Social Exchange Theory

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During the 1970s and 1980s, UW sociologists Richard Emerson and Karen Cook expanded what is called "social exchange theory." Through a series of innovative laboratory experiments and theoretical studies, the researchers developed and refined what has become a major school of thought in contemporary social psychology. Emerson was a member of the UW department of sociology from 1964 until his death in 1983, and Cook, from 1972 to the present.

Social exchange theory is based on a central premise: that the exchange of social and material resources is a fundamental form of human interaction. With roots in earlier theories developed in cultural anthropology, neoclassical economics, and psychology, the school of thought on social exchange developed at the UW focused on how interaction patterns are shaped by power relationships between individuals, and the resulting efforts to achieve balance in exchange relations.

For example, in the first of a series of experiments dealing with social power and equity in exchange networks, the researchers studied factors and constraints that affected the use of power in a simulation of negotiated trade agreements. The simulation involved 112 male and female participants in a specially developed computerized laboratory and communication network. Each of eight subjects was connected to three others as bargaining partners, forming two separate four-person networks. Subjects sought to increase their profits by entering into "trade agreements" for "resource units." Subjects could pursue either formal or informal negotiating procedures before a "transaction" was completed. The experimental design allowed the researchers to study power, equity, and the creation of commitment during these bargaining processes.footnote 1

The work of Emerson and Cook, considered influential and innovative by their colleagues, has had a wide impact of the field of sociology. "The social exchange school has continued to spawn new theoretical insights and experimental research," notes UW sociology chairman Charles Hirschman.

  1. "Power, equity, and commitment in exchange networks," American Sociological Review, 43, 721, (1978).
  2. Information provided by Dr. Charles Hirschman is gratefully acknowledged.

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