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by Barbara S. Heyl

The concepts of social system and social equilibrium have been key ideas in sociological theory and have been debated from pre-Comtian times to the present. But these concepts enjoyed a special importance during the 1930s and early 1940s for a group of scholars at Harvard. These men were interested in Vilfredo Pareto, whose sociological writings were based on a mechanical model of society 'as a system of mutually interacting particles which move from one state of equilibrium to another'.[1] The group consisted of such men as George C. Homans, Charles P. Curtis, Jr., Lawrence J. Henderson, Joseph Schumpeter, Talcott Parsons, Bernard DeVoto, Crane Brinton, and Elton Mayo.[2] This paper concentrates on four of these men - Homans, Henderson, Parsons, and Brinton - in an effort to study in depth the sources of their conceptions of society as a system with a built-in homeostatic tendency.

The four men under study had all read Pareto's sociological writings, and his ideas became an integral part of their scholarly production during the 1930s. Two of them, Henderson and Homans, wrote books which dealt solely with Pareto's writings.[3] A third, Parsons, wrote a lengthy analysis of Pareto's ideas in Structure of Social Action[4] And Brinton wrote two books in the 1930s in which he relied heavily on Paretan ideas.[5] In addition, three of the men - Parsons, Henderson and Brinton - wrote articles during the 1930s which were either explicitly on the works of Pareto or made reference to him.[6] A later part of this paper will trace the use of the specific social system, and equilibrium concepts from Pareto in the writings of the four scholars.

The impact of Pareto's ideas on these men was clearly important, not only as an impetus for the use of social system concepts, but also as a foundation for much of their more general theoretical thinking. But while attempting to uncover the intellectual influences on the four men, one should ask why Pareto won such a warm reception at Harvard during this time.

One aspect of the university climate during the 1930s was the widespread popularity of large-scale historical frameworks employed to describe socio-political phenomena. The Marxist framework was particularly in vogue. But Pareto's writings, too, posited such a grand historical theory, and, moreover, it seemed to provide an alternative to the Marxist approach.[7] One of the four men under study, Homans, has made explicit that one reason for his enthusiasm for Pareto was precisely the fact that Pareto gave him a response to the Marxists during this period. Homans writes:

As a Republican Bostonian who had not rejected his comparatively wealthy family, I felt during the thirties that I was under personal attack, above all from the Marxists. I was ready to believe Pareto because he provided me with a defense.[8]

Crane Brinton, too, indicated that the group of Harvard faculty members keenly interested in Pareto was somewhat harassed by leftist groups. He has recently recalled:

At Harvard in the thirties there was certainly, led by Henderson, what the then Communists or fellow-travelling or even just mild American style liberals in the University used to call 'the Pareto cult '. The favourite smear phrase for Pareto . . . was 'Karl Marx of the bourgeoisie'. The Pareto cult was never one that influenced a majority of the faculty, but it had fairly wide repercussions.[9]

Henderson, whose method in discussion was said to be only 'feebly imitated by the pile-driver'.[10] was apparently often in debate with people he felt over-emphasized the rationality in men's behavior - people he called 'liberals' .

In his warfare with these liberals Henderson would use Paretan, indeed Machiavellian, terms which seemed to cast doubt on his own belief in any real goodness in men, in any validity for the great traditions of American democracy. The liberals, of course, replied with their then favorite word of abuse - 'fascist'.[11]

It appears, then, that the Marxists and the Paretans frequently confronted one another at Harvard in the 1930s. Moreover, it is likely that others, with Homans, embraced Pareto's ideas, if not in reaction to the prevailing Marxist notions on campus, then as a useful defense in debate against them. Another source of the enthusiasm for Pareto felt by the four scholars discussed here - Homans, Henderson, Parsons and Brinton - was their contact with one another at Harvard in this period. If a group of men share an interest in the ideas of one man, and if they meet occasionally to discuss those ideas, their interest in their subject will tend to grow. Thus, the theses of this paper are that the reliance on social system and equilibrium concepts developed through the interaction among these men, and more specifically, that a careful reading of their works, combined with a study of their friendships during the 1930s, reveals that the individual who most influenced Homans, Brinton and Parsons with regard to social system concepts was Lawrence J. Henderson. The paper has three parts. The first establishes that the four scholars met periodically during the 1930s and early 1940s to 'talk shop', and also that they had read one another's writings. The second part traces the use of the concepts of social system and equilibrium and the analogies employed by the authors in their major works during this period. Finally, in the third part, the characteristic approaches of these authors are compared to determine whether Henderson was indeed the one who shaped the thinking of the other scholars regarding these concepts.

I. Interaction within the 'Pareto Circle'

Membership in at least three social-intellectual associations brought these four men into regular contact during the 1930s. The first time they came together for frequent discussions on Pareto was in the fall of 1932 when Lawrence Henderson organized a seminar on Pareto's sociology. Henderson was a physiologist; by the time he was 48, he was well established in his field and had proven to be a tough-minded methodologist. At about this time he read Pareto's sociological writings and was extremely impressed with the Italian's efforts to apply scientific methods of analysis to social phenomena. From 1926 to 1932 Henderson read carefully the bulk of Pareto's work and became convinced that his approach was of momentous importance. He decided to conduct a seminar on Pareto, and early in the 1932 academic year he began recruiting faculty members to be participants. Schumpeter, DeVoto, Brinton and Parsons all came. Henderson's good friend Charles P. Curtis, Jr., a Boston lawyer and a Harvard Fellow, gave him some assistance in running the course. Henry Murray, Clyde Kluckhohn, and Robert Merton also attended, and Henderson personally invited Homans, who was in his first year of graduate school, to join the seminar.[12] Henderson conducted the seminar for two years, from 1932 to 1934.[13] Apparently, most of the same men attended regularly throughout its duration.

