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Outside the academic discipline of sociology, Homans is perhaps best known for his model of work group behavior where the "emergent behavior" (informal organisations) comes between the requirements and plans of the management, derived from technological, social and economic environment, and work productivity and satisfaction.
Within sociology and social psychology, Homans is regarded as one of the major sociological theorists in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. His ideas about theoretical principles in sociology were much debated and often rejected.
From his autobiography (Homans 1984), we learn that Homans entered Harvard College in 1928 with an area of concentration in English and American literature. 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. He attended a special faculty-student seminar on the general sociology of Vilfredo Pareto. In 1939 he became a Harvard faculty member, a lifelong affiliation in which he taught both sociology and medieval history. By virtue of his later theoretical writings (discussed below), he became a major theorist and in 1964 was elected President of the American Sociological Association.
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.
The first phase
The key work in the first phase of his work is The Human Group (1950). Homans 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, recipocity, and ritual.
By 1958, when he published an important article, "Social Behavior as Exchange," 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. For instance, the choice of a behavior is a matter of its likelihood of leading to a more favorable net reward (i.e., reward less cost) than alternatives available. 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 given to one another. In much greater detail, he developed this approach in his book Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms, (1961, revised 1974).
The general argument
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). 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.
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)
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.de:George C. Homansfi:George C. Homans
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