James Samuel Coleman Research Paper

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James S. Coleman was born on May 12, 1926 in Bedford, Indiana. He died on March 25, 1995 in Chicago, Illinois. Coleman was among the most important American sociologists of his generation. By importantly influencing both intellectual and policy debate, Coleman was unique among sociologists. By making important contributions to a large range of areas of scholarly concern, including mathematical sociology, sociology of education, and social theory, Coleman was unique among social scientists.

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1. Life

James Samuel Coleman was born into a family of teachers, with roots in the landed gentry of the South on his father’s side, and in various places in the Mid-West on his mother’s side. His grandfather, Samuel, was a minister. The family moved frequently in Coleman’s youth between places in Ohio, Arkansas, and Kentucky to settle, finally, in Louisville, Kentucky, where Coleman graduated from Manual High School in 1941. The origin is important for his basic sociological interests and positions. The marginality from moving around between southern and northern American cultures and the diversity of his origins instilled a strong curiosity about social relations. The teacher occupations of both parents created a strong interest in schools and education. Samuel, the minister grandfather, and the mother were important for Coleman’s preoccupation with moral issues that profoundly influenced his work.

Coleman’s choice of sociology as a vocation came quite late. He graduated from Purdue University in 1949, with a degree in Chemical Engineering, and his first job was as a chemist with Eastman Kodak. He had almost no undergraduate education in any social science. Nonetheless, in 1951 he began graduate study in sociology at Columbia University. Coleman’s dual attraction to science and moral engagement made sociology an impeccable choice, or so it would seem in 1951. He had found industry frustrating and a likely eventual career in management unappealing. He wanted to devote his life to discovery and concluded it could only be about people, their relationships, and their social organization.

Columbia’s sociology department gave Coleman four intense years and three important teachers: Paul Lazarsfeld, Robert Merton, and Seymour Martin Lipset. Coleman is usually regarded as Paul Lazars-feld’s student. This is not quite correct. Lazarsfeld was not his dissertation advisor; it was Lipset. Lazarsfeld was not the teacher who had the most profound intellectual influence on Coleman; it was Merton. Lazarsfeld did involve and use Coleman for the development of mathematical and statistical tools for social analysis, and these activities created the point of departure for some of Coleman’s most important later work. However, there is an important difference between Coleman’s Introduction to Mathematical Sociology (1964) and Lazarsfeld’s branch of mathematical thinking in the social sciences. Coleman’s main objective with the use of mathematics was the development of theoretical insights and conceptual development. Lazarsfeld’s major contribu-tions were to the codification of research procedures, that is, methodology. Coleman has made important contributions to methods, but his most remarkable quality as a sociologist was his ability to develop sociological ideas and sustain them with empirical evidence. This is much closer to Merton’s style of theorizing about empirical matters, though Merton often relied on evidence produced by others.

Coleman obtained his first faculty position in 1956 as an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago. In 1959 he moved to Johns Hopkins University to create his own sociology department. He developed a small organization with an intellectual intensity and excitement that was truly remarkable. It was perhaps unsustainable and, for a variety of reasons, Coleman went back to the University of Chicago in 1973, now as a University Professor, and stayed there until his death in 1995.

2. Scholarship

The body of scholarly work is large. It includes 30 books and monographs and more than 300 articles and chapters in books. These contributions have profoundly influenced and, in several cases, defined the agenda for important subfields of sociology: sociological theory, sociology of education, sociology of the family, mass-communication, social stratification, political sociology, mathematical sociology, and sociological methods. The contributions include three major pieces of policy-oriented research on schools and educational opportunities that are the major examples of ‘sociology making a difference’ in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The scholarly work covers a phenomenal range of approaches to social research. There is work about social systems (Coleman 1961) and about individual behavior (Coleman 1990b). There is basic research as well as applied. There is quantitative (Coleman et al. 1966, Coleman 1987) as well as qualitative analysis (Coleman 1961). There are contributions to economics (Coleman 1966), political theory (Coleman 1982), moral philosophy (Coleman 1974), statistics and probability theory (Coleman 1981), and education (Coleman 1990a).

It is difficult to characterize James Coleman’s contributions to the discipline because there are so many components. It includes two major and two very different paradigms of what sociology is about. One is a Durkheimian paradigm: it sees the task as studying how social structure creates and constrains individual action and causal social processes. The other paradigm takes departure in individual purposeful action for developing properties of social systems and structures. The former project governs most of Coleman’s empirical work on educational processes and social processes in educational institutions. The latter project, the development of a sociological, rational action theory, moves, so to speak, in the opposite direction. It is theory aimed at understanding social systems themselves, their development, and properties, beginning with a theory of individual action. It occupied most of Coleman’s attention in the last years of his life.

Almost all of Coleman’s empirical research was about growing up, about schools, and learning and educational opportunity. His first study of schools was a study of adolescent subcultures based on surveys of students in ten high schools in northern Illinois. The report on this research was published in 1961 as The Adolescent Society (1961). In the preface, Coleman notes two reasons for undertaking this study. One was his wish to study how schools might be more effective; he states that the study had its origin in ‘a deep concern I have had, since my own high school days, with high schools and with … ways to make an adolescent experience with learning more profit- able …’ (1961, p. viii). The second concern was an interest in different types of social systems and the value systems they reflect. These two interests, in creating effective schools and other social organizations and in the values and cultures of social systems, would guide Coleman’s research throughout his life.

