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Note From the Editor

Publication Date: November 16, 1995
First Submitted: October 30, 1995
Resubmitted: November 9, 1995
Accepted: November 10, 1995


	Oscar Grusky
	Phillip Bonacich
	Cynthia Webster
	University of California, Los Angeles 


Caplow's model of coalitions and power relations in triads is here 
extended to tetrads.  Forty-eight four-person families were studied 
with equal numbers of each of the four sibling gender and birth 
position constellations: older boy-younger girl; older girl-younger 
boy; two boys; and two girls.  A total of 673 coalitions were 
identified.  It was found that arguments led to coalitions about 30% 
of the time, with spousal coalitions found to be the dominant type.   
Support was thus found for Caplow's model, maintaining that power 
counts in family decision-making.  Family composition was shown to be 
related to the formation of conservative, revolutionary, and improper 

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                            [page 17]

"Family life is fraught with the tension of conflicting emotions 
precisely because it is based on coalitions.... A family is sustained 
by the interlocking forces of love and hate in somewhat the same way 
that buildings are held up by the opposing forces of tension and 
compression" (Caplow, 1968).

   Although Caplow may exaggerate the significance of coalitions for 
families, his perspective encourages deeper examination of family 
coalition phenomena.  Caplow's (1968) study of coalitions in triads 
with special emphasis on family organization remains one of the most 
sophisticated theoretical treatments to date.  The present study 
examines four-person rather than three-person families, and in 
contrast to Caplow's work, is considerably more empirical.  The first 
goal of this paper, then, is to describe the coalition structure of 
the four-person family.  We describe in detail the methods used to 
measure coalitions in the family with particular focus on 
conservative coalitions and revolutionary coalitions as described by 
Gamson (1961a; 1961b) and Caplow (1968).  Then we apply these 
definitions to four-person families to demonstrate that Caplow's 
triadic theory of coalitions can be usefully applied to four-person 
families and possibly to other tetrads.

   Utility theory underlies Caplow's model in that it is assumed that 
family conflict is governed by the rational assessment of benefits 
and costs, thus implying that family members initiate conflicts 
because the perceived benefits of conflict outweigh the perceived 
costs.  The benefits of conflict may include higher self-esteem or 
less esoteric rewards, such as additional resources.  The costs may 
also be the loss of valued resources and/or psychological losses. The 
application of utility theory to conflict has a long history 
(Rapoport, 1957; Schelling, 1960; McGinnis, 1991; Coleman, 1991.) 
Cook and Gillmore (1984) have pointed out that coalition theories 
have largely ignored the analysis of power struggles among actors; 
therefore, not much is known about coalition formation in situations 
(such as in the family) where power differences may have long-term 
consequences.  By moving out of the laboratory and exploring family 
dynamics, a number of difficult but significant questions regarding 
power relations may be explored that can add to our knowledge of 
coalition dynamics.     

   One question, for instance, concerns the frequency of coalitions 
in four person families.  Families with two parents and two children, 
unlike those with three members, have an opportunity to form counter-
coalitions (such as parents versus children).  So, in addition to the 
question of how often coalitions form, there is raised the further 
question: what types of coalitions predominate in four-person 
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                            [page 18]
   As indicated, power is the central concept in Caplow's theory of 
coalitions in the family triad.  Caplow asserts that coalitions form 
because the parties seek power in order to obtain desired resources.  
This raises the question with regard to four-person families:  how 
important is power in determining who wins or loses?  Finally, one 
important aspect of family power structures is family composition or 
gender distribution. Hence, the fourth question examined concerns the 
relationship between the coalition structure and family gender 
composition in four person families.



   Questionnaires were distributed to approximately 1500 children at 
a junior high school in a suburban Los Angeles community.  From these 
questionnaires families were selected that satisfied these criteria: 
two children living with both their natural parents, the younger 
child between the ages of eight and twelve, the older between twelve 
and sixteen.  The minimum age was set by the younger child's ability 
to be an effective interviewee when asked questions about family 
dynamics. The older child had to be sufficiently older so that there 
could be a significant power difference between the children, but not 
so old that he or she was about to leave the family.  Sex was 
balanced, with half of the younger children and half of the older 
children being male.  We contacted 78 families to get the 48 families 
in the study. Family members were interviewed together and separately 
for three to four hours using a variety of instruments designed to 
measure different aspects of family decision-making and attitudes of 
family members toward each other.

