George C. Homans

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George Casper Homans
Born (1910-08-11)August 11, 1910
Boston, Massachusetts
Died May 29, 1989(1989-05-29) (aged 78)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Citizenship United States
Alma mater Harvard University
Known for His research on social behavior and his famous works The Human Group, Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms, and the Exchange Theory
Influences Robert K. Merton, Talcott Parsons, Lawrence J. Henderson, Vilfredo Pareto, B.F. Skinner, Bernard DeVoto, Lawrence Joseph Henderson, Vilfredo Pareto, Émile Durkheim, Elton Mayo
Influenced Richard M. Emerson, Peter Blau, James Samuel Coleman, Edward Laumann, Linda D. Molm, Karen S. Cook, Edward J. Lawler

George Casper Homans (August 11, 1910 – May 29, 1989) was an American Sociologist, founder of behavioral sociology and the Social Exchange Theory.

Homans is best known for his research in social behavior and his works including The Human Group, Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms, his Exchange Theory and the many different propositions he enforced to better explain social behavior.


George C. Homans was born in Boston on August 11, 1910, and he died of a heart ailment on May 29, 1989 in Cambridge, Massachusetts; when he died he left behind his wife and his three children as well as four grandchildren.[1] Son of Robert and Abigail (Adams) Homans, he was the great-great grandson of John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States, and great-great-great grandson of John Adams, the second President of the United States. From his autobiography (Homans 1984), it is learned that Homans entered Harvard College in 1928 with an area of concentration in English and American literature. By living in an environment where people are highly conscious of social relations, Homans became interested in sociology. From 1934 to 1939 he was a Junior Fellow of the newly formed Society of Fellows at Harvard, undertaking a variety of studies in various areas, including sociology, psychology, and history. Homans was taken into the graduate program at Harvard and Pitirim Sorokin who founded the Sociology Department in 1930 was credited with bringing in George Homans and Robert Merton into their graduate program.[2] An important influence on Homans's perspective was Lawrence Joseph Henderson, a biochemist and sociologist who believed that all sciences should be based on a unified set of theoretical and methodological principles. Homans, with no job and nothing to do, attended Henderson's seminar at Harvard one day and was immediately taken by his lecture. As a result, Homans joined a discussion group at Harvard called the Pareto Circle, which was led by Henderson and inspired by the work of Vilfredo Pareto. Henderson often discussed Vilfredo Pareto in his lectures. Pareto was a sociologist who was concerned with economic distribution. Pareto's theories and Henderson's lectures influenced Homans's first book, co-authored with fellow Circle member Charles P. Curtis, called An Introduction to Pareto.[3] In 1939 he became a Harvard faculty member, a lifelong affiliation in which he taught both sociology and medieval history 'as well as studied poetry and small groups.'[4] This teaching brought him in contact with new works in industrial sociology and was exposed to works of functional anthropologists. He was an instructor of sociology until 1941 when he left to serve the U.S. Navy to support the war. After four years away, he came back to Boston and continued his teaching as an associate professor from 1946 to 1953, and a professor of sociology after 1953. He was then a visiting professor at the University of Manchester in 1953, at Cambridge University from 1955 to 1956, and at the University of Kent in 1967.[5] By virtue of his later theoretical writings (discussed below), he was elected President of the American Sociological Association in 1964. He then retired from his teaching in 1980.[1]

Theoretical Agenda and General Argument

As a theorist, Homans's overall intellectual ambition was to create a more unified social science on a firm theoretical basis. His approach to theory developed in two phases, usually interpreted by commentators as inductive and deductive, respectively. Although this is a bit of an oversimplification, it provides a framework for outlining his theoretical contributions.

In its mature (1974) form, Homans's theory rests upon two metatheoretical claims, namely, (1) the basic principles of social science must be true of individuals as members of the human species, not as members of particular groups or cultures; and (2) any other generalizations or facts about human social life will be derivable from these principles (and suitable initial conditions). He argued that large-scale structures can be understood if we understand elementary social behavior.[6] Another way to grasp his argument is to interpret it as striving to explain spontaneous social order, a point developed in detail by Fararo (2001). Homans's approach is an example of methodological individualism in social science, also favored by some more recent influential social theorists, particularly those who have adopted some form of rational choice theory (e.g., James S. Coleman) that enables greater deductive fertility in theorizing—albeit often with a cost in terms of some loss of realism.

