Human survival is based on the ability to exchange resources, and as a result of evolution, the human brain has adapted so as to facilitate exchange (Cosmides & Tooby 2005).
Communication is a tool by which individuals can negotiate an exchange as well as provide resources (Roloff 1981). Appropriately, communication scholars have used social exchange theories to guide their research. Interpersonal researchers have applied these frameworks to a variety of relational processes. Organizational researchers have found the frameworks useful for investigating supervisor–subordinate relationships, as well as other aspects of the workplace (Cropanzano & Mitchell 2005).
Although different in some respects, social exchange theories assume that individuals are self-interested and that they will act in ways that meet their resource needs. People repeat rewarded behavior largely because they anticipate that those actions will be rewarded relative to other behaviors. Acting in a purely self-interested fashion could create exploitation that threatens social cohesion. To prevent exploitation, norms have emerged that guide social exchange. For example, the norm of reciprocity dictates that after receiving a resource, the receiver must act in a supportive way toward the giver until the debt is repaid. When norms are violated, individuals become upset and violators may be punished.
A variety of exchange patterns exist. Social exchanges are more informal than are economic exchanges. Instead of following an explicit contract, social exchanges are guided by understandings about what will be exchanged, and when and where the exchange will take place. Some exchanges involve giving resources whereas others involve taking away or denying resources. Individuals may communicate respect by exchanging compliments, but they can deny respect by expressing insults. Restricted exchanges occur when individuals provide each other with resources, whereas generalized exchanges occur when individuals receive resources from another but must repay the debt by giving a resource to someone other than the giver.
Restricted exchanges such as those between a buyer and seller are thought to be individualistic since each party is concerned about receiving resources that are better than the ones given away. Generalized exchanges are thought to have a collectivistic element. Parents may invest considerable resources in their children’s future not because they expect their children to care for them but because they hope the children will use the resources to build a better life for grandchildren. Some exchanges are “tit for tat,” in which one resource is returned in repayment for having received a specific resource, whereas other exchanges work on a “bank account model,” in which resources are invested in a relationship and can be withdrawn when needed. Finally, some exchanges are trades in which two individuals agree to transfer specific resources to each other, whereas others are distributions wherein an allocator decides how much resource each individual in a group should receive from a supply. Buyers and sellers trade money for goods and services. In contrast, a supervisor allocates money from a budget designated for raises among a group of employees.
Individuals have resource categories that are used to interpret behaviors. Some resources are thought to be highly symbolic, such as love and respect, whereas others are more concrete, such as money and goods. A behavior might be placed into multiple categories, and individuals may disagree as to which category is correct. Resource value can also be difficult to determine. In some cases, the value of a resource is based on supply and demand, but in others, it could be based upon how recently a resource has been received, norms, or its physical qualities. Possessing scarce and needed resources increases a person’s power. The key principle of power is to make others dependent upon one’s resources while maintaining one’s own independence. When individuals become dependent on a person’s resources, they have little choice but to grant his or her demands.
Finally, individuals use justice norms to evaluate the fairness of a social exchange. Distributive justice is focused on whether individuals have received resources that they deserved. One pervasive norm is equity, which dictates that each person should receive resources in proportion to what he or she contributes. An employee who has been more productive than a co-worker expects to receive more valuable resources, and the co-worker expects to receive less. Individuals vary in the degree to which they are sensitive to equity, and other distributive norms dictate that resources should be given on the basis of need, status, and equality. Procedural justice is focused on the decision process that produced the exchange.
Generally parties to an exchange should have voice in the decision-making. Voice means that they could directly express their desires, but expression can also occur when their representatives or decision-makers similar to them can communicate their wishes. Voice also requires that decision-makers actually listen to the points of view rather than simply letting parties express them. In part, voice is important because it implies respect for an individual. However, voice is of greatest concern when distributive justice is violated, and individuals are more upset when their own voice is denied than when other people have been denied voice. Interaction justice focuses on how the conditions of the social exchange are communicated. Fair interactions occur when justifications are provided for how the resources were distributed and the announcement is expressed in a sensitive manner. Communicating sensitively can overcome the negative reactions to violations of procedural justice.
Although the social exchange theories are useful, a number of controversies have surrounded them. Some critics question the degree to which human behavior is really self-interested and point to altruistic actions. Indeed, some types of relationships may be guided by a communal orientation aimed at meeting another’s needs rather than an exchange orientation aimed at gaining resources for self. Other critics have argued that many of the exchange concepts are fuzzy. Resource value is especially problematic, given that so many factors influence perceived value and often the value of a resource is not clear until after exchange. The notion of contribution is a key feature of equity-based approaches, yet the notion of what constitutes a contribution is subjective. Also, the social exchange theories portray human behavior as being strategic. Individuals consider positive and negative consequences prior to doing something, which may not always be true. Finally, some critics have questioned the degree to which social exchange concepts provide insight into the various processes occurring during communication. The precise manner in which linguistic cues and nonverbal behaviors are used to express or infer resources is unclear.
Measures And Findings
Because many of the concepts in the social exchange theories are focused on perceptions, they are measured through self-reports. For example, individuals are asked whether they received resources they deserved, what type of resources were exchanged, how valuable they were, whether they had voice in the exchange, and whether they felt adequate justifications were provided. In some cases, researchers study how individuals differ with regard to their feelings about exchange. Hence, scales assess desire to be in an exchange relationship, the tendency to feel indebted to another, and expectations for reciprocity.
Few attempts have been made to create less subjective measures of exchange. Formulae have been created to assess equity by mathematically combining contributions and benefits. Schemes for identifying resources being exchanged during an interaction have been developed. Statistical techniques have been used to determine whether individuals reciprocate information disclosures. However, these methods are rarely used.
Rusbult’s (1980) Investment Model has guided research on close relationships as well as jobs. It posits that investments, satisfaction with current outcomes, and alternative sources for rewards determine the degree to which a person is committed to remaining in a relationship or a job. Commitment, in turn, increases the likelihood that a person will try to maintain their relationship or employment. Maintenance includes devaluing alternatives and responding to a partner’s or employer’s provocative actions in a constructive fashion. Commitment increases relational stability (Le & Agnew 2003).
Given increased access arising from information technologies and the blurring of work and family boundaries, communication may be a commodity whose supply can be quickly depleted by growing demands. If so, future research will focus on the commoditization of communication. How do individuals decide with whom to interact and for how long? Do individuals create barriers to communication when overwhelmed by contacts? How do individuals replenish their ability to communicate? Do individuals value face-to-face contact more than other, mediated forms of communication?
- Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2005). Neurocognitive adaptations designed for social exchange. In D. M. Buss (ed.), The evolutionary psychology handbook. New York: John Wiley, pp. 584–627.
- Cropanzano, R., & Mitchell, M. S. (2005). Social exchange theory: An interdisciplinary review. Journal of Management, 31, 874–900.
- Le, B., & Agnew, C. R. (2003). Commitment and its theoretical determinants: A meta-analysis of the investment model. Personal Relationships, 10, 37–57.
- Roloff, M. E. (1981). Interpersonal communication: The social exchange approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Rusbult, C. E. (1980). Satisfaction and commitment in friendships. Representative Research in Social Psychology, 11, 96–105.