Social Exchange Theory as a Tool for Understanding Relationships in Fiction: Applications to the Works of Petrus Alfonsi, William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Anne Tyler, and Nick Hornby
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An analysis of Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis, William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, James Joyce’s Dubliners, Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, and Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down illustrates the nearly universal applicability of social exchange theory as a lens for understanding the motives and relationships of literary characters. An application of theory to fiction within a mimetic context lies at the heart of some of the most popular and important methods for the contemporary interpretation of literature and, by extension, theoretical literary criticism. These mimetic forms, these applications of real-life ideologies, philosophies, and sciences, are part of an ever-expanding list of tools available to literary scholars attempting to draw clearer meanings from texts. Social exchange theory, posited by Homans in “Social Behavior as Exchange” and expounded on in his seminal article’s follow-up, Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms, explains the dynamics of relationships by observing how behavior is traded as a commodity between and among members of a group (two or more) and uses the economic formula of profit equals reward minus cost (P=R-C) to reveal a person’s motives when acting within the group. This thesis adds George Homans’s social exchange theory to the mimetic toolbox of theoretical literary criticism.