The Human Group

Homans was impressed by Henderson's notion of conceptual scheme. A conceptual scheme consists of a classification of variables (or concepts) that need to be taken into account when studying a set of phenomena.[5] It also consists of a sketch of the given conditions within which the phenomena are to be analyzed. It also must contain a statement that the variables are related to one another—and following Pareto, that relationship is usually seen as one of mutual dependence.[5] Homans was very interested in his conceptual scheme as a way of classifying phenomena and applied it to his own study of small groups. His teachings was included in Homans's work The Human Group (1950). This book's ultimate goal was to move from a study of the social system as it is exemplified in single groups toward a study of the system as it is exemplified in many groups, including groups changing in time.[5] Homans said “If we wanted to establish the reality of a social system as a complex of mutually dependent elements, why not begin by studying a system small enough so that we could, so to speak, see all the way around it, small enough so that all the relevant observations could be made in detail and at first hand?” He fulfilled this study throughout his book The Human Group. This book allowed him to make certain generalizations, including the idea that the more frequently people interact with one another, when no one individually initiates interactions more than others, the greater is their liking for one another and their feeling of ease in one another's presence. Although this wasn't Homans's greatest piece of work,[citation needed] it allowed him to become more familiar with this type of methodology and led him towards explaining elementary social behavior.

In this work, Homans also proposes that social reality should be described at three levels: social events, customs, and analytical hypotheses that describe the processes by which customs arise and are maintained or changed. Hypotheses are formulated in terms of relationships among variables such as frequency of interaction, similarity of activities, intensity of sentiment, and conformity to norms. Using notable sociological and anthropological field studies as the grounding for such general ideas, the book makes a persuasive case for treating groups as social systems that can be analyzed in terms of a verbal analogue of the mathematical method of studying equilibrium and stability of systems. In his theoretical analyses of these groups, he begins to use ideas that later loomed large in his work, e.g., reinforcement and exchange. Along the way, he treats important general phenomena such as social control, authority, reciprocity, and ritual.

The Exchange Theory

The heart of Homans's Exchange Theory lies in propositions based on economic and psychological principles. According to Homans they are psychological for two reasons: first, they are usually tested on people who call themselves psychologists and second, they are psychological because of the level at which they deal with the individual in society. Homans says, "they are propositions about the behavior of individual human beings, rather than propositions about groups or societies." He believed that a sociology built on his principles would be able to explain all social behavior. Homans also went to say, "An incidental advantage of an exchange theory is that it might bring sociology closer to economics (Homans 1958:598). But, he regrets that his theory was labeled "Exchange Theory" because he sees this social behavior theory as a behavioral psychology applied to specific situations.[6] Homans looked to Émile Durkheim's work for guidance as well, but often disagreed in the end with particular components of Durkheim's theories. For example, Durkheim believed that although individuals are clearly the component parts of society, society is more than the individuals who constitute it.[7] He believed that society could be studied without reducing it to individuals and their motivations.[7] However, Homans, through his Exchange Theory, believed that individual beings and behavior are relevant to understanding society.

Albert Chavannes and the Exchange Theory

Although George Homans contributed greatly to the Exchange Theory and his work on it is greatly admired, he was not the very first person to study this theory. "From 1883 to 1885 Albert Chivannes published in The Sociologista series of papers titled 'Studies in Sociology' which treated 'The Law of Exchange' and three other social laws.[8] Chavannes' work on the theory was similar to what Homans did, however he did focus more on empirical sociology, and he did not contribute to it the way in which Homans had done (Knox 1963: 341). So, although Homans may have not have been the first to work on this theory, how contributions towards it are what make the Exchange Theory what it is today.

Social behavior

Homans's next major work was called Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. He wrote this book in 1961 and revised it in 1974. This was based on the principles of behavioral psychology, and helped explain the "sub-institutional", or elementary forms of social behavior in small groups.[5] This explanation of social behavior first appeared in an article Homans published titled "Social Behaviour as Exchange" in 1958. He believed his Exchange Theory is derived from both behavioral psychology and elementary economics.[6] Homans had come to the view that theory should be expressed as a deductive system, in this respect falling under the influence of the logical empiricist philosophers of that period. Substantively, he argued that a satisfactory explanation in the social sciences to be based upon "propositions"—principles—about individual behavior that are drawn from the behavioral psychology of the time. Homans doesn't believe that new propositions are needed to explain social behavior. The laws of individual behavior developed by Skinner in his study of pigeons explain social behavior as long as we take into account the complications of mutual reinforcement.[6]

