James Samuel Coleman

James Samuel Coleman
James Samuel Coleman
Born May 12, 1926
Bedford, Indiana
Died March 25, 1995(1995-03-25) (aged 68)
Chicago, Illinois
Nationality American
Fields sociological theory, mathematical sociology
Alma mater Columbia University
Doctoral advisor Paul Lazarsfeld

James Samuel Coleman (May 12, 1926 – March 25, 1995) was a renowned American sociologist, theorist and empirical researcher. 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 [1]. 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.[2]


Early life

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 to a small school in Virginia but left to enlist in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After he was discharged, he transferred to Purdue University. Coleman received his bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering from Purdue University in 1949, and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1955, where he came under the influence of 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 then at the University of Chicago. In 1959 he moved to Johns Hopkins University where he taught until 1973 before returning to Chicago,[3] where he then directed the National Opinion Research Center. In 1991 Coleman was elected President of the ASA.

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 150,000 students in the sample. The result was a massive report of over 700 pages. That 1966 report — titled "Equality of Educational Opportunity" (or often simply called the "Coleman Report") — fueled debate about "school effects" that has continued since.[3][4] The report was commonly presented as evidence, or an argument, that school funding has little effect on student achievement. A more precise reading of the Coleman Report is that student background and socioeconomic status are much more important in determining educational outcomes than are measured differences in school resources (i.e. per pupil spending).[4] At the same time, differences in schools, and particularly teachers, have a very significant impact on student outcomes.[5]

Coleman found that, on average, black schools were funded on a nearly equal basis by the 1960s.[6] This research also suggested that socially disadvantaged black students profited from schooling in racially-mixed classrooms (a finding subsequently confirmed by other research).[7] This was a catalyst for the implementation of desegregation busing systems, ferrying black students to integrated schools. Following up on this, in 1975 Coleman published the results of further research, this time into the effects of school busing systems intended to bring lower-class black students into higher-class mixed race schools. His conclusion was that white parents moved their children out of such schools in large numbers; this is known as "white flight". His 1966 article had explained that black students would only benefit from integrated schooling if there was a majority of white students in the classroom; the mass busing system had failed.

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 70s to revoke his ASA membership.[8][9] Coleman remained a member and ironically twenty years later became the ASA's president.

Yet another controversial finding of the report showed that 15 percent of black students fell within the same range of academic accomplishment as the upper 50 percent of white students. This same group of blacks, however, scored higher than the other 50 percent of whites. Therefore the findings offer little to racist arguments. Additionally, Asian-Americans repeatedly met and exceeded the achievement levels of whites. The tests administered in these schools, however, were not measuring intelligence, but rather an ability to learn and perform in the American 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."


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.[citation needed]

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."[10]

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.

Selected works

  • Union Democracy (1956, with Seymour Martin Lipset and Martin Trow)
  • The Adolescent Society (1961)
  • Introduction to Mathematical Sociology (1964)
  • Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966)
  • Youth: Transition to Adulthood (1973)
  • High School Achievement (1982)
  • Individual Interests and Collective Action (1986)
  • Social Theory, Social Research, and a Theory of Action, article in American Journal of Sociology 91: 1309-1335 (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-S120 (1988).
  • Foundations of Social Theory (1990)
  • Redesigning American Education (1997, with Barbara Schneider, Stephen Plank, Kathryn S. Schiller, Roger Shouse, & Huayin Wang)


  1. ^ Jon Clark, James S. Coleman (1996) pp 36-41
  2. ^ Geoffrey D. Borman and Maritza Dowling, "Schools and Inequality: A Multilevel Analysis of Coleman's Equality of Educational Opportunity Data," Teachers College Record, May 2010, Vol. 112 Issue 5, pp 1201-1246
  3. ^ a b Kiviat, Barbara J. (2000) "The Social Side of Schooling" Johns Hopkins Magazine April 2000, accessed 30 December 2008
  4. ^ a b Hanushek, Eric A. (1998) "Conclusions and Controversies about the Effectiveness of School Resources" Economic Policy Review Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 4(1): pp. 11-27, accessed 30 December 2008
  5. ^ Eric A. Hanushek (2003) "The failure of input-based schooling policies." Economic Journal 113, no. 485 (February): F64-F98.
  6. ^ Raymond Wolters, Race and Education, 1954-2007 (University of Missouri Press, 2008) chapter 6
  7. ^ Joshua D. Angrist and Kevin Lang (2004) "Does school integration generate peer effects? Evidence from Boston's Metco Program." American Economic Review 94, no. 5 (December): 1613-1634; Steven G. Rivkin and Finis Welch (2006) "Has school desegregation improved academic and economic outcomes for blacks?" In Handbook of the Economics of Education, edited by Eric A. Hanushek and Finis Welch. Amsterdam: North Holland: 1019-1049; Eric A. Hanushek, John F. Kain, and Steve G. Rivkin (2009) "New evidence about Brown v. Board of Education: The complex effects of school racial composition on achievement." Journal of Labor Economics 27, no. 3 (July): 349-383.
  8. ^ Kuran, Timur. (1997). Private truths, public lies: the social consequences of preference falsification. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 149.
  9. ^ Coleman, J. S. (1989). Response to the sociology of education award. Academic Questions, 2, p. 76–78.
  10. ^ Editor's personal conversation with James S. Coleman

See also

External links

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