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Social Interdependence Theory

Social interdependence theory posits that it is the way the people are interdependent that defines the overall outcome to the social systems

Social interdependence theory posits that it is the way that people are interdependent that defines the overall outcome to the social system

Social interdependence theory is a social theory which holds that social systems are primarily defined by the type of interdependencies between their members. The essence of a social system is seen to be the interdependence among members, which results in the group being a dynamic whole so that a change in the state of any member or subgroup changes the state of others. Group members are made interdependent through common goals. In social interdependence theory, the nature of the interdependence between two individuals is contingent upon the manner in which each can influence what happens to the other during the course of the social interaction; what this is called ‘outcome interdependence’.1 The basic premise of social interdependence theory is that the way in which goals are structured determines how individuals interact, i.e. the types of relations between them. The theory posits two different types of social interdependence, positive and negative. Positive interdependence exists when there is a positive correlation among individuals’ goal attainments; individuals perceive that they can attain their goals if and only if the other individuals with whom they are cooperatively linked attain their goals. Negative interdependence exists when there is a negative correlation among individuals’ goal achievements; individuals perceive that they can obtain their goals if and only if the other individual with whom they are competitively linked fail to obtain their goals.2

Negative Interdependency

Negative interdependence creates relations of competition and conflict, conflict arises when agent’s agendas are mutually exclusive, in order to get this dynamic, agents must be acting under different agendas over the same rival goal, the agents must be acting under their own personal agenda or that of a group that the other agent or agents are not acting on behalf of. Conflictual relations define boundaries around the personal interest of an agent and the conflict is always between the agents that are internal to the boundary and those external to it, as such, they work to define borders and differences between social actors.3


Conflictual relations are an inherent part of negative interdependence, Wikipedia has a good definition for social conflict: “Social conflict is the struggle for agency or power in society. Social conflict or group conflict occurs when two or more actors oppose each other in social interaction, reciprocally exerting social power in an effort to attain scarce or incompatible goals and prevent the opponent from attaining them. It is a social relationship wherein the action is oriented intentionally for carrying out the actor’s own will against the resistance of other party or parties.“
Because conflictual relations are over a rival good where only one person’s agency can prevail in every interaction of conflict agents are defining who has agency and who does not, or who controls the combined agency, there is always a reduction in one agent’s possibilities and set of choices. With the master-slave dynamic being a good example, we are reducing the slave’s agency, possibilities, and choices, in order to enable those of the master. This dynamic was first fully describe by G. W. F Hegel’s in his book The Phenomenology of Spirit where he noted that when two conscious beings, who believe themselves to be absolutely free and unrestrained, encounter each other there is a struggle for recognition, leading to the “master-slave dialectic”, where one member ultimately has to submit to the other and become the lesser party (constrained) in the combined agency.4


This creates a power dynamic between agents, power is the ability to make others do things they would not otherwise choose to do, i.e. the capacity to control the agency of another. We tend to think of power as being the property of a person, but this is really shorthand. Power is really a relation between two people. Power only exists in one’s capacity to influence another’s attainment of some positive goal or avoidance of some negative event. As such power only really exist in our dependency on another in achieving (or avoiding) a certain outcome. This is what is called the dependency theory of power, which posits that the basis of power is dependency. A depends on B if A has goals and needs that B can fulfill. For example, an employee depends on her company for a paycheck. Similarly, a company depends on its employees for their work.
Dependence power indicates that those who are dependent on their relationship or partners are less powerful, in this way power is a force that is exerted over the potential difference of dependency between nodes within a relation. The power dynamic can be changed by the lesser agent not being dependent upon the more powerful agent, or in no longer wishing to obtain the desired outcome upon which the power dynamic is based.5


Power dynamics are a fundermental component of social systems of all kind and a central object of study within sociology and political science

Power dynamics are a fundamental component of social systems of all kind and a central object of study within sociology and political science

The dependency of A on B is a function of two things: supply and demand. Demand is defined as the motivational investment by A in goals mediated by B. In other words, how much A needs what B controls and there are a number of parameters to this including availability, quality, and cost of alternative means of satisfying needs. In other words, how easy it is for A to go elsewhere to get what B controls. Supply is inversely related to dependency (A depends more on B if there are few alternatives available to A).6
From this perspective, if we were to ask why did the Catholic Church have such power over people during the Middle Ages in Europe? We could derive two answers based on this theory. Firstly we might answer because people wanted to go to heaven and they were dependent upon the church in obtaining that goal. When people stopped believing in and wanting this apparent goal the dependency on the church declined reducing their power. Equally, we might answer that it was because Protestantism and Calvinism came along providing a new doctrine that allowed people to bypass the church in attaining this desired goal. 
Thus in negative interdependence the two agent’s agendas become combined, through conflict the agents define boundaries and who has greater or less representation within that combined agency, the agent with less than equal representation stays within it because of some dependency on the other, this difference in dependency defines a gradient of power between them and a state of inequality.

Positive Interdependence

Positive interdependencies are typically built up around some shared function that requires more than one person to perform, an example might be two people carrying a table that is too heavy for either in isolation, in order to achieve the combined outcome each role has to be fulfilled, thus for any agent to obtain the joint outcome they must be as equally interested in their own function as that of others. This dynamic of cooperation creates a positive sum game. In isolation neither person could move the table, thus when we simply added both of our individual actions in isolation we would get nothing, when we combined our activities though we got something that was more than the sum of its individual parts, the table was moved, by cooperating we added value to the whole system thus creating a positive-sum game.


The word synergy means a construct or collection of different elements working together to produce results not obtainable by any of the elements alone. The value added by the system as a whole, beyond that contributed independently by the parts, is created primarily by the relationship among the parts, that is, how they are interconnected, thus things have to be interrelated in a particular fashion. Synergistic relations are ubiquitous in our world, physical, biological and social, they involve both differentiation and integration where components are different and working together they complement each other and the combined effect is greater than the sum of its parts. A song is a good example of a cultural synergy, taking more than one musical part and putting them together to create a song that has a much more dramatic effect than each of the parts when played individually, the song as a whole exists out of the interaction between the different instruments, but we only get this emergent phenomenon of the whole song by each individual musician coordinating their activity with that of others, if they are not coordinated we will just get a bad noises.
Whereas conflict defined boundaries and unequal access to some rival resource, cooperation or collaboration is essentially the inverse, collaboration is working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals, as such it requires the reduction in boundaries to enable a common process. In agents having to adapt their activities to that of others, in order to enable the group to succeed, they come to shed their own identity and adopt that of the group, in so doing they become more equal, with the net result being a less stratified social system.

Cite this article as: Joss Colchester, "Social Interdependence Theory," in Complexity Academy, June 5, 2016,

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