"Social Behavior is an exchange of goods, material goods, but also non-material ones, such as the symbols of approval or prestige. Persons that give much to others try to get much from them, and persons that get much from others are under pressure to give much to them. (Homans 1958:606). Social behavior as exchange means that a plurality of individuals, each postulated to behave according to the stated behavioral principles, form a system of interaction. Social approval is the basic reward that people can give to one another. In much greater detail, he developed this approach in his book Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms (1961, revised 1974). Homans exemplifies this type of social behavior below:

"Suppose that two men are doing paperwork jobs in an office. According to the office rules, each should do his job by himself, or, if he needs help, he should consult the supervisor. One of the men, whom we shall call Person, is not skillful at the work and would get it done better and faster if he got help from time to time. In spite of the rules he is reluctant to go to the supervisor, for to confess his incompetence might hurt his chances for promotion. Instead he seeks out the other man, whom we shall call Other for short, and asks him for help. Other is more experienced at the work than is Person; he can do his work well and quickly and be left with time to spare, and he has reason to suppose that the supervisor will not go out of his way to look for a breach of rules. Other gives Person help and in return Person gives Other thanks and expressions of approval. The two men have exchanged help and approval." (Homans, 1961:31-32)[6]

Focusing on this situation, and basing his ideas on Skinner's findings, Homans developed several propositions.

The Success Proposition

"For all actions taken by persons, the more often a particular action of a person is rewarded, the more likely the person is to perform that action." (Homans, 1974:16)[6]

In terms of his "Person-Other" example, this proposition means that a person is more likely to ask others for advice if past advice has been useful. Also, the more often a person received useful advice in the past, the more often they will request more advice and be willing to give advice. The success proposition involves three stages: 1) a person's action, 2) a rewarded result, and 3) a repetition of the original action.[6]

The Stimulus Proposition

"If in the past the occurrence of a particular stimulus, or set of stimuli, has been the occasion on which a person's action has been rewarded, then the more similar the present stimuli are to the past ones, the more likely the person is to perform the action, or some similar action." (Homans, 1974:23) [6]

Again, one may look at Homans's example: If in the past, the Person and Other found the giving and getting of advice rewarding, they are likely to engage in similar actions and in similar situations in the future. Homans was interested in the process of generalization, or the tendency to extend behavior to similar circumstances;[6] but, he was also concerned with the process of discrimination. For example, Person and Other may only give useful advice in the same room as in the past because they think that particular situation brought the most success.

The Value Proposition

"The more valuable to a person is the result of his action, the more likely he is to perform the action." (Homans, 1974:25) [6]

If the rewards each offers to the other are considered valuable, the actors are more likely to perform the desired behaviors than they are if the rewards are not valuable. Homans introduced the concepts of rewards and punishments. Rewards are actions with positive values and punishments are actions with negative values. Rewards can either be materialistic (money) or altruistic (helping others) He found punishment as an inefficient means of getting people to change their behavior, because people may react in undesirable ways to punishment.[6]

The Deprivation-Satiation Proposition

"The more often in the recent past a person has received a particular reward, the less valuable any further unit of that reward becomes for him." (Homans, 1974:29)[6]

In the office, Person and Other may reward each other so often for giving and getting advice that the rewards cease to be valuable to them. Time is important—people are less likely to become satiated if particular rewards are stretched over a long period of time. Homans then defined cost and profit. Cost of any behavior is defined as the rewards lost in forgoing alternative lines of action. Profit in social exchange is seen as the greater number of rewards gained over costs incurred.[6]

The Aggression-Approval Propositions

"Proposition A: When a person's action does not receive the rewards as expected, or receives punishment he did not expect, he will be angry. He becomes more likely to perform aggressive havior [sic], and the results of such behavior become more valuable to him." (Homans, 1974:37)

If Person does not get the advice they expected and Other does not receive the praise they anticipated, both are likely to be angry.

