The Coleman Bathtub
| Nicolai Foss |
The so-called “Coleman Bathtub” (or “boat”) is one of the most useful expository vehicles for thinking about multi-level issues in social science research. The diagram portrays macro-micro-macro relations as a sort of rhombic figure with causal relations going down from macro (e.g., institutions) to the conditions of individual actions which then give rise to individual actions that in turn aggregate up to macro outcomes. (Check the 1st chapter in James Coleman’s tome, Foundations of Social Theory).
Although the diagram is exceedingly simple, there are substantial potential issues with it, e.g., are the relations depicted in the diagram really causal relations (can macro-entities cause individual actions? Also, I am tempted to adopt the position that ontologically there really aren’t levels, just interacting social actors). Nevertheless, different levels of analysis abound in social science science research, and the Coleman bathtub is often a great eye opener, particularly for students. And I have frequently used it myself in recent research.
I just had my paper with Peter Abell (Professor of Mathematical Sociology, LSE) and Teppo Felin (you know, the orgtheory.net founder), “Building micro-foundations for the routines, capabilities, and performance links,” published in Managerial and Decision Economics. Another plug: with Dana Minbaeva, a HRM specialist in “my” research center, I have written “Governing Knowledge: The Strategic Human Resource Management Dimension.” You can find it here.