Exchange Theory of Family Violence Research Paper

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An exchange theory of family violence is derived from the assumptions and propositions of social exchange theory (Blau 1964; Homans 1961; Thibault and Kelley 1959) and control theory (Hirschi 1969). The assumptions, concepts, and propositions of exchange theory are designed to explain all forms of intimate and family violence, ranging from corporal punishment to homicide and including violence and abusive acts in all intimate relationships.

The exchange approach to human behavior has a long history in both sociology and anthropology (Nye 1979). The key assumptions of the exchange perspective are:

  1. Social behavior is a series of exchanges.
  2. In the course of these exchanges, individuals attempt to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs.
  3. Under certain circumstances, a person will accept certain costs in exchange for other rewards.
  4. When one receives rewards from others, one is obliged to reciprocate and supply benefits to them in return (from Homans 1961; Blau 1964; Nye 1979).

The key concepts used by exchange theorists are rewards, costs, and reciprocity. Rewards are defined as pleasures, satisfactions, and gratifications (Thibault and Kelley 1959). Rewards also include gains in status, relationships, interaction, experiences other than interaction, and feelings that provide gratification to people (Nye 1979: 2). Costs are defined as any loss in status, loss of a relationship or milieu, or feeling disliked by an individual or group (Nye 1979: 2). There are two types of costs: (1) punishments and (2) losing out on some reward because another alternative was chosen (missing a good movie because you chose to go to a concert). Reciprocity is the key to social exchange. In brief, people are expected to help those who help them and not injure them (Gouldner 1960).


I. Control Theory

II. Applying Exchange Theory to Family Violence

III. The Key Proposition

A. Intimacy

B. Privacy

C. Inequality

IV. Derived Propositions

V. Tests of Exchange Theory

Control Theory

The assumptions and propositions of control theory were developed and defined by Hirschi (1969) to explain deviant behavior. Hirschi begins with the assumption that most people are tempted from time to time to engage in deviant behavior—including violence. For Hirschi, the central question is not ‘‘Why do people engage in deviant acts?’’ but rather, ‘‘Why do people conform most of the time?’’

From this assumption, Hirschi develops the following propositions (which were originally developed to explain delinquent behavior):

  1. The more attached people are to family, friends, and neighbors, the more involved they are in socially approved activities (e.g., school and work); and the stronger their belief in legitimate opportunities, the more likely they are to conform (i.e., not use violence toward loved ones).
  2. Those with few or weak attachments, low levels of commitment and involvement, and lack of opportunities, or who hold the belief that conformity will not be rewarded, are more likely to engage in deviance and violent acts.

In his later work, Hirschi (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990) focused on ‘‘self-control’’—the willingness to defer gratification and exercise perseverance, caution, patience, planning, and sensitivity to others. The assumptions guiding this work include the notion that low self-control is due to faulty socialization. The key proposition, added to those above, is that low parental control leads to low self-control and thus to acts of deviance.

Applying Exchange Theory to Family Violence

As with the general exchange theory, the key assumption of an exchange theory of family violence is that human interaction is guided by the pursuit of rewards and the avoidance of punishment and costs. Simply stated, individuals will use force and violence in their relationships with intimates and family members if they believe that the rewards of force and violence outweigh the costs of such behavior.

A second assumption is that a person who supplies reward services to another obliges the other to fulfill a reciprocal obligation; and thus, the second individual must furnish benefits to the first (Blau 1964). Blau (1964) explains that if reciprocal exchange occurs, the interaction continues. However, if reciprocity is not received, the interaction will be broken off. Of course, family relations, including partner relations, parent–child relations, and sibling relations, are more complex and have a unique social structure compared with the exchanges that typically exist outside of the family. First, given the nature of family relations, including legal and blood ties, it is difficult to ‘‘break off’’ the interaction, even when there is little or no reciprocity. While one can break off a social interaction with a friend or coworker, can quit or be fired from a job, or leave one’s church or synagogue and join another, breaking off an interaction with a spouse may require a formal legal divorce. Breaking off relations between parents and children is even more socially constrained and difficult. Even when one becomes an ‘‘ex-spouse,’’ it is difficult to become an ex-parent. Parents can disown children or even petition family or juvenile courts to have their parental rights terminated. These, however, are difficult, complex, and rare occurrences. Unless a parent abandons a child, unless the child runs away, or unless there is court-imposed or court-approved termination of the parental responsibilities, parents and children are tied to one another for life, even if there is low or minimal reciprocity.

