The Social Exchange Theory (SET)

An overview of SET with evaluation and research

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  • Created on: 01-12-13 15:06
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There are several different versions of SET, but underlying them all is the view that people are
selfish. Homans (1974) believes that people view their feelings for others in terms of profits- that
is, the rewards obtained from the relationships minus the costs. The greater the rewards and the
lower the costs, the greater the profit and, therefore, the greater the desire to maintain the
relationship. Blau (1964) argues that interactions are `expensive', as they take time, energy and
commitment and may involve unpleasant emotions and experiences. Therefore, what we get out of a
relationship must exceed what goes in. SET is therefore an `economic theory', explaining
relationships in terms of maximising benefits and minimising costs. The `social exchange' is the mutual
exchange of rewards between partners, like friendship and sex and the costs of being in the
relationships, such as freedoms given up. A person assesses their rewards by making comparisons:
Thibaut and Kelley proposed that we develop a comparison level (CL) - a standard against which all
our relationships are judged.
Comparison levels are the product of our experiences in other relationships and our general views on
expectations of partners.
A relationship deemed worthwhile will exceed our current CL.
There are also comparison levels for alternative partners (CLalt) - a person weighs up a potential
increase in rewards from a different person.
This theory assumes that all social behaviour is a series of exchanges; individuals attempt to maximise
their rewards and minimise their costs.
In society, people exchange resources with the expectation that they will earn a `profit'
Social exchange, in line with other `economic' theories of human behaviour, stresses that
commitment to a relationship is dependent on the profitability of this outcome.
This theory has been used to explain why some women stay in abusive relationships. Rusbult and
Martz (1995) argue that when investments are high (e.g. children) and alternatives are low (e.g.
nowhere to live, no money) this could still be considered a profitable situation.
A relationship is maintained if rewards exceed costs and the profit level is not exceeded by possible
alternative relationships. Thibaut and Kelley et al (1959) proposed a four stage model setting out
how relationships could be maintained via predictable exchanges.
Sampling Rewards and costs are assessed in a number of
Bargaining A relationship is `costed out' and sources of
profit and loss are identified
Commitment Relationship is established and maintained by a
predictable exchange of rewards
Institutionalisation Interactions are established and the couple
`settle down'

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-Rusbult (1983) asked participants to complete questionnaires over a 7 month period concerning
rewards and costs associated with relationship, finding that SET did not explain the early
`honeymoon' phase of a relationship when balance of exchanges was ignore. However, later on,
relationship costs were compared to the degree of personal satisfaction, suggesting that the theory
I best applied to the maintenance of relationships.…read more


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