In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Exchange Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classic Works
  • Distribution of Power
  • Types of Power and Power Use
  • Network Connections and Characteristics
  • Predicting Exchange Outcomes
  • Forms of Exchange
  • Affective Reactions
  • Trust and Commitment
  • Collective Action and Norms
  • Dynamic Networks
  • Applications of Exchange Theory

Sociology Exchange Theory
Gretchen Peterson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0085


Exchange theory is a term that encompasses several theoretical traditions that focus on exchange relationships and interactions. One of the hallmarks of the exchange traditions is the systematic development and testing of theoretical principles and predictions. Thus, much of the research reviewed in this bibliography has used experimental methodology to engage in theory testing. The result of this extensive theory testing is that exchange theory can address the effects of the structure of exchange networks, the process of exchange, and the outcomes of exchange. Exchange theory has particularly focused on elaborating our understanding of power, with a particular emphasis on predicting the distribution of power within a network. As exchange theory has evolved, greater consideration has been given to affective and behavioral outcomes of exchange including emotions, trust, commitment, and collective behavior. Research has also begun to focus on dynamic networks thus moving beyond conceptualizations and operationalizations of network structures as static. While all of these theoretical developments are important, an avenue for future work is to apply the theoretical formulations to settings outside the laboratory thus demonstrating the utility of the exchange theoretic approach.

General Overviews

Over the course of five decades of exchange theory theorizing and research, a number of general overview chapters, articles, and books have described the state of the field at that time. One of the early overviews includes Emerson 1981 in the seminal volume Social Psychology: Sociological Perspectives. When the social psychology volume was updated in 1995, Molm and Cook prepared a chapter examining the state of exchange theory (Molm and Cook 1995). Most recently, Cook and Rice 2006 provides an overview of the theory. Taken sequentially, these chapters provide a systematic overview of the evolution of exchange theory. Other overviews of exchange theory have addressed specific theoretical traditions, beginning with Willer and Anderson 1981, a comprehensive volume on elementary theory. Cook 1987 provides an overview of the power-dependence tradition in a book honoring the work of Richard Emerson. More recently, Molm 1997 and Willer 1999 published on coercive power and Network Exchange Theory, respectively. Finally, Walker, et al. 2000 provides insight into developments in Network Exchange Theory.

  • Cook, Karen S., ed. 1987. Social exchange theory. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

    This book is a tribute to Richard Emerson and the chapters recognize both his work and the legacy he created by building on his formulation of power-dependence theory. The volume includes an unfinished piece by Emerson on value as well as work by his contemporaries, his students, and others influenced by his work.

  • Cook, Karen S., and Eric Rice. 2006. Social exchange theory. In Handbook of social psychology. Edited by John Delamater, 53–76. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/0-387-36921-X

    Explains the foundations of social exchange theory and then explores the topics that have been of interest to social exchange theorists including power, fairness, emotion, commitment, power and status relations, and collective action. The chapter finishes with a discussion of future directions linking exchange theory to economic sociology and to the study of social networks.

  • Emerson, Richard M. 1981. Social exchange theory. In Social psychology: Sociological perspectives. Edited by Morris Rosenberg and Ralph H. Turner, 30–65. New York: Basic Books.

    Identifies how social exchange theory is social-relational in nature despite the emphasis of earlier work on the psychology of individuals party to an exchange. Demonstrates that social exchange and economic exchange are fundamentally dissimilar, but that anthropological, psychological, and sociological work on social exchange is profoundly similar in intellectual framework.

  • Molm, Linda D. 1997. Coercive power in social exchange. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511570919

    This book presents Molm’s decade-long research program examining punishment or coercive power in social exchange. The book not only presents the results of Molm’s research, but also provides background on the growth and development of the theory underlying the research.

  • Molm, Linda D., and Karen S. Cook. 1995. Social exchange and exchange networks. In Sociological perspectives on social psychology. Edited by Karen S. Cook, Gary Alan Fine, and James S. House, 209–235. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    This chapter provides an overview of classical works in social exchange with particular focus on how Emerson’s work in the power-dependence tradition led into more recent work on understanding social exchange theory.

  • Walker, Henry A., Shane R. Thye, Brent Simpson, Michael J. Lovaglia, David Willer, and Barry Markovsky. 2000. Network exchange theory: Recent developments and new directions. Social Psychology Quarterly 63.4: 324–337.

    DOI: 10.2307/2695843

    In the millennium issue of Social Psychology Quarterly examining the state of social psychology, Walker and colleagues summarize the two decades of research on Network Exchange Theory (NET) and propose directions for further research and theory growth.

  • Willer, David. 1999. Network exchange theory. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    In this volume, Willer and colleagues bring together a large body of theorizing and research on Network Exchange Theory (NET). This book traces Network Exchange Theory from its early formulations to more contemporary developments.

  • Willer, David, and Bo Anderson. 1981. Networks, exchange, and coercion: The elementary theory and its applications. New York: Elsevier.

    Brings together theorizing and research on the elementary theory. The book presents both the formal statements of the theory as well as applications of the theory to a variety of settings.

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