   The parents were married an average of 16 years.  Only two 
parents, both males, had been married before.  Neither had children 
by their previous marriages.  Fathers' occupations were mainly 
business-related or professional.  There were eleven attorneys, five 
professors or deans, and four engineers.  The rest were businessmen.  
Seventeen wives reported full-time employment, and fourteen reported 
part-time employment outside the home.

   Because of the area in which the school was located, median income 
was high, $64,000.  Fathers and mothers averaged 42 and 39 years of 
age, respectively.  The median income of husbands fell into the $40-
80,000 range, while the median income of the wives was $10-12,000.  
In 86% of the 44 families in which both spouses answered our income 
question, the husband's income was higher than the wife's.  Eighteen 
of the 48 husbands reported incomes of $75,000 or more, while no wife 
did.  The picture was similar with respect to years of education.  In 
28 of the families, the husband had more years of education than the 
wife; in thirteen families, they were equal; and in seven families, 
the wife had more years of education than the husband.
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                            [page 19]
Coalition Measures

   Coalitions exist when family members jointly use their power to 
control a decision.  Coalitions are not the same as affective cliques 
of mutual attraction.  Coalitions are not indicated by the absence of 
disputes among family members.  Family members who do not argue are 
not in a coalition unless they support one another in disputes with 
other family members.  Thus, for our purposes, coalitions are 
measured by the frequency with which family members support one 
another in arguments.  This definition meets the strict criterion 
stated by Gamson (1961b:84) that "participation on the same side of 
an argument is sufficient justification for asserting that a 
coalition has been formed."

   Each family member was asked a set of questions about each of the 
six possible dyadic arguments in the family: father versus mother; 
father versus older child; father versus younger child; mother versus 
older child; mother versus younger child; and older child versus 
younger child.  Small Fisher-Price dolls were used to represent each 
family member.  These helped make clear, particularly to younger 
children, between which two family members each argument occurred. 
Family members were asked to recall the last important argument 
involving each two-person set of family members, what it was about, 
what each of the other two non-involved family members did during the 
argument, how the argument ended, and how often arguments between 
these two parties took place.  We asked what each of the other family 
members did in arguments between a pair:  "Think about what did 
during the argument.  Which of the following comes closest to what 
s/he did?"  The respondent was then presented a card with these 
alternatives:  S/he did not know about the argument; tried to avoid 
taking sides; agreed with (one party to the argument); agreed with 
(other party to the argument); tried to settle the argument without 
taking sides, did not care.  We did not attempt to assess the 
consistency of the reports from different family members because we 
did not require them to describe the same argument.  We wanted a 
variety of situations and types of arguments between each pair of 
family members.

   Since there were 48 families and four members in each family, 
there were 192 reports of what other family members did in arguments 
between members of each dyad.  Every family member was asked twelve 
coalition questions.  Thus, the total possible coalitions that could 
be named was 2304.  For each coalition question, six alternative 
responses were presented, only two of which were coalition responses.  
Overall, then, a total of 673 coalitions were named.
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                            [page 20]

Conservative and Revolutionary Coalitions

   A conservative coalition is a coalition that does not alter the 
existing power structure; whereas a revolutionary coalition is a 
coalition that dominates the superior member of the family (i.e., the 
one with the most power), and an improper coalition is a coalition 
that is neither conservative nor revolutionary. The coalition 
measures used differed from the traditional game rules used in 
studying coalitions.  All family members were not simultaneously 
given an opportunity to form coalitions with other family members.  
Only one family member at a time chose a coalition partner.  Also, 
Caplow's (1968) assumption, "in a set of linked triads a coalition 
partner in one triad may not be an opponent in another," was not 
maintainable.  Coalition partners in one triad could be opponents in 

   The coalition models utilized all depend on the identification of 
the power structure of the family.  Family power structure was 
determined by this question: "Now I'd like to return to consideration 
of the set of dolls representing each member of your family.  Would 
you rank order the dolls in terms of which family member, in your 
opinion, has the most and which has the least control over the 
property and money that your family has?"  The largest number of 
respondents, by far (70%), identified the family hierarchy as 
follows: F > M > O > Y. This is the classical patripotestal family.  
The remainder were about equally divided between F = M > O > Y (16%), 
the equipotestal family structure, and M > F > O > Y (14%), a
matricentered family structure.

