want to enter into exchanges with them. Consequently, they could form exchange relationships that afford benefits that are superior to those received from their current partners. If their partners lack such opportunities, individuals gain power from their partners’ relative dependency.

Given the inherent link between social exchange and relationships, social exchange theories have been used to study communication in close relationships. For example, the Investment Model posits that investments, satisfaction with current outcomes, and alternative sources for rewards determine the degree to which partners are committed to remaining in a relationship. Commitment, in turn, increases the likelihood that individuals will try to maintain their relationship. Maintenance includes devaluing alternatives and responding to a partner’s provocative actions in a constructive fashion. Social exchange frameworks have also been used to study organizational communication, some of which are tied to the exchange relationship between employees and the organizations. For example, Organizational Support Theory assumes that employees are willing to expend effort at work if they perceive that their organization supports them by providing favorable work conditions, fair treatment, and supervisor support. Finally, social exchange theories have been used to study social networks. Exchange perspectives inform as to how position within a social network influences a person’s power and pattern of exchanges with others in the network.

Although contributing to many bodies of research, social exchange perspectives have been criticized for their roots in operant psychology and/ or economics, portraying an overly strategic view of human behavior, inadequate explication of constructs, and providing little insight into the fundamental mechanisms that produce communication.


  1. Chadwick-Jones, J. K. (1976). Social exchange theory: Its structure and influence in social psychology. New York: Academic Press.
  2. Cook, K. S. & Rice, E. (2003). Social exchange theory. In J. Delamater (ed.), Handbook of social psychology. New York: Plenum, pp. 53–76.
  3. Cropanzano, R. & Mitchell, M. S. (2005). Social exchange theory: An interdisciplinary review. Journal of Management, 31, 874–900.
  4. Roloff, M. E. (1981). Interpersonal communication: The social exchange approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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