Diagrams of Theory: Coleman’s Boat

 

American sociologist, James Coleman (1926-1995).  Alma mater: Columbia University

American sociologist, James Coleman (1926-1995).
Alma mater: Columbia University

James Coleman, for me, was one of those scholars that I was surprised – and a little embarrassed – to have discovered so late. His oeuvre represents a significant contribution to general social theory, specifically sociological rational choice theory. Although opposed in some sense, or most senses, (seriously, reading a young James Coleman throw down with the phrase “Like many of [Parsons'] essays, it is difficult to read, and, like many, it does not have a coherent logical structure” = priceless) – it feels to me, James Coleman’s work is the progeny of Parsons’ general theorizing. They both dealt with very similar problems of social order, and they both covered a wide range of socio-cultural territory with vast, sterilizing, leveling theoretical strokes.

 

Skimming Foundations of Social Theory (1990), you can easily see that he employs several simple diagrams. The most infamous is referred to as “Coleman’s Boat” pictured above from page 702 of Foundations. Namely, because the upside-down trapezoid looks like a boat – although some allude to its affinity to a bathtub. So, sometimes it is “Coleman’s Bathtub.” Its infamy is perhaps a result of its simplicity, and that it paints a picture of form of “methodological individualism” that also incorporates social structural or situational constraints. Coleman uses it to explain how micro-level action is linked to macro level structures (and vice versa). For a nice and short overview, see the short write-up by Yoshimichi Sato on the ISA’s blog.

 

 

Coleman's Boat, taken from the ISA blog post by Sato

Coleman’s Boat, Source: the ISA blog post by Sato

 Two authors (Mario Bunge and Gianluca Manzo) note the resemblances between Coleman and Boudon’s model of macro-micro linkage and suggest that both sociologists should be the namesake of the boat.

In Foundations, Coleman demonstrates the macro-micro-macro linkages with what he calls  “frustration theories” of revolution. The social condition (macro) leads to frustrations among individuals (micro/attitude) which leads to aggression (micro/behavior), ultimately resulting in revolution (macro).

Coleman's Boat used to illustrate Frustration Theories of Revolution - Pg 10 of Foundations of Social Theory

Coleman’s Boat used to illustrate Frustration Theories of Revolution – Pg 10 of Foundations of Social Theory

 

He also employs the boat in his interpretation of Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Coleman argues that the weakest point in Weber’s argument is the movement from micro to macro, the dotted line below.

 

The weakest point in Weber's argument is from Macro-to-Micro. Source: Coleman in The Micro-macro Link  edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, pg 155

The weakest point in Weber’s argument is from Macro-to-Micro. Source: Coleman in The Micro-macro Link edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, pg 155

Number 3 or the move from individual rational actions into macro social phenomenon is, for Coleman, the most interesting part of the analysis.

Coleman's interpretation of the micro-level linkages of Max Weber's thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Coleman’s interpretation of the micro-level linkages of Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Source: pg 9 of Foundations of Social Theory

 

Although Coleman indicates a causal line from Macro-to-Macro, this is not an actual casual pathway: “the macro level is an abstraction, nevertheless an important one” (pg 12 of Foundations).

From: Hedstrom and Ylikoski (2010) "Causal Mechanisms in the Social Sciences" pg 59

Source: Hedstrom and Ylikoski (2010) “Causal Mechanisms in the Social Sciences” pg 59

If you notice Hedstroom and Ylikoski have a dotted-line leading from macro to macro. This is intentional, as they agree with Coleman (to an extent) and argue that “explanations that simply relate macro properties to each other (arrow 4) are unsatisfactory” (pg 59). Hartmut Esser also includes a dotted line between the macro levels of Coleman’s Boat.

Source: Hartmut Esser 1999, Soziologie: allgemeine Grundlagen, pg 98

Source: Hartmut Esser (1999) “Soziologie: allgemeine Grundlagen,” pg 98

 

And it seems that the most “controversial” aspect of this model is this macro-to-macro link. The blog Orgtheory devoted a small write-up, followed by a lively comment discussion over the possibility of macro-to-macro-level causality. In an early version of the boat diagram, Coleman removes the macro-macro link entirely. Beginning by outlining the macro-to-macro link outlined by Weber’s thesis:

Weber's macro link between macro level social fact and macro level social fact.

Weber’s link between macro level social fact and macro level social fact. Source: James Coleman (1986) Social Theory, Social Research, and a Theory of Action, pg 1321

Coleman diagrams the “methodological holism” implicit in Weber’s thesis above and adds the “corrective,” which shows the disaggregated, micro-level causal path of such an “abstracted” macro-macro link. In this 1986 article he does not even include a macro-to-macro line. See below.

Source: James Coleman 1986, Social Theory, Social Research, and a Theory of Action  pg 1322

Source: James Coleman (1986) Social Theory, Social Research, and a Theory of Action, pg 1322

 

 

Dustin is a traveler, mountaineer and researcher trying to improve his writing. To learn more about Dustin, visit the appropriately titled About Dustin section.

This post is a series documenting Diagrams of Theory within the social science, a la knowyourmeme.com.