   The definition of conservative, revolutionary, and improper 
coalitions followed Gamson (1961a) and Caplow (1968):

			  Conservative    Revolutionary   Improper

Type 3  (A = B > C)           AB               AC, BC       --
Type 5  (A < (B + C))         AB               BC           AC
Type 6  (A > (B + C))         AB, BC           --           AC
Type 7  (A = (B + C))         AB               --           AC, BC

In order to distinguish between Type 5 and Type 6 coalitions, 
questions that asked about the outcome of arguments were used.  The 
format for these questions was, as follows:  "Suppose that (mother) 
were to argue with (father) and (older child).  Who would be more 
likely to give in or agree, (mother) or (father) and (older child)?"  
These questions enabled us to determine which coalitions were likely 
to win and which were likely to give in or lose.

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How Frequent Are Family Coalitions?

   Respondents were asked to think about what they did during a 
specific argument, and to select from several alternatives that may 
describe what they actually did.  About three out of ten (29.2%) 
reported that they participated in a coalition, and these respondents 
reported forming a total of 673 coalitions in the 48 families 
studied.  Hence, arguments precipitated coalitions in less than one-
third of the cases. In over one-fourth (28.2%) of the incidents the 
respondent did not know about the argument, and in 8.7% the 
respondent reported that s/he did not care.  On the other hand, in 
7.2% of the incidents the participants tried to settle the argument 
without taking sides, and in 11.8% they avoided taking sides.  No 
information was available for 14.8% of the cases.  This information 
is relevant to the issue of whether or not the formation of 
coalitions is a common or not-so-common response to family conflict.  
One might point to the fact that arguments precipitated the formation 
of coalitions in only 29.2% of the arguments.  This suggests that 
quite often dyadic arguments are simply resolved by the participating 
parties and that is the end of it.  Alternatively, it might be 
asserted that, despite attempts to settle arguments by the parties 
themselves and the natural tendency of other family members to either 
avoid taking sides or stay out of the conflict, in about three out of 
ten arguments their scope was enlarged and coalitions were formed.

   We are unaware of reliable national sample data on how frequently 
family members argue.  The definition of what constitutes an argument 
is problematic.  Family members are prone to distinguish between 
disagreements, discussions, and arguments, and may disagree as to 
which is the appropriate label.  Such differences in perception make 
it hard to estimate how often arguments take place and, therefore, 
how often they lead to the formation of coalitions.

What Types of Coalitions Predominate in the Family?

   Table 1 displays the distribution of the thirteen different types 
of two-party coalitions in four-person families.  Elsewhere we have 
elaborated and tested a status maintenance theory of coalition 
formation (Bonacich, Grusky, and Peyrot, 1985) which asserts that 
coalitions form to maintain the existing power structure.  The 
finding in Table 1 shows the strong predominance of parental 
coalitions, which make up over 41% of the coalitions formed, are 
consistent with this approach, which stresses the significance of 
maintaining family solidarity and supporting the status difference 
between parents and children.
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Coalition Type                              N           Per Cent

Father + Mother                            278           41.31
   Mother + Older Daughter                 (61)          (9.06)
   Father + Older Son                      (49)          (7.28)
   Mother + Older Son                      (44)          (6.54)
   Father + Older Daughter                 (36)          (5.35)

Parent + Older Child                       190           28.23
   Mother + Younger Daughter               (36)          (5.35)
   Father + Younger Son                    (35)          (5.20)
   Mother + Younger Son                    (33)          (4.90)
   Father + Younger Daughter               (25)          (3.72)

Parent + Younger Child                     129            19.17
   Older Daughter + Younger Daughter       (27)           (4.01)
   Older Son + Younger Son                 (20)           (2.97)
   Older Daughter + Younger Son            (17)           (2.53)
   Older Son + Younger Daughter            (12)           (1.78)

Older Child + Younger Child                 76            11.29 

Total                                      673           100.00

   The institutional significance of maintaining the status hierarchy 
is further demonstrated by the finding that the second greatest 
number of coalitions are between a parent and an older child (28%), 
followed by parent/younger child coalitions (19%), and finally by
older child/younger child coalitions (11%).

How Important is Power in Determining Who Wins and Loses?