The seminar was particularly important for Homans. It was the beginning of his friendship with Henderson, and that friendship meant the beginning of his career as a sociologist. Homans had studied English literature as an undergraduate at Harvard with Bernard DeVoto as his tutor. DeVoto was a friend of Henderson and had assigned Homans a large portion of Pareto's sociological works to read in his senior year. DeVoto then introduced Homans to Henderson who later issued the invitation to join the seminar. As the first part of the seminar wore on, Curtis, who was not only a good friend of Henderson's but of Homans' family as well, asked Homans to collaborate with him in writing a book introducing Pareto's main theoretical framework to an English-speaking audience. Homans accepted, and the book appeared in 1934.[14] In the preface Homans and Curtis acknowledge the importance of the seminar and Henderson for their work.

This book is the first fruits of the Seminar on the Sociology of Pareto which Lawrence J. Henderson had conducted at Harvard for the last two years. Nearly everything it says which is not Pareto's and which is of any importance we have parroted from him.[15]

Parsons also attended the seminar regularly.[16] It is difficult to determine the impact of the seminar on Parsons, but it surely was important as his first intensive encounter with both Pareto and Henderson.[17] There is no mention of Pareto in Parsons' early writings, but after the seminar in 1932-34 references to Pareto appear frequently. The steady contact in the seminar fostered in Parsons and Henderson a concern for each other's work. When Henderson's book on Pareto appeared in 1935, the year after the seminar was completed, Parsons gave it a very complimentary, though brief, review in the American Economic Review.[18] Two years later, when Parsons published his Structure of Social Action, he acknowledged Henderson's generous help with regard to the analysis of Pareto's ideas.[19] Parsons had intensive contact with Henderson prior to the book's publication, primarily because Henderson had been asked to read the manuscript. Parsons recalls that Henderson took this with 'uncommon seriousness':

As a result we had a series of very long talks. These lasted for perhaps five or six months... It was quite a training in close thinking for me. I undertook major revisions after these talks.[20]

Crane Brinton attended the seminar, but not as steadily as Homans and Parsons. He presented at least one historical 'case' to the group each year. For Brinton the seminar may have been an important source of information about Pareto, as it was for the other two scholars. But unlike them the seminar did not serve as a steppingstone to friendship with Henderson - for Brinton already had such a friendship. That friendship dated back to 1918 when Henderson, as Chairman of the Bowdoin Prize Committee, had awarded the prize to Brinton in his junior year at Harvard. Henderson thought highly of Brinton's essay and invited the student to dinner. Brinton adds: 'I never lost touch with him after that.' Except for the years when Brinton was abroad - in 1919-23 and 1927-28 - he saw Henderson 'fairly often, dining with him, or visiting at the Henderson summer home in Morgan Center, Vt'.[21] By 1936 the friendship with Henderson was not only still alive but manifested itself in Brinton's work. For in that year Brinton, in two of his books, referred to Henderson in prefatory remarks: one acknowledged that Henderson had introduced Brinton to Pareto's ideas[22]; and the second cited Brinton's debt to the biochemist for giving the historian not only the topic for historical study, but help in dealing with it. Brinton wrote:

I wish to thank . . . Professor L. J. Henderson for arousing my first interest in Talleyrand, and for constant critical attention to the details and to the generalizations of this study...[23]

One year later Brinton became a member of the exclusive and prestigious Saturday Club of Boston. The Saturday Club had been founded in 1856 by Ralph Waldo Emerson and a group of important Bostonians; the function of the club was to bring together its members on the last Saturday of every month for a leisurely dinner in the afternoon.[24] Bliss Perry notes in his 'Recollections of the Saturday Club' that at his first dinner in 1903 - the same year Lawrence Lowell entered the Club - 'it was a gathering primarily of Harvard notables'.[25] Henderson had been elected to the club in 1922, and within ten years of that date all the five founders of Harvard's Society of Fellows belonged except Charles P. Curtis, Jr., who was elected in 1953[26] The Saturday Club, then, was one place for a select group of Harvard scholars, from a variety of disciplines, to meet and converse. Brinton indicates that in the 1930s Henderson, Lowell, and a few others often talked about Pareto in discussions which lasted into late afternoon.[27] After Brinton joined the Club in 1937, he and Henderson probably saw each other regularly at the Club until the latter's death in 1942.[28]

It is obvious that this contact and sharing of ideas which existed before 1936 did not diminish as time passed. For in 1938 Brinton's Anatomy of Revolution appeared citing a debt to Henderson for the 'conceptual scheme' he employed as a framework for the entire book.[29] In fact, the friendship may well have grown stronger for in 1939 Brinton was named a Senior Fellow in the Society of Fellows, a move which had to involve Henderson, as he was the Chairman of the Society at the time. The Society of Fellows is the third social-intellectual association effecting contact among the men under study, and it appears to have cemented the Henderson-Homans and Henderson-Brinton friend ships. Henderson is the most important figure here for several reasons. He was the founder of the Society in the sense that it was his idea[30] and - as Homans and Bailey put it - 'Henderson was the first to begin thinking what might practically be done' about truly altering the usual graduate school experience.[31] He was a Senior Fellow and Chairman of the Society from its first days in 1933 until his death nine years later.[32] The senior Fellows are a set of nine men, professors or members of the Harvard Corporation. They select the Junior Fellows, a group of graduate men who work on projects of their own and who are free from the usual academic demands. One important aspect of the Society was designed specifically to encourage the sharing of ideas among Senior and Junior Fellows: all Society members dine together every Monday evening.[33]

In addition to their previous ties Brinton and Henderson were Senior Fellows together from 1939 to 1942. For those three years the two saw each other every week at the Monday dinners. In addition, the Senior Fellows met periodically as a group 'to administer the affairs of the Society'. They also interviewed the nominees for the new Junior Fellow positions and settled on their choices each year.[34] Brinton and Henderson were now hard-working colleagues. There was a twenty-year gap m their ages, and over twenty years had passed since they first became acquainted. Yet there were still close friends.

The first year the Society began accepting Junior Fellows was 1933-34. Homans had been nominated for a Junior Fellow position, he entered the competition as a poet, but was rejected.[35] But by the second year of the Society's existence Homans was on the road to becoming a sociologist. In 1934 Homans had completed two years of Henderson's seminar on Pareto and published his book with Curtis.[36] Homans describes his new situation.

