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Coleman on social capital – rational-choice approach

James Coleman (1926 – 1995) was an American sociologist who was primarily interested in the sociology of education and public policy. Like Bourdieu, Coleman was interested in different types of capital and their interaction, namely human, physical and social capitals. The aim of Coleman’s concept of social capital was to import the economists’ principle of rational action for use in the analysis of social systems without discarding social organization in the process. As such, Coleman connected sociology and the social actions of individuals with the rational ideas of economists. This theoretical union represents a middle line between two theoretical traditions. The first is a functionalist view of social action which is conditioned by social structure. The second is rational theory which suggests that actors’ goals are determined by utility-maximizing pursuit of his or her self-interest (Coleman 1988). Coleman (1988) connected sociology and the social actions of individuals with the rational ideas of economists that individuals act independently and for self-interest.

Like Bourdieu, Coleman saw social capital as essentially residing in the social structure of relationships among people. However, where Bourdieu was concerned with power and status and the uneven distribution of social capital between individuals, Coleman saw social capital as a public good where the actions of individuals benefits the whole. As such Coleman conceptualised social capital as a collective asset of the group and made little provision for inequality that results or a causes differential power and status. This neglect of power and conflict probably stems from Coleman’s preoccupation with social capital being largely a product of social structure. This is a significant departure from Bourdieu’s theory which treated collective property attributes under the term cultural capital. This means that Bourdieu’s and Coleman’s theories of social capital are fundamentally different, and this has resulted in confusion in the literature about what is and is not social capital.

For Coleman, individuals engage in social interactions, relationships and networks for as long as the benefits persist. This logic stems from rational choice theory which seeks to explain human behaviour through rationality. These rational actions are set in a particular social context accounting for not only the actions of individuals, but also the development of social organization.

In this sense, social capital is both a private and public good benefiting everyone in the group, not only those who invest in organizing the associations or networks. For example, everyone in a neighborhood benefits when a neighborhood watch group forms to help lower the local crime rate, even those people who never personally participate (Coleman 1988). Direct contributions by actors will benefit the whole, not just the individual. Strong families or communities accrue from strong social bonding among members.

Where Bourdieu saw social capital as reproducing social inequality, Coleman treated social capital as almost universally productive, i.e. it is used so that actors can achieve particular ends that would have been impossible without it (Coleman 1988). A good illustration of this is Coleman’s famous example of wholesale diamond merchants in New York. In this context bags of diamonds are lent for examination without any formal contracts or insurance, leaving the lender in danger of receiving counterfeits or lower quality diamonds when the diamonds are returned. Although opportunities for dishonesty are not rare, instances are virtually never observed. Here, social capital influences individual decisions on honesty because dishonesty by a given diamond merchant will induce responses by others which matter to his assessment of how to act.

In Coleman’s initial analysis he referred the work of economists Glen Loury and Ben-Porath, and sociologists Nan Lin and Mark Granovetter. This integration of economics and sociology is clearly evident in his work and was one of the most appealing aspects of this theory as it facilitated cross and interdisciplinary investigation.

Coleman’s key publications on social capital

Coleman, James S. 1986. “Social Theory, Social Research, and a Theory of Action.” The American Journal of Sociology 91(6):1309–35. Retrieved (

Coleman, James S. 1987. “Norms as Social Capital.” Pp. 133–55 in Economic imperialismm: The economic approach applied outside the field of economics, edited by G. Radnitzky and P. Bernholz. New York: Paragon House.

Coleman, James S. 1987. “The Creation and Destruction of Social Capital: Implications for the Law.” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy 3. Retrieved February 11, 2018 (

Coleman, James S. 1988. “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.” The American Journal of Sociology 94:S95.

Coleman, James S. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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