George Caspar Homans (1910-1989) an American sociologist, was a leading theorist in developing testable hypotheses and explanations about fundamental social processes in small groups.
George Homans was born August 11, 1910, in Boston, Massachusetts, the eldest child of Robert Homans, a lawyer and a fellow of Harvard Corporation, and of Abigail Adams Homans, a descendant of President John Adams. He married Nancy Parshall Cooper in 1941, and they had two children, Elizabeth Susan and Peter. Homans attended the prestigious St. Pauls preparatory school in Concord, New Hampshire, from 1923 to 1928 and graduated from Harvard University in English literature in 1932. Although he came from a long line of lawyers Homans opted to become a junior fellow in sociology at Harvard, 1934 to 1939, and then as professor of sociology when he was invited.
Homans taught at Harvard from 1939 to 1941, served four years as a naval officer during World War II, and then returned to Harvard where he was a faculty member from 1946 until 1970, when he retired. Homans was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, president of the American Sociological Association, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century (1941) was the book that probably earned Homans tenure at Harvard. In his seminars he had been trained to look for relationships between variables. In this investigation the variables were two kinds of field systems (open and non-open); two settlement patterns (villages surrounded by farm lands and houses dispersed on individual family holdings); and two kinds of inheritance patterns (one in which the eldest son obtained all the family land and the other where all sons received an equal share). He discovered a high statistical correlation between these institutions: the open field system was associated with the village settlement pattern and inheritance by the eldest son. He later discovered that the two systems had different units of local government, different names for those units, differences in the peasant holdings, and different social classes among the peasants. These findings thrilled him because he had been trained to look for social systems, which are evidenced if the institutions of one are systematically interrelated and different from those of another. He ultimately found that the two social systems were part of the imported culture of two different sets of Germanic immigrants. This was a disappointment to Homans, however, because he never liked cultural explanations, even in graduate school.
A Text on Groups and Theory
Of Homans' books, the Human Group (1950) was the most popular, used by two generations of sociologists in courses on small groups and sociological theory. He composed it by hand at his summer house in Quebec, where he wrote easily, quickly, and with considerable charm. As an exercise in general theory, he showed how three classes of variables (interaction, sentiments, and activities) are mutually related in the behavior of group members (the internal system) but also in the relationship of the group to its physical and social environment (the external system). He presented accounts of five concrete field studies of groups by other investigators and showed how the data are appropriately classified under each of the variables in both the internal and external system and how the variables and systems relate to each other. An illustrative example of his propositions: the more frequently two persons in a group interact, the more apt they are to like one another.
Homans always believed in the folk adage that human nature is the same the world over and, hence, felt cross cultural generalizations should reflect that unity. For example, he was always fascinated by R. Firth's ethnography of Tikopia (in the Solomon Islands), a society where married couples lived with the husband's family and where the husband was given jural authority over his children. Firth noted that the relationships of children with the mother's brothers were extremely close, but with the father, distant and cool, and made the finding something of a puzzle. The explanation, suggested by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, was that the jural authority of the father, since it involved punishment, inhibited emotional closeness. In contrast, the mother's brothers identified with their sister's children and tended, like her, to take a more nurturant role toward them. Consequently, they, too, had warm relationships with the children. On the other hand, among the Trobrianders (off New Guinea) married couples lived with the wife's family; her brothers were vested with the jural authority and, consequently, had strained relationships with the children. In contrast, the relationships with the father were nurturant and warm. Homans recognized that both societies, although their cultures were obviously different, evidenced the same behavioral generalization, namely that close and warm relations tend to occur on the side of the family away from the man who held jural authority over the children.
Homans was also pleased about this explanation because it provided an alternative to Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex, which explained the strained relations between boys and their fathers as the result of unconscious competition for the sexual favors of the mother. These cross cultural results tended to prove Freud's theory false because the mother's brothers were not rivals for the mother's sexual favors in either society, yet the relations were strained with the children in one and not in the other. Rather, the variation in warm versus strained relations with her children were explained by other variables (see Marriage, Authority and Final Causes, 1957).