...I had demonstrated my Paretan faith; I was Henderson's man, and Henderson was chairman of the Society of Fellows. I had worked with, and became a great friend of Curtis.... If the society was what I wanted, l was in with the right crowd.... Accordingly, when Henderson suggested that I should run for the Society a second time, and this time as a sociologist, l again agreed at once.[37]

As a Junior Fellow from 1934 to 1939, Homans was in weekly contact with Henderson all during this period. There can be no doubt of the enormous influence Henderson had on Homans. Homans describes himself as 'Henderson's man', and elsewhere in his autobiographical essay he calls Henderson 'my patron'.[38] Homans had agreed to run for the Society as a sociologist. But his undergraduate training had all been in English literature, and he relied on Henderson to help make him a sociologist. Homans recalls: 'to prepare for entering the Society, I asked Henderson, in effect, "Master, what shall I do to become a sociologist?'''[39] Henderson had some specific ideas of what Homans should do; and Homans followed the boss's orders.

In spite of the apparent master-slave relationship, respect did not flow all one way. Henderson thought highly of the work Homans had done with Curtis in 1934.[40] And he kept up with Homans' later writings; he read and criticized carefully the thick historical work which was the major product of Homans' years as a Junior Fellow.[41]

The friendships that developed between Henderson and Brinton and between Henderson and Homans seemed to bring Brinton and Homans together. But their contact was very slight compared with the close ties each had with Henderson. Both attended Henderson's seminar, but Brinton did so occasionally. It appears that no significant interaction occurred at that time, for Brinton marks his first contact with Homans as being in 1934 when Homans became a Junior Fellow. Though Brinton was not a Senior Fellow until 1939, he was a guest at the Society dinners three or four times a year all during the years Homans was with the Society.[42] Henderson, Chairman of the Society, may well have been Brinton's host at these times. At least by 1937 Homans was familiar with Brinton's writings and was using some of Brinton's historical materials and interpretations to support his own arguments.[43] By this time, however, Homans' friendship with Henderson was on solid footing, and Brinton's had long been so; whereas, there is no evidence for close contact between Homans and Brinton.

In 1939 Brinton came weekly to the Society dinners in anticipation of his appointment as a Senior Fellow, but his regular attendance overlapped with only the last three months of Homans' membership.[44] In 1940 Homans finished his English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century. By this time there had been some contact between the two men, for in his preface Homans expressed his warmest thanks to Brinton, who read and criticized part of the book.[45] Brinton was not, however, the major influence on Homans' work; this came instead from social anthropology, to which Homans had been introduced by Elton Mayo.[46]

Parsons writes that his contact with Homans came about 'essentially through the association with Henderson. Homans was a kind of protégé of Henderson from the beginning of his interest in Pareto.'[47] Parsons also indicated that he was in the Pareto seminar with Homans, but he makes no mention of any close relationship between them at this time. Parsons also states: 'With Brinton there was never any such intensive contact [as with Henderson], though it was a continuing relationship.'[48]

The contact the four scholars had with each other in the three formal discussion groups during the decade under study can be summarized as follows. All four were members of the seminar 1932-34; Parsons (1910-) was only in this group; Henderson (1878-1924) was in the Society of Fellows 1932-42 and the Saturday Club 1933-42; Brinton (1898-) was in the Society of Fellows 1938-42 and in the Saturday Club 1937-42; Homans (1910-) was in the Society of Fellows 1934-39.

Although all four men participated in the seminar, the text above indicates that the interaction among Homans, Parsons and Brinton was much less intense than the contact each had with Henderson; this is because Brinton did not attend regularly but mostly because Henderson led the seminar. Not only was Henderson dynamic and stimulating in discussion, but he was the expert in the group on Pareto and scientific method. It is clear that in the seminar situation he would be the center of interaction. The four scholars naturally belonged to other formal organizations which fostered interaction; e.g., beginning with 1939, Homans and Parsons were on the faculty in the same department. And informal contact, growing from friendship, common interests, or scholarly cooperation, was no doubt even more important in the sharing and influencing of ideas than the formal activities. But the point of the chart is that even with these three quite formal associations, a trend is apparent. Henderson was very active in the last decade of his life; and the other three men were drawn into groups of which Henderson was either a long-standing member (Saturday Club) or the founder (the seminar, the Society of Fellows). Furthermore, there appears to have been less contact among the other three than each had with Henderson. Qualitative measures of friendship patterns (discussed earlier in this section) further testify to Henderson's central position within the group. Brinton's long-standing friendship with Henderson was reinforced by the steady contact near the end of Henderson's life; this, accompanied with his only occasional contact with Parsons and Homans, leads to the conclusion that he was influenced more by Henderson than by the other two. Homans' autobiographical essay makes clear that his relationship with Henderson was much more significant than with either Brinton or Parsons. And Parsons has recently stated that of the three - Homans, Henderson and Brinton - Henderson was his closest friend.[49]

II. Social system concepts

The central task of this study is to compare how the four scholars wrote about the concepts of social system and social equilibrium. But before a comparison is attempted, it seems wise to sketch some of the main ideas pertaining to these concepts presented by each of the authors in his major works during the 1930s and early 1940s. Any analogies or examples of the concepts of equilibrium and social system used by the authors will also be described here. One of the first major works published in English on Pareto's writings was An Introduction to Pareto: His Sociology (1934) by G. C. Homans and C. P. Curtis, Jr. As we have seen, this book was an outgrowth of the seminar under Henderson. Homans and Curtis saw as their purpose to provide readers with a statement on scientific method which would help them understand Pareto's Sociologie Générale.[50] Only a few sections of the book are relevant to this study of social system concepts, because, as S. E. Finer states: 'This book is, for the most part, a set of everyday illustrations and examples of the subclasses of the residues.'[51] And a discussion of residues belongs to another sort of paper. Here we are concerned with the authors' ideas on the mutual dependence of variables and social equilibrium.

Homans and Curtis assert that most relationships between two variables are ones of mutual dependence rather than of cause and effect. The authors illustrate how changes in one variable will usually mean changes in other variables,[52] yet they do not delimit their statements about mutual dependence with a description of the system within which the elements interact. In fact, in this book the concept 'system' is not well developed at all, within either a physical or social framework.

