George C. Homans

George Caspar Homans
Born(1910-08-11)August 11, 1910
DiedMay 29, 1989(1989-05-29) (aged 78)
CitizenshipUnited States
Alma materHarvard University, Cambridge University (Masters)
Known forHis famous works The Human Group, Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms, and the Exchange Theory
Scientific career
FieldsEnglish, Psychology, Philosophy, Sociology, Social behavior
InfluencesRobert K. Merton, Talcott Parsons, Lawrence J. Henderson, Vilfredo Pareto, B.F. Skinner, Bernard DeVoto, Émile Durkheim, Elton Mayo
InfluencedRichard M. Emerson, Peter Blau, James Samuel Coleman, Edward Laumann, Linda D. Molm, Karen S. Cook, Edward J. Lawler

George Caspar Homans (August 11, 1910 – May 29, 1989) was an American sociologist, founder of behavioral sociology and a major contributor to the social exchange theory.

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



George C. Homans was born in Boston on August 11, 1910, son of Robert and Abigail (Adams) Homans, 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. "At George's birth, his mother wrote to her Uncle Henry: 'His head is a mass of lumps which will make him look very distinguished when, as a bald old gentleman, he sits upon the bench dispensing justice.' "[1]

Through this letter she also explains how Homans received his name: "He is to be named George Caspar for my brother, as the Homans family did not consider that I was the sort of person to produce a good doctor, and so reserved the name [John] for my brother-in-law Jack's benefit..."(Homans 1984:1). The Homans' came from a lineage of distinguished doctors that began when the first John Homans came to the country from Ramsgate, Kent, England in the 18th century. His son, Dr. John Homans, Harvard University graduate, was the first to become a doctor and begin the reputation of the John Homanses (Homans 1984:1–2). However, "George's father was a lawyer, but George was the first member of the family to eschew the law".[1]

Personal life

From his autobiography (Homans 1984), it is learned that Homans entered Harvard College in 1928 with a concentration in English and American literature. After graduating in 1932, Homans wanted to pursue a career as a newspaperman with a "job beginning in the fall with William Allen White of the Emporia, Kansas,Gazette," but because of the Depression the newspaper could no longer offer him the job, leaving Homans unemployed (Homans 1962:3). "In 1941, he married Nancy Parshall Cooper who remained his lifelong compatible partner".[1]

Homans served in the Naval Reserve during World War II; for "four years and a half on active duty, more than two were spent in command of small ships engaged in antisubmarine warfare and the escort of convoy operations" (Homans 1962:50). Although he served for the duration of the war, he later expressed in his autobiography that he had "impatience with the constraints of the naval hierarchy and his disdain for staff desk officers, especially those in bureaucratic branches such as the Supply Corps".[1]

Education and Becoming a Sociologist

While Homans was at Harvard College, "perhaps the most direct influence on George as an undergraduate was his English tutor Bernard ("Benny") de Voto".[1] "George ... was attracted to de Voto's stories about the plains and the prairies, but more, to the actuality of the lives of people and the American character as expressed in midwestern writing. In many ways, too, George adopted the mannerisms of de Voto, the outwardly boisterous tones (but not for either the boosterist mentality) and the scorn of intellectualist rhetoric"[1] that is seen in his book of poetry The Witch Hazel (1988).

Homans became interested in sociology by living in an environment where people are highly conscious of social relations. Homans describes his entrance to sociology as "a matter of chance; or rather, I got into sociology because I had nothing better to do" (Homans 1962:3). Lawrence Joseph Henderson, a biochemist and sociologist who believed that all sciences should be based on a unified set of theoretical and methodological principles, was an important influencer on Homans perspective. Homans, with no job and nothing to do, attended Henderson's seminar at Harvard one day and was immediately taken by his lecture. Homans was also influences by Professor Elton Mayo, where he was assigned to readings by prominent social anthropologists. From these readings, Homans developed his belief that instead of similarities in cultures, "members of the human species working in similar circumstances had independently created the similar institutions."[2]

