James Samuel Coleman

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James Samuel Coleman
James Samuel Coleman.jpg
Born(1926-05-12)May 12, 1926
Bedford, Indiana, United States
DiedMarch 25, 1995(1995-03-25) (aged 68)
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Alma materPurdue University
Columbia University
Scientific career
FieldsSociological theory, Mathematical sociology
Doctoral advisorPaul Lazarsfeld
Doctoral studentsRonald S. Burt
InfluencesRobert K. Merton and James Burnham

James Samuel Coleman (May 12, 1926 – March 25, 1995) was an American sociologist, theorist, and empirical researcher, based chiefly at the University of Chicago.

He was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1991. He studied the sociology of education and public policy, and was one of the earliest users of the term social capital. His Foundations of Social Theory (1990) influenced sociological theory. His The Adolescent Society (1961) and "Coleman Report" (Equality of Educational Opportunity, 1966) were two of the most cited books in educational sociology. The landmark Coleman Report helped transform educational theory, reshape national education policies, and it influenced public and scholarly opinion regarding the role of schooling in determining equality and productivity in the United States.[1] [1]

Early life[edit]

As the son of James and Maurine Coleman, he spent his early childhood in Bedford, Indiana, but he moved to Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating in 1944, he enrolled in a small school in Virginia but left to enlist in the US Navy during World War II. Coleman received his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University in 1949 and began working at Eastman Kodak until 1952.[2] He became interested in sociology and continued his graduate studies at Columbia University until graduating in 1955.[2]

Coleman received his doctorate in sociology in 1955 and joined the faculty at the University of Chicago a year later. In 1959, he moved to Johns Hopkins University, where he founded what became the Department of Sociology, and returned to Chicago as University Professor in 1973. Though he is best known today for his work on the massive study that produced "Equality of Educational Opportunity" (EEO), or the Coleman Report, Coleman's intellectual appetite was prodigious. [3]


Coleman achieved renown with two studies on problem solving: An Introduction to Mathematical Sociology (1964) and Mathematics of Collective Action (1973). He taught at Stanford University and the University of Chicago. In 1959, he moved to Johns Hopkins University, where he taught as an associate professor and founded the Sociology department. In 1965 he became involved in Project Camelot, an academic research project funded by the United States military through the Special Operations Research Office to train in counter-insurgency techniques. He eventually became a full-time professor in social relations until 1973, when he returned to Chicago to teach at the University of Chicago again.[2]

During the mid-1960s and early 1970s, Coleman was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the United States National Academy of Sciences.[4][5][6] Proceeding on the assumption that the study of human society can become a true science, the author examines the contribution that various mathematical techniques might make to systematic conceptual elaboration of social behavior. He notes that it is only when the logical structure of mathematics is possible, and claims that in this way mathematics will ultimately become useful in sociology. [7]

Upon his return, he became the professor and senior study director at the National Opinion Research Center. In 1991, Coleman was elected as the eighty-third President of the American Sociological Association.[8] In 2001, Coleman was named among the top 100 American intellectuals, as measured by academic citations, in Richard Posner's book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline.[9]

He was influenced by James Burnham, Paul Lazarsfeld, who geared Coleman into mathematical sociology, and Robert Merton, who introduced Coleman to Durkheim. [2] Coleman is associated with adolescence, corporate action and rational choice. He shares common ground with sociologists Peter Blau, Daniel Bell, and Seymour Martin Lipset, with whom Coleman first did research after obtaining his PhD. [10]

Major contributions[edit]

Coleman Report[edit]