The two authors discuss in detail the problems facing the social scientist - the analyst who wishes to determine the precise relationship between two or more mutually dependent variables. Mathematics, the authors assert, is the only means available for solving such problems, but in sociology we are unable to measure accurately enough to use such mathematical techniques.[53] The problem is not insuperable, however, since

. . . in few states of mutual dependence are all the variables equally important... we could describe this state of mutual dependence very well... if we first treated the variable of primary importance as the cause of the others and then took into account the reaction of the variables of secondary importance on the cause.[54]

Homans and Curtis use cause and effect reasoning while acknowledging that most related variables are, in fact, interdependent.

Though Homans and Curtis do not elaborate on the concept of 'system', they do present in detail their ideas on 'equilibrium'. Before they define the term, they give examples of equilibrium, the first of which is a marble in a bowl. 'If the bowl is jerked, the marble rolls up its side a little, but soon falls back to the bottom again. The marble is in a state of equilibrium.'[55] The second illustration is the recovery of weight in the human organism following sickness. If a baby contracts the measles and loses weight - but then gains weight again so that he weighs what he would have had he not been ill, then 'the baby, as far as its health is concerned, is in a state of equilibrium'.[65] Because growth is a process this last example illustrates dynamic equilibrium, as opposed to the marble at rest which exemplifies static equilibrium. Since Pareto applies his notion of equilibrium to social processes, he is more concerned with the dynamic form of equilibrium than the static.[57] Finally, Homans and Curtis offer Pareto's own definition of equilibrium:

This state is such... that if a modification were artificially introduced in it unlike that which it in reality undergoes, immediately a reaction would be produced which would tend to bring it back to the real state.[58]

Under 'artificial changes' the old equilibrium is regained, but under more violent changes a new equilibrium may be reached. Homans and Curtis note that the importance of the equilibrium concept is 'Pareto's belief... that most societies at most times behave in a manner which indicates that they are in equilibrium. When a society suffers a disturbance, a reaction is set up which tends to bring it back to its original state'[59] Examples which the authors give of equilibrium at work in society are, first, the manner in which a rich nation readjusts to the dislocations of a short war and, second, how a populous region, devastated by earthquake, gradually rebuilds, so that 'the region becomes more or less what it was before. Such a region is in equilibrium.'[60] Henderson's book on Pareto appeared the year following that of the Homans and Curtis work. Early in the book Henderson launches into an analysis of systems - first 'the physico-chemical system' and then the social system. The physico-chemical system is based on the work of Willard Gibbs and is 'an isolated material aggregate' consisting of individual substances which are found in phases (liquid, solid, or gaseous), and the system is characterized by a certain temperature, pressure, and concentration of the substances.[61] When one of these factors changes, the others do too. 'Thus all the factors that characterize this system are seen to be mutually dependent. In this respect this system is typical of all systems.'[62]

Like Homans and Curtis, Henderson argues that cause and effect analysis is inadequate for describing systems with interdependent elements. Such analysis 'has to be replaced by some method... involving the simultaneous variations of mutually dependent variables'.[63] But Henderson's solution is more sophisticated than that given by Homans and Curtis. In his notes at the end of the book Henderson devotes eight pages (twice the length of his chapter on the social system itself) to the forms the required method of analysis might take. Henderson - reflecting his physical science background - gives a most precise explication of the dynamics of mutual dependency.[64]

Henderson next describes Pareto's social system, which he finds analogous to Gibbs' physico-chemical system. In his notes Henderson assures the reader that Gibbs' work did not influence Pareto, but that Pareto's own thesis on the mathematical theory of equilibrium in elastic solids and his work in economics were major sources of his social system[65] But Henderson cannot refrain from spelling out all the analogies between the physico-chemical system and the social system - individuals correspond to Gibbs' components, while sentiments, verbal elaborations and economic interests correspond to Gibbs' temperature, pressure and concentrations.[66] Thus, in describing Pareto's social system in detail, Henderson's chief analogy is that of a chemical system. Yet at various points he asserts that the social system is analogous to 'dynamical, thermodynamical, physiological, and economic systems',[67] to 'the solar system', as well as to the physico-chemical system.[68]

Of the four scholars under study Henderson alone truly analyzes the concept of system. He spells out the steps one would go through in 'building up the conceptual scheme of a new generalized system'. Briefly, one must recognize a certain set of phenomena which is analogous to those sets of phenomena designated by terms like dynamical system or physico-chemical system, then take into account a certain number of variables and discover the set of equations which 'completely describe' the system of variables.[69] 'The state defined by such a set of equations is frequently a state of equilibrium....'[70] When Henderson illustrates this procedure, he uses a mechanical example.[71] But in the main sections of the book when he describes social equilibrium, his analogy is that of the self-healing power of the living organism.

The case of physiological equilibrium is similar [to social equilibrium]. In fact, it is logically identical. When recovery from disease is in question, the process is still often referred to as a result of the vis medicatrix naturae.[72]

Henderson then cites works in medicine and physiology in support of his statements.

Henderson appears to use the more formal and complicated analogies of mechanics and chemistry when explicating the scientific bases of or uses for the models of social system and equilibrium; this he does primarily in the notes. The body of the book contains more everyday analogies. Henderson, the physical scientist with an incredibly broad range of interests, was capable of writing for the educated layman or for the scientist. In Pareto's General Sociology he did both - the former in the first half of the book, the latter in the notes.

Parsons' Structure of Social Action (1937) was published two years after Henderson's work. It contains a precise analysis of Pareto's theories - an analysis which S. E. Finer calls a 'masterly and minute exegesis'[73] But, unfortunately, the exegesis touches only lightly on topics relevant to this paper. Parsons acknowledges in his preface that 'the primary aim of the study is not to determine and state in summary form what these writers [including Pareto] said...'.[74] Essentially, this had been the aim of the Homans and Curtis and Henderson books on Pareto. Parsons is concerned instead with analyzing the Paretan ideas in terms of the action frame of reference. Hence, he concentrates almost exclusively on what Pareto has to say about such concepts as sentiments logical and non-logical actions, and values.

