There are three major traditions in sociological social psychology: symbolic interactionism, social cognition, and social exchange theory. Although they are not mutually exclusive, these traditions have tended to provide the main theoretical orientations by which scientists have treated social research.
- Main article: Symbolic interactionism
Symbolic interactionism (or SI) is a sociological tradition originating out of the ideas of George Herbert Mead and Max Weber. The symbolic interactionists emphasize that human life is governed by meaningful interactions between persons. There are two major schools of SI: Structural SI and Process SI. Structural SI uses shared social knowledge from a macro-level (i.e., at the level of the organization and institution) to explain relatively static patterns of social interaction and psychology at the micro-level. Structural SI researchers tend to use quantitative methods. Identity Theory and Affect Control Theory grew out of this tradition. By contrast, Process SI stems from the Second Chicago School and views social interactions to be constant flux, studying it without reference to a larger social structure. Process SI researchers tend to use qualitative and ethnographic methods.
- Main article: Social exchange theory
Social exchange theory emphasizes the idea that social action is the result of personal choices made by considering relative benefits and costs. The theory of social exchange predicts that people will make choices with the intention of maximizing benefits. A key component of this theory is the postulation of the "comparison level of alternatives", which is the actor's sense of the best possible alternative (i.e., the choice with the highest benefits relative to costs).
In this sense, theories of social exchange share many essential features with classical economic theories like rational choice theory. However, social exchange theories differ from economic theories by making predictions about the relationships between persons, and not just the evaluation of goods. For example, social exchange theories have been used to predict human behavior in romantic relationships by taking into account each actor's subjective sense of costs (i.e., volatility, economic dependence), benefits (i.e., attraction, chemistry, attachment), and comparison level of alternatives (i.e., if any viable alternative mates are available).