Friday, October 26, 2007

Friendship, Sexuality, and Social Norms: Applying Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory is one of a number of social science theories that has been proposed to explain the dynamics of how humans interact. The exchange theory has its foundations in neo-classical economic theory, and has been applied in a number of disciplines including anthropology, sociology and social psychology (Johar, 2005; Sprecher, 1998). The economic framework of exchange theory has been applied to a range of social relationships including those between workers, neighbours, friends, business associates and even intimate lovers, and it is becoming apparent that regardless of the level of interaction, the fundamentals of the theory remain the same (Lawler & Thye, 1999). This brief paper will explain the basic ideas and framework of social exchange theory, highlight the importance of social norms and gender roles, and demonstrate its application to two levels of social interaction: Friendship and sexuality. Examples from my own life and experiences are used to further illustrate the basic principles of the theory.

Exchange Theory
Social exchange theory as a generalisation relies on three main assumptions. The first assumes that each person is a self-interested actor that transacts with other actors to accomplish a range of individual goals that they perceive cannot be achieved alone. The second assumption is that individuals attempt to maximise the rewards and minimise the costs of any interactions. Rewards are defined as exchanged resources that are perceived as pleasurable and gratifying to an individual and have some perceived value. Costs are defined as exchanged resources that result in a feeling of loss or punishment, including the loss of alternatives and opportunities (Blau, 1964; McGraw & Tetlock, 2005). According to the theory, the outcome of any social interaction is the rewards minus the costs, and when this transaction is seen as positive or balanced the individual feels the interaction was a success and is more likely to continue the relationship. If the transaction is perceived to be negative or costly, the individual is less likely to repeat similar transactions and is more likely to discontinue the relationship (Blau, 1964; Sprecher, 1998). The third fundamental assumption of exchange theory is that when individuals perceive they have received a reward from others, they experience dissonance and feel obliged to reciprocate and restore balance to the relationship (Sprecher, 1998). Costs and rewards can take many forms and vary considerably particularly through a range of relationship levels. These may include material goods and needs, nonmaterial goods (such as services) and completely non-monetary forms of exchange such as time or emotion, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that in more intimate relationships such as friendships or romantic partnerships, nonmaterial resources often have a higher value and are of greater importance when considering the outcome of interactions.

Humans have a strong, innate need to belong that is visible through our drive to form and maintain positive, lasting and significant personal interpersonal relationships. This suggests that people have a consistent goal to engage in frequent, pleasant contact with others who we have formed stable bonds of mutual concern, (Laursen & Hartup, 2002) which is perhaps best demonstrated through the relationship example of close friends. People often have an extensive network of acquaintances and friends from a range of different social forums, such as work, university and sporting teams, most people seek a limited number of close friends (about 4-6) (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). It appears that further developing these close friendships is the goal for most people and friendship fits the cliché of ‘quality not quantity’.

When considering examples from my own life the indications proposed by the model became increasingly apparent. Firstly, it seems the initial assumption that most people seek out a limited number of close friendships was true for me. As exchange theory proposes, those relationships which have endured and become deeper are those where I have perceived I am receiving a balanced number of rewards compared to costs. My closest, longest lasting friendship surfaces as an example of interaction that is often linked with a feeling that what was invested into the relationship as costs, would usually be reciprocated with equal or greater rewards and, as a result, transactions with this friend are consistently associated with pleasurable feelings and the sense that I’m developing a worthwhile and rewarding relationship.

It is the desire to continually deepen the level of friendship and increase understanding that is perhaps for this reason that many of the resources involved in exchanges at this level are less physical in their nature. Studies have found that while material resources such as money, food and clothing may be involved in some transactions among friends, other forms of rewards often take precedence (Lawler & Thye, 1999; Wildermuth et. al, 2006). These other ‘gifts’ may include a range of things such as acceptance, approval, compliments, physical company, emotional disclosure, assistance on a task, commitment of time, or the sharing of knowledge (Wildermuth et. al, 2006; Johar, 2005).

Take buying a round of expensive drinks for a group of friends as an example. The round may cost $30, which would have taken up to 2 hours to earn through employment, while they are often consumed in a very short time and the rewards may appear to be short lived. However, the cost of purchasing the drinks, in this case monetary, is rewarded with the felt appreciation by the friendship group, as well as an increased feeling of belonging to the group and pleasurable emotions. These subjective and emotional rewards often have a higher value within friendship groups as they contribute to our innate need to belong.

