Arts and Entertainment

The Breakfast Club as A Lesson on Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory, according to Mulford et al. (1998:1565), refers to:

>exchange theory sees social action as an ongoing interchange between rational individuals who decide what to do based on the relative costs and benefits of the alternatives with which they are confronted.

The narrative in the Breakfast Club offers examples not only of exchange in dyads, but also wider networks and corporate groups, offering contrast to social relationships such as domination that do not facilitate exchange. To present day The Breakfast Club remains an iconic American film about adolescent social dynamics in high school. As five students from different cliques spend their Saturday in detention, the complexity of the interaction that unfolds among them demonstrates various aspects of the social exchange theory.

In relationships that involve exchange, “benefits obtained through social process are contingent upon benefits provided “in exchange” (Emerson 1981: 32). Thus, not every interaction between two or more actors constitutes an exchange. In the Breakfast Club, much of the students’ interaction with the assistant principal, Mr. Vernon demonstrates domination. For instance, Bender and Mr. Vernon often get into altercations, suggesting that Bender does not see this domination as legitimate. Perceiving that Bender does not respect him as an authority figure, Mr. Vernon continuously threatens Bender with more detention before finally locking the rebellious student away in a supply closet. Unlike the symmetrical nature of power in exchange relationships, the asymmetry of domination in this relationship cost Bender, as he was isolated from his peers, while Mr. Vernon, albeit temporarily, gained peace of mind.

Albeit not shown directly within the film, corporate groups play a role for the social exchanges among the five students. In one scene, Brian, Allison and Bender confront the popular students, Claire and Andrew about their inability to function independently of their cliques. Much like a corporate group, cliques behave as collective actors whose members do not act independently (Emerson 1981). Claire laments this as she exclaims, “I hate going along with everything my friends say… the pressure they put on you.” She acknowledges that participation within this group requires following the collective mandates that her clique has agreed upon, such as not interacting with outsiders. Eventually Andrew and Claire see the benefit in ignoring such mandates to see benefits with their newfound friends.

One moment of the exchange relationship between Claire and Allison demonstrates generalized reciprocity. As described by Emerson (1981), in generalized reciprocity “a helpful act is performed, not in response to any specific benefit received, but rather in honor of the social exchange relation itself, that relation being a series of reciprocating benefits extending into the experienced past and the anticipated future (33).” Therefore, having declared their intentions to remain friends past detention, Claire honors Allison’s defense of her virginity by doing Allison’s makeup before Allison approaches her crush, Andrew. Thus, the movie ends with not only the initiation of two romantic relationships and the classic fist pump in the air, but also the subtle declaration that the most beneficial social relations exist independently of the prescribed social roles and position that the students had initially arranged themselves in.


Emerson, Richard M. 1981. “Social Exchange Theory.” Pp. 20-65 in Social Psychology:
Sociological Perspectives, edited by Morris Rosenberg and R.H. Turner.
New York: Basic Books.

Mulford, Matthew, et al. 1998. “Physical Attractiveness, Opportunity, and Success in
Everyday Exchange.” American Journal of Sociology 103:1565-1592.