Because of Parsons' specific focus he never describes Pareto's concept of social system or equilibrium. When he uses the word system, even when referring to the content of Pareto's writings, he writes within the action framework. Parsons is concerned with finding in Pareto statements about action within society as a whole; that is, statements about the acts of all members of the society. Particularly useful to Parsons in this regard is Pareto's theory of social utility. He isolates Pareto's statement that there exists the 'end a society should pursue by means of logico-experimental reasoning', and rephrases it as a key point at which Pareto gives support to the action frame of reference.

This [Pareto's statement just quoted] may be restated to the effect that the actions of the members of a society are to a significant degree oriented to a single integrated system of ultimate ends common to these members. More generally the value element in the form both of ultimate ends and of value attitudes is in a significant degree common to the members of the society. This is one of the essential conditions of the equilibrium of social systems.[75]

This is a perfect example of how Parsons talks about social system and equilibrium in the 1930s. He has moved out of Pareto's social system, which is composed of residues, derivations and social heterogeneity, and into the social system of action, composed of means ends schemes and values. And he has taken with him the concepts under study in this paper, undefined and never discussed per se, but used specifically to illuminate his own analysis. Not until fourteen years later did Parsons concentrate on the concept of social system for its own sake.[76]

Brinton's Anatomy of Revolution (1938) is an attempt to give a structural analysis of four revolutions. Brinton's aim is ' establish, as the scientist might, certain first approximations of uniformities to be noted in the course of four successful revolutions in modern states...'.[77] Brinton notes that his problem is to find a conceptual framework within which to fit the details of the revolutions, and that in the social sciences it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a conceptual scheme from a metaphor.[78] He discusses the metaphor of the storm as particularly appropriate for describing the course of revolutions. It becomes clear that Brinton seeks an analogy for something which rages and then subsides.

The conceptual scheme he then mentions is Pareto's 'social system of equilibrium'.[79] Brinton notes the equilibrium concept is useful in a variety of contemporary fields.

The concept of equilibrium helps us to understand, and sometimes to use and control, specific machines, chemicals, and even medicines. It may someday help us to understand, and within limits to mold, men in society.[80]

Brinton seizes upon this concept, applies it to society, and notes that no society is in perfect equilibrium and that under certain conditions of change 'a relative disequilibrium may arise, and what we call a revolution break out'.[81] As Brinton explicates the phenomenon of social equilibrium, he uses the exact same analogy and even the same terms as Henderson.

In social systems, as in the human organism, a kind of natural healing force, a vis medicatrix naturae, tends almost automatically to balance one kind of change with another and restorative change.[82]

Brinton feels that the conceptual framework of social equilibrium is the most useful one for sociologists who are analyzing revolutions. However, he indicates that he cannot use this framework because 'it ought to be formulated in terms more close to those of mathematics than we can honestly employ'.[83] Yet the scheme he does actually employ is the analogy itself: social equilibrium as a self-healing living organism. 'We shall regard revolutions... as a kind of fever.' It is the kind of fever from which the patient inevitably recovers.

Finally the fever is over. and the patient is himself again... societies which undergo the full cycle of revolution are perhaps in some respects the stronger for it; but they by no means emerge entirely remade.[84]

III. Patterns of influence

This last part of the paper compares the analogies used by the four scholars of the concepts of social system and equilibrium and relates this analysis to the interaction patterns within the group. The first section of the paper indicated that Henderson was the hub of friendships within this group. The links among the others were much weaker than those which tied each to Henderson. Brinton and Homans were in contact, but the evidence indicates that their relationship came about primarily as a result of their separate friendships with Henderson. Parsons had little contact with the other two, though a good friend of the physiologist. Given this situation and the fact that it was Henderson - particularly through his two-year seminar on Pareto - who introduced to the other three men the concepts of social system and social equilibrium, the discussion to follow compares Henderson's writings with those of each of the other three.

During the two years of Henderson's seminar Homans was in his two years of graduate school. He was 24 years old when he stopped graduate work and became a Junior Fellow in 1934, and Henderson - the red-bearded dynamo - was 56. The Homans and Curtis book appeared in 1934 as well, and since the authors indicate in their preface that all the core ideas came from Henderson, a strong similarity should exist between the analogies used by Homans and Curtis for the social system and equilibrium and those used by Henderson the next year in his book. And so it is. Henderson's explication of Pareto's concepts utilizes analogies from a whole range of fields - physics, chemistry, astronomy and economics. A parallel to Henderson's mechanical example to illustrate equilibrium[85] is Homans and Curtis' use of the marble in the bowl. For their examples of dynamic equilibrium both books employ analogies of a living organism recovering from disease. Henderson calls the homeostatic process of living bodies the result of vis medicatrix naturae[86] The Homans and Curtis example is that of the baby regaining weight after the measles until

...its weight returns to what it would have been if it had never suffered the attack.... This effect of this sort of equilibrium used to be called the vis medicatrix naturae. We rely on it when we prescribe, as Hippocrates did: 'Let it alone and it will get well.'[87]

Both Homans and Henderson share still another way of looking at equilibrium. Henderson states about social equilibrium:

In the case of Pareto's social system the definition of equilibrium takes a form that closely resembles the theorem of Le Chatelier in physical chemistry, which expresses a property of physico-chemical equilibrium....[88]

Homans and Curtis note the same fact:

Clearly. his [Pareto's] definition of equilibrium as observed in society is closely analogous to the definition of equilibrium as observed. for instance, in chemistry.[89]

In Henderson's book the analogies for the social system and social equilibrium are drawn from a variety of fields: in each field the analogous system is carefully described in precise correspondence to the social system. In the case of physics and chemistry it is with words, diagrams and formulas; in physiology with examples from medicine; and in astronomy with a description of the solar system which exactly parallels a description of the social system. Henderson was the physical scientist with very broad interests and was at home in all these fields. Homans' training in English literature and Curtis' in law did not allow them to elaborate on the scientific analogies. But as shown above, their description of the more everyday analogies is very similar to Henderson's. Another important point is that Homans and Curtis mention all the same fields as Henderson.

