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Last updated February 14, 2001


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Social Exchange Theory

Explanation of Theory:

The Communication Theory of Social Exchange is a theory based on the exchange of rewards and costs to quantify the values of outcomes from different situations for an individual.  People strive to minimize costs and maximize rewards and then base the likeliness of developing a relationship with someone on the perceived possible outcomes.  When these outcomes are perceived to be greater, we disclose more and develop a closer relationship with that person.

Theorists: Thibault and Kelley

Date: 1952

Primary Article:

     Thibault, J. W., & Kelley, H. H. (1952)., The Social Psychology of Groups. New York: John Wiley & Sons 

Metatheoretical Assumptions:

This is a humanistic theory because it has intuitive credibility, it makes sense and is relative to actual communication practice. It has a systematic approach and is timely.  There are multiple truths.  It also has heuristic value because it is easily applicable to situations.


This is a scientific theory.  It has explanatory power in that it predicts individuals minimize costs and maximize rewards within their relationships.  This theory has predictive power in that it predicts that when outcomes are percieved to be greater individuals self disclose more.  It also simple and capable of being proved false.  The theoretical propositions with the theory are consistent with each other.  This theory generates new hypotheses therefore expanding the range of potential knowledge and also organizes existing knowledge. 

Ideas and Implications:

The viability of social exchange rests on the assumption that human beings recognize each other's life situations, notice each other's needs, and in some ways are likely to engage in reciprocity - a condition in which a response is correlated to the worth of the original message.  In other words, humans act with other humans in full recognition that their acts will be noticed and in some way reciprocated (i.e., that they will receive a return on their communicative investment). 


 A rookie NFL football player thinks that the benefits of signing with an independent agent would outweigh the costs of signing with a big firm.  He thought that the personal attention he would get would benefit him more than being a little fish in a big pond with a large agency.  As time went on, much to the rookie's surprise, he wasn't getting any offers.  This caused him to reevaluate his relationship with his agent and ultimately threaten to leave him for a big firm.  The rookie eventually chose to continue with the independent agent.  In the end, the rookie signed for millions of dollars with his favorite team and became a hero.

Relevant Research:

    Molm, Linda D. & Peterson, Gretchen. "Power in negotiated and reciprocal exchange." American Sociological Review. Dec. 1999.

     Finch, Kathleen Thiede.  "Caregiver burden from a social exchange perspective."  Journal of Marriage and Family. Aug. 1999.

     Lawler, E. & Thye, Shane.  "Bringing emotions into social exchange theory."  Annual Review of Sociology. 1999.

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

     Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. 158-60.

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. N/A

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. N/A

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. N/A

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. N/A

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 267-69.

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. 179-91.

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 224-235.