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James Samuel Coleman

James Samuel Coleman
Born (1926-05-12)May 12, 1926
Bedford, Indiana, U.S.
Died March 25, 1995(1995-03-25) (aged 68)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Nationality American
Fields Sociological Theory, Mathematical Sociology
Alma mater Purdue University, Columbia University
Doctoral advisor Paul Lazarsfeld
Doctoral students Ronald S. Burt

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


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
  • Major contributions 3
    • The Coleman Report 3.1
    • Social capital 3.2
  • Legacy 4
  • Selected works 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • External links 8

Early life

As the son of James and Maurine Coleman, he spent his early childhood in Bedford, Indiana, and then moved to Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating in 1944, he enrolled in a small school in Virginia, but left to enlist in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Coleman received his bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering from Purdue University in 1949. He initially enrolled to study chemistry, but became interested in sociology and continued his graduate studies at Columbia University. In 1955, while studying to receive his Ph.D. from Columbia University, he was influenced by Paul Lazarsfeld.


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, and eventually as a full-time professor in the social relations, until 1973 before returning to Chicago. Upon his return he became the professor and senior study director at the National Opinion Research Center. In 1991 Coleman was elected President of the ASA. 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.[1]

Major contributions

The Coleman Report

Coleman is widely cited in the field of sociology of education. In the 1960s, he and several other scholars were commissioned by the US Department of Education, 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" (or otherwise known as the "Coleman Report")—fueled debate about "school effects" that is still relevant today. The report was commonly presented as evidence, or an argument, that school funding has little effect on student achievement. Upon a more thorough reading of the "Coleman Report", it was found that student background and socioeconomic status are more important in determining educational outcomes of a student. Additionally, differences in the quality of schools and teachers, has a small positive impact on student outcomes.

Coleman found that, by the 1960s, segregated black and white schools received nearly equal funding. This research also suggested that African American students benefited from schooling in non-segregated classrooms. This was a catalyst for the implementation of the desegregation of busing systems, that ferried African American students to integrated schools. In 1975, Coleman published new research, that further investigated the effects of school busing systems. These busing systems were intended to bring lower-class African American 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. This mass exodus was termed "white flight". In 1966, Coleman wrote an article explaining that African American students only benefited from integrated schooling if the student majority was 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 ASA membership. Despite efforts, Coleman remained a member of the ASA, and eventually became their president. In another controversial finding of the "Coleman Report", it showed that 15 percent of African American students fell within the same range of academic accomplishment as the upper 50 percent of white students. The tests administered in these schools, did not appear to measure intelligence, but rather measured the student's ability to learn and perform in an American schooling environment. The report states: "These tests do not measure intelligence, nor attitudes, nor qualities of character. Furthermore they are not, nor are they intended, to be 'culture free.' Quite the reverse: they are culture bound. What they measure are the skills which are among the most important in our society for getting a good job and moving to a better one, and for full participation in an increasingly technical world."

Social capital

In Coleman's Foundations of Social Theory, there is a chapter that discusses his theory of social capital. Social capital is a set of resources that are found in family relations and in a community's social organization.[2] Coleman believed that social capital is useful for the cognitive or social development of a child of young person. There are three main types of capital discussed; human capital, physical capital, and social capital. 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, these 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 therefore receive more social capital.[3]

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 believe there are two vital conditions. The first, is that there needs to be a level of trustworthiness in a social environment, to be able to believe the obligation will be met. Second, the individual needs to take into account the extent of the obligation.[4]

While social capital has value in use, it is something that isn't 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 this being the case, the value of human capital, and physical capital, will change as well.

Coleman also explores the idea that social capital isn't as easy to invest in compared to 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 isn't always personally appealing. According to Coleman, when an individual invests in social capital, they aren't necessarily investing in themselves. Investment in social capital leads to investment in the social structure, which the capital lies. This in turn will benefit those individuals and populations, which are a part of that particular social structure.[5]


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. 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 this "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 to this. He also raised the issue of narrowing the educational gap between those who had money, and those who didn't. By creating a well-rounded student body, a student's educational experience can be greatly benefited.

Selected works

  • 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 (1973)
  • 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 The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 94, Supplement: Organizations and Institutions: Sociological and Economic Approaches to the Analysis of Social Structure, pp. S95–120 (1988).
  • Foundations of Social Theory (1990)
  • Equality and Achievement in Education (1990)
  • Redesigning American Education (1997, with Barbara Schneider, Stephen Plank, Kathryn S. Schiller, Roger Shouse, & Huayin Wang)

See also


  1. ^ Posner, Richard (2001). Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Harvard University Press.  
  2. ^ Coleman, James. The Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP. pp. 300–318. 
  3. ^ Coleman, James. The Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP. pp. 300–318. 
  4. ^ Coleman, James. The Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP. pp. 300–318. 
  5. ^ Coleman, James. The Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP. pp. 300–318. 

External links

  • Obituary in the University of Chicago Chronicle
  • American National Biography Online
  • Photo of James Coleman
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
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