The curious thing is that the phenomena of equilibrium are observed over a wide range of fields. In physics, chemistry. biology, astronomy, and other sciences groups of mutually dependent factors are observed to form systems which have this property in common: the group as a whole acts so as to counteract any change in any of its components.[90]

It appears likely that the two authors learned the above fact not from their own experience - which was minimal in the physical sciences - but from Henderson.

Parsons participated in Henderson's seminar on Pareto, and it was no doubt Henderson who stimulated Parsons' interest in the Italian theorist. That interest first bore fruit when Parsons included Pareto in his Structure of Social Action. But the manner in which Parsons wrote about social system and equilibrium in the thirties did not closely resemble Henderson's treatment of the concepts or that of Homans and Curtis.

Parsons was no doubt not as impressionable a member of the seminar as Homans - not so much because Parsons is older, for Homans is only eight years his junior, but because Parsons had a position as Faculty Instructor in the Department of Sociology at Harvard.[91] He was teaching; Homans was a student. There is a difference in the frame of mind which accompanies the two occupations. One way a student can learn a great deal is by being open, impressionable before a competent teacher for a certain length of time; enthusiasm which springs from truly understanding the teacher's ideas can lead the student to much deeper study than is otherwise possible. But the teacher - in order to teach well - is thrown back on his own resources, his own creativity, his own ideas.

Parsons had been working out his own ideas on a number of topics which, though they were somewhat related to those pursued in the seminar, were definitely not Henderson's central concerns. Before he had had contact with Henderson, Parsons had become much interested in Max Weber's work and 'the problem of the nature of economic theory and its boundaries and limitations'; Parsons found Pareto's writings interesting because the Italian had explicitly addressed this problem.[92] Parsons notes that Henderson and Homans were not very concerned with the problem of economic theory and that 'Schumpeter's participation in the Seminar was entirely peripheral'.[93] Apparently, the seminar devoted little time to Pareto's ideas on economic theory. Parsons had also begun serious analysis of Durkheim's theory; Durkheim was discussed by members of the Pareto circle, but his ideas again were not one of their main interests.[94]

So before the seminar was organized Parsons' interests had crystallized around different problems than those which stirred Henderson. Parsons was consequently less influenced by Henderson's views than was Homans, who entered the seminar with less knowledge of social theory or at least entered with interests more attuned to Henderson's.

However, Henderson did impress Parsons with the value of Pareto's concept of social system. The Social System appeared fourteen years after his Structure of Social Action with the following acknowledgement to Henderson:

The title, The Social System, goes back, more than to any other source, to the insistence of the late Professor L. J. Henderson on the extreme importance of the concept of system in scientific theory, and his clear realization that the attempt to delineate the social system as a system was the most important contribution of Pareto's great work.[95]

Henderson had introduced Parsons to the concept of social system; but between the 1930s and 1951, when The Social System was finished, Parsons worked with the concept and developed a somewhat different way of using it. Parsons' social system was based more on a physiological model of systems than was Henderson's which leaned heavily on a physical-chemical model.[96]

Brinton had written a great deal about revolutions[97] before he wrote Anatomy of Revolution, but the fact that he chose to put his knowledge of the historical data into a conceptual framework - and that he chose the particular framework he did - owes a great deal to Henderson. Some historians are content to describe. But Brinton felt that the scientific method could be applied to historical data and that 'the scientist cannot work without a conceptual scheme...[98] The main support for his belief came from Henderson's definition of fact - '"an empirically verifiable statement about phenomena in terms of a conceptual scheme".'[99] So Brinton needed a conceptual scheme to make his facts about revolution really facts, in a scientific sense.

Brinton's ideas about social equilibrium very much resemble Henderson's. Brinton points out that the concept of equilibrium is useful in the fields of mechanics, chemistry and physiology.[100] These are the three main fields from which Henderson drew his examples and analogies. Brinton next states:

The concepts of a physicochemical system in equilibrium, a social system in equilibrium, John Jones's body in equilibrium, do not in the least prejudice the immortality of anyone's soul, nor even the ultimate victory of Vitalists over Mechanists.[101]

The phrase 'physicochemical system' echoes a chapter title in Henderson's book. And Henderson makes a similar statement about the Vitalists.

It is instructive to note that these physiological phenomena [examples of equilibrium] have been used by philosophers as a foundation of the argument for vitalism. For they belong in the same class as those inorganic processes that arise from similar disturbances of physical and chemical equilibrium.[102]

Brinton uses the self-healing organism as his analogy for the process of social equilibrium, and fever is the analogy for disequilibrium (or revolution). Henderson does indeed use the same basic metaphors.[103] It is easy to see why, of all the other analogies Henderson uses, that the physiological one would appeal to Brinton. First of all, Brinton is not trained in the physical sciences; the chemical and mechanical examples would be difficult for him to make his own. But more importantly, Brinton insists:

The first job of the scientist is to be obvious.... We shall, then, hope that whatever uniformities we can detect . . . will turn out to be obvious, to be just what any sensible man already knew about revolution.[104]

With this belief Brinton cannot choose a highly technical analogy, or his conclusions will not be what any sensible man already knew. Everyone knows about fever. Thirdly, if Henderson says that social equilibrium works 'identically' to physiological equilibrium, as he certainly did,[105] he should be believed. For Henderson is not only the expert on social equilibrium, but is a physiologist as well. He alone among the four scholars had an MD; this was obviously Henderson's field - or rather one of his fields - of expertise.

IV. Conclusion

Henderson's impact on Homans, Brinton and Parsons was undeniably great - more extensive by far than the impact any one of the other three men had either on him or on one another. Under Henderson's influence a group of scholars in the 1930s embraced Pareto's theories and terminology. For Henderson, Pareto's system was the most sophisticated step yet taken toward building a science of society.

