Social Exchange Theory

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Ethan Zuckerman on Nancy Baym:

"Social exchange theory contrasts social and economic exchanges. She admits that “it’s too simplistic, and paints us as more rational than we are… but it works.” Economic exchage is based around a certain set of rules: specific obligations, set rate of exchange, set time frame for repayment, based on legal principles, impersonal interactions and the idea that the value of goods is independent of providers. This, obviously, gets fuzzy – we like certain merchants other than others because they’re nice to us…

Baym tells us that the principles beyond social exchange are very similar to those behind gift economies, but unfortunately the literatures rarely overlap. She characterizes social exchange as being based having unspecified obligations, unspecified exchange rates, and an unspecified time frame – try to firm these up and you’ll violate social taboos. These relationships are based on trust and obligation, they are inherently interpersonal, and the value tied to the provider.

Within both types of exchange, there are possible rewards – goods, services, information, love (writ large), status and money. In commercial exchanges, money is usually what’s transferred. But in social exchanges, using money directly is often socially unacceptable. Baym mentions that she needed to solve the problem of compensating friends to look after her house over the summer. “I couldn’t say ‘What will I pay for you to look after my house?’ Instead, you say ‘how about if we buy the liquor for the grad student party you throw when I’m back?’” (

More Information

  1. the theory applied to music fandom,