Power-Dependence Theory Essay

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Power-dependence theory is the name commonly given to the social exchange theory originally formulated by Richard Emerson (1972). The dynamics of the theory revolve around power, power use, and power-balancing operations, and rest on the central concept of dependence. Mutual dependence brings people together, increasing their likelihood of forming and maintaining exchange relationships, while inequalities in dependence create power imbalances that can lead to conflict and social change.

The publication of Emerson’s theory in 1972 marked a turning point in the development of the social exchange framework in sociology. By integrating principles of behavioral psychology with the growing field of social network analysis, Emerson developed an exchange theory in which the structure of relations, rather than the motivations or skills of individuals, was the central focus. Power-dependence theory assumes that actors are self-interested, but this assumption is based on the backward-looking logic of operant psychology rather than on the forward-looking logic of rational choice. The smallest unit of analysis in the theory is the exchange relation, defined as a series of repeated exchanges between a pair of actors, rather than the individual actor or actions. Furthermore, exchange relations are typically embedded in exchange networks, defined as sets of connected exchange relations among actors. Two relations are connected if the frequency or value of exchange in one relation (e.g., A—B) affects the frequency or value of exchange in another relation (e.g., B—C), either positively (by increasing exchange in the other), or negatively (by decreasing exchange in the other). The actors in exchange relations can be either individual persons or corporate actors such as groups or organizations. The concepts of exchange networks and corporate actors allowed power-dependence theory to bridge micro- and macro-levels of analysis more successfully than its predecessors.

The theory’s title derives from the basic insight that actors’ mutual dependence on one another for valued resources provides the structural basis for their power over each other. A’s power over B derives from, and is equal to, B’s dependence on A, and vice versa. B’s dependence on A increases with the value to B of the resources A controls, and decreases with B’s alternative sources of those resources, both of which are influenced by the larger network in which the A—B relation resides. Thus, power is a structural attribute of an exchange relation or network, not a property of an actor. Power use is the behavioral exercise of that structural potential. Power in dyadic relations is described by two dimensions: cohesion — actors’ absolute power over each other, and balance — actors’ relative power over one another. If actors are equally dependent on one another, power in the relation is balanced; if B is more dependent on A, power is imbalanced, and A has a power advantage equal to the degree of imbalance.

Over time, the structure of power has predictable effects on the frequency and distribution of exchange as actors use power to maintain exchange or gain advantage. A’s initiations of exchange with B increase with A’s dependence on B, the frequency of exchange in a relation increases with cohesion, and in imbalanced relations, the ratio of exchange changes in favor of the more powerful, less dependent actor. Emerson also argued that imbalanced relations are unstable and lead to power-balancing processes that alter either the alternatives or values that govern power and dependence (e.g., coalition formation can balance power by reducing a powerful actor’s alternatives).

Emerson’s collaboration with Karen Cook and their students, beginning in the late 1970s, produced the first research program testing the basic tenets of power-dependence theory and extending its scope. The experimental setting that Cook and Emerson developed, in which subjects negotiated the terms of exchange through a series of offers and counteroffers, became the prototype for studying power in exchange networks and was adopted by numerous other scholars, including many who proposed competing theories to explain the distribution of power in exchange networks. After Emerson’s untimely death in 1982, Cook’s work with Toshio Yamagishi (and, more recently, with other students of Cook’s) continued to modify and expand the theory, including development in 1992 of a new algorithm for predicting the distribution of power in the network as a whole, rather than within dyadic relations.

At the same time that Cook and Emerson were developing their research program, other scholars, particularly Edward Lawler and Linda Molm, were drawing on concepts from power-dependence theory to develop their own theories of power and related processes. Their work introduced ideas and concepts that were not part of Emerson’s original formulation: greater attention to cognition and affect in exchange, consideration of punitive as well as rewarding actions in exchange, and analysis of different forms of exchange. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bacharach and Lawler integrated power-dependence theory’s analysis of structural power with bargaining theories’ analyses of tactical power. Traditional work on bargaining neglected the power structure within which parties negotiate; Lawler and Bacharach used ideas from power-dependence theory to fill that gap. Molm’s (1997) work on coercion in exchange also focused more attention on strategic power use and expanded the theory to include punishment and coercion, arguing that both reward power and coercive power are derived from dependence on others, either for obtaining rewards or avoiding punishment, and potentially can be explained by the same principles.

The two most recent developments among power-dependence researchers are the shift from the study of power and inequality to the study of integrative outcomes such as commitment, trust, and affect, and the expansion of both theory and research to include different forms of exchange: reciprocal as well as negotiated direct exchange, generalized or indirect exchange, and productive exchange. Lawler’s affect theory of exchange (and his earlier, related work with Jeongkoo Yoon and Shane Thye on relational cohesion) initiated the first line of work, and the work of Molm and her students on comparisons of negotiated and reciprocal exchange (and, most recently, generalized exchange) initiated the latter. Both lines of work are now continued by a growing number of power-dependence theorists.


  1. Cook, K. S. & Emerson, R. M. (1978) Power, equity and commitment in exchange networks. American Sociological Review 43: 721—39.
  2. Emerson, R. M. (1972) Exchange theory, part I: a psychological basis for social exchange; Exchange theory, part II: exchange relations and network structures. In:   Berger, J.,  Zelditch,  , Jr., & Anderson, B. (eds.), Sociological Theories in Progress, vol. 2. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA, pp. 38—87.
  3. Lawler, E. J. (2001) An affect theory of social exchange. American Journal of Sociology 107: 321—52.
  4. Molm, L. D. (1997) Coercive Power in Social Exchange. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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