A second unique aspect of the family and intimate relationships is the substantial difference in power—personal, social, and psychological. Most, if not all, societies are patriarchal and thus grant men more social, economic, and legal power than is granted to women. Men are often older, larger, and stronger than their women partners. For much of their interaction with their children, parents are physically larger and more powerful than their children, and have more economic, personal, and social resources. Parents have a legal and constitutional right to raise their children without unwarranted interference by the state. Although child welfare agencies have the authority to investigate cases of abuse and neglect and to take short-term custody of maltreated children with ex parte court orders, state involvement in child rearing is rigorously constrained. Federal and state law require that state departments of child welfare make reasonable efforts to keep maltreated children with their birth parents, and the process of actually terminating parental rights is typically long and complex. Thus the exchanges between parents and children, especially young children, are inequitable, with the parents holding the most social power and social resources.

The family playing field, within which costs and rewards are calculated and reciprocity measured, is not an even one. Intrafamilial relations are more complex than those studied by traditional exchange theorists. In some instances it is not feasible or possible to break off interaction, even if there is no reciprocity. When the ‘‘principle of distributive justice’’ is violated, there can be increased anger, resentment, conflict, and violence.

Many students of family violence tend to view violence as the last resort to solving problems in the family. F. Ivan Nye (1979), however, notes that this need not be the case. Spanking, for instance, is frequently the first choice of action by many parents.

The Key Proposition

A central and oversimplified proposition of an exchange theory approach to corporal punishment is that people hit family members because they can. People will use violence toward family members when the costs of being violent do not outweigh the rewards.

There are a variety of costs for being violent. First, there is the potential that the victim will hit back. Second, a violent assault could lead to the arrest and/or imprisonment of the person who has done the hitting. Using violence could also lead to a loss of status. Finally, too much violence might lead to the dissolution of the family or the end of the relationship. Thus there are potential significant costs involved in being violent.

Formal and informal social control are means of raising the costs of violent behavior. Police intervention, criminal charges, imprisonment, fines, and loss of income are all forms of formal social control that could raise the costs and lower the rewards of violent behavior. Informal social control includes loss of status, the stigma of being considered an abuser, and social ostracism.

From these basic assumptions, there are certain structural properties of families that make them violence prone, and there are specific family and individual traits that make certain families more at risk for violence than other families. The structural properties of the family as a social institution, especially in the developed world, are intimacy, privacy, and inequality.


It goes without saying that across time and societies, family interactions are the most intimate of social interactions. Not only do family members have more intimate knowledge of one another, but membership in a family obligates other family members to share intimacies. Belonging to a family carries with it the right to influence other family members and the obligation to be influenced. As a result, the stake that people have in family interactions and relationships is much more than that which people have in other social relationships.


The modern family is a private social institution. Law, custom, and culture combine to create a zone of privacy around the family as a social institution and an interaction setting. Behaviors, such as physical force or violence, that might provoke an intervention by an observer or bystander are responded to with selective inattention or even subtle approval if they are perceived to be between family members. The household has various levels of privacy. The public rooms—living room and dining room—are where what Goffman (1959) called ‘‘front stage’’ behavior occurs. The ‘‘family room’’ or ‘‘den’’ is a more private setting, and the bedrooms and bathrooms are the most private locations in the modern home. The more lethal forms of violence occur in the more private sections of the home—the bedroom and kitchen—out of sight of bystanders and even other family members (Gelles 1974). The privacy of the family reduces the visibility of family interactions and the likelihood of external informal or formal social control.


