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George Homans. (1910-1989). “If you look long enough for the secret of society you will find it in plain sight: The secret of society is that it was made by men, and there is nothing in society but what men put there”. Background. Born to wealthy family in Boston on August 11, 1910

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george homans

George Homans


“If you look long enough for the secret of society you will find it in plain sight: The secret of society is that it was made by men, and there is nothing in society but what men put there”



Born to wealthy family in Boston on August 11, 1910

Eldest of four children

Came from three generations of doctors

Looked up to his father Robert, had mixed feelings about his mother

George was healthy, but small and weak



Family had their own library, which George took advantage of

Went to top private schools, then Harvard

English major

Did not study Sociology, but was introduced to the discipline by a close professor, Bernard DeVoto

Became interested in Sociology by living in environment where people were highly conscious of social relations

“Laws of sociology are the laws of snobbery”



Went to work for newspaper are graduation

Paper failed due to Great Depression

Being unemployed with nothing to do, he attended a seminar at Harvard

Given by Lawrence Joseph Henderson

Theories of Vilfredo Pareto

Sociologist concerned with economic distribution

All individuals will be made worse off with everyone being made worse off

Was so impressed he co-wrote An Introduction to Pareto



Was appointed as a junior fellow in sociology at Harvard

Brought him in contact with new works in industrial sociology

Exposed to work of functional anthropologists

Became an instructor of sociology until 1941

Left teaching to serve in the U.S. Navy to support the war

Came back to teaching after four years

Taught under Parsons

Was critical of Parsons work and feud developed between them

Thought Parsons found examples to fit his theories

exchange theory


Exchange Theory

The study of sociology should explain individual behavior and interactions, not the large scale structures other sociologists were concerned with

People will continue to engage in behaviors they find rewarding and cease behaviors that have too high of costs

World consists of interacting persons exchanging rewards and punishments

Problem for researchers is to weigh the value individuals place on specific rewards and costs

exchange theory7


Exchange Theory

Other contributors to the theory:

Peter Blau

Expanded Homan’s theory by extending it to more complex issues like, social structures, organizations, and bureaucracy

Karen Cook

Created her own version of social exchange theory

Added to theory saying that we don’t always expect a reward for actions, but we expect others to help us in the future

Introduced the idea of free riders

rational choice theory


Rational Choice Theory

Homans set out a basic framework of exchange theory

Skinner was the inspiration behind Homan’s psychology

Food is the basic goal sought by animals

Animal behavior can be shaped by giving or withholding of food

Food is the reward for animals

Humans more likely to seek approval, love and money

Rewards and punishments may differ, but the mechanisms involved are the same

rational choice theory9


Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theorists see social interaction as a process of social exchange

Collective action

Parsons- if actions are self-interested, how is social life possible?

Homans would respond- If you get a sense of satisfaction from helping others, then giving help is an act of rational self-interest

human exchange propositions


Human Exchange Propositions

Five Propositions

1. The success proposition: The principle of reward

If past activity was rewarded, individual is more likely to repeat activity

Shorter interval between behavior and reward, the more likely individual will repeat action

The more often an action is rewarded, the more likely individual will repeat action

2. The stimulus proposition: The principle of experience

If a similar stimulus presents itself and it resembles a previously rewarded activity, individual is likely to repeat their course of action

3. The value proposition: Reward and punishment, the principle of value of outcome

The more valuable an activity that another gives, the more an individual will emit activity rewarded by the activity of the other

If you like someone's company, you will engage in behavior that the other finds desirable

human exchange propositions11


Human Exchange Propositions

4. The deprivation-satiation proposition: Principle of diminishing returns

The more often a reward has recently been received, the less valuable further reward becomes

If forced for a long time to go without a certain reward, individual will lose interest and move on

5. The aggression-approval proposition: Principle of distributive justice

When behavior does not receive the expected reward, the response is anger

Will find the aggression rewarding

When individual receives greater reward than expected, or does not receive expected punishment, he/she will be pleased




The nature of social science

Response to Parsons & structural-functionalism

Explanation of behavior was only possible through the use of propositions

Explanation by concept is not an explanation

Confronted Durkheim’s structural functionalism on three main issues

1. Level of Emergence

Homans believed all emergent social phenomena could be explained from psychological propositions

