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Taking a Critical Look at Social Exchange Theory

Some two decades ago, someone who was counseling me uttered six words that have remained seared into my memory ever since. “All relationships are based on exchange,” he told me. The more I reflected on his words, however, the more troubled I became by them. I later
became disappointed in myself for not challenging him at the time, because his statement is deeply objectionable to me.

What he was articulating is akin to what is referred to in scholarly circles as Social Exchange Theory (SET). SET posits that individuals in any kind of relationship either consciously or unconsciously take account of the relative costs and benefits of the relationship and will exit a relationship if the costs exceed the benefits to them by too much. It should be noted that the benefit conveyed by one partner to the other need not be tangible. For example, one partner’s physical attractiveness may constitute a benefit conveyed to the other partner. One of SET’s weaknesses, however, is that it is difficult to test the theory empirically, as calculating costs and benefits in a relationship is problematic. As such, while the rubric may be able to explain why a given relationship has come apart after that relationship has ended, SET has limited predictive utility.

But SET presents moral problems as well. I have no difficulty with the notion that relationships are based on exchange when we are dealing with a commercial or mercantile relationship, such as that between a service provider and a client or between an employer and a worker. However, beyond that, such as in the case of romantic relationships, friendships, or relationships between family members, looking at the relationship as based on exchange strikes me as vulgar and wrong. I am highly doubtful that participants in social relationships are undertaking calculations of, or even estimates of, costs and benefits. I know that when I am involved in such a social relationship, I do not tether my decision to remain in the relationship to such a cost-benefit analysis. Nor do I want to reduce such a relationship to the level of a
commercial relationship. (That having been said, I might very well distance myself from a relationship where reciprocity on the other person’s part is severely lacking.) Furthermore, SET cannot account for the role of altruism in a relationship. In short, SET is unduly cynical about
the glue that holds relationships together.

Ideally, our most intimate relationships should be based on unconditional love, not commercial principles such as quid pro quo that regard us as little more than commodities to be judged by how much value we bring to others. That is certainly the case with parental and
perhaps other familial relationships, and even especially close friendships. The finest relationships are not based on notions of exchange, but rather are those where helping, supporting, and protecting the other bring joy to us even when they may cost us or require sacrifice on our part.