You are on page 1of 6

1

Trista Alberts 12-10-13


SPE 1710 Reyes
Research Paper
The Big Bang Social Exchange Theory

The Big Bang Theory is a television sitcom written by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady that
has become a primetime hit show comprised of several seasons with each episode being named
after a scientific theory or phenomenon. The sitcom is set in Pasadena, California and the main
characters are comprised mostly of brilliant scientists. Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter
are two physicists who have unimaginable IQs and an extraordinary understanding of how the
universe works. On the contrary though, their doctorates dont give them a better understanding
of how to socially interact with people unlike them, especially women. In The Big Bang Theory
pilot episode a beautiful, blonde, newly single female moves in across the hall from the
scientists. Leonard becomes instantly awestruck and expresses his eagerness to date her, while
Sheldon simply expresses his feelings of discomfort. Most of the comedy throughout the sitcom
is based on social awareness or lack thereof. Social Exchange Theory is defined as individuals
finding other individuals that may possess an exchangeable behavior or good that is not
attainable alone can create interdependence between two or more people. All of the individuals
in the sitcom become interdependent on each and every member of the developed social group.
The television sitcom, The Big Bang Theory contains as previously noted, mainly brilliant
scientists for the main characters except for the beautiful blonde across the hall. Penny is an
aspiring actress who moved from Omaha, Nebraska to Pasadena, California to pursue her dreams

2
of becoming a star, but thus far has been unsuccessful. She works as a waitress at The
Cheesecake factory which soon becomes a favorite place to dine for the scientists. She did not
graduate from a university but has more common sense and social awareness than any of the
other main characters. Leonard Hofstadter instantly became smitten by Penny and throughout the
seasons there has been an on again, off again relationship between the two. Leonard is opposite
of Pennys past typical mates. Hes extremely smart, an experimental physicist, interested in Star
Wars, Star Trek, and comic books, and lacks the physical strengths Pennys previous mates had.
Leonards roommate Sheldon Cooper is even more socially awkward than him and maintains
many childish characteristics. Sheldon has high self-esteem based mainly off of his intelligence
and belittles his friends because he believes their accomplishments are not comparable to his
own. His life is based on strict adherence to routine, which before Penny came along, was simple
to adhere to. He has an extremely ritualized way of life that often gets joked about by the other
main characters, though Sheldon lacks an understanding of sarcasm, so most of the time he
remains clueless to their jokes. Sheldon consistently bashes Leonard and Pennys relationship
and doesnt have an understanding of the emotional aspects of romantic relationships until his
friends seek out a female companion for him. They create an online profile for Sheldon and find
a female by the name of Amy Farrah Fowler, who sounds by her profile, a perfect match for
Sheldon due to their similar social awkwardness. Amy is a neurobiologist who is slightly more
socially aware than Sheldon. Sheldon finds her more tolerable than any of the other characters on
the sitcom, though does not define her as a girlfriend only as a girl that is a friend. Amy
befriends Penny and even comes to idolize her, defining their relationship as besties. All of the

3
main characters in The Big Bang Theory come to value the relationships they have developed
and become very interdependent on one another.
The Social Exchange Theory is an idea that individuals are attracted to other individuals
who may offer some substantial benefits to one another with minimal costs or disadvantages.
Finding another individual that may possess an exchangeable behavior or good that is not
attainable alone can create interdependence between two or more people. The ideas of Social
Exchange Theory originally do not incorporate emotional aspects, something that Edward J.
Lawler, writer of An Effect Theory of Social Exchange, considered a vital component of the
original theory. It is common sense that in most cases of exchanging a behavior or good with
another person there is emotion tied to it. The individual seeking the behavior or good from
someone else is doing it with a purpose, whether its a selfish desire or a desire to obtain in the
order of pleasing another. The individual who is providing the behavior or good may feel selfish
in their internal resistance to allow others to take their behaviors or goods. This in Lawlers
article is classified as an unsuccessful social exchange, where both individuals experience
negative emotions after the exchange (Lawler Para. 2). On the other hand, when social
exchanges occur successfully, both or all individuals feel benefitted by the exchange and
experience an emotional uplift. Edward J. Lawler and Shane R. Thye analyzed and reviewed how
emotion can elaborate on Social Exchange Theory pervious to Lawler writing the article An
Effect Theory of Social Exchange. Lawler and Thye came together and identified six different
approaches to the psychology and sociology of emotion and complied Bringing Emotions into
Social Exchange Theory. They classified two types of exchange; reciprocal, which is exchange
based on no specified terms or obligations, and, negotiated, which is exchange based on set terms

4
and obligations (Lawler & Thye, 219). Many instances of emotion being tied to Social Exchange
Theory can be noted on in the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
In The Big Bang Theory, all of the main characters are consistently making social
exchanges, both reciprocal and negotiated. The first example and a constant theme throughout
the sitcom is that fact that it is based on a social group containing a member that is
stereotypically not normally part of that social group. When Penny first moves in across the hall
from Leonard and Sheldon, they instantly create reciprocal social exchanges. They are able to
interact with a beautiful, blonde want to be actress and offer to do a wide variety of things for
her, such as let her use their Wi-Fi, eat their food, use their shower and even confront an exboyfriend of hers without making any set terms or agreements for her to return the social
exchanges. As the sitcom progresses and the social group becomes more interdependent, the
characters begin to socially exchange by more negotiated terms. There is an episode in which
Sheldon is doing a live interview and requests Pennys assistance to teach him how to interact
with the audience in a more socially aware manner. The pre-negotiated terms were that she
would help him if he agreed to teach her about physics so that she could impress Leonard by
obtaining more intellect on a subject he enjoys. Emotion comes into these social exchanges much
more because Penny has developed feelings for Leonard and has a desire to please him, so she
seeks out a social exchange that would in turn benefit all individuals involved in the exchange.
Sheldon experiences an emotional uplift due to his newly developed social understanding, Penny
experiences an emotional uplift from her newly obtained intellect, and Leonard experiences an
emotional uplift due to Pennys desire to please him. Another example of Social Exchange
Theory being present in The Big Bang Theory is seen in the exchanges that occur between Amy

5
Farrah Fowler and Penny. They come to develop a friendship at first based on the fact that their
male companions are best friends but then become interdependent on one another for
relationship advice. They seek out one anothers opinions and often utilize the other individual to
vent about their significant others most recent actions or mistakes. Leonard and Sheldons
relationship is much different in the context of social exchange than Amy and Pennys. Their
social exchanges are based primarily on events or ideas they both enjoy, typically Star Wars, Star
Trek, comic books and work related topics so the exchanges that occur are primarily successful
and uplifting. The Social Exchange Theory can clearly been as a consistent theme throughout the
several seasons of the sitcom, The Big Bang Theory.
The Social Exchange Theory is defined as an idea that individuals are attracted to other
individuals who may offer some substantial benefits to one another with minimal costs or
disadvantages. The characters in The Big Bang Theory discover that even though their developed
social group contains individuals who stereotypically do not belong in the group, it comes to
benefit everyone within the group. Social Exchange Theory is also defined as individuals finding
other individuals that may possess an exchangeable behavior or good that is not attainable alone
can create interdependence between two or more people. All of the individuals in the sitcom
become interdependent on each and every member of the social group. As the series progresses
the interdependence creates strongly bonded relationships with many developed emotional ties.

References
Edward J. Lawler, An Effect Theory of Social Exchange. American Journal of Sociology, Vol.
107, No. 2 (September 2001), pp.321-352
Edward J. Lawler and Shane R. Thye, Bringing Emotions into Social Exchange Theory
Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 25, (1999), pp.217-224