Mate selection as social exchange

Mate Selection as Social Exchange

Recently, I was intrigued by a column in The Palo Alto Daily News (Feb. 26, 2010) by Malcolm Fleschner on the topic of “Should women settle?”  “Settle” as in “settle for what they can get in a mate” as opposed to “waiting for Mr. Right.”  The writer’s conclusion is that probably most women are willing to settle for a guy who’s good enough, if not the man of their dreams. After all, so many feminine romantic ideals hark back to Prince Charming stories that quickly fizzle in the cold light of real life.  And so many women, so popular wisdom goes, really do want to settle in another sense–into home and family-building–for which someone less than Prince Charming will surely do.

As a sociologist, this discussion took me back to college days where we debated Social Exchange Theory.  This theory offers a simple, if somewhat coldblooded explanation, of all social interactions–even a simple greeting to a stranger–as “exchanges.”  An even exchange, where my greeting of you is as robust as yours is of me, is more acceptable than one in which one party is giving more than he/she gets.

In this framework, mate selection would work as follows.  A man would assess what he has to offer in attracting a potential mate–such as, physical looks, height, strength, wealth, earning power, social class ranking.

Similarly, the female would assess her own value in similar terms.  Each will use this self-assessment to determine the pool of mates each could realistically hope to be able to attract and get.  Of course, males and females may value different things in the opposite sex–a man may be more impressed by a woman’s physical attributes; she may be more impressed with the male’s job and earning power.

So, this theory predicts that pretty well everyone “settles” in the long run–men and women alike–whether they intend to do so or whether they even realize they are doing so.

Sociologist Margaret R. Davis’s new novel, The Miranda Affair (published by Sand Hill Review Press, 2017) is a light-hearted yet serious depiction of the political shenanigans that take place as women and men in a large corporation struggle to climb the corporate ladder.

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Margaret R. Davis’s debut novel, Straight Down the Middle (Kelso Books, 2009) is set in San Francisco in the mid-1980’s at a time when the gay revolution was at its height.  It is a humorous, romantic, sometimes spicy story about a lesbian woman’s quest to have a baby.

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