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 concerned with economic distribution. Pareto's theories and Henderson's lectures influenced Homans' first book, An Introduction to Pareto,[3] co-authored with fellow Circle member Charles P. Curtis. From 1934 to 1939 Homans 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. For his Junior Fellowship project Homans undertook an anthropological study of rural England, later published as English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century (1941) (see Homans 1984: 167). Homans was taken into the graduate program at Harvard; Pitirim Sorokin, founder of Harvard's sociology department in 1930, was credited with bringing Homans and Robert Merton into the program.[4] From this knowledge gained, "the key idea that Homans took away from these studies was the centrality of interaction and the way sentiments developed between individuals as a consequence on interaction."[1]


In 1939 Homans 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."[5] This teaching brought him in contact with new works in industrial sociology and exposed him to works of functional anthropologists. He was an instructor of sociology until 1941 when he left to serve in the U.S. Navy to support the war effort. After four years away, he came back to Boston and continued his teaching as an associate professor from 1946 to 1953, and a full professor of sociology after 1953. He was also 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.[6] By virtue of his theoretical writings (discussed below), he was elected 54th president of the American Sociological Association in 1964. He retired from teaching in 1980.[7]

Theoretical Agenda and General Argument

As a theorist, Homans' 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. Although this is a bit of an oversimplification, it provides a framework for outlining his theoretical contributions.

In its mature (1974) form, Homans' theory rests upon two metatheoretical claims: (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.[8]

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' 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 a 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.[6] 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.[6]

Homans was very interested in Henderson's conceptual scheme as a way of classifying phenomena and applied it to his own study of small groups. Henderson's teachings were included in Homans' 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.[6] The work has a theme of, "the way group norms develop and the ways a group, consciously or unconsciously, seeks to maintain the cohesion of the group when members depart from group norms."[1] Homans establishes that, "the general propositions would have to meet only one condition: in accordance with my original insight, they should apply to individual human beings as members of a species."[2]

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 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' greatest piece of work, it allowed him to become more familiar with this type of methodology and led him to explain 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 Exchange Theory is the "perspective that individuals seek to maximize their own private gratifications. It assumes that these rewards can only be found in social interactions and thus people seek rewards in their interactions with each other".[9] Homans' Exchange Theory propositions are partially based on B.F. Skinner's behaviorism. Homans took B.F. Skinner's propositions about pigeon behavior and applied it to human interactions.[8]

The heart of Homans' Exchange Theory lies in propositions based on economic and psychological principles. According to Homans, they are psychological for two reasons: first, because they are usually tested on people who call themselves psychologists and second, because of the level at which they deal with the individual in society. He believed that a sociology built on his principles would be able to explain all social behavior. Homans said, "An incidental advantage of an exchange theory is that it might bring sociology closer to economics" (Homans 1958:598). Overall, Homans' exchange theory, "can be condensed to a view of the actor as a rational profit seeker."[2]

He regretted that his theory was labeled "Exchange Theory" because he saw this theory of social behavior as a behavioral psychology applied to specific situations.[8] 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.[10] He believed that society could be studied without reducing it to individuals and their motivations.[10] 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 first person to study this theory. "From 1883 to 1885 Albert Chavannes published in The Sociologist a series of papers titled 'Studies in Sociology' which treated 'The Law of Exchange' and three other social laws."[11] Chavannes' work on the theory was similar to what Homans did. However, he focused more on empirical sociology, and he did not contribute to it in the same way as Homans (Knox 1963: 341). Although Homans may have not have been the first to work on this theory, his contributions make the Exchange Theory what it is today.

Social Behavior

Homans's next major work was 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.[6] This explanation of social behavior first appeared in an article Homans published titled "Social Behavior as Exchange" in 1958. He believed his Exchange Theory was derived from both behavioral psychology and elementary economics.[8]

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 is based upon "propositions"—principles—about individual behavior that are drawn from the behavioral psychology of the time. Homans didn'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.[8]

"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 gives an example of 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)[8]

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)[8]

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.[8]

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) [8]

One may look at Homans' 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' example: "A fisherman who has cast his line into a dark pool and has caught a fish becomes more apt to fish in dark pools again" (1974:23). Homans was interested in the process of generalization, or the tendency to extend behavior to similar circumstances;[8] 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) [8]

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 to be an inefficient means of getting people to change their behavior, because people may react in undesirable ways to punishment.[8]

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)[8]

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.[8]

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.[8]

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' approach. In economic terms, actors who act in accord with the rationality proposition are maximizing their utilities.[8] 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.[8]

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.[8] Durkheim agreed with Homans' understanding of rationality. He believed that rationalism is an aspect of individualism.[12] Durkheim said that all development of individualism has the effect of opening moral consciousness to new ideas and rendering it more demanding.[12] Homans worked off of Durkheim's thoughts throughout the development of certain propositions.


