Interview with James Coleman

Conducted by Paul O'Brien

O'BRIEN: What sociological tradition do your find yourself most in alignment with?

COLEMAN: Well, I'm not sure what a set of traditions is, but I think one would say, in terms of theoretical directions or theoretical traditions, one is rational choice theory and I'm a strong advocate of that.


COLEMAN: Simply because it comes closer to being a sound basis for social theory than any other orientation. That is, it poses questions which are not posed by functionalist theory or by most theoretical orientations, and it has some degree of power other theories don't have.

O'BRIEN: Of the sociological traditions, which one do you most disagree with?

COLEMAN: Well, that would depend upon on what counts as a sociological tradition. Do you have a list?

O'BRIEN: Well, let's say the general theories: power, functionalism, and like you said earlier, rational choice theory. Just the general ones.

COLEMAN: Well, I guess it would be hard to say.

O'BRIEN: Alright. Who are some sociologists that you admire, living or dead?

COLEMAN: Living or dead... well, I admire Max Weber, a sociologist who is not living. I admire Robert Key Merton, who is living, but is not as active as he once was because he's quite old. I admire Daniel Bell, who is more active. I admire some sociologists in Europe --Gary Rathsmum(?) is one. There are other people I admire to differing degrees. I guess that's probably enough.

O'BRIEN: Do you believe that sociology is, let's say, an "infant" as a science? Do you believe it is young?

COLEMAN: Yes, I believe it is young. I believe sociology is in its infancy and I think that the time is coming when sociology will be extremely important in the world because there's more and more conscious construction of social organizations that goes on, and in that conscious construction, sociologists are really necessary for the kind of aid they provide.

O'BRIEN: In the future, what fields of sociology specifically do you think hold the most promise?

COLEMAN: I think formal organization holds a great deal of promise. The reason is, formal organization provides a setting in which these kinds of constructed social environments actually can be put into being. That is, that organizations are constructed every day, and the constructive organizations really require some sociological principles. I think the formal organizations will be extremely prominent.

O'BRIEN: Now, which fields hold the least promise, perhaps are overrated, in sociology?

COLEMAN: I think there is a body of work in sociology which is a kind of anti-scientific work; that is, a general work which goes under the heading of hermeneutics or deconstructionist sociology, or interpretive sociology. I think most of that is hot air.

O'BRIEN: Do you think there is a "melding" of sociology with science? Is that a new trend in sociology?

COLEMAN: No, I think that's something that has been characteristic of sociology for a long time, but probably not as much now, in fact, as it was at an earlier time.

O'BRIEN: In your own research, what have you discovered that is of interest or significance, specifically, in your own research?

COLEMAN: Well, that would take a long time.

O'BRIEN: (laughs) Well, how about just the highlights of it. Let's say, the ones you're most proud of.

COLEMAN: Most of my research has been in education, and those are really more of the kinds of things I have done. There was an early research study published as The Adolescent Society, the study of social organizations within ten high schools. Then, there was the thing that was called the Coleman Report, which the real title was Equality of Educational Opportunity, which was in 1964. Then, in 1974 was something called Youth Transition Into Adulthood which was a result of panels of the kinds of science advisory committees that I was chair of, which had some considerable effect on questioning the structure of secondary education. Then, in 1976, there was the report called "Trends in School: Segregation 1967- 1973," and that, which caused a big furor, was a really a study of how schools' desegregation policies; it had a lot about "white flight" to the suburbs of large cities. Then, in 1981 and in 1987, there were two books on public and private schools, which also created something of a furor. So that's really the highlight of the kind of work that I've engaged in education which has been the principle research I've done.

O'BRIEN: Why have you chosen education, or adolescent education? Why have you chosen that?

COLEMAN: For two reasons. One, because of the fact that one can be exemplified by the adolescent society. If one is interested in studying social systems, and is still interested in modern society rather than in primitive tribes, one of the ways of studying not a full scale social system, but a system which is fairly, tightly enclosed is to study high schools because high schools tend to be little worlds in themselves. And because of that, one can study the functionings of those little worlds. That's one reason. The second reason is that the study of education is the study of something we can do something about, so if there are some results, those results are results that can be of some value to society rather than simply being parts of a sociological journal.

O'BRIEN: In general, sociological books and publications aren't very popular, and oftentimes some periodicals or books become very dated soon after they're published. If you could name four or five sociology related works, which would you name that you consider good enough to last the test of time? They could be magazines, books.... past or present.

COLEMAN: That's hard to say because some things which are popular with the general public are things which have less status in the academic community, and the community of sociologists. For example, a long time ago Dave Reisman (sp?) published a book called The Lonely Crowd. Now, that book, along with a book published at about the same time published by William White called The Organization of Man, were not enormously respected within sociology or social science, but they were extraordinarily used and liked by the general public. I think that this is oftentimes what happens; that is, the books which are of most importance and value to sociologists are not those which are most attractive to the general public. In part, that's because of the fact that some of those books have what sociologists would regard as simplistic solutions, and sociologists ordinarily see the problems in a somewhat more complex fashion. I think that was true both for The Organization of Man and of The Lonely Crowd. Now, if one were to think of books which both stand the test of time and are highly respected within the discipline, the best examples are of course book which already have stood the test of time; books like Max Weber's Protestant Ethic, Durkheim's Suicide, or Rober Michelle's (sp?) Political Parties. It's hard to predict what's going to stand the test of time of modern books. Now, I have great hopes, for example, that the book which I just published called Foundations of Social Theories will stand the test of time. But, we can only tell......

O'BRIEN: Time will tell?

COLEMAN: Yes, time will tell.

O'BRIEN: In the 1990's and the 21st century, what do you believe are some of the key problems that sociologists must confront to further establish the discipline?

COLEMAN: Well, I think the central problem is the task of coming to be a constructive discipline. On a constructive discipline, what I mean is to be a little bit like the kinds of roles architects play in constructing physical organizations. That is, more and more in the 21st century, social organization is going to be, as I was mentioning with respect to formal organizations, based on constructed organizational forms, and that construction will go on with or without sociology. But the importance of sociologists will depend on their ability to provide useful information, useful in the sense of architectural information with respect to the institution of constructionist social organizations.

O'BRIEN: In teaching your sociology students, what do you find are some major misconceptions about individuals and society in general that you like to clear up?

COLEMAN: Well. I don't know. That's too hard to answer. I just don't know.

O'BRIEN: Alright. My last question is a bit strange, but if you were to interview yourself which question would you most like to answer? Is there something that you've always wanted to be asked?

COLEMAN: I guess, the question of, "How would you like to be remembered?"

O'BRIEN: Go ahead and answer it.

COLEMAN: I would like to be remembered as a social theorist; as someone who established for the first time solid foundations upon which other people could build for social theory --a foundation which was not usable only for one brand of theory, but in general social theory. If I can be remembered in that way, then I think I will have made an enormous impact on sociology and the kind of impact I'd like to have.