This research paper has already alluded to the structured inequality in the family. Unlike most other interaction settings, the family is made up of individuals of different sexes and, most importantly, different ages and generations. The position of husband and father has traditionally been invested with greater status and power, parents have greater social and legal power than do their children, and older family members have more power in some societies (however, in Western societies, the oldest family members suffer from a loss of economic and social power when they leave the workforce). Because of differences in size, strength, and social power, some family members (e.g., husbands, parents, children with elderly parents) exercise force and violence with little fear of retaliation or harm.

Derived Propositions

From the main proposition that people hit family members because they can, and drawing on the three unique structural features of the family, one can expand the main proposition into three others that can explain and predict the occurrence of family and intimate violence:

  1. Individuals are more likely to use violence at home when they expect the costs of being violent to be less than the rewards.
  2. The absence of effective social controls (e.g., public disapproval, loss of status or a job, police arrest/incarceration) over family and intimate relationships decreases the costs of one family member using violence toward another.
  3. Certain social and family structures reduce social control in family relationships and therefore reduce the costs and increase the rewards of being violent.

In addition to these propositions, exchange theory can be used to develop a testable hypothesis about individual behavior in families:

  1. The more an individual anticipates costs and punishments for violent behavior toward a family member, the less likely it is that the individual will use violence in the family.
  2. The greater the perceived costs of using violence in the family, the less likely an individual will be to engage in violent behavior.
  3. The more an individual has a stake in conformity, that is, the more an individual has to lose in terms of social or economic status, the less likely the individual will be to use violence in the family, assuming that there is a likelihood of informal or formal social control and that there are specific costs for being identified as someone who engages in acts of family violence.

Goode (1971) offers an additional perspective on the balance of costs and rewards and how the calculus of costs and rewards can increase or decrease the likelihood of family or intimate violence. Goode explains that all social systems rest, to one degree or another, on force and its use. With regard to the likelihood of intimate violence, Goode states that the greater the nonviolent resources available to an individual, the more force that individual has the ability to use, but the less he or she will actually deploy the violence. Violence is a more common behavior among those who do not have access to personal, economic, social, and other nonviolent resources.

Tests of Exchange Theory

The sociologist Kirk Williams (1992) tested some of the main propositions of exchange theory of family and intimate violence using data from two national surveys of family violence and their followup studies. The findings from the study indicated that men who believed themselves more isolated from the police (greater privacy/lower likelihood of formal social control), who were more powerful in their relationship with their partners (greater inequality), and who approved of men hitting their partners (lower perceived costs of violence) were less likely to perceive arrest as costly to them. Men who perceived the costs of arrest as low were more likely to assault their partners. Thus, there is empirical support for the main propositions of an exchange theory of family violence.

See also:


  1. Blau, P. M. Exchange and Power in Social Life. New York: Wiley, 1964.
  2. Gelles, R. J. The Violent Home. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1974.
  3. ———. ‘‘An Exchange/Social Control Theory.’’ In The Dark Side of Families: Current Family Violence Research, edited by D. Finkelhor, R. Gelles, M. Straus, and G. Hotaling. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1983, pp. 151–165.
  4. Goffman, E. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1959.
  5. Goode, W. ‘‘Force and Violence in the Family.’’ Journal of Marriage and the Family 33 (1971): 624–636.
  6. Gottfredson, M. R., and T. Hirschi. A Control Theory of Crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.
  7. Gouldner, A. ‘‘The Norm of Reciprocity.’’ American Sociological Review 25 (1960): 161–178.
  8. Hirschi, T. Causes of Delinquency. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969.
  9. Homans, G. Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961.
  10. Nye, F. I. ‘‘Choice, Exchange, and the Family.’’ In Contemporary Theories about the Family, vol. 2, edited by W. R. Burr, R. Hill, F. I. Nye, and I. L. Reiss. New York: Free Press, 1979, pp. 1–41.
  11. Thibault, J. W., and H. H. Kelley. The Social Psychology of Groups. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press, 1959.
  12. Willliams, K. ‘‘Social Sources of Marital Violence and Deterrence: Testing and Integrated Theory of Assaults between Partners.’’ Journal of Marriage and the Family 54 (1992): 620–629.

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