Introduction to Social Exchange Theory in Social Work

Social work is a challenging yet rewarding profession. Social workers typically have clients across all demographics who have a wide range of needs. They identify those needs by analyzing the client’s behavior and the social systems affecting the client’s opportunities and decisions. Using a comprehensive approach, social workers can help clients live healthier, safer and happier lives.

Social workers are often a type of mental health practitioner. They act as counselors in addition to helping clients navigate legal and social support systems. Because of this, they need to understand different theories regarding human behavior and interaction.

One is rational choice theory, which believes people make decisions based on their preferences. A related theory is social exchange theory, which looks at all human interactions as an exchange of value where someone benefits and someone pays a price. Understanding how someone views rewards vs. costs, as well as their expectations and preferences for relationships, can help social workers improve a client’s personal relationships and outlook on life.

What is Social Exchange Theory?

The basic definition of social exchange theory is that people make decisions by consciously or unconsciously measuring the costs and rewards of a relationship or action, ultimately seeking to maximize their reward. This theory focuses on face-to-face relationships and isn’t meant to measure behavior or change at a societal level.

According to social exchange theory, a person will weigh the cost of a social interaction (negative outcome) against the reward of that social interaction (positive outcome). These costs and rewards can be material, like money, time or a service. They can also be intangible, like effort, social approval, love, pride, shame, respect, opportunity and power.

Each person wants to get more from an interaction or relationship than they give. When a relationship costs a person more than it rewards them, they end it. But when a relationship provides enough rewards, they continue it. What is or isn’t enough depends on various factors, including a person’s expectations and comparisons with other possible interactions and relationships.

Another aspect of social exchange theory is that people expect equity in exchange. People expect to be rewarded equally for incurring the same costs, and when they aren’t, they are displeased.

History of social exchange theory

Social exchange theory was developed by George Homans, a sociologist. It first appeared in his essay “Social Behavior as Exchange,” in 1958. Homans studied small groups, and he initially believed that any society, community or group was best seen as a social system. To study that social system, it was first necessary to look at an individual’s behavior, instead of the social structures individuals created.

It was by studying small groups that Homans began to see the rewards and punishments each member of the group got from the group and other members. He developed a framework of elements of social behavior: interaction, sentiments and activities. These elements all had to be considered regarding a groups’ internal and external systems. He used this framework to study several groups—a study he published in “The Human Group,” his first book.

Later, Homans began to explain further the most basic level of social situations, called elementary social behavior, which is at least two people interacting, with one either rewarding or punishing the actions of the other. This idea reflects Homans adopting B.F. Skinner’s behavioral psychology theories about human behavior as well as basic principles of economics.

Homans suggested several propositions that theorize social behavior as an exchange of material and non-material goods, like time, money, effort, approval, prestige, power, etc. Every person provides rewards and endures costs. People expect to receive as much reward as they give to another and will choose actions that are likely to provide the greatest reward.

Homans is not the only person to develop social exchange theory. Many sociologists and other professionals have advanced social exchange theory. Peter Michael Blau didn’t focus on behaviorism, and instead, focused his theory on concepts such as preferences, interests, indifference curves and supply and demand. More modern takes on social exchange theory borrow from both men and particularly focus on power dynamics. Because of this variety, social exchange theory is not one solidified theory. Instead, different theorists use various concepts and assumptions for their particular application.

Assumptions of social exchange theory

Several assumptions make up social exchange theory:

  • Social behaviors involve social exchanges of value.
  • People are motivated to retain some value (reward) when they have to give something up (cost).
  • People pursue social exchanges where they receive more rewards than their costs.
  • Rewards and costs can be material or immaterial goods.
  • People expect to be rewarded similarly when they incur the same costs (equity of exchange).
  • People will terminate relationships when they believe the costs to be greater than the rewards.
  • When measuring reward vs. costs, people compare their expectations, previous experiences, or alternatives.
  • People understand that “enough” rewards vs. costs differ from relationship to relationship and within the same relationship over time.

