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Sociological Theory Comes to Life

When I was earning my undergraduate degree, there was a required class called Sociological Theory.  The first time I became aware of the class was when a bunch of my classmates were sitting around, talking about what they were going to take the next semester.   They all agreed to avoid Sociological Theory as long as possible.  None of them WANTED to take the class.  They said it was boring, difficult, and essentially a waste of time.  It sounded awful.  So, I put the class off too (even longer than statistics).  When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I enrolled in the class.  Boy was I surprised.  I LOVED the class.  It was interesting.  And so useful.

Imagine that you are trying to solve a difficult puzzle without a picture of what it looks like.  You are having trouble getting started.  But then suddenly the outer edge of the puzzle comes together and you begin to see how the inside might look.  Social theory often provides that type of tool for ethnographers.  It gives us a framework or a starting point to organize data or to understand a pattern.

I’m a little bit of a social theory junkie and I’ll admit that sometimes, for fun, I take random experiences and try a few different social theories on for size to see how well they can explain what I have seen.  It is very interesting to see how a single event can be understood in a variety of ways.  Admittedly, some social theories have more explanatory power and a wider scope of applicability than others.  One of my favorites is social exchange theory.  You know this one.  The premise is that all social relationships are based on exchanges between people and that these exchanges are based on a careful cost/benefit analysis of what each party is getting/receiving.  This particular theory is widely applicable and explains a great deal.

A few years ago I saw this theory in action when I was asked to help a client understand the lives of women at high risk for HIV infection.  I was spending time learning from a group of women who worked in the sex trade industry, hearing their stories, and learning more about how sex and protection fit into their work lives as well as their personal lives.  It was during these conversations and afterwards during analysis that I saw social exchange theory at work.  Many of the women I talked to summed up their decisions to not practice safe sex in terms of the costs and benefits they paid and reaped from their sexual exchanges.  It turned out that NOT using condoms helped them to shift the power balance of the exchange in their favor.  Obviously, at work they could demand more money if they didn’t use a condom.   But less obvious was the exchanges that they often made in their private relationships.  Not using a condom during sex with their significant others signaled trust, which was an important commodity that they paid into the relationship bank.  Using a condom would signal lack of trust and would put them further into the negative when it came to power within the relationship.   Although this seems counter-intuitive (i.e., using a condom SHOULD and does generally increase the power position of the woman), within this particular population, there were other, contextual variables at play that impacted the exchange.  For example, among this population, there was not a surplus of eligible partners and every potential partner entered into the relationship in a one up position, just by virtue of being scarce.  Also, there were cultural biases that made ‘cheating’ normal for men, but unacceptable for women.  Cheating was something that female partners were expected to not only accept, but essentially pretend not to see.  If they asked their partner to wear a condom, they were violating the agreement by pointing out that there was anything to be concerned about.  Finally, because their partners could usually leave the relationship and more easily find a replacement partner than they could, the value of ‘more pleasure’ that not using a condom provided allowed my participants to add another benefit to what they were paying into the relationship.

Social exchange theory provided a framework by which to organize the data and to explain the seemingly counter-intuitive and self-destructive behavior that my participants reported. It also encouraged me to try to understand the motivations for their decisions from a more rational perspective based on their social and cultural context.  Although I didn’t spend enough time in the field to really know whether the patterns I saw would be trustworthy in a larger population, social exchange theory provided a very interesting potential explanation for risk-taking behavior within this population and one that would probably indicate less traditional approaches to sex education and STI prevention efforts.

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