Coleman and Goffman. Why does every Sociologist have the suffix “-man”…


Chapters 11 and 12 discusses Exchange/Rational Choice theories, and Symbolic Interactionism, respectively. Exchange/Rational Choice theories describes how social exchanges are a system of rewards and costs. So, for a social exchange, hazing or teasing may be a cost, but status and companionship are the reward. Exchange theory explains the individual, while rational choice theory explains the collective.

From Chapter 11, I’d like the primary focus to be on James Coleman, as I feel he is quintessential figure when discussing exchange/rational choice theories. Coleman conceptualizes the meaning of “trust” within social processes (which is just a fancy way of saying social exchanges). He describes the concept by saying actors (the people within the social exchange) place trust in others based on rational considerations. This calculated exchange is exampled in the book like so:

For instance, say Julia (the trustee) asks to borrow $200 from Malika (the trustor) to buy some new clothes, and in return, Julia offers to repay Malika by watching her pets when Malika goes on vacation. Malika now has to decide whether or not to trust Julia to follow through on her promises. Her decision will be based on how valuable the $200 is to her, how important it is to her to avoid boarding her pets when she goes away on vacation, and how well she knows Julia. If Malika places her trust in Julia, then Julia benefits by getting money that she can use to buy the clothes. If Julia proves to be trustworthy, then Malika benefits by getting her money back and being able to vacation without having to pay the expense of boarding her pets. Julia’s trustworthiness allows her to ask for future favors and increases the likelihood of having her requests granted. However, if Julia proves to be untrustworthy, then Malika is out $200 while her pets starve to death while she is away on vacation. On the bright side, Julia has a new wardrobe. (pg. 445)

As we can see, there is a lot of calculation occurring within these exchanges, and rational choice is playing a role with the actors, and a mental scale of the costs and benefits is present.

Coleman additionally describes the phenomenon of “the free rider”. The free rider problem is an individual’s rational decision not to participate in group activity if it’s not worth their time, energy, money, etc. But! They stand to benefit if the group activity succeeds. Again, we see evidence of calculation with the individuals; weighing of the costs/benefits to see if it is worth it to engage in. The free rider problem can be described with a simple equation:  (a) There are some goods (or benefits) where the use of the good cannot be restricted to those who helped produce or help participate in the production of the good.  So, whether an actor pays for the good or not, he can enjoy the result of the goods.  (b) Actors are rational, and will not pay more for a good if they can get it for less.  If (a) and (b) are true, and if it costs me anything to help produce the good, then the rational actor will not contribute to the good.  Thus, rational actors will “free ride”.

Perhaps most important when discussing Coleman is his perspectives on capital. Unlike Pierre Bourdieu who looks at capital through a conflict perspective, Coleman looks at capital through a functionalist perspective. We can see Coleman’s theory of capital displayed through the following model:



If you can get past my crudely drawn MS Paint diagram which is annoyingly blurry, you can see how the systems work together to generate human capital. When this system is disorganized, the whole process is disrupted. The triangle seeks to have social closure; if for stance, the community segment were to break off, the triangle would be incomplete, and capital would be impossible to attain and maintain.

One of the most important minds in Symbolic Interactionism is Erving Goffman! His most notable work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, describes the “theatrical nature” of social interactions. When an actor interacts with another individual, the actor is attempting to control the impression the individual forms of him. Meanwhile, the individual is trying to form an impression of the actor based on the interaction.

Goffman also discusses reflected appraisals, which is the reflection of yourself based on the appraisals we get. I always think of this through the example of a mother telling her child they are they smartest, most bright, and beautiful creature to ever walk the earth. So, this child gets to thinking that they are the bees knees. The child goes to school and flunks a math test. But how? “I thought I was the smartest kid ever”, the child thinks, for that is what their mother told them. Now the child realizes through his “F” on his math test, that he is, in fact, not the smartest person ever.

Modern Application of Theory

To illustrate Goffman’s presentation of self, I will employ the help of one of my favorite music groups, Rush!

If I have linked directly, the video should take you directly to the part where the lyrics start “All the world’s indeed a stage”…You can see in the lyrics the description of Goffman’s presentation of the self. It exemplifies the idea that we are all each other’s audience and we sort of perform, so to speak, how we believe the audience will best respond to us. We begin to view ourselves through the lens of others. It is almost Shakespearean in nature!


As aforementioned, contrary to exchange theory, rational choice theory is an individual level theory. It does not successfully explain rational choice at a greater, structural level. What I do like about rational choice theory, is that phenomena’s such as altruism and philanthropic behaviors are adequately explained as still being rational behaviors. So even for seemingly irrational behavior, there is a rational explanation. For example, a person may prefer 1 apple because they like the color red, over 2 bananas. To this person, this is a very rational decision. There is ‘always’ a rational explanation! Even not having enough time to make a decision, and just grabbing what is closest is a rational decision. However, as previously stated, this is a very individualistic perspective. It doesn’t take into account the existence of larger social structures. These social structures cannot be reduced to the actions of individuals, and have to be explained through different theories, like exchange theory.

Possible Research Questions

1. Are those who would be defined as a “free rider” feel more or less alienated than those who are participating in the social action?

2. Do people who perform altruistic/selfless acts believe they are participating in rational choice?


Appelrouth, Scott and Laura Desfor Edles. 2012. Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory.2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

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