He died of a heart ailment on May 29, 1989, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; at his death, he left behind his wife, Nancy, and three children as well as four grandchildren.[7] George C. Homans left to the sociological world many works on social theory, 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 is described by Charles Tilly in "George Caspar Homans and the Rest of Us": "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, Homans' election as president of the American Sociological Association in 1964 allowed him to have a greater impact on sociology. As Tilly also noted: "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).

Quotes by Homans

"Sociology is the profession of studying and teaching about what happens when at least two persons are in a position to influence one another" (Homans, 1962:103)

"Given the chance, I have always deserted anything that might have contemporary practical importance or that might lead to reforms. I have deserted the twentieth century for the thirteenth, social pathology for primitive kinship, industrial sociology for the study of small groups. It may have been mere escapism... My nerves may have been too weak for the modern world. What never failed to interest me was not sociology as an agent of change or as a means of understanding my immediate environment but sociology as a generalizing science. What were the best possibilities for establishing generalizations? What were the main intellectual issues? By what handle shall we lay hold on it? "[13]

"As far as what good my work does people, I’m sorry to say that it does much more by way of alerting people to what may go wrong than it does in telling them what they can do about it."[13]

"When you’re talking about reforming an industrial system, you have to talk about something that can be operated across the board. With much attention, very skilled people, small groups, reform always can be successful in some sense. But then people jump from this to something that’s going to operate across the board and reform the whole industrial system. They forget the Homans principle that no society, no governmental system, or no industrial system can work successfully if it depends on extraordinary abilities on the part of the people who run it. It has to be operable by ordinary damn fools like me."[13]

"In human terms, it is hopeless. All of us believe in determinism at times—that is, experimentally believe in it. At other times, we believe we’re free. Our behavior is completely, but it doesn’t make damn bit of difference to me because I can’t predict it. I can’t show how the behavior of different men, behavior of exemplifying the same general propositions, combines over time to produce particular results. The trouble is that the past behavior that affects—determines if you will—present behavior is linked together in complex chains, creating the illusion of freedom."[13]

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)
  • "The Nature of Social Science" (1967)
  • Coming to My Senses: The Autobiography of a Sociologist (1984)
  • Certainties and Doubts (1987)
  • Sentiments & Activities: Essays in Social Science (1962)

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. www.infed.org/thinkers/george_homans.htm].
  • 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. ^ a b c d e f g h Bell, Daniel (1992). "George C. Homans (11 August 1910-29 May 1989)". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. American Philosophical Society. 136 (4): 586–593.
  2. ^ a b c Ritzer, George (2014). Sociological Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 404–405, 412. ISBN 978-0-07-802701-7.
  3. ^ Homans, George Caspar, and Charles P. Curtis, Jr. 1934. An Introduction to Pareto, His Sociology. New York: Knopf.
  4. ^ Sica, Alan (2005). Social Thought From the Enlightenment to the Present, Pennsylvania State University, 514.
  5. ^ Tilly, Charles (1990). "George Caspar Homans and the Rest of Us", Springer, 261–268.
  6. ^ a b c d e Treviño, A. Javier (2009).
  7. ^ a b "George Homans, 78, Sociologist And Harvard Professor Emeritus." The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 May 1989. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r George Ritzer (2008).
  9. ^ Abercrombie, Nicholas; Hill, Stephen; Turner, Bryan (2006). Dictionary of Sociology: The Penguin Reference. New York: The Penguin Group. pp. 139–140. ISBN 978-0-14-101375-6.
  10. ^ a b James Farganis (2008)
  11. ^ Knox, John B. (1963). "The Concept of Exchange in Sociological Theory: 1884 and 1961", Social Forces, Oxford University Press, 341–346.
  12. ^ a b Robert Bellah (1973).
  13. ^ a b c d "Conversation...with George C. Homans". Organizational Dynamics. 4 (2). 1975.

External links

  1. ^ Homans, George C. (May 1958). "Social Behavior As Exchange". American Journal of Sociology. 63 (6): 597–606. doi:10.1086/222355. JSTOR 2772990.

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