Homans: The Human Group

A conspiracy between a bone-digger and an undertaker caused this rigorous sociological attempt at describing some general features of all human groups to materialize in order for me to abscond with it on my recent family vacation. Robert K. Merton concludes his introduction with

“this considered judgment: not since Simmel‘s pioneering analyses of almost half a century ago has any single work contributed so much to a sociological theory of the structure, processes, and functions of small groups as George Homans‘ The Human Group” (1950, p. xxiii).

Not a bad recommendation – and timely for my purposes, to come across now. I’d only time to glance at the potential relevance of this (old) theory to my upcoming research. One of the tensions I anticipate engaging over the next academic year is that between cognitivists (who root their science in the western psychological bias of individual and independent selves) and communication scholars (who recognize – to varying degrees – the inescapably interactive relationships that generate any and all kinds of meaning). The dual dichotomy may be overly simple but it is useful, at least to start: the often opposed frames of psychological and social, and the human products of selves and meanings.
My reading of Homans begins in earnest after reading a keynote address James suggested, Breaking Mindset, by Allan W. Snyder of the Centre for the Mind (Canberra, Australia). Snyder claims a fundamental question for cognitive science concerning originality: he wonders how do we get ideas in the first place? Snyder’s “we” is of the royal sort – the presumption of common experience extended from a singularly authorized agent; it makes a sharp contrast with Homans deliberately collaborative we, in which “author and reader are learning together” (p. 2). This is one instance of the striking contrast between approaching social science by aggregating up (as it were) from isolated individual cognitions and extrapolating down from complex interactions.
Homans descriptive language is fully interactional. “No one,” he writes, “just ‘sees’ human behavior. The eye is never quite innocent, but comes to its task sensitized. We see what our experience and ideas teach us to see – and this is never the whole story” (p. 13). Snyder provides a cognitive case to prove this point literally, referring to an instance (Hughes 1996) when a particular theory of optics prevented the direct observation of photoreceptors in the human eye. The problem with Snyder’s example is that it does nothing more than provide an instance -the puzzle of attributing a particular meaningfulness remains. Homans continues: “The world and its meaning are always negotiating with one another, with experience as the go-between. Even common-sense language implies a theory of behavior and tells us, for instance, to look for actions and motives” (p. 13).
Homans’ relational framing enables a mode of analysis not restricted by linear causality. Snyder’s concern with the new, first, and original implies – and thus invokes – an ordinal logic. Only the so-called real numbers are made available within this cognitivist frame. As much as it names interaction, in cognitive science the brain is situated prior to thought, the mind before relationship. The metaphors made possible by mathematical breakthroughs of imaginary and complex numbers, which have led to deeper and more sophisticated understandings of the laws of physics and all of the natural world, are cut off by the limited horizon imposed by any individual mind. Homans’ writing does not refer laterally to these breakthroughs occurring contemporaneously in the hard sciences, but he does highlight the work of Mary Parker Follett, quoting her at some length (interspersed with his own thought):

“In her study of administrative control, she argued, as others had done, that in studying any organized social activity we must study the ‘total situation.’ But we must not merely ‘be sure to get all the factors into our problem.’ We must examine ‘not merely the totalness of the situation, but the nature of the totalness. . . . What you have to consider in a situation is not all the factors one by one, but also their relation to one another.’ The relation is such that the parts make a whole, the elements make an organism. And Mary Follett affirmed ‘that the whole determines the parts as well as that the parts determine the whole.’ She recognized that the unity is not a static, finished thing, but an ongoing process: ‘The same activity determines both parts and whole. . . . We are speaking of a unity which is not the result of an interweaving, but is the interweaving. Unity is always a process, not a product . . . . I have been saying that the whole is determined not only by its constituents, but by their relation to one another. I now say that the whole is determined also by the relation of whole and parts . . . . It is the same activity which is making the whole and parts simultaneously.’ Finally, the activity, the process, she spoke of always leads to something new. Something emerges. She summarized her ideas as follows: ‘my first point concerned the total situation; my second, the nature of the interacting which determines the total situation; my third, the evolving situation. we come to see that reciprocal adjustment is more than mere adjustment; that is where we get what the psychologist has called the “something new,” “the critical moment in evolution.”‘ (p. 8-9)

At lunch with Li (!), he spoke of “the tyranny of understanding, of agreement.” The preminent challenge of our time is to alter the typical terms of reciprocal adjustment; to engage the dynamics of difference in ways that lead to new things: new structural institutions and social customs. This can only occur through the active practices of actual human groups. My individual challenge is articulated in one way by Bernard DeVoto (in the forward to Homans’ book) as that between the pedestrian and the intuitive social scientist: “The ‘pedestrian’ does not get through from fact to adequate generalization; the ‘intuitive’ does not get through from generalization to adequate fact” (1950, p. 46).
I must build, carefully and painstakingly, from intuitive perceptions to convincing fact, such that I can achieve “success” according to the (rigid) logic of the academy. Simultaneously, that labor cannot be divorced from the everyday mingling with friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.

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