Exchange Propositions


Rational Choice, Social Exchange, and Individual Behavior



Modern social exchange theory is associated primarily with two sociologists: George Caspar Homans and Peter M. Blau. George Homans (1910-1989) was a Boston Brahmin, born-most unusually for a sociologist-into one of the city’s great Yankee families. [29] In his autobiography Homans notes,

To use words that now provoke scorn, the Brahmins were gentlemen and ladies. Other people were not. … We were not able to muster up “pride in our port, defiance in our eye”-whom were we going to defy?-and seldom talked about class. Nevertheless we were class conscious. By profession all sociologists are class conscious but usually about other persons’ classes, not their own. [30]


At Harvard Homans studied English, not sociology. Nonetheless, he maintained,

If I learned no theoretical, I learned much practical sociology. One of the routes by which a person gets interested in this subject is by living in an envi­ronment in which people are highly conscious of social relations. This rule holds good more often of micro sociologists like me, who are concerned with the face-to-face interactions of persons, than of macrosociologists, concerned with the characteristics of whole societies. For us microsociologists the laws of sociology are the laws of snobbery, and an undergraduate of my background found Harvard to a high degree “socially conscious”-in the bad sense of the phrase. [31]

The “final clubs” were at the core of prewar Harvard, and membership depended on a mixture of qualities-personal as well as those related to class, religion, and ethnic background. (Homans himself, intellectual and rather sardonic, was by no means the “right” sort of person.) The structure of small groups and the way in which social approval is engendered-the core, in fact, of Homans’s later theory-are indeed typified in the operation of “final clubs,” fraternities and sororities.

Homans spent his whole academic career at Harvard, interrupted only by four and a half years in the wartime navy. He came to sociology “because I had nothing better to do” when a post-graduation newspaper job disap­peared with the Depression. Unemployed and in Cambridge, he accepted an invitation to attend a seminar on Pareto, whose sociology was then almost unknown in America. Homans ended up collaborating with Charles Curtis on An Introduction to Pareto and soon thereafter was elected to the Harvard Society of Fellows as a sociologist. Homans, who never earned-or studied for-a doctorate, was a president of the American Sociological Association, and in 1988, while professor emeritus at Harvard, he was awarded the asso­ciation’s Distinguished Scholarship Award. In an obituary notice in the Harvard Gazette, his colleagues noted that

Homans was a dedicated teacher who generously gave time to his students. In the way he related to students and colleagues, it was difficult to detect any dif­ference based on their age, sex, rank, or social status. He had little patience in the late 1960s with the “wafflings of the foolish, hypocritical, and self-righteous ‘liberals,’ ” but he believed in civility without regard to status and numbered among his friends, students and colleagues of all political persuasions. [32]

The influence of Pareto remains clear in Homans’s later work, notably in his concern with the basic laws of psychology that underpin human behavior, his receptiveness to concepts generally associated with economics, and his desire to establish full deductive theories or explanations. However, Romans’s work was also always stimulated by his wide range of friends working in other disciplines and involved both anthropology and English history, in which he taught a course for many years.

The results of Homans’s interest in small group research were synthe­sized first in The Human Group [33] He then turned to the basic principles of human activity, which he came to see as underlying small group behavior. These he set out in his most important book on what has come to be known as exchange theory, Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. [35]

By “elementary social behavior” Homans means behavior that appears and reappears whether or not people plan on its doing so. Homans believed elementary social behavior can be explained by basic propositions about indi­vidual psychology and motivation. He argued consistently that satisfactory explanations of social phenomena must ultimately be psychological explana­tions; that psychological principles are the basic building blocks of explana­tion in all the social sciences; and, indeed, that there are no such things as purely sociological explanations-something, he points out, that is also true of history without apparently causing historians much discomfort. [35]

Presidents of the American Sociological Association frequently have used the presidential address to make controversial statements about the state of sociology. In 1964 Homans employed his to argue that because func­tionalism had rejected psychological propositions, it had been unable to gen­erate explanations. “Let us get men back in, and let us put some blood in them,” he argued.36 His theory is a worked-out statement of this position.

The general statements that Homans presents are accepted, more or less intact, by other social exchange theorists and sociologists in the rational choice tradition. However, Homans’s work sets them out most clearly as an interlocking deductive system. As most recently stated, they are:


[1] The success proposition. For all actions taken by persons, the more often a par­ticular action of a person is rewarded, the more likely the person is to perform that action.


[2] The stimulus proposition. If in the past the occurrence of a particular stimulus, or set of stimuli, has been the occasion on which a person’s action has been rewarded, then the more similar the present stimuli are to the past ones, the more likely the person is to perform the action, or some similar action now.


[3] The value proposition. The more valuable to a person is the result of his action, the more likely he is to perform the action.

The rationality proposition (combining 1 through 3). In choosing between alter­native actions a person will choose that one for which, as perceived by him at the time, the value, V, of the result, multiplied by the probability, p, of getting the result, is the greater.


[4] The deprivation-satiation proposition. The more often in the recent past a person has received a particular reward, the less valuable any further unit of that reward becomes for him.


[5] The aggression-approval proposition.

a- When a person’s action does not receive the reward he expected, or receives punishment he did not expect, he will be angry; he becomes more likely to perform aggressive behavior, and results of such behavior become more valuable to him (the frustration-aggression hypothesis).

-b- When a person’s action receives the reward he expected, especially a greater reward than he expected, or does not receive punishment he expected, he will be pleased; he becomes more likely to perform approving behavior, and the results of such behavior become more valuable to him. [37]


We have noted that Homans is known as a major exchange theorist, but in these propositions the term “exchange” nowhere appears. This is because Homans is talking not about a particular sort of exchanging behavior but about universal principles, applying to all forms of social activity, and incor­porating human emotions as well. [38] In doing so he envisages usocial behavior as an exchange of activity … between at least two persons. [39] He sees his main task as explaining Uthe repeated exchanges of rewards between men which we shall refer to as interpersonal relationships. [40] However, Homans actually disliked the way “my theory … got stuck with the name of ‘exchange theory.’ … This was too bad … because it suggested that the theory was a special kind of theory, whereas it is a general behav­ioral psychology. [41]

An emphasis on general principles of human action lies at the core of all theories of rational choice. This section examines in some detail Homans’s application of his five propositions, as well as related work on individual behavior and its wider social consequences.

Insofar as people experience positive feelings associated with the exchange, they will want to understand the source of these and replicate them. This is why they tend to objectify the exchange relationship and see it as something outside themselves, a target for “attachment and commit­ment.” This in turn makes them “more likely to stay in their exchange rela­tion, give each other token gifts, and contribute to a new joint venture.”



SOURCE: This section is taken from: Wallace, Ruth A.;Wolf, Alison. Contemporary Sociological Theory: Continuing the Classical Tradition. Prentice Hall, NY. 1998. (ISBN: 0131725866 / 0-13-172586-6) Chapter 7. Pages 304-322.





pete padilla 


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