The wish to study the effects of high schools on learning did not receive much attention in The Adolescent Society, possibly because the empirical evidence Coleman obtained about these effects, and their relationship to status systems, is quite difficult to interpret. The Adolescent Society is primarily a study of adolescent subcultures. The policy prescriptions Coleman drew from his analysis were about how to change these subcultures to encourage learning and academic achievement. This would be done by changing the structure of competition so that students would see academic achievement as a collective good, like sports.

The interest in the effects of schools and school social organizations on learning became the main preoccupation of Coleman’s educational research for almost four decades. The link between the two concerns was always clear, and the interest in the social systems created in schools re-emerges as the dominant concern again in his latest research. All of his educational research sees the effectiveness of schools related to the social systems created in schools and in the family and community that form the context for the school social systems. Coleman was very much a sociologist of schools.

Coleman performed three major studies of schools and educational processes after The Adolescent Society. The first so-called ‘Coleman Report’ (for a while referred to by many as the Coleman–Campbell report) was a report on the massive Equality of Educational Opportunity survey (Coleman et al. 1966). It is probably the largest social science survey research ever undertaken with some 600,000 students surveyed. The Report’s main finding was that the instructional facilities and resources, including per pupil expenditures, have small and comparatively insignificant effects on academic achievement relative to the influence of family background. This result created considerable controversy, a controversy that continues today. A very large number of studies have focused on the issue since then. The best of this research has replicated the main conclusion: there is very little relationship between the amount of expenditure on schools and achievement outcomes, net of the family backgrounds of students. Next to family background, the family background of a student’s peers, as measured for example by the racial composition of schools, seems most relevant, especially for minorities. This conclusion had an important consequence for American schools as it was used to justify racial desegregation in public schools. The second Coleman Report focused on this effect on policy: the use of busing to integrate schools and reap some of the benefits of desegregation on the academic achievement of minorities. The Report concluded that the policy had been ineffective. This conclusion was widely interpreted as denying the benefits of desegregation documented in the First Report and was strongly attacked by many, including many of Coleman’s fellow sociologists. The interpretation was not correct. Coleman did not doubt the relevance of social systems created by student body composition for schools’ educational climates. He doubted the long-term benefits of busing as a remedy for segregation because it encouraged white flight from desegregated public schools.

The allegation that Coleman had reversed his position would be repeated with the publications from the third major piece of educational research published in the early 1980s. In a series of publications, for example Public and Private High Schools (Coleman and Hoffer 1987), Coleman and co-authors concluded that Roman Catholic parochial schools produced more learning and superior educational outcomes than public schools because of superior social resources, or social capital created by the involvement of parents with schools and their personnel. These conclusions resulted in another set of published controversies, now about the existence of school effects—the very effects that were said to have been denied by Coleman in the first Report. Now, the tables had been reversed. The critiques now denied the existence of school effects, in particular the apparent superiority of Catholic schools.

Coleman strongly believed in the use of mathematics as a language for the development of social theory. His Introduction to Mathematical Sociology (1964) remains unsurpassed as a text on how to use mathematics, in particular stochastic process models, to mirror social processes of diffusion and influence in groups. It is an enormously rich collection of tools for the analysis of social processes. Coleman remained committed to the use of mathematics for the development of theory. Over time, he changed the type of theory focused upon, from modeling the mechanism of social processes in his early work, to modeling the outcomes of purposive action in his later work. Throughout, Coleman’s contributions provide perhaps the most important demonstration of the power of mathematics as a tool for social theory in contemporary sociology.

Already in the 1960s, Coleman published several articles on a model for collective decisions where actors trade control over events and resources to maximize their interests. This work came about as a result of Coleman’s interest in developing games for learning and for social theory, where players engage in transactions designed to mirror important learning tasks or to simulate basic rules of social systems. One of these games was called the legislative game, and was designed to simulate the transactions going on in a legislative body with vote trading. Coleman formalized this game in a simple model that provided equilibrium outcomes providing measures of the power of actors and the value of events. These ideas became the basis for what became his major pre-occupation in the 1970s and 1980s: creating a rational action basis for social theory where the emergence of macro social structures are clearly linked to micro foundations.

The outstanding result of many years of effort became Foundations of Social Theory (1990). It is a major book in ambition, achievement, and size. It provides theory and theoretical tools for the analysis of existing society and the creation of better societies. The book moves from the analysis of elementary action and social relations of trust and authority to the development of norms and more complex authority systems or corporate actors, such as large corporations, and then on to the analysis of the major institutions of modern society. A major concern for Coleman was the distribution of power in society and the problem of holding corporate actors responsible for their actions. Foundations of Social Theory is an unfamiliar contribution to a discipline where theory often seems to be an exegeses about the theory created by those who are safely dead, or abstract conceptual development with little if any empirical reference. This major book aims to shape the discipline by providing a theory and a mathematical structure that may have extraordinary potential for research. The realization of this potential depends not only on the quality of the ideas, but also on the discipline’s ability to retool. Some concepts from the book have become prominent in sociology, for example Coleman’s ideas about the micro–macro link and about social capital. However, this is only a part of this enormously rich contribution. Coleman knew that an extraordinary educational effort was needed, and he devoted much of his attention to this effort in his last years, for example, by founding and editing the journal Rationality and Society.

