Social Exchange and Rational Choice at the Micro Level: Looking Out for #1

This chapter will deal with social exchange theory and its elaboration and eventual transformation into (or absorption by) rational choice theory. Despite the high overlap between these perspectives, “rational choice” theory suggests an even more individualistic model of social behavior than “exchange” theory. The major topics of this chapter are as follows:

  • Historical differences between individualistic and collectivist theories of social exchange—This section draws on Peter Ekeh’s analysis of these contrasting models that were implicit in some of the early classical-stage theories.

  • Application of behavioral psychology to social exchanges—George Homans’ individualistic explanation of “elementary” (or face-to-face) behavior will be reviewed as the beginning of modern exchange theory.

  • Emergence of power structures from imbalanced exchanges—This section will review Peter Blau’s perspective on how imbalanced exchanges give rise to power and dependency relations which provide the foundation for macro-level structures in which exchange patterns are institutionalized.

  • Individual interests as the foundation for normative conformity and group solidarity—This section will use Michael Hechter’s rational choice perspective to explain how individuals seek to satisfy various personal interests through involvement in different types of groups and conformity to their norms.

  • Development of normative systems to regulate exchange transactions—This section introduces James Coleman’s systematic explanation of how the exchange transactions that individuals develop in pursuit of their personal interests are regulated by norms and laws based on social consensus regarding individuals’ rights and responsibilities.

  • The challenge of irrational consequences of “rational” action—This section examines Raymond Boudon’s explanation of how action that appears to be rational at the individual level may generate unintended irrational consequences, particularly when the benefits being sought are contingent on the actions of others.


Rational Choice Distributive Justice Social Exchange Exchange Theory Rational Choice Theory 
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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

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