Sociology Index

James Samuel Coleman

James Samuel Coleman (1926 – 1995) was a sociologist, theorist, and empirical researcher at the University of Chicago. He was elected president of the American Sociological Association. He studied the sociology of education and public policy, and was one of the earliest users of the term "social capital." James Samuel Coleman's Foundations of Social Theory influenced sociological theory. His "The Adolescent Society" (1961) and "Coleman Report" on 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. 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 to write a report on educational equality in the US. This report was one of the largest studies in history, with more than 650,000 students in the sample. The result was a report of over 700 pages.

The 1966 report, titled Equality of Educational Opportunity ("Coleman Report"), fueled debate about "school effects" that are still relevant today. 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. It was found as for physical facilities, formal curricula, and other measurable criteria, there was little difference between black and white schools. 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. Student background and socioeconomic status are more important in determining educational outcomes of a student. Specifically, the attitudes of parents and caregivers at home and peers at school of students toward education. Differences in the quality of schools and teachers, has a small positive impact on student outcomes. The report led to extensive further research which has led to similar conclusions.

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.

In 1975, James Samuel 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. Coleman wrote an article asserting that black students benefited from integrated schooling only if most of the students were white.

In Foundations of Social Theory, James Samuel Coleman discusses his theory of social capital. He 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 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 him, 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.

With the exchange of capital, comes James Samuel 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. 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.

Social capital 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. When it comes to social capital, the incentive to invest is not always personally appealing. When individuals invest in social capital, they are not necessarily investing in themselves. Investment in social capital leads to investment in the social structure, which in turn, benefits only those individuals and populations who form part of that particular social structure.

James Samuel Coleman was a pioneer in the construction of mathematical models in sociology with his book, Introduction to Mathematical Sociology (1964). Foundations of Social Theory (1990), made major contributions toward a more rigorous form of theorizing in sociology based on rational choice. 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."

James Samuel 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.

James Samuel Coleman's publication of the "Coleman Report" included greatly influential findings that pioneered aspects of the desegregation of American public schools. 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.