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George Caspar Homans was a major theoretical sociologist whose lucid writings helped to shape major developments in sociological theory and research.
He was a lifelong Harvard faculty member, teaching both sociology and medieval history. In 1964, he was elected president of the American Sociological Association. Homans’ theoretical work was dedicated to synthesis and explanation, understood in terms of the role of theory in natural science.
The synthesis objective first appeared in his most influential book, The Human Group (1950), which used published field studies of varied groups as evidence for a system of hypotheses describing group processes. The explanatory objective is paramount in his later publications, which are based upon methodological individualism. As he frames it, the idea is that fundamental explanatory principles in social science are to be true of individuals as members of the human species, not as members of particular groups or cultures (Homans 1967). This directive is implemented in an influential article (Homans 1958) that stimulated the rise of exchange theory and especially in Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms (1961, rev. 1974), his second major book, which sets out a deductive theory grounded in behavioral psychology. The book was met with considerable theoretical criticism of the behaviorist foundation but it also stimulated research on particular topics, notably distributive justice. Today we can appreciate his explanatory focus on the emergence of spontaneous social order despite the limitations of his theory (Fararo 2001).
- Fararo, T. J. (2001) Social Action Systems: Foundation and Synthesis in Sociological Theory. Praeger, Westport, CT.
- Homans, G. C. (1958) Social behavior as exchange. American Journal of Sociology 63: 597—606.
- Homans, G. C. (1967) The Nature ofSocial Science. Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, New York.