However, at this period in intellectual history sociologists are not enamored with Pareto. Despite Pareto's pretensions to the contrary, his conclusions are not the result of any experimental method; they are not facts about the social world, but rather high order abstractions. Pareto presents the reader with few techniques for studying sociological phenomena empirically. One does find in Pareto a conceptual scheme for categorizing non-logical aspects of human behavior. He filled over a thousand pages developing his system of residues and derivations; but it is not very useful at the heuristic level. Even Pareto found that only two of his residues were helpful when he applied his system to the socio-political world, the result of which was his theory of the 'circulation of the elites'. An important spinoff from this emphasis on residues and derivations was that his 'general sociology' ignored specifically sociological elements of human behavior - e.g. the importance of interaction networks and institutional roles. There is another basis for today's critical view of Pareto's theories. Homans made explicit that one reason he accepted Pareto was that he could use him as a defense against the Marxists, since Pareto had demonstrated that Marx's theories, among others, contained rationalizations. Pareto at the same time set his 'debunking' of other social theories in a framework of such cold logic and scientific analysis that he convinced important readers like Henderson that he had kept his work primarily free of rationalization. Henderson's trust in Pareto was no doubt imparted to members of the Pareto circle in the 1930s. But in the 1960s Pareto has been 'justly celebrated as the greatest rationalizer of authoritarian conservatism in our time'.[106]

Our view from the 1960s enables us to see that the Pareto circle had difficulty doing sociology applying Pareto's framework and terminology. Brinton indicates that near the end of his life Henderson himself was revising Pareto in a general sociology of his own. In the same article, written in the 1950s, Brinton notes that Henderson's use of Pareto as a basis was perhaps a mistake.[107] Yet in the 1930s Brinton had himself relied heavily on Pareto's framework in two of his books: Anatomy of Revolution and French Revolutionary Legislation on Illegitimacy.

Homans has exhibited a particularly dramatic change of attitude regarding Paretan ideas. In 1936 he described the dynamics of social equilibrium as an inescapable fact of life.

[A] society is an organism and... like all organisms, if a threat be made to its mode of existence, a society will produce antibodies which tend to restore it to its original form.'[108]

But in 1961 Homans completely reversed his view on the natural tendency of a social system to return to its original state if disturbed. He even changed the term to avoid confusion with his earlier meaning of the concept.

We speak of practical equilibrium instead of plain equilibrium in order to avoid the almost mystical arguments that have encrusted the latter word.... [We do not assume] that if a change from practical equilibrium does occur, behavior necessarily reacts so as to reduce or get rid of it. There is no homeostasis here: no belief that a group acts like an animal body shaking off an infection.[l09]

Parsons' recent attitudes toward Pareto are somewhat more difficult to gauge. He did not embrace the Paretan social system and equilibrium concepts as immediately or as completely as did the others. But today he seems closer to Pareto than either Homans or Brinton. This is partly because the social system concepts are now more central to his thinking than to theirs, but also because his method of doing sociology - building large-scale, abstract theories - is similar to Pareto's. The latter is one primary source of the intellectual schism between Parsons and Homans. Homans insists that theories should be built from the psychological bottom up - from the empirically tested hypotheses to more general propositions - while Parsons, like Pareto, builds systems from the top down.

The members of the Pareto circle found themselves moving beyond the conceptual schemes Pareto had given them in order to solve their more immediate problems of studying social phenomena. They were aided in their move away from Pareto by the Second World War which made the Soviet Union our ally and altered the ideological situation within American sociology. Marxism seemed less of a threat and more of an historical antecedent to sociology. Pareto was no longer necessary as a defense against the Communist menace. In addition to these global events, Harvard was changing, too. The dynamic Henderson died in 1942. The Paretan framework seemed more and more remote and removed from the scene of battle.

Today we view Pareto and social system concepts through a different set of perceptual spectacles than did the Pareto circle. In the past Homans, Brinton and Parsons looked through lenses ground for them by Henderson. Time, however, has revealed the weaknesses in Pareto's sociology. The lenses ground by Lawrence Joseph Henderson have been discarded. And Pareto too has joined the long line of social theorists who form the corps of the classic tradition.


1. Vilfredo Pareto, Sociological Writings, selected and introduced by S. E. Finer. New York, Praeger, 1966: 31.

2. Ibid.: 28-9; also, George C. Homans, Sentiments and Activities: Essays in Social Science. New York, Free Press,1962: 5; Elton Mayo's membership in the group was brought to my attention in letters from G. C. Homans (19 June 1967) and Talcott Parsons (18 July 1967).

3. Lawrence J. Henderson, Pareto's General Sociology: A Physiologist's Interpretation. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1935; George C. Homans and Charles P. Curtis, Jr., An Introduction to Pareto: His Sociology. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1934.

4. Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, 2nd edn. New York, Free Press, 1961.

5. Crane Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution, 2nd edn. New York, Vintage Books, 1952; Crane Brinton, French Revolutionary Legislation on Legitimacy 1789-1804. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1936.

6. Talcott Parsons, 'Pareto's central analytical scheme', Journal of Social Philosophy, I (April, 1936): 244-62; Lawrence J. Henderson, 'Pareto's science of society', Saturday Review of Literature, X11 (25 May l935):3-4+; Crane Brinton, 'What's the matter with sociology?' Saturday Revielv of Literatule, XX (6 May 1939): 3.

7. Although this paper deals primarily with the relationships within the Pareto circle in the 1930s, a brief discussion of the specific relationship between the Marxists and Paretans was required.

8. Homans, Sentiments and Activities: 4.

9. Letter from Crane Brinton, 17 Feb. 1967.

10. Crane Brinton (ed.), The Society of Fellows. Cambridge, The Society of Fellows of Harvard Univ., 1959: 3.

11. Crane Brinton, 'Lawrence Joseph Henderson', Saturday C/ub: A Century Completed, 1920-1956, E. W. Forbes and J. H. Finley, Jr. (eds). Boston,

Houghton Mimin, 1958: 213.

12. For biographical sketch of Henderson see ibid.; also Brinton (ed.), Society of Fellows: 1-37. On the seminar see Homans, Sentiments and Activities: 3, 5; Pareto, Sociological Writings: 28-9; Lloyd K. Garrison, 'Great-circle course', Review of Lions Under the Throne by Charles P. Curtis, Jr., Saturday Review of Literature, XXX (29 Mar. 1947): 9; also letters from Talcott Parsons, 10 Mar. 1967 and 18 July 1967.