   Coalition theorists see coalitions as a strategy that members use 
to attain their goals.  Family members, like political party members 
in multi-party political systems, also prefer winning to losing and 
may form coalitions for that purpose.  Table 2 is designed to answer 
the question as to what happens when there are disputes between 
family members aligned in coalitions or not aligned.
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Opposing an Individual

Coalition                       Wins      Losses   Total     N

Father + Older Child            70.8%      29.2%   100.0%   192
Father + Younger Child          68.2       31.8    100.0    192
Mother + Older Child            67.2       32.8    100.0    192
Mother + Younger Child          58.3       41.7    100.0    192

Chi Square   DF   Significance   Min in E.F.  Cells with E.F. < 5
   7.58       3      0.056         65.00            None

Opposing Another Coalition

Coalition                        Wins     Losses   Total     N

Father + Older Child             54.2%     45.8%   100.0%   192
Father + Younger Child           41.1      58.9    100.0    192
Mother + Older Child             39.1      60.9    100.0    192
Mother + Younger Child           31.8      68.2    100.0    192

Chi Square   DF   Significance   Min in E.F.   Cells with E.F. < 5
  20.65       3      0.0001        79.75             None

   The top half of the table presents the percentage of wins and 
losses when particular family coalitions are aligned against an 
individual opponent.  The table shows that parent-child coalitions 
with the father included are more successful than those including the 
mother, and that parent-child coalitions with the older child are 
more successful than those with the younger child (Chi Square = 7.58, 
df = 3, p < .06).  The lower half of the table shows a similar 
pattern of findings when the opponent is another coalition (Chi 
Square = 20.64, df = 3, p < .001).

   The fundamental finding is that family power structure remains the 
key to winning and losing.  Coalitions that include the father are 
the strongest and, therefore, the most likely to win. By contrast, 
coalitions involving the younger child are the weakest and most 
likely to lose.

Conservative Coalition Patterns

   The most common status order in a triad would be where A>B and 
B>C, and A<B+C.  This is the familiar Type 5 pattern.  The most 
likely coalition is an AB coalition because this facilitates A's 
maintainance of control and prevents a BC coalition (a revolutionary 

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                            [page 24]

one in that it upsets the existing power structure). The situation is 
somewhat different in the tetrad and in the family. Figure 1 presents 
two different conservative coalition structures in the four-person 
family.  The first pattern shows a parental coalition dominating the 
family and opposing children.  Since the parents are the two most 
powerful individual members of the system, a coalition between these 
two is virtually unopposable.

   The second pattern is quite different.  This structure consists of 
two coalitions consisting of each of the parents and the older child.  
In this case, not only do the children oppose each other, but perhaps 
more significantly the parents co-opt the older child by forming a 
coalition that includes him or her.  As noted by Selznick (1949), 
co-optation refers to the process of assimilating new elements into 
the policy-determining or leadership structure of a system.  It is 
a policy which enables the group in charge of the social system to 
maintain its control.  Hence, this structure as well as the structure 
shown in Figure 1, which consists of a simple spousal coalition, 
facilitate the maintenance of the existing status hierarchy.


Parents Oppose Children  

		  A             B
		Father * * * * Mother
		    # #       # #
		    #   #    #  #
		    #    # #    #
		    #    # #    #
		    #  #    #   #
		    # #       # #
		Younger       Older
		 Child         Child
		  D             C

TYPE 5 Conditions: 2 Parents, 1 Child                     Key
A>B>C>D                                            **** = coalition
A<(B+C)                                            #### = opponent

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                            [page 25]

Children Oppose One Another         

		   A              B
		 Father         Mother
		      *           *
			*         *
			  *       *
			    *     *
			      *   *
				* *
		Younger # # # # Older
		Child           Child
		   D              C

TYPE 6 Conditions: 1 Parent, Children
Adapted from Caplow (1968), p. 70.

A Revolutionary Coalition Pattern

   In the triad, the most obvious revolutionary coalition is BC, 
which is an obvious threat to A, so much so that, as we noted above, 
it induces A to form a coalition with B to prevent a BC coalition.  
Again, things are not the same in tetrads or in families.

   Figure 2 presents one type of revolutionary coalition pattern that 
we found.  In this diagram, we find that the second most powerful 
family member, the mother, forms separate coalitions with the older 
child and with the younger child, thereby isolating the powerful 
father.  Thus, the father stands in opposition to all three of the 
other family members.


Father Opposes Others

		 A              B
	       Father # # # # Mother
		   # #        * *
		   #   #    *   *
		   #    # *     *
		   #    * #     *
		   #   *   #    *
		   # *       #  *
	       Younger        Older
		Child         Child
		  D             C

TYPE 5 Conditions: 2 Parents, 1 Child                     Key
A>B>C>D                                            **** = coalition
A<(B+C)                                            #### = opponent
Adapted from Caplow (1968), p. 71.

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                            [page 26]

Is Family Composition Related to Coalition Structure?