Social Norms in Friendship
Social norms have also been highlighted as influencing the felt value of transactions with friends. A study by Johar (2005) found that people may not always seek to maximise the economic utility, or value, of a transaction, when social norms are a factor. The study found that not only do people abide by social norms in their own interactions, but they feel distressed if norms are violated by others. In the ‘round of drinks’ example, the situational norm suggest that each member of the friendship group who received a drink, would return the favour by purchasing a round themselves. If a friend abided by this norm, as an addition to the emotional rewards I received initially, I receive a drink to balance the exchange, and the felt positive outcome is increased. However, if this social norm was dishonoured, I may perceive it as another cost, which affects the relationship negatively.

Exchange theory can be observed in almost all social interactions and an increasingly large body of research has focussed on its application to love, mate selection and sexuality. In a meta-analytic study South (1991) demonstrated the tendency for people to marry those of similar status. Exchange theories provide a view that could account for much this trend of homogamy and suggest that people of similar status are more able, and therefore likely, to reciprocate expected rewards and maintain an equitable relationship. Often those resources most sought after by a certain socio-economic group can best be matched or complimented by someone of a similar status, thus these partnerships occur more often. A real life behavioural example can be seen when both men and women conduct a matching process and choose those with the best package of rewards – the best ‘catch’.

An interesting development in the study of exchange theory and sexuality is the idea of exchange of sex as a reward or commodity within relationships (Rijt & Macy, 2006). Research has identified sex as a resource that is essentially controlled by women. Men seek to acquire sex from women by exchanging it for a range of other resources, and often social norms and gender roles are assigned accordingly (Baumeister & Vohs, 2004). This phenomenon can certainly be observed in the real world. Men are often seen buying extravagant gifts for women, showing off power and wealth and providing security both physically and emotionally for women. Some researchers would suggest this is purely in exchange for sex (Sprecher, 1998). As mentioned previously, violating social norms can also lead to distress in interactions, suggesting that men are more likely to gain the reward of sex by adhering to these norms and gender roles. In life, according to exchange theory, men could create a situation of reciprocity by paying for dinner, holding the door and offering their coat to a potential intimate partner and they may be rewarded with sex.

So it can be seen that social exchange theory and its simple costs and rewards analysis can be applied to a range of social interactions in a plethora of situations. When applied to the aspect of friendship, it is demonstrated that friendships are more likely to continue and develop if a situation of reciprocity exists, particularly if non-material rewards are involved and cater for the human need to belong. The relevance of exchange theory to sexuality has also been highlighted, with the implication that in sexual economics, transactions are focussed around sex as a female controlled commodity. In the two current examples of friendship and sexuality, the influence of social norms on exchange transactions should also be viewed as an important aspect. Social exchange theory is proving to be an extremely relevant and versatile model and continued social study of its application may prove enormously beneficial for the understanding of humans and their complex social interactions.

(Word Count: 1532)


Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2008) Social Psychology and Human Nature. USA: Thomson Wadworth

Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2004) Sexual economics: Sex as female resource for social exchange in heterosexual interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 339-363.

Blau, P. N. (1964). Exchange and Power in Social Life. New York: Wiley.

Johar, G. V. (2005). The price of friendship: when, why, and how relational norms guide social exchange behaviour. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15, 22-27.

Laursen, B., & Hartup, W. W. (2002). The origins of reciprocity and social exchange in friendships. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 95, 27-40.

Lawler, E. J., & Thye, S. R. (1999). Bringing emotions into social exchange theory. Annual Review of Sociology, 25, 217-244.

McGraw, A. P. (2005). Taboo trade-offs, relational framing, and the acceptability of exchanges. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15 (1), 2-15.

Rijt, A. V., & Macy, M.W. (2006). Power and dependence in intimate exchange. Social Forces, 84 (3), 1455-1460.

South, S. J. (1991). Socio-demographic differentials in mate selection preferences. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53, 928-940.

Sprecher, S. (1998). Social exchange theories and sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 35, 32-43.

Wildermuth, S. M., Vogl-Bauer, S., & Rivera, J. (2006). Practically perfect in every way: communication strategies of ideal relational partners. Communication Strategies, 57 (3), 239-257.

Appendix A. Self Evaluation

Theory and Research
I found the topic of social exchange theory very engaging and interesting, which made reading sources and research on the topic much more tolerable, and in the end I read extensively on a broad range of topics and aspects of the theory. This did however leave me with the difficult task of choosing which aspects to focus on, based on what I believed I could fit into the world limit. My question also asked me to provide examples from my own life, while this made writing the blog more engaging and provided a change from strict essay style writing, it meant that I has reduced words to discuss relevant theory. I possibly choose to approach this topic too broadly and a possible focus on the fundamentals of the theory would have made adjusting to the word limit more feasible. Overall I think I researched extensively and included as much information as possible, while successfully including examples from my own life and ther real world to explain the theory.

