Exchange and Power in Social Life:  Peter M. Blau


The aim of the book is to understand social structure by understanding the processes that govern the associations among people.

The book is an attempt to provide a foundation, a first step, in a broader theory of social organization. To do so, PMB needs to identify the basic elements of social association.  He uses social exchange as this basis.

Put another way, he want to link theories of everyday life to theories of wider social structure, to bridge the 'micro-macro' divide.

The purpose of the analysis of interpersonal relations is to derive from the analysis a better understanding of the complex structure of associations among men. (p.2)

In such a program, one needs to avoid both over abstraction and too much reduction.  Reductionism ignores the emergent properties of a social system -- the characteristics of a system that are only observable at the system level.  Over abstraction leads to untestable theories and, more importantly, complex theories of social life need to be grounded in simple explanations.

What are emergent properties?

They are the relations among elements in a structure.  They could not exist without the structure, but neither are they found in the elements alone.  The age distribution, for example, is not captured by an individual's age.

Because sociology seeks to understand the relations among people, we are always concerned with emergent properties.

The concept of social exchange directs attention to the emergent property in interpersonal relations.
PMB points out that a person for whom another has done a favor is expected to express gratitude & return a service when the occasion arises.

The quality of a social relation is the joint product of both parties, and thus cannot be reduced to a quality of just one person.

Exchange is conceived of as a social process of central significance in social life, derived from simpler processes (of attraction, for example) that do not concern us here, that then leads to more complex processes (among groups, for example).

Social exchange may reflect any behavior oriented to socially mediated goals.  People act rationally, and often employ exchange in pursuit of rational ends.  For example, among members of a political organization, they may exchange support to build solidarity, or, lovers may do things for each other to gain commitment in the relationship.

Chapter 1.The structure of social associations.

"To speak of social life is to speak of the associations between people."

Blau's 'Guiding Principle' for understanding social relations "is that the analysis of social associations, of the processes governing them, and the forms they assume is the central task of sociology."

He recognizes that associations between individuals tend to become organized into complex structures, often institutionalized to perpetuate the for of organization beyond the life span of human beings.
        We study interaction to understand how this happens, in this book, Blau (PMB) focuses on the structure of social associations.'

[read the last paragraph of this section closely]

The exchange of social rewards

Social rewards to one person tend to entail a cost to another person.  This does not mean that society is a zero sum game (that every person must loose in equal proportion to someone else's gain), but it does imply that people do not share social profits equally.

Also, social action can be intrinsically rewarding, but often social action depends on other considerations.

A person who does not reciprocate is considered rude, a cad, an ingrate.  The social sanctions evident in the face of such action demonstrate that reciprocity is expected. PMB says that there is an "apparent altruism" in social life.  People are anxious to help others and to reciprocate the help they receive. Underneath this altruism, however, is an egoism -  a selfishness. Social approval is of great significance, but its significance depends on it being genuine. Because social approval is important, associates are reluctant to withhold approval from one another, and thus some element of simulation creates in.  Etiquette requires that you say a dinner was good, even if you don't really approve of the host or the food.  Because we all know this, we are constantly looking for other signs that we have gained social approval, such as being invited over for dinner in return.

A key distinction, that we will build on in Leifer's work, is that unlike economic exchange, social exchange carries ambiguous meaning and value.  With economic exchange, we are able to exactly identify how much an exchange item is worth.  Because social exchanges are ambiguous, we are faced with uncertainty about our debt to others, and thus the actions and meanings our actions take.  This can lead, for example, to an exchange spiral -- where I give to you more than you gave to me, so that I can ensure I am not in your debt.

Basic Processes
    Social attraction draws people together.  It is the force that induces people to establish associations on their own and to expand the scope of associations once they have been founded.
    An individual is attracted to another if he/she expects associating with him/her will in some way be rewarding.  Regardless of the exact motive (physical attraction, economic attraction, etc.) there is a difference between the expectation that the association will be an intrinsically rewarding experience and the expectation that it will be extrinsically rewarding.
    This difference creates an interesting dynamic in interpersonal relations.  Recall the example that PMB gives of romantic involvement.

Frequently, however, two people who meet are not equally attracted to each other.  Thus, one person will try to impress the other -- this leads to an imbalance of power in the relationship.  Recall the example we gave in class about the boy who liked a girl more than she him.  This is sketched in the figure below.


If this is so, then the girl will have power over the boy.  Why?  Because she has least intrinsic interest in the relation, she can use his interest to get him to do things for her, and if he values her company, he will continue to supply these things.

This is a specific example of a more general feature, that unique control of  a resource provides one with power.

Thus, frequently one person has skills another person needs, but nothing to offer in return.   While gratitude may be enough sometimes, it can't endure for a long while (imagine how little you would value a coworkers thanks if they kept bugging you for help all the time)  Such a person (the skillets one) has several options:

  1. Could force the person to help.
  2. may get help from somebody else
  3. may find a way to do without the good (substitute something else)
If all three of these are impossible, then the person must subordinate himself to the other and comply with his wishes.  Thus rewarding the other with power over himself.

Power is a generalized, social reward, which can be used to attain a variety of ends.  It is equivalent in social life to credit in economics.  Individual control of important services establishes this kind of power.

Exchange Processes thus lead to differentiation in power.  This is true for most intimate as well as more distant relations, i.e. it is as true for romance as for technical help in an office, with the extent of power only changing with the extent of desire for the good the person can supply.

This power will be seen as legitimate if the costs for the subjects is less than the benefits they get from the ruler.  If not, then they will feel exploited.  PMB argues that this is a normative outcome, that depends on communication of feeling with other people in similar positions.  Legitimate power is a basis of organization, and while it is possible to organize people through force, it is much easier and more stable if they view the organization as legitimate.

Blau argues that the two pressures (between legitimization and exploitation) work in 'contrasting dynamic forces', that builds organizations and later divides them.


Be sure you understand:
    1) what the social imbalance of reciprocity is:  that the exchange can be reciprocal, but imbalance on other dimensions
    2) how social power results from control of scarce resources

We ended the class by examining how social balance among triads can lead to the formation of cohesive subgroups in a population.  On this version of balance theory, we have three people and relations among those people.  Balance is linked to the cognitive dissonance people feel in groups of others who do not get along.  Thus, if I have two friends who don't like each other, our interactions will be difficult.  We can represent this graphically, with small networks, putting a positive line between those who like each other and a negative line between those who do not.  This is given in the figure below.

When people act in accordance with simple balance, you get either (1) a system of two groups in opposition or (2) a single group where everyone likes everyone else.  If we  make the world slightly more complicated, we end up with very different social structures (by, for example, adding direction to the relations (a likes b, but b does not like a).  The important point is that through simple interaction rules (similar to those PMB outlines) we can establish how full social system will come to look.