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What is Emerson's exchange theory?

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Social exchange theory is a psychological and sociological theory which examines the economic-like cost-benefit analysis of two parties in a personal relationship. These relationships can include friendships, romantic relationships, or professional relationships and are framed through the lens of each party in the relationship possessing good which the other party assigns value to.

When there is breakdown in the value tradeoff, meaning the costs of the relationship outweigh the rewards or benefits, this could lead to issues.

Richard Marc Emerson’s iteration of the theory concerned the interaction between individuals and parties with an emphasis on resource availability, power, and dependence. He posited that the nature of a relationship is based in the dynamics of these exchanges and furthered the comparison and idea to a traditionally economic theory.

Two central properties of social exchange are self-interest and interdependence. Self-interest is not viewed as an inherently negative or greedy idea, but rather viewed as the guiding force for interpersonal relationships. If two individuals engage in a relationship which fulfills both of their self-interests, this is a positive result which reinforces the benefit of the relationship. As relationships grow, interdependence plays a role as one individual’s self-interest may require the input of their partner to be achieved efficiently.

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