Written Expression
Similar to the last blog, APA format was followed wherever possible, however some aspects of the format were lost in tranferring to the blog format. As mentioned above, my question asked me to provide real life examples to further explain my points. While interesting, this was a very different approach to writing compared to the very scientific nature of the majority of writing I have grown accustomed to studying psychology, and my usually commended writing style may have suffered accordingly. I do believe however, that I was reasonably succesful in adjusting and maintaining a flow throughout the blog. I have taken note of a self-suggestion from my last blog and maintained headings to help with the structure and flow of the blog to make for easier reading. It must be remembered that the purpose of my blog was to explain in the clearest possible manner the basics of social exchange theory.

The Flesch reading ease statistic was 29.8 which is around the target audience of undergraduate students. The Flesch-Kincaid grade level was 12 which is also around the target area. Overall I feel that despite the adjustments to my usual writing style the paper flows and is relatively easy to read.

Online engagement
This was definitely my weakest point of the blogging exercise for blog 1 so I have made a concerted effort to improve my online engagement for this blog. I began by improving the overall appearance of my blog page, and took the time to take more notice of what my fellow students were doing on the blog page. I made a number of postings, which on the whole were received well, as thewy were commented on and raised discussion. I spent the majority of my time blogging commenting on a range of other students blogs and have taken the time to add a number of those to a comments list in my blog. These comments also contributed to and raised further discussion within the group, both online and generally amongst students during class. While I still haven’t engaged as some students within the unit I have made considerable improvements and feel much more a part of the unit in general.


James Neill said...

Hi Dave,

I've only scanned this, but its looks solid, well presented, and well focused, etc.

Some quick thoughts:
- Abstract is optional (doesn't add to word count) and can enhance readability by providing an overview.
- I didn't see any critical comments on SET - what are it's limitations?
- Section on exchange theory has one long paragraph - consider breaking.
- Section headings work well.

Rebekah said...

Hey Dave,

I really enjoyed reading your blog. I am doing my blog on attraction and was wondering if it was ok if I post a link to your blog.. just because they tie in well together.

Good luck for the rest of the semester. xx

James Neill said...

1.Overall, a solid (CR-DI level) essay and effort. Well written overall, but readability, grammar, and APA style could improve. Breadth of focus could have been narrowed to more indepth focus on SET theory and research.
2.Clear, well structured, well referenced introduction. This perhaps could only reasonably have been improved by also including an abstract.
3.Overall, the focus on exploring SET within the context of friendship, social norms and sexuality was relevant and interesting. Perhaps the intro and/or conclusion could have specified why these three topics/aspects were selected as foci.
4.P-CR level depth of theory/research cited. It doesn't appear that any major reviews of SET were identified. Ideally, the top 10 peer-reviewed theory/research SET references would have been identified and incorporated.
5.Point 3 seems to be related to your self-reflections that “I possibly choose to approach this topic too broadly and a possible focus on the fundamentals of the theory would have made adjusting to the word limit more feasible.” and “It must be remembered that the purpose of my blog was to explain in the clearest possible manner the basics of social exchange theory.”
6.Overall, the essay was well written and was well structured (DI). There were several minor grammar problems noted (CR). APA style was moderately good (CR).
7.Awkward expression/grammar: “Social exchange theory as a generalisation...”
8.Grammar (mixture of singular and plural: “The first assumes that each person is a self-interested actor that transacts with other actors to accomplish a range of individual goals that they perceive cannot be achieved alone.”
9.The section of Exchange Theory was solid, but it was one long paragraph in a section; this would have be easier to read as three shorter paragraphs.
10.Grammar: “People often have an extensive network of acquaintances and friends from a range of different social forums, such as work, university and sporting teams, most people seek a limited number of close friends (about 4-6) (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008).:
11.Long sentence: “My closest, longest lasting friendship...”
12.APA style: Alphabetically ordering of citationst, e.g., “(Wildermuth et. al, 2006; Johar, 2005)”
13.APA style: Use words for numbers under 10, e.g., two rather than 2.
14.APA style: Image: Source? Label as a Figure and refer to in text.
15.APA style: Remove issue numbers from references.
16.“Buying a round” is a useful example of SET and social norms.
17.The conclusion was a bit overly glowing and lacked critical bite (e.g., plethora, extremely relevant, enormously beneficial).
18.Reading level: I get a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 15.3 and think there was room for improvement, especially a couple of long sentences and shortening some paragraphs. The written expression itself, however, despite some grammar problems, was generally very good.
19.Online Engagement: Genuine engagement was evident through half a dozen high quality comments on other's blog posts and several additional posts indicating e.g. engagement with tutorials. This clearly demonstrates engagement and although not “extensive” is clearly above average (CR-DI range).

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