2. Durkheim’s View of Psychology

During Durkheim’s day psychology was primitive

3. Durkheim’s Methods of Explanation

Was concerned with the relationship between cause and effect




Elements of the group system

Activity- What group members do

Interaction- Relation of the activity of one member of that group to that of another

Sentiment- Feelings of group members with respect to the group

Norms- Code of behavior adopted by group


Relationship between internal and external group systems

Internal system is subject to change as a result of fluctuations from the group members

Collapse of a civilization can be explained by failure of a number of small groups to meet group’s needs

Better chance of group survival if members fulfill their roles

bernard devoto lawrence henderson and elton mayo



Bernard DeVoto, Lawrence Henderson, and Elton Mayo

Bernard DeVoto was a junior member of the teaching staff at Harvard who Homans came into close association.

DeVoto was an instructor of English, and was Homans’ American Literature tutor.

DeVoto introduced Homans to the great publisher, Alfred Knopf, and a professor named Lawrence Joseph Henderson and his assistant Elton Mayo, who introduced Homans to Sociology





Mayo instructed Homans, as with the rest of his students, to read books by prominent social anthropologists, because at this time the cultural anthropologists were intellectually dominant.

The concept of reciprocity became a critical element in Homans’ exchange theory. The concept of exchange itself was influenced by Malinowski’s discussion of “The Gift”.

Anthropologists and exchange theorists argue that a crucial aspect of gift exchanges bind society together through mutual obligations.

b f skinner psychological behaviorism



B.F. Skinner & Psychological Behaviorism

Homans treated the social exchange between Skinner and his pigeons as the paradigm of all social exchange.

In formulating his version of exchange theory, Homans turned to the behavioral school of experimental psychology founded by his friend Skinner.

Homans’s sociology is an attempt to build a theory about social life from the basic behavioristic propositions derived from Skinner’s psychology of operant conditioning

economics and utilitarianism



Economics and Utilitarianism

Rational choice theorists, such as those found in the exchange theory paradigm, have adopted 4 basic economic propositions:

Individuals are rational profit maximizers.

The more of something an individual has, the less interested they will be in more of it.

The prices at which goods and services will be sold in a free market are determined directly by the tastes of prospective buyers and sellers

Goods will generally be more expensive if they are supplied by a monopolist than if they are supplied by a number of firms in competitions with each other

Utilitarians argued that behavior was more or less a moral activity according to the amount of utility it bestowed on individuals.

georg simmel



Georg Simmel

Simmel was one of the first early major social theorists who attempted to identify universal characteristics of human behavior.

In 1958, Homans wrote an article for a special issue of the American Journal of Sociology in honor of Simmel. Homans urged small-group researchers to integrate laboratory experiments with quantified field work, and to reduce the propositions established to those of psychological explanations.



Homans is, of course, best known for “creating” exchange theory. But nowhere in his descriptions of propositions does he use the term “exchange.”

Exchange theory combines the principles of psychological behaviorism, basic economics and utilitarianism, with a focus on interactions between humans.

Homans proposed a number of propositions that he believed could explain any, or all, human behaviors. To demonstrate the relevance of these propositions to today’s world is nearly pointless, as any behavior that one can think of can be easily be answered by one or more of his propositions.



Homans wrote extensively on the group system and the group structure. His ideas have maintained their relevancy because of the reality of the large number of small group interactions that humans engage in.

The formation of a group involves the development of integrative bonds that unite individuals in a cohesive unit

1. impressing others

2. social approval

3. attractiveness

4. love

Homans’ brilliant works and contributions to social theory are only at the early stages of recognition. His insights of human behavior will continue to inspire social thought well into the third millennium.



Realism vs. Idealism

Realist – Society is created by man, which indicates that reality itself was made by man. One reality is accepted by everyone, and the job of the scientist is to figure out why people act the way they do in this reality/society.

Realism vs. Nominalism

Nominalist – Believes that everything was made by man, so everything is a social construct of man.



Idealism vs. Materialism

Materialist – believes that everything in society was put there by man