Coleman is widely cited in the field of sociology of education. In the 1960s, during his time teaching at Johns Hopkins University, Coleman and several other scholars were commissioned by the National Center for Education Statistics[2] to write a report on educational equality in the US. It was one of the largest studies in history, with more than 650,000 students in the sample. The result was a massive report of over 700 pages. The 1966 report, titled Equality of Educational Opportunity (otherwise known as the "Coleman Report"), fueled debates about "school effects" that are still relevant today.[11] The report is commonly presented as evidence that school funding has little effect on student achievement, a key finding of the report and subsequent research.[12][13][1] It was found as for physical facilities, formal curricula, and other measurable criteria, there was little difference between black and white schools. Also, a significant gap in the achievement scores between black and white children already existed in the first grade. Despite the similar conditions of black and white schools, the gap became even wider by the end of elementary school. The only consistent variable explaining the differences in score within each racial group or ethnic group was the educational and economic attainment of the parents.[14] Therefore, student background and socioeconomic status were found to be more important in determining educational outcomes of a student. Specifically, the key factors were the attitudes toward education of parents and caregivers at home and peers at school. Differences in the quality of schools and teachers did have a small impact on student outcomes.[12][13][1]

Eric Hanushek criticized the focus on the statistical methodology and the estimation of the impacts of various factors on achievement which took attention away from the achievement comparisons in the Coleman Report. The study had tested students around the country, and the differences in achievement by race and region were enormous. The average black twelfth grade student in the rural South was achieving at the level of a seventh grade white in the urban Northeast. At the fiftieth anniversary of the report's publication, Eric Hanushek assessed the closure in the black-white achievement gap. He found that achievement differences had narrowed, largely from improvements in the South, but that at the pace of the previous half-century, it would take two-and-a-half centuries to close the math achievement gap.[15][16]

In 1975, Coleman published new research that further investigated the effects of school busing systems, intended to bring lower-class black students to upper-class, racially-integrated schools. Upon advancements in school desegregation, white parents began to move their children out of integrated schools in large numbers. The mass exodus was termed white flight. In 1966, Coleman wrote an article asserting that black students benefited from integrated schooling only if most of the students were white.

Coleman's findings regarding "white flight" were not well received in some quarters, particularly among some members of the American Sociological Association. In response, efforts sprang up during the mid-1970s to revoke his membership. Still, Coleman remained a member and eventually became its president. [17]

Social capital[edit]

In Foundations of Social Theory (1990), Coleman discusses his theory of social capital, the set of resources found in family relations and in a community's social organization.[18] Coleman believed that social capital is useful for the cognitive or social development of a child or young person. He discusses three main types of capital: human, physical, and social.

Human capital is an individual's skills, knowledge, and experience, which determine their value in society. Physical capital, being completely tangible and generally a private good, originates from the creation of tools to facilitate production. In addition to social capital, the three types of investments create the three main aspects of society's exchange of capital.

According to Coleman, social capital and human capital are often complementary. By having certain skill sets, experiences, and knowledge, an individual can gain social status and so receive more social capital.[18]

With the exchange of capital, comes Coleman's theories on obligations and expectations. He describes the situation of doing favors for someone as "credit slips." Should an individual need a favor, he is essentially giving someone else a credit slip, which signifies that they will be paid back for their goods and/or services. For an individual to believe that their favor will be reciprocated, Coleman believes that there are two vital conditions. There needs to be a level of trustworthiness in a social environment to be able to believe the obligation will be met. Also, the individual needs to take into account the extent of the obligation.[18]

While social capital has value in use, it is something that is not easily exchanged. Coleman explores the idea of relative capital. He believed that capital's value was truly dependent on the social environment and the individual. With that being the case, the value of human capital and physical capital will change as well.

Coleman also explores the idea that social capital is less easy to invest in than human and physical capital. To invest in physical capital is usually a good decision both financially and economically. To invest in human capital is to make oneself more intelligent and experienced, surely a positive thing. When it comes to social capital, the incentive to invest is not always personally appealing.

