Introduction sociology. Going back to the early origin, the


In our daily life, we constantly
encounter situations where we are giving favor and assistance in return for
something else received in the past, or in anticipation of receiving something
else in the future, which is easy to understand
in that people who give something to others expect the same (or more) from
others, and similarly, those that get something from others are pressurized to
return the same to them. These very popular circumstancess can be explained in
light of social exchange theory (SET). This paper will first begin with brief
history of the SET. Then, I will move on with its basic content as well as the
basic concepts of the SET, which is followed by the application of this theory
as hypothetical framework in various disciplines. Finally, this essay will end
with some examples of the familar situations in my daily life reflecting the
SET along with my comments.

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Brief history

The theory has roots
in economics, psychologyand sociology. Going back to the early origin, the
SET has surfaced in the middle of the 21st century. According to Wikipedia, the SET has been derived from the
work of Homans (1958), Thibaut and Kelley
(1959), Blau (1964), and Cook and Emerson (1987). “Social Behavior as Exchange” published in
1958 presents sociologist Homans’ view that exchange between
individuals, tangible or intangible,
continues because each finds the others’ behavior reinforcing to some degree, i.e.
more or less rewarding or costly. Thibaut and Kelley (1959) are recognized for focusing
their studies within the theory on the psychological concepts, the dyad and
small group in “The Social Psychologyof Groups”. Blau (1964) argued that it is possible to understand social
structure and events that occur within social structures by looking first at
individual processes that occur between people and then building on them.
Blau’s theory combines principles from operant psychology and econornics to
provide a conceptual framework for the analysis of social relations. The
approach of Cook and Emerson (1987) focused on the exchange relation as the
most elementary unit of analysis rather than the behavior or action, taking
hypotheses from operant psychology and applied these to human social leaming,
specifically their application to individuals. They presented a more general
theoretical framework for analyzing social interactions, atternpting to link
individuals involved in social exchange relations together to form structures
or networks.

Basic content and concepts

SET is defined in Wikipedia as:

            a social
psychological and sociological
perspective that explains social
change and stability as       a process of
negotiated exchanges between parties. Social exchange theory posits that   human relationships are formed by the use of a subjective cost-benefit
analysis and the        comparison of

Cherry (2017) further explained that
according to this theory, people tend to weigh
the prospective benefits and risks of social relationships in order to maximize
benefits and minimize costs. In other words, when we enter a relationship, we
are inclined to evaluate the rewards we are likely to gain and the costs
we are willing to pay. If  the rewards outweigh the risks , we will
continue to develop the relationship and vice
versa (Liu, Vol?i?, & Gallois, 2015).

Human interactions and exchanges are
perceived in SET as a kind of results-driven social behavior, in which is the
concept of cost and rewards is primary. This means that the outcome of a
particular relationship is assessed by the comparison between the rewards
derived from a relationship and the costs incurred in that relationship. Rewards
refer to “pleasures, satisfactions, and gratifications the person enjoys” while
costs are defined as “any factors that operate to inhibit or deter the
performance of a sequence of behavior” (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959, p. 12). Or as
Liu, Vol?i?, & Gallois (2015) stated
“The rewards of human relationships can be expressed in the form of
satisfaction, happiness, self-esteem, acceptance, and friendship. The costs may
involve money, time, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, losing face, and frustration.”
(p. 230). Basically, rewards are positive feelings while costs are negative
ones. It suggests that individuals in certain relationships intentionally or
unintentionally consider the balance and measure the disparity between rewards
and costs, and then consequently regulate their own maintenance behaviors used
in that relationship. From the social exchange perspective, rewards and costs
are assessed in an overall rating. The relational outcome value of a particular
relationship could be transcribed into a mathematical equation as follows:
outcome = rewards – costs (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). More specifically, in
the work by Dainton and Zelley (2005), specified relational rewards are viewed
as pleasant benefits whereas relational costs are supposed as unpleasant
drawbacks; therefore, individuals obtain positive outcome value when the
rewards outweigh the cost and vice versa. 

According to Social Work Degree Guide (n.d.)., we should include cultural values when analyzing
the decisions of different societies as every culture has their own unique way
of judging value, costs and rewards. For example, Asian societies, such as
China and Japan, are collective cultures that emphasize group harmony and
sacrifice for the group. Therefore, certain individual costs, such as personal
freedom or happiness, are not as important as in individualized cultures. In
fact, the negative costs of social disapproval are more severe in collective
Asian cultures.