Applications of social exchange theory

Social exchange theory can be applied to many situations, including:

  • Romantic relationships
  • Friendships
  • Workplace behavior
  • Organizational management
  • Business decisions
  • Social power
  • Leadership
  • Politics
  • Consumer purchasing decisions
  • Television viewing decisions

How Does Social Exchange Theory Apply to Social Work?

Social workers can use the theory of social exchange to help their clients repeat positive interactions and behaviors. First, social workers must understand that every person is looking for rewards within a relationship. Clients want more positive outcomes from their relationship with the social worker than negative outcomes. They want the rewards they receive to be greater than the cost. Social workers can create interactions in which the clients receive some benefit. When a person receives rewards for certain actions, they tend to repeat them. But when a person receives the same reward over and over, it becomes less effective. Social workers must keep this in mind and vary their interactions with their clients.

Many social workers strive to help their clients improve their personal relationships, whether those are between spouses, parents and children, other relatives, friends or coworkers. Social workers can discuss with their clients how they choose to interact with others and why. The workers can help clients take a closer look at their behavior, including why they pursue or end relationships.

In social exchange theory, people tend to make comparisons, often unconsciously. They compare their relationship to their expectations, previous similar relationships, and alternative relationships. The point of comparison is to help a person decide when they’re receiving enough of a net benefit. But if someone doesn’t have healthy relationships to compare to, they might continue to pursue unhealthy or unsafe relationships. Social workers can help clients navigate their expectations and comparisons in search of safe, healthy and happy relationships.

Social workers also can use social exchange theory to understand their interactions with their clients. By identifying the intrinsic rewards that they receive from helping their clients, workers gain motivation to continue their work.

Criticism of Social Exchange Theory

There are several limitations or weaknesses associated with social exchange theory. The theory can seem overly simplistic. What people get out of relationships vs. what the relationships cost them can be complex. While the theory can help someone take a broad look at a relationship, there are many more factors to consider in terms of whether they should continue or end the relationship.

It doesn’t address selflessness or altruism. There are times when people will act in a way that benefits another at great cost to themselves without expectations of a future benefit in return. The theory doesn’t account for people who don’t seek out the greatest benefit in a relationship or who continue relationships in which there is a net cost to themselves instead of a net reward.

Social exchange theory believes people behave in a certain way to establish trust and intimacy. This assumption is most related to romantic relationships. But not every relationship has these goals. When two people aren’t concerned with establishing trust and intimacy, then it calls into question how they measure the benefits and costs to themselves or their motivations for the interaction.

Additionally, social exchange theory assumes relationships have a linear structure. In reality, relationships progress, retreat, skip stages, or repeat certain stages.

Summary of Resources for Further Learning

  • Homans, George C. (1958), “Social Behaviour as Exchange.” American Journal of Sociology 63, 6: 597-606
  • Homans, George C. (1950), The Human Group. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company
  • Homans, George C. (1961), Social Behaviour: Its Elementary Forms. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
  • Blau, P. (1964), Exchange and Power in Social Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons
  • Lawler, E. J., & Thye, S. R. (2006), Social Exchange Theory of Emotions. Cornell University, ILR School
  • Miller, Katherine (2005), Communication Theories. New York: McGraw Hill
  • Cook, K. S., & Rice, E. (2003), Social Exchange Theory. In J. Delamater (Ed.), Handbook of Social Psychology (pp. 53-76). New York: Kluwer
  • Cook, K. S.; Emerson, R. M. (1978), “Power, Equity and Commitment in Exchange Networks.” American Sociological Review. 43 (5): 721–739
  • Knapp, Mark L. (1978), Social Intercourse: From Greeting to Goodbye. Allyn and Bacon.
  • Lawler, E. J. (2001), An Affect Theory of Social Exchange. American Journal of Sociology 107(2), 321-352

Future social workers learn about different theories and practice methods while obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work (BSW) and a Master of Social Work (MSW). Their programs might include learning more about the strengths and weaknesses of social exchange theories and other rational choice theories. Understanding these theories can help social workers understand their client’s past and current relationships, as well as their own relationships with their clients.

Are you interested in a career in social work? You may want to consider an online degree in social work.

Last updated: February 2022