According to Coleman, when individuals invest in social capital, they are not necessarily investing in themselves. Investment in social capital leads to investment in the social structure, in which the capital lies, which, in turn, benefits only those individuals and populations who form part of that particular social structure.[18]

Features of social life- networks, norms, and trust-that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives… Social capital, in short, refers to social connections and the attendant norms and trust. (Putman, 1955, pp. 664-5)

Social Capital Examples[edit]

1. Wholesale diamond markets exhibit a property that to an outsider is remarkable. In the process of negotiating a sale, a merchant will hand over to another merchant a bag of stones for the latter to examine in private at his leisure, with no formal insurance that the latter will not substitute one or more inferior stones or a paste replica. The merchandise may be worth thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Such free exchange of stones for inspection is important to the functioning of this market. In its absence, the market would operate in a much more cum- bersome, much less efficient fashion. inspection shows certain attributes of the social structure. A given merchant community is ordinarily very close, both in the frequency of interaction and in ethnic and family ties. The wholesale diamond market in New York City, for example, is Jewish, with a high degree of intermar- riage, living in the same community in Brooklyn, and going to the same synagogues. It is essentially a closed community. Observation of the wholesale diamond market indicates that these close ties, through family, community, and religious affiliation, provide the insurance that is necessary to facilitate the transactions in the market. If any member of this community defected through substituting other stones or through stealing stones in his temporary possession, he would lose family, religious, and community ties. The strength of these ties makes possible transactions in which trustworthiness is taken for granted and trade can occur with ease. In the absence of these ties, elaborate and expensive bonding and insurance devices would be necessary-or else the transactions could not take place.[19]

2. A mother of six children, who recently moved with husband and children from suburban Detroit to Jerusalem, described as one reason for doing so the greater freedom her young children had in Jerusalem. She felt safe in letting her eight year old take the six year old across town to school on the city bus and felt her children to be safe in playing without supervision in a city park, neither of which she felt able to do where she lived before. The reason for this difference can be described as a difference in social capital available in Jerusalem and suburban Detroit. In Jerusalem, the normative structure ensures that unattended children will be "looked after" by adults in the vicinity, while no such normative structure exists in most metropolitan areas of the United States. One can say that families have available to them in Jerusalem social capital that does not exist in metropolitan areas of the United States[20]


Coleman was a pioneer in the construction of mathematical models in sociology with his book, Introduction to Mathematical Sociology (1964). His later treatise, Foundations of Social Theory (1990), made major contributions toward a more rigorous form of theorizing in sociology based on rational choice.[21][22] Coleman wrote more than thirty books and published numerous articles. He also created an educational corporation that developed and marketed "mental games" aimed at improving the abilities of disadvantaged students. Coleman made it a practice to send his most controversial research findings "to his worst critics" prior to their publication, calling it "the best way to ensure validity."

At the time of his death, he was engaged in a long-term study titled the High School and Beyond, which examined the lives and careers of 75,000 people who had been high school juniors and seniors in 1980.

Coleman published lasting theories of education, which helped shape the field. With his focus on the allocation of rights, one can understand the conflict between rights. Towards the end of his life, Coleman questioned how to make the education systems more accountable, which caused educators to question their use and interpretation of standardized testing.

Coleman's publication of the "Coleman Report" included greatly influential findings that pioneered aspects of the desegregation of American public schools. His theories of integration also contributed. He also raised the issue of narrowing the educational gap between those who had money and others. By creating a well-rounded student body, a student's educational experience can be greatly benefited.

Theories & Concepts[edit]

  • Mathematical sociology
  • Social Relationships
  • Social Capital
  • Nationalism
  • Social Theory
  • Human Capital


Selected works[edit]