Coleman’s theoretical work created a landmark in social theory. His concern for developing a mathematical language for the analysis of empirical processes created a rich set of tools that eventually may change the way sociologists work. His empirical work often includes imaginative interpretation and brilliant insights. Though his emphasis increasingly was on the project that resulted in Foundations of Social Theory, Coleman repeatedly returned to empirical research on causal processes with individual actions and lives as the outcome. The synthesis was accomplished in some of Coleman’s latest empirical work, on schools, family, and community.

3. Impact

There was no lack of recognition of Coleman’s scholarly contributions by the bodies that confer the highest prestige upon scientists. Coleman was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966, the National Academy of Education in 1966, the American Philosophical Society in 1970, the National Academy of Sciences in 1972, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1984. He was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a Guggenheim Fellow, and Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. He received numerous honorary degrees from universities in the USA and Europe.

Despite all the recognition, American sociology had, and still has, considerable ambivalence toward Coleman. His international reputation, particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, and his reputation outside of sociology seemed often more solid than his reputation in American sociology. He became President of the American Sociological Association (ASA) from 1991 to 1992, but he never held another elected office in the ASA. His election to the Presidency in 1990 was the result of a write-in campaign and not of a nomination by the Association. Indeed, the leadership of the ASA, including the ASA President, tried to censor him in the mid-1970s for producing subversive sociology, because his work on the impact of busing on white flight threatened traditional liberal beliefs. It was an ignominious act that almost succeeded.

The ambivalence of the profession toward Coleman had two main sources. One was Coleman’s unwillingness to specialize in one of the usual three main roles for sociologists: as theorist, methodologist, or researcher. This contradicts the implicit theory most of us have that one cannot be outstanding in all three roles. Coleman was outstanding in all three, but specialists in theory, methods, or research had difficulties recognizing his achievements. The second, and probably major, source of ambivalence was Coleman’s use of research to draw policy inferences. Coleman stated what his research meant for policy and was not hesitant to do so when it contradicted conventional wisdom. He loved controversy. Each of the three Coleman Reports stated a conclusion that infuriated many: that school resources have little impact on academic achievement compared to the family re-sources of a child; that busing to achieve racial integration speeds up the process of white flight from our central cities; that schools organized as many private Roman Catholic schools produce more learning and less inequality in learning than schools organized like the typical public school. In every instance, an army of researchers tried to find fault with the evidence for these conclusions and largely failed. They concentrated on specific statistical issues. This was a mistake when confronting Jim Coleman. He anticipated criticisms by demonstrating the main finding in several ways. Moreover, his powerful intuitions about the mechanisms that create observed outcomes produced coherent arguments that Coleman effectively integrated with empirical analysis, while the opposition failed to formulate an alternative argument that could be sustained with evidence.

Sociology is profoundly influenced by James Coleman. So are many individual lives and careers. None of his students and followers moved with him through all the projects, but remain in one or the other of his many areas of interests. Those who had the privilege to know him were always profoundly touched by his excitement of translating into empirical analysis theoretical ideas about how social structure affects individuals. Coleman’s enormous mental (and physical) energy never ceased to amaze. This energy and creativity were sustained by his certitude about the importance of the project of making sociology a better tool for a better society.

Appraisals of Coleman’s scholarly and policy contributions may be found in Sørensen and Spilerman (1993) and Clark (1996). The latter volume, published after Coleman’s death, includes a complete bibliography and several autobiographical fragments.


  1. Clark J (ed.) 1996 James S. Coleman. Falmer Press, London
  2. Coleman J S 1961 The Adolescent Society. Free Press, Glencoe, IL
  3. Coleman J S 1964 Introduction to Mathematical Sociology. Free Press, Glencoe, IL
  4. Coleman J S 1966 The possibility of social welfare function. American Economic Review 56(5): 1105–12
  5. Coleman J S 1974 Inequality, sociology, and moral philosophy. American Journal of Sociology 80: 739–64
  6. Coleman J S 1981 Longitudinal Data Analysis. Basic Books, New York
  7. Coleman J S 1982 Re-contracting, trustworthiness, and the stability of vote exchanges. Public Choice 40: 89–94
  8. Coleman J S 1990a Equality and Achievement in Education. Westview Press, Boulder, CO
  9. Coleman J S 1990b Foundations of Social Theory. Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA
  10. Coleman J S, Campbell E Q, Hobson C J, McPartland J, Mood A, Weinfeld F D, York R L 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC
  11. Coleman J S, Hoffer T 1987 Public and Private High Schools: The Impact on Communities. Basic Books, New York
  12. Sørensen A B, Spilerman S (eds.) 1993 Social Theory and Social Policy: Essays in Honor of James S. Coleman. Praeger, Westport, CT
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