Theoretical Frameworks for Personal Relationships

By Ralph Erber ; Robin Gilmour | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Communal and Exchange Relationships: Controversies and Research

Judson Mills University of Maryland

Margaret S. Clark Carnegie Mellon University

In this chapter, we review a theoretical distinction between communal and exchange relationships and our work supporting the distinction, describing some of our more recent studies in some detail. In addition, we use the chapter as an opportunity to explicitly state and address some concerns that we have often heard over the years in response to our articles and talks.

In a paper published in 1979 ( Clark & Mills, 1979), we first distinguished communal relationships, in which members benefit one another on the basis of concern for the other's welfare, from exchange relationships, in which members benefit one another in response to specific benefits received in the past or expected in the future. Exchange relationships follow the dictionary definition of exchange as giving or taking one thing in return for another. Benefits are given with the expectation of receiving benefits of' comparable value in return. The receipt of a benefit incurs a debt or an obligation to return a comparable benefit.

In communal relationships, the rules governing when benefits are given and received are different. Benefits are given in response to the other's needs or simply to please the other. This may create a pattern of giving and receiving benefits that appears to an observer to follow exchange norms. However, communal norms are distinct from exchange norms. From the perspective of participants in a communal relationship, the benefits given and received are not part of an exchange. In a communal relationship, receipt of a benefit does not create a specific debt or obligation to return a comparable benefit. The general obligation each person has to aid the other when the other has the need is

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