A much honoured American sociologist, prolific author and co-author of numerous monographs and scholarly papers (some 28 books and more than 300 articles), who was for much of his professional life associated with the University of Chicago. He served as President of the American Sociological Association in 1991–2.
Coleman was unusual among sociologists of his generation, especially in America, in that he was equally at home conducting empirical research and constructing formal theory. His range of interests was truly remarkable. Major themes in his work include the following: the social organization of education, adolescence, and youth (The Adolescent Society, 1961, Youth: Transition to Adulthood, 1973, Becoming Adult in a Changing Society, 1985); the role of families, communities, and religious institutions in education, and the idea of social capital (Equality of Educational Opportunity—the so-called Coleman Report—1966, High School Achievement, 1982, Public and Private High Schools, 1987); the social theory of simulation games, collective decision-making, and collective action (on which he wrote several influential articles); mathematical sociology, in particular stochastic processes, models of purposive action, and market models (Introduction to Mathematical Sociology, 1964, The Mathematics of Collective Action, 1973); and theories of rational action (Foundations of Social Theory, 1990). In addition, he was a co-author of Union Democracy (1956), a classic of political sociology; a leading exponent of applied sociology committed to policy research in the social sciences; and wrote monographs on (among other things) Community Conflict (1957) and Medical Innovation (1966) which he described as being more or less ‘single-shot activities’ rather than recurring themes in his work.
Coleman's lasting contributions to sociology will be many and varied—although his most recent theoretical work has yet to attain its full impact.
His research on adolescence demonstrated the importance of informal social systems (peer-group subcultures and rewards) among the young, especially where these were at odds with the values and rewards institutionalized by educationalists within schools. (Some students worked hard to gain prestige among their classmates by actively avoiding high grades for their work.) The Coleman Report and associated investigations into educational achievement demonstrated the importance of non-school factors for children's cognitive development. The Report concluded that family and other influences outside school explain most of the apparent school effects in attainment. Both bodies of work were controversial and questioned at the time—although both have stood the test of time and their major conclusions are now widely accepted.
Coleman’ excursion into simulation games and learning behaviour led to the establishment of what became known as the Academic Games Programme (or Hopkins Games Project), a diverse set of research activities which sought to analyse the role of games in the socialization process, especially in schools. Although much of this work concentrated on the potential of games for understanding different aspects of the learning process, Coleman was also led by his findings to the construction of formal sociological theory, in much the same way as a physical scientist might use the experimental method for the same purpose. Games were devised which simulated (for example) a national presidential campaign—and the results were then used to inform Coleman's writings about collective decisionmaking in the legislative process.