From his graduate days Homans observed that sociologists all considered theory to be important but never defined what it was. He finally decided to adopt the view that a theory is an explanation by a "covering law." What sociologists try to explain are empirical propositions relating variables to one another, and Homans concluded that such generalizations are explained when they can be deduced under the specified conditions of their occurrence from more general propositions (covering laws). Homans further decided that for sociology the first approximation of covering laws were the reinforcement propositions of behavioral psychology, specifically those of his friends and colleagues B. F. Skinner and Richard Herrnstein which apply to the process by which a person learns actions and to the way he uses them afterwards (see The Nature of Social Science, 1967). Sociologists now tend to accept Homans' definition of theory, but are still hesitant about his suggestions for covering laws.
Theory of Stratification
Many feel Homans' best book was Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms (1961, 1974), in which he described and explained small group behavior as an emergent social system of rewards, using as the explanatory logic Herrnstein's positive reinforcement propositions. Following this revised reasoning, for example, one would predict that the strained relations with the children in Tikopia and the Trobriands was not the result of the fathers' and the uncles' jural authority, but the use of punishment rather than rewards for disciplinary purposes. Considerable research has subsequently shown that the judicious use of rewards with children was actually more effective than the use of punishment, and that it builded rather than strained relations.
For sociology, perhaps the most important contribution in Elementary Forms was Homans' theory of stratification, which was stated in a series of scattered propositions and definitions. These included: The more valuable to other members of a group are the activities a person emits to them, the higher is the status they give him in return. The higher a person's status in a group, the greater his power is apt to be. The more members of a group a person is regularly able to influence, the greater is his power. The value of what a member receives by way of (monetary) rewards should be proportional to his status in the group. Distributive injustice occurs to the extent that the monetary rewards members receive are disproportional to their relative status in the group. The greater the distributive injustice in a group, the lower the productivity and morale of its members.
Homans' explanation of stratification may or may not be true empirically, but it was certainly interesting. He hypothesized that differences in status and power are natural, if not inevitable, but that distributive justice, the proportionality of relative status and monetary reward, may or may not occur. To the extent that it does not, he predicted the productivity and morale of group members naturally, inevitably would suffer. Homans' theory seemed to be an alternative to the Marxist formulation that stratification—that is, differences in monetary rewards—was the root cause of all social problems. Although Marx's theory can be criticized because it solves neither the free rider nor the exploitation problems for the low and high contributors respectively, it will be fascinating to see how the two sets of hypotheses fare in future research in sociology.
George Caspar Homans retired from his teaching position at Harvard University in 1980 to his home in Cambridge, from which he continued to write texts elucidating his social theories. He also published The Witch Hazel, Poems of a Lifetime, the year before his death. He died May 29, 1989 at Cambridge Hospital of congestive heart disease.
Further Reading on George Caspar Homans
Homans' books included an Introduction to Pareto: His Sociology, with C. P. Curtis (1934); English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century (1941); The Human Group (1950); Marriage, Authority and Final Causes, with D. M. Schneider (1955); Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms (1961, 1974); Sentiments and Activities (1962); The Nature of Social Science (1967); Coming to My Senses: the Autobiography of a Sociologist (1984).
Western Electric Researches printed a reprint series in the Social Sciences, one of which is George C. Homans, (1993 paperback); and some of Homans' books were re-printed in paperback after his death, notably Anxiety and Ritual: The Theories of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, (1993); and Social Behavior as Exchange (1993 paperback); and The Witch Hazel: Poems of a Lifetime (1988) by George Caspar Homans which was only available in hardcover.
The Boston Globe (January 7, 1985) reviewed favorably Homans' Coming to My Senses: The Autobiography of a Socialogist (1984); and Edgar T. Driscoll, Jr., wrote Homans' obituary for the Boston Globe, May 31, 1989.