Cambridge University Press/Universitetsforlaget 1986, 384 pp.


Individual interests and collective action is volume V of the series Studies in rationality and social change. It contains Coleman’s essays on individual interests and collective action, published over the years 1964–1983.

This is a collection that, indeed, makes a great impact. Those having only sporadic knowledge of Coleman’s works and those who have observed, perhaps with amazement, his varying thematic interests, will be grateful to have access to his most important analyses and ideas on collective decisions brought together in one volume. He dedicates the collection to the sociologist Robert Merton. However, Coleman’s analytical tools are more reminiscent of social anthropology. Already in the first paper, written in 1964, the actor is a starting point in his analysis, an approach that turns out to be both fruitful and liberating. Later on he elaborates the concept of the actor somewhat, i.e. how the actor deliberately collects and manages various resources. Furthermore, Coleman examines economic theory, including both the theory of welfare and the analysis of imperfect markets.

The essays fall into three distinctive parts: on collective decisions, on power and on constitutions. The first two parts are the most comprehensive. The part on collective decisions ends with a previously unpublished article.

In the book’s first paper the idea of exchange of power appears, a recurring theme in several of the later articles. We are also presented with a hypothetical example of a game in a legislative body, where the participants can rank their preferences for categories of issues. In this context Coleman reminds us of a deficiency in economic discourse on aggregation of preferences, an area in which Arrow is the main figure. Coleman points out that in the aggregation of preferences issues are not linked to each other, in contrast to interactions (economic as well as social).

This brings Coleman further to a theoretical discussion (chapter 2) whose purpose is to move beyond Pareto optimality. He puts on the agenda the task of finding a measuring stick for the individual´ welfare. Here power is discussed as if its definition were clear, but later (1978, chapter 12) Coleman admits that it is difficult to define power.

Coleman’s next natural step is analysing how legislative bodies adjust to varying levels of intensity in the members’ engagement in issues (chapter 3). This leads to an analysis of an ideal model for collective decisions in which Coleman points out how collective decisions differ from the economic system. In making collective decisions time has a greater impact, there is less flexibility for exchange, and gained interests are not so easily converted into power.

The book’s largest essay, Social action systems, is a more recent attempt (1977) at creating a model for collective decisions. The idea is of a social action system which contains actors who have resources that enable them to control the course of events. They use these resources for their own gain to acquire control over those events that hold the greatest promise for them. Here Coleman uses a hypothetical example of voting by representatives of the American states. They concentrate their votes on certain issues, thereby refraining from having a say in other issues. It is impossible in a short review to discuss extensively the game he presents, but the reviewer cannot but mention a model he himself developed and subsequently published some years earlier for just this purpose (in the journals Quality and Quantity 1974 and Scandinavian Political Studies, 1974). That model is consistent, it is universally applicable, and it is far more straightforward. Inquiries have revealed that Coleman was unfamiliar with it.

Chapter 5 contains a short, lucid, and interesting discussion of the various conditions that influence the stability of politics carried on by voting assemblies.

In the last paper in the book´s first part Coleman examines the foregoing articles as a whole and as developmental steps. Here he looks at the society´s procedures as a normative tool, and he discusses welfare economics and the compensation principle as well as the question of eliminating the borders between politics and the economy. In discussing optimum tax rates, Coleman refers to Arrow (1979) who proposes a settlement rule for taxation and public spending which maximises the sum of individuals´ utility, and makes this utility dependent upon the quantity of public goods and tax revenues. This sounds interesting, but the reference is missing in the bibliography and has not been traceable. (This, in fact, is the only technical flaw that I have found in the book.)

In this context Coleman emphasises that it should be possible to construct a stable system for optimum taxation where private goods can be used in exchange for political power, which, for example, the process of voting can give.

The opening paper of the book´s second part is “Political Money”, perhaps Coleman´s best-known article. It is interesting to see it placed in a context that shows how it is a continuation of Coleman´s earlier works on the exchange of power and money, and on the comparison of varying levels of intensity of preferences.

"Political Money" envisages a utopian society, a society with different fundamental norms, in which the formal borders between the power sphere and the economic sphere are knocked down. It implies a review of the moral foundation of our times, where Coleman sees a dividing line between the two spheres (chapter 10). "Political Money" also envisages a splitting of control over decisions, in a similar fashion as control over economic transactions is divided by means of the money system. In this context the examination of the concentration of power in chapter 11 follows naturally. There a most interesting issue is brought up for examination, namely the control of work, or as Coleman puts it, control over events of interest. This leads to an analysis of occupational safety, professional prestige and women´s and young people´s lack of control over events of interest.

The book´s third part, on constitutions, revolves to a great extent around Rawls´ and Nozick´s social ideals. School segregation in the United States is analysed, with reference to social norms, in an attempt to unite social ideals.

Coleman has every reason to be satisfied with this collection. It shows stages in his work, and how new stages have been natural continuations of earlier achievements. His works have been, and still are, of the greatest relevance in the professional discussion on society. At the same time one is reminded of the fact that theoretically there are still many things undone regarding the question of individual interests and collective decisions.


(Tidsskrift for samfunnsforskning 29 (1988) 487-489) [Book review, translated from the Norwegian]