  • Community Conflict (1955)
  • Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union (1956, with Seymour Martin Lipset and Martin Trow)
  • The Adolescent Society (1961)
  • Introduction to Mathematical Sociology (1964)
  • Models of Change and Response Uncertainty (1964)
  • Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966)
  • Macrosociology: Research and Theory (1970)
  • Resources for Social Change: Race in the United States (1971)
  • Youth: Transition to Adulthood (1974)
  • High School Achievement (1982)
  • The Asymmetrical Society (1982)
  • Individual Interests and Collective Action (1986)
  • "Social Theory, Social Research, and a Theory of Action", article in American Journal of Sociology 91: 1309–35 (1986).
  • 'Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital", article in American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 94, Supplement: Organizations and Institutions: Sociological and Economic Approaches to the Analysis of Social Structure, pp. S95–120 (1988)
  • The Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University Press.
  • Equality and Achievement in Education (1990)
  • Redesigning American Education (1997, with Barbara Schneider, Stephen Plank, Kathryn S. Schiller, Roger Shouse, & Huayin Wang)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Martin, Kacy (2016). "Reflecting on Progress since the Coleman Report, 50 Years Later". Michigan State University.
  2. ^ a b c d e Dictionary of cultural theorists. Cashmore, Ellis., Rojek, Chris. London: Arnold. 1999. ISBN 978-0-340-64549-9. OCLC 41061704.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  3. ^ Kilgore, Sally. "The life and times of James S. Coleman: hero and villain of school policy research". The life and times of James S. Coleman: hero and villain of school policy research. Gale. Retrieved 1 March 2022.
  4. ^ "James Samuel Coleman". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Retrieved 2022-09-12.
  5. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 2022-09-12.
  6. ^ "James S. Coleman". www.nasonline.org. Retrieved 2022-09-12.
  7. ^ "How to access research remotely".
  8. ^ "James S. Coleman". American Sociological Association. 2009-06-04. Retrieved 2019-02-27.
  9. ^ Posner, Richard (2001). Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-00633-1.
  10. ^ Ritzer, George (2011). Sociological theory (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 446. ISBN 978-0-07-811167-9.
  11. ^ Coleman, James S. (1966). Equality of Educational Opportunity (PDF) (Report). U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare/U.S. Office of Education/U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved August 30, 2022.
  12. ^ a b Alexander, Karl; Morgan, Stephen (2017). "The Coleman Report at Fifty: Its Legacy and Implications for Future Research on Equality of Opportunity". RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. School of Education, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore: Russell Sage Foundation. 2 (5): 1. doi:10.7758/RSF.2016.2.5.01.
  13. ^ a b Kain, John; Singleton, Kraig (1996). "Equality of Education Opportunity Revisited" (PDF). Department of Economics and Afro-American Studies, Harvard University, Boston: New England Economic Review.
  14. ^ Bell, Daniel (1973). The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. New York: Basic Books. p. 430. ISBN 978-0-465-01281-7.
  15. ^ Hanushek, Eric A. (Spring 2016). "What Matters for Achievement: Updating Coleman on the Influence of Families and Schools" (PDF). Education Next. 16 (2): 22–30.
  16. ^ Eric A. Hanushek and John F. Kain,(1972), "On the value of 'equality of educational opportunity' as a guide to public policy." In On equality of educational opportunity, edited by Frederick Mosteller and Daniel P. Moynihan. New York: Random House: 116–145
  17. ^ Coleman, James (1966). Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
  18. ^ a b c d Coleman, James S. The Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA, 1990: Belknap of Harvard UP. pp. 300–318.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  19. ^ Coleman, James S. (1988). "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital" (PDF). American Journal of Sociology. 94: S95–S120. doi:10.1086/228943. JSTOR 2780243. S2CID 51859022.
  20. ^ Coleman, James S. (1988). "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital" (PDF). American Journal of Sociology. 94: S95–S120. doi:10.1086/228943. JSTOR 2780243. S2CID 51859022.
  21. ^ Gibbs, Jack P. (1990). "Review of "Foundations of Social Theory," by James S. Coleman". Social Forces. 69 (2): 625–33. ISSN 0037-7732.
  22. ^ Frank, Robert H. (1992). "Melding Sociology and Economics: James Coleman's Foundations of Social Theory". Journal of Economic Literature. 30 (1): 147–170. ISSN 0022-0515. JSTOR 2727881.
  23. ^ "Photograph of James Samuel Coleman". 1958.

External links[edit]

Social Capital