"Proposition B: When a person's action receives the reward they expected, especially a greater reward than they expected, or does not receive punishment he expected, he will be pleased. He becomes more likely to perform approving behavior, and the results of such behavior become more valuable to him." (Homans, 1974:39)

When Person gets the advice they expect, and Other gets the praise they expect, both are more likely to get or give advice. Proposition A on aggression-approval refers to negative emotions, whereas Proposition B deals with more positive emotions.[6]

The Rationality Proposition

"In choosing between alternative actions, a person will choose that one for which, as perceived by him at the time, the value, V, of the result, multiplied by the probability, p, of getting the result, is the greater. (Homans, 1974:43)

When earlier propositions rely on behaviorism, the rationality proposition demonstrates the influence of rational choice theory on Homans's approach. In economic terms, actors who act in accord with the rationality proposition are maximizing their utilities.[6] People examine and make calculations about alternative actions open to them. They compare the amount of rewards associated with each course of action and calculate the likelihood that they will receive the rewards. In other words, there is a relationship between the value of the reward and the likelihood of the attainment. The rationality proposition tells us that people will perform an action depending of their perception of the probability of success.[6] Durkheim agreed with Homans's understanding of rationality. He believed that rationalism is an aspect of individualism.[9] Durkheim says that all development of individualism has the effect of opening moral consciousness to new ideas and rendering it more demanding.[9] Homans worked off Durkheim's thoughts throughout the development of certain propositions.


George C. Homans left the sociological world with many of his works on social theory which have been mentioned, and is best known for his Exchange Theory and his works on social behavior. The impact he had on his students and colleagues and people he came in contact with can be seen in Charles Tilly's work, "George Caspar Homans and the Rest of Us". Some of the quotes mention what he meant to the people who knew and learned from him. "His students inherited distrust of theory for its own sake and theories about theories. Even when they disagreed, his students and readers came away stimulated and refreshed. George was a vivifier, a life- giver" (Tilly, 1990:264). Also, he was elected the president of the American Sociological Association in 1964 which allowed him to have a much greater impact on Sociology. Another praise towards Homans was, "His differences made a difference to us, his colleagues, his friends, and successors. George was not, it is true, above rejoicing in his own talents, and thereby shaming or intimidating those about him" (Tilly, 1990:266).

Cited works by Homans

  • English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century (1941)
  • The Human Group (1950)
  • "Social Behavior as Exchange." American Journal of Sociology 63:597-606. (1958)
  • Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms (1961, rev. ed. 1974)
  • Coming to My Senses: The Autobiography of a Sociologist (1984)
  • Certainties and Doubts (1987)

Related works or commentaries

  • Fararo, Thomas J. (2001). Social Action Systems: Foundation and Synthesis in Sociological Theory. Greenwich, CT: Praeger
  • Turner, Jonathan H. (1998). "George C. Homans' Behavioristic Approach." Ch. 20. The Structure of Sociological Theory. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Treviño, A. Javier. (2009). 'George C. Homans, the human group and elementary social behaviour', the encyclopaedia of informal education.].
  • Treviño, A. Javier. (2006) George C. Homans: History, Theory, and Method. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
  • Ritzer, George. (2008) Sociological Theory. Ch. 12. "The Exchange Theory of George Homans" New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies.
  • Farganis, James. (2008). Readings in Social Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism Chp. 2. "Emile Durkheim: Anomie and Social Integration." New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies
  • Bellah, Robert N.(1973) "Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society." Introduction. Chicago:The University of Chicago Press
  • Bloksberg, Leonard M. French, David G. Mogulof, Melvin B. Stern, Walter F. (1964). "Homans' Theory Of The Human Group: Applications To Problems of Administration, Policy, and Staff Training In Group Service Agencies." Journal of Jewish Communal Service:National Conference of Jewish Communal Service. 379-395.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "George Homans, 78, Sociologist And Harvard Professor Emeritus." The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 May 1989. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
  2. Sica, Alan (2005). Social Thought From the Enlightenment to the Present, Pennsylvania State University, 514.
  3. Homans, George Caspar, and Charles P. Curtis, Jr. 1934. An Introduction to Pareto, His Sociology. New York: Knopf.
  4. Tilly, Charles (1990). "George Caspar Homans and the Rest of Us",Springer,261-268.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Treviño, A. Javier (2009)
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 George Ritzer (2008)
  7. 7.0 7.1 James Farganis (2008)
  8. Knox, John B. (1963). "The Concept of Exchange in Sociological Theory: 1884 and 1961",Social Forces, Oxford University Press, 341-346
  9. 9.0 9.1 Robert Bellah (1973)