Peter M. Blau

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Peter M. Blau (1918–2002) was an Austrian sociologist who primarily studied the discipline of exchange theory. Living during the time of the Third Reich, he wrote socialist papers in secret, but eventually got found by the fascist Austrian regime at the time. He was going to be imprisoned for high treason, but fortunately escaped with other political prisoners due to a negotiation made by the German Nazis with Austria. Unfortunately, with the subsequent occupation of Austria from said Nazis, he tried to escape in vain, spending excruciating time in a camp only to luckily take a train to France, where he subsequently got detained (again), only to acquire his visa and finally immigrate to the US. Arriving in the US, he studied under Robert K. MertonWikipedia and got his Ph.D. in 1952, becoming a professor in sociology for the remainder of his career.

Blau focused mainly on the nature of interaction, small groups, and social exchange, stemming from his studies under Merton and influence under George C. Homans and Georg Simmel.Wikipedia However, Blau expanded on the thought process of exchange regarding the existence of hierarchical relationships and the nature of power (in the way that Max Weber defined it.) As such, Blau went into deeper detail into the nature of imbalanced exchanges, and how imbalanced relationships can be legitimized or detracted based on the individuals perspective of value and their role in the imbalanced exchange.[1]

Rational exchange theory[edit]

Blau was a rational exchange theorist, meaning that he analyzed the rational exchanges that happened between individuals within social interaction resulting in potential rewards or unintended backlashes. While Homans analyzed what he believed was the drive for exchanges, as in the psychological roots of motivations for behaviors, Blau focused more on the relations that emerged from the exchanges themselves, and how their exchanges defined the relationship between the two.

Types of exchanges[edit]

Blau expands on the nature of rewards by discussing the types of rewards that can follow an exchange or interaction. He classifies rewards in two ways, intrinsic and extrinsic, under the presumption that each exchange would result in some ratio of the two that combine into the full reward. The reason why this is important to understand is to note the types of relationships that occur based on these exchanges, and how when people value different things, different definitions of relationships can occur.


An intrinsic reward is one in which the enjoyment or 'reward' is the activity or object in it of itself. Rather than focusing on the material or relationship gains made from the interaction, it is in fact the interaction itself that is valued and exchanged between the two people. For instance, one can find intrinsic rewards in an interaction by enjoying their personality or their energy intrinsically, akin to the satisfaction one gains from eating a food that they particularly enjoy. The enjoyment is not derived from the result of the interaction, the nutrients of the food, but rather the interaction, or eating, itself. Whether it be the texture, the taste, or the general feel of the interaction, this type of reward can typically be boiled down to "nonmaterial rewards".


Extrinsic rewards is the opposition to intrinsic rewards, in that they are not the enjoyment of the interaction itself, but rather the end result or gain derived from the interaction at the ultimate completion of the interaction. While one may enjoy the presence of a friend or peer, a possible extrinsic reward they could gain from that interaction would be, for instance, a social connection, a new piece of information learned, or even an opportunity for material gain. This part of the cost-benefit analysis done for social exchange steers more in the direction of rational and capital gains, rather than the subjectively defined interpretations of a reaction. For instance, one could derive very little intrinsic rewards from talking to someone they detest, but gain massive extrinsic rewards from that person if they ultimately give them a form of capital or opportunity.

Unequal Exchange[edit]

Unequal exchange happens when the amount of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards differ in proportion. For instance, when two people are in a romantic relationship, they are usually(but not always) in a superposition at which one member of the relationship derives less intrinsic rewards from the other. In this type of imbalanced relationship, the person who derives less intrinsic rewards from that relationship make up for this difference by deriving a non-zero amount of extrinsic rewards(an amount that they deem sufficient) from that relationship.

In addition, unequal exchange can happen when one party is unable to attain an equal amount of rewards at all from the other party. No matter what the ratios of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are attained, the amount of rewards that each party receives is not mutually considered to be the same amount. The real question, then, is to ask why a person would make that exchange in the first place? Why would a person rationally make a decision that they themselves believe is not mutually beneficial to both parties, and in fact result in one party gaining more than another?


Blau touches upon this with his concept of power, derived from Weber's definition of power, which roughly had to do with the capabilities that one can act against the will of others. There are a certain number of processes that one must go through before they commit to an exchange that they themselves consider to be unequal. To attain a specific reward that an individual or group desire, they must go through and fail to achieve the following:

  • Using some kind of force, physical or psychological, in order to get the opposing party to give them what you want.
  • Finding another source who is more willing to accept what you are willing to give them, thereby making an exchange that may feel more equal.
  • Figure out a way to attain that reward on their own, rather than making an exchange and referring to an outside party for that reward.

After these three things have been exhausted, the individual actor has no choice but to sublimate himself against the person who holds the resources, and subsequent rewards, that the individual desires. They must artificially value the desired reward at a higher level, or find some way to add more reward to their end of the bargain, be it extrinsic attainment or intrinsic enjoyment, in order to commit to the previously undesirable relationship/exchange. However, although the individual acting in this manner has the capability to redefine his or her wants and needs, the power nonetheless lies in the actor that is capable of withholding the reward that the individual is looking for, able to define the terms and conditions under their paradigm, therefore diminishing the individuals potential to make their own exchanges. The point is not that individuals can't make exchanges in a relationship where one member has more power than another, but more that an individual or group that holds more power over another individual or group(in this context of how power is defined) the higher their capability is in defining the terms of the exchange.

Collective Approval[edit]

When an individual or small group holds power over a larger group of people, they may be subject to an amount of collective approval, which is when the social group under the entities with power collectively determine that it is more profitably to remain sublimated under the person with more power and conform to their expectations rather than attempting any of the other three options. When a consensus is built in this way, when a group or individual is given power in this manner and is given the capability to take charge of a group of people, so follows the existence of a legitimate authority, a recognition that because you are sublimating to a certain group or individual, that they are not in a rightful position of authority to dictate your actions to a broad albeit limited extent.

When, at a point of further imbalance, the entity with power reduces their capability to provide the rewards that the people want, or their rewards are deemed no longer necessary or worthy of importance by the people, there becomes a tipping point at which the authority is no longer legitimate, the collective approval dissolves into nothing. Whether it's because the authority of the entity was questioned, or because their ability was restricted somehow, or because they couldn't compete with an alternate entity, they lose their approval, and in extension, a portion of their power they can exert over the people that were previously under their demonstration.[2]