13. Homans and Curtis, Introduction to Pareto, Preface; and Homans, Sentiments and Activities: 5.

14. On Homans, DeVoto, Henderson, and Curtis see Homans, Sentiments and Ac ivities: 3-7.

15. Homans and Curtis, Introduction to Pareto, Preface.

16. Letter from Talcott Parsons, 10 Mar. 1967.

17. Prior to the seminar, Parsons had only occasional contact with Henderson, dating from 1927 when Parsons came to Harvard; ibid.

18. Talcott Parsons, 'Review of Mind and Society by V. Pareto and Pareto's General Sociologv by L. J. Henderson', American Economic Review XXV (1935): 502-8.

19. Parsons, Structure of Social Action: vii.

20. Interview with Talcott Parsons, 8 Mar. 1967.

21. All the information on the Brinton-Henderson friendship is from Brinton's letter to the writer, 17 Feb. 1967.

22. Brinton, French Revolutionary Legislation: xi.

23. Crane Brinton, The Lives of Talleyrand. New York, W. W. Norton,1936: x. 24. Saturday Club, fold-out on back cover and p.1.

25. Ibid.: 5.

26. From membership list on back cover of Saturday Club. The five founders of the Society of Fellows were Henderson, John Livingston Lowes, Alfred North Whitehead, Charles P. Curtis, Jr. and - important as President of Harvard and the original benefactor of the Society - A. Lawrence Lowell.

27. Letter from Crane Brinton, 17 Feb. 1967.

28. The membership list for the Saturday Club gives the dates each person was in the Club; it appears that individuals were elected to the Club for life.

29. Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution: 11.

30. Charles P. Curtis, Jr., 'Abbott Lawrence Lowell', Saturday Club: 128.

31. Brinton (ed.), Society of Fellows: 4-5.

32. Ibid.: 22, 76; letter from Crane Brinton, 17 Feb. 1967.

33. Brinton (ed.), Society of Fe//olls: 29-30.

34. Ibid.: 1-2, 24-5.

35. Homans, Sentiments and Activities: 6.

36. See text above: pp. 137-8.

37. Homans, Sentiments and Activities: 6.

38. Ibid.: 37.

39. Ibid.: 6.

40. Henderson, Pareto's General Sociologu: 42, note 1.

41. George C. Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1941, Preface.

42. Letter from Crane Brinton, 17 Feb. 1967.

43. George C. Homans, 'The futility of revolution', Saturday Review of Literature, XVI (15 May 1937): 14.

44. Letter from Crane Brinton, 17 Feb. 1967.

45. Homans, English Villagers. Preface.

46. Homans read under Mayo at Henderson's suggestion. Homans writes that Mayo and Henderson were great friends and had adjoining offices in the Harvard Business School. Mayo was influenced by Henderson and Paretan ideas, but Homans notes that 'Mayo was never a full-fledged Paretan' (letter from George C. Homans, 19 June 1967).

47. Letter from Talcott Parsons, 10 Mar. 1967.

48. Ibid.

49. Interview with Talcott Parsons, 8 Mar. 1967.

50. Homans and Curtis, Introduction to Pareto: 13-14.

51. Pareto, Sociolo*ical Writin*s: 84.

52. Homans and Curtis, Introduction to Pareto: 33, 80.

53. Ibid.: 35.

54. Ibid.: 36.

55. Ibid.: 271.

56. Ibid.: 272.

57. Ibid.

58. Ibid.: 273.

59. Ibid.: 276.

60. Ibid.: 272-3.

61. Henderson, Pareto's Ceneral Sociology: 10.

62. Ibid.: 12.

63. Ibid.: 13.

64. Ibid.: 13-14, 74-81.

65. Ibid.: 91-3.

66. Ibid.: 16-17.

67. Ibid.: 18.

68. Ibid.: 91.

69. Ibid.: 110-11, 114-15.

70. Ibid.: 114.

71. Ibid.: 113.

72. Ibid.: 46.

73. Pareto, Sociological Writings: 43.

74. Parsons, Structure of Social Action: v.

75. Ibid.: 707.

76. The Social System was first published in 1951.

77. Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution: 6.

78. Ibid.: 15.

79. Ibid.: 16

80. Ibid.

81. Ibid.

82. Ibid.: 17; for Henderson's similar wording, see Henderson, Pareto's Ceneral Sociologv: 46.

83. Brinton Anatomy of Revolution: 17.

84. Ibid.: 18.

85. Henderson. Pareto's general Sociology: 113.

86. Ibid.: 46.

87. Homans and Curtis, Introduction to Pareto: 272.

88. Henderson, Pareto's General Sociology: 85-6.

89. Homans and Curtis, Introduction to Pareto: 283.

90. Ibid.

91. Pitirim A. Sorokin, A Long Journev: The Autobiographv of' Pitirim A. Sorokin. New Haven, College and University Press, 1963: 243-4.

92. Letter from Talcott Parsons, 18 July 1967.

93. Ibid.

94. Ibid.

95. Parsons, Social Srstem: vii.

96. Letter from Talcott Parsons, 18 July 1967.

97. Crane Brinton, A Decade of Revolution. New York, Harper and Brothers, 1934; Brinton, French Revolutionary Legislation on Illegitimac y .

98. Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution: 6, 10.

99. Ibid.: 11.

100. Ibid.: 16.

101. Ibid.

102. Henderson, Pareto's General Sociologly 47.

103. Ibid.: 46.

104. Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution: 26-7.

105. Henderson, Pareto's Ceneral Sociology: 46.

106. H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society. New York, Vintage Books, 1961: 82.

107. Brinton, 'Lawrence Joseph Henderson', Saturday Club: 211.

108. George C. Homans, 'The making of a communist', Saturdaly Review of Literature XV (31 Oct. 1936): 6.

109. George C. Homans, Social Behavior: Its Elementaal Forms. New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961: 113-14.

Reprinted with the author's permision from C. Chant and J. Fauvel, eds., Darwin to Einstein: Historical Studies on Science and Belief. Longman/Open University Press, 1980, pp. 135-55; originally published inJournal of The History of the Behavioral Sciences, 4 (No. 4): 316-34, 1968.

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