Application in various disciplines

Since its inception, the exchange
framework has captured the interest of investigators throughout the social
sciences (namely social psychology and anthropology), political science to the
field of law, to name a few. In the study by Nord (1969), exchange theory proved:

            to provide a useful vehicle for data
integration and generation of new hypotheses about social      conformity and the model allows for the
process of social conformity to be considered in         dynamic terms, treating the influence source and influenced
person simultaneously (p. 174)

Sociologists have found the framework
fruitful in examining interorganizational relations (Levine & White, 1960).
These experts argued that interaction 
among  organizations  can 
be  viewed  within the framework  of  an
exchange model like  that suggested  by 
Homans and that such model is useful in 
understanding  not  only 
health  agency  interaction but  also 
relationships within  other  specific systems. They added the possibility
of applying this skeleton in explaining interaction among organizations
belonging to different systems; moreover, the SET is believed to have obvious
value in  explaining interaction among
units or departments within a single large-scale organization. Rapoport and
Chammah (1965) have used a form of exchange theory to account for conflict,
negotiation, and decision making in both the interpersonal and the
international arenas. In the field of politics, Waldman (1972) relied upon the
exchange framework to integrate understanding of wide-ranging political
activities. He emphasized that the exchange paradigm is helpful to
“explain  the  degree of governmental power and
responsiveness in the allocation of values”, and “the nature of the
particular policy areas in which governments are most likely to intervene”
(p. 118) as well as “to analyze the nature and degree of cooperation
between different party organizations in different contexts”, and
“the nature of leadership within parties in various settings” (p.
121). SET is also applied to elucidate religious  behaviour, 
arguing  that  individuals make choices about religious
behaviour based on their evaluation of the maximum benefits, and religious
behaviour can be understood as social exchange. ( Barrow
& Kuvalanka, 2011; Corcoran,

Real-life examples and comments

The implication of SET can be found
in almost every aspect of life. Most obvious is the so-called “envelope
culture”. It seems that when people do a certain favor for a person of
high position, that other person, no matter how exalted he/she happens to be,
should, in common fairness, do something 
in return. Under such an assumption, people, from work place to
government or even educational institutions, exploit that “fairness”
in the hope of gaining some “return benefit” from the relationship
with those in higher position. It is generally supposed that the more “envelopes”
or the bigger gifts one offers, the easier it may be for him/her to get
promotion (work place), to have things done smoothly (administrative procedures)
and to get the diploma or higher grade (education).  

When it comes to
comparing between cost and rewards, there are ample situations around us that reveal
the framework of SET. Employees who work extremely hard but are not acknowledged for their efforts may
switch their jobs to another that is more high-paid, or where they get the same
benefits for lesser effort. Similarly, when employers intend
to hire or fire someone, they have to weigh the pros and cons before coming to
a decision.
A bachelorette, while choosing a prospective groom from several alternatives,
may settle for one who is caring, fun, and handsome – things she considers as
rewards while accepting the fact that he is not as rich as the others – a
potential risk in the relationship. When we join some club, e.g. a dancing
club, and we find that a man in the club dances very gracefully, we may want to
start a relationship with him in the hope of getting his guidance in dancing
later on.

Mentioned above are
only very common situations springing from the concept of cost and rewards.
This is not to say that all relationships maintain an economic perception. Some
relationships endure the costs and other hazards for the sake of love or
relation. Typically, parents and their children do not equally share costs and
rewards in favor of children; however, hardly
ever do parents stop the relationship, in
other words, leave their children. Or there are also certain actions
that are not counted for
practical motivation but for culture or just for fulfilling a duty in the sense
of moral. For example, after finishing a course, learners may present the
instructor a small gift just to express their gratitude and respect (at least,
in Vietnamese culture) or a teacher tries to prepare the lesson carefully and
makes great effort to help his/her students understand the lesson not because
he/she wants to get somethings from the students but merely to execute his/her
role as teacher.

In short, the SET is
true to some extent. It is applicable in matters of diverse areas. In
these kinds of relationships, seeking rewards and deducing costs is usual and vital to the existence of a relationship and its success. However,
as the concept of cost and rewards varies from culture to culture and not all
relationships are built on the framework of SET, it is recommended that we
should consider a relationship wisely and from different aspects so as not to misunderstand
the others’ actions in such  manifold


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