George C. Homans

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George C. Homans (1910–1989) was a sociologist born in Boston, Massachusetts to a prestigious family with a lineage to President John Adams, graduating from Harvard University with a degree in English. Afterwards, he found an interest in sociology and subsequently spent the rest of his academic life at Harvard where he taught sociology and social sciences, while also attaining administrative roles in sociology-centric organizations like the American Sociological Association.

Stemming from the work of Georg Simmel,Wikipedia Homans placed an emphasis in his studies about the nature of small-scale human interaction, getting studiously close to the realm of psychology. In particular, he built off of Simmel's idea of human behavior as an exchange, a transaction at which symbols and meaning are circulated in a way that the individual deems sufficiently valuable to do so. Countering the Freudian concept of boys unconsciously fighting for their mother's approval, Homans would instead note that certain societies would not manifest this type of behavior, and that there were other underlying facets and frameworks to human behavior that this suggested theory was simply a subset of. In particular, Homans studied the aspect of a universal set of 'laws' that each human exhibited around the world, citing that as his own definition for what a 'theory' entails.[1]

Social exchange theory[edit]

Through his understanding of behavioral psychology, Homans draws some connections to the nature of decision-making in humans and the concept of exchange. Exchange is a common theme among his and other exchange theorists work for the reason that it is likened to human interaction, that social interaction is a sort of 'trade' at which costs and benefits are pitted against each other in order to determine whether an interaction is valuable. Homans in particular takes a micro-scale study as to the nature of interaction and groups in comparison to future exchange theorists, and focuses more on individual decisions than anything else.

Thinking in terms of economics[edit]

A common theme in exchange theory work is the idea that interaction can be likened to economic concepts. Homans explains that there are three facets to decision making: costs, profits, and rewards. Homans gives an equation to attempt to define what parameters a person thinks about in their decision making as follows: Profit = Reward - Cost. In this context, a 'cost' can be generally anything that one must sacrifice in order to attain a reward. While in capitalist economics, it usually refers to material forms of capital such as money or property, in the context of exchange theory it branches to any type of 'commodity' one can present, be it time, energy, language used, facial expression, or even body movement. All of these things are costs in that they all have the potential to invoke a reaction that the individual is looking for, ergo a reward. Similarly, a reward is more than simple physical capital and more in the form of relationship building, response attaining, and generally what one considers valuable to themselves. Profit, as such, is simply rewards and costs together in an ultimate total.

An exchange theorist does not tend to care about why a person considers something valuable, and focuses primarily on the facets and 'rules' that a person operates by in order for their decisions to be made. They place an emphasis on post-hoc explanations of behavior, citing the existence of the modus operandi rather than the content being exchanged in the first place.

Elementary social behavior[edit]

Homans emphasized elementary social behavior (ESB), which is characterized by the small-scale interactions that one will have on a daily basis. An ESB interaction is one in which the social costs and rewards are immediately realized, rather than one that has long-term benefits. Such examples of this would be direct conversations, altercations, or otherwise immediate verbal and symbolic trades with each other. Through this lens of ESB, Homans continues to explain the parameters (described below) at which a behavioral psychologist may be able to identify and point to in order to understand the form of behavior that one exhibits.

One important thing in particular is that Homans studied pigeons as simplistic simulations of human decision-making, likening that to social decisions under the assumption that, save for complexity, they are ultimately the same in form. Thus, his explanations are individually driven.

Distributive justice[edit]

In order for an exchange to be made, it is presumed that it is rationally decided upon by both members of the interaction making an exchange. The concept 'distributive justice' is an indicator and label of what happens when two people agree to the nature of the exchange. Notably, it doesn't matter if, on some objective level that the exchange is balanced or unbalance, but rather that the actors and agents interacting with each other mutually agree that the exchange sufficiently beneficial for both of them. In essence, there is an emphasis on the idea of equity, not equality, within an exchange, meaning that those in the discussion attain what they subjectively believe is 'fair' to them, and not some objective demonstration that it is, in fact, a fair exchange.[2]

The five propositions[edit]

In his studies, Homans suggests five propositions, five rules that individual actors conform to resulting in a higher or lower likelihood that one will make an exchange or deem it valuable. Through these five propositions, he starts the conversation as to the form that human interaction operates by.


The Stimulus proposition is as follows: if there rises a situation that one is familiar with, at which they had been rewarded with a certain action, they are more likely to perform that action again. For instance, if one gains rewards from helping people, and they encounter someone they do not know that needs to be helped, they would be more likely to help that individual under the pretense that they are likely to be rewarded for that occurrence. Because this is a situation, a stimulus that they associate with action -> reward, they are more likely to perform the appropriate action.


The Success proposition is as follows: if a certain action is consistently and constantly followed by a reward, the likelihood that an individual will perform that action will increase. For instance, if one finds an interaction with another person valuable, because that interaction was rewarding, the likelihood that they will interact with that individual in the future will increase.


The Value proposition is as follows: if a certain reward is considered more valuable to the individual than another, they are more likely to perform actions to attain the reward worth more in comparison to the one worth less. For example, while one may be hungry and they want to eat something in order to cease feeling hungry, they would be more likely to use costs to attain the foods that they value more in comparison to foods they do not.


The Deprivation-Satiation proposition is as follows: similar to a form of diminishing returns, the more an individual receives a particular reward from any action, the less valuable reward that will become. As such, the less likely an individual will take actions to attain that reward. Notably, this proposition includes frequency over time, and implicitly suggests that if one's reward attainment is stretched out over time, they do not suffer the devaluing of that reward as drastically as an individual that attains it very frequently. For example, an individual that goes to Disneyland frequently will quickly find it to be less attractive over time than the individual that goes there non-regularly.


The Frustration-Aggression proposition is as follows: if an individual is attempting to attain a reward and is rejected or punished suddenly or surprisingly, they are likely to become angry and will exhibit aggressive behavior, the result of which is drastically increased in value. For example, if one is attempting to protest against the government and seemingly does nothing for legislative change, they may resort to more violent methods that may be equally as effective, but are considered more valuable for the reason that it seems to be superficially enacting control over their environment.[3]