  In order to enhance and maintain family stability, families develop 
norms that limit conflict in certain subsystems.  Since the spousal 
subsystem is the most crucial one for family survival, conflict is 
least likely to be tolerated in that system.  Indeed, solidarity in 
the spousal subsystem is essential for the survival of the system 
(Cousins, 1960).  The finding that spousal coalitions were by far the 
most common type supports this perspective.  Parent-child 
relationships are also important to family solidarity.  Elsewhere 
(Grusky, Bonacich, and Peyrot, 1988) we have shown that male children 
are more involved in family conflict than female children.  Conflict 
can contribute to family solidarity if it integrates the parents and 
ties them more closely to the family.  We proposed that older sons 
enter conservative and avoid revolutionary coalitions to help 
maintain family solidarity.

   Table 3 shows that family composition is related to the average 
number of conservative coalitions. Specifically, it shows that there 
is a significant main effect: older son families are more likely than 
older daughter families to form conservative coalitions (df = 1, F = 
7.23, P = .01).


Family Composition                       Mean       Std. Dev.

a.  Older Daughter + Younger Son          7.00         2.04
b.  Older Son + Younger Daughter         10.92         4.34
c.  Two Girls                             9.67         4.42
d.  Two Boys                             11.42         3.03
e.  Older Daughter (a & c)                8.33         3.63
f.  Older Son (b & d)                    11.17         3.67

   Table 4 provides additional support for this (and other 
alternative) formulations.  Revolutionary coalitions and improper 
coalitions are much less frequent than are conservative coalitions.  
The mean number of conservative coalitions for the 48 families was 
9.75, S.D. = 3.88; for the revolutionary coalitions, the mean was 
1.56, S.D. = 2.75; and for improper coalitions, the mean was 2.70, 
S.D. = 1.94 (Conservative versus revolutionary coalitions, p < .001; 
and conservative versus improper coalitions, p < .001).  Hence, the 
basic finding is that stable family organizations prefer conservative 

   Table 4 shows that older son families are less likely than older 
daughter families to form either revolutionary coalitions (df = 1, F 
= 5.55, P = .023) or improper coalitions (df = 1, F = 7.2, P = .01).

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                            [page 27]


Revolutionary Coalitions

Family Composition                       Mean       Std. Dev.

a.  Older Daughter + Younger Son          2.08         2.68
b.  Older Son + Younger Daughter           .50          .67
c.  Two Girls                             2.83         4.45
d.  Two Boys                               .83         1.12
e.  Older Daughter (a & c)                2.46         3.61
f.  Older Son (b & d)                      .67          .92

Improper Coalitions

Family Composition                       Mean       Std. Dev.

a.  Older Daughter + Younger Son          2.67         1.72
b.  Older Son + Younger Daughter          3.42         1.83
c.  Two Girls                             1.33         1.16
d.  Two Boys                              3.42         2.32
e.  Older Daughter (a & c)                2.00         1.59
f.  Older Son (b & d)                     3.42         2.04


   This paper extends Caplow's theory of coalitions in triads to 
four-person groups, or tetrads.  Organizationally, tetrads differ 
from triads in two major ways.  First, tetrads are more complex and 
allow for greater opportunity for coalition formation.  Willis (1962) 
has identified seventeen different types of coalitions in the tetrad 
and has predicted the most frequent kinds of two-way and three-way 
coalitions within each type.  However, Willis did not apply his 
formulations to families.  Second, in addition to their greater 
complexity, tetrads permit the possibility of counter-coalitions.

   Thus, we have applied Caplow's theory of power in triads to the 
study of four-person families, or tetrads, and have examined four 

(1) How frequent are coalitions?  We found that arguments led to 
coalitions in about three out of ten cases, leading to the formation 
of 673 coalitions.  Although in this study we cannot answer the 
question as to whether or not coalitions are frequent or rare in 
American families, the data presented, at the very least, suggest 
that coalitions exist in many families, and consequently are worthy 
of study.
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                            [page 28]

(2) What types of coalitions predominate in the family?  We found 
that spousal coalitions were the dominant form.  This finding is 
consistent with a theoretical approach that emphasizes the importance 
of maintaining family solidarity.

(3) How important is power in determining who wins or loses?  We 
found support for Caplow's model, asserting that power counts in 
family decision-making.  Coalitions involving the father were the 
ones most likely to win; whereas those involving the younger child 
were the weakest and were most likely to lose.

(4) Is family composition related to coalition structure?  Some 
evidence was found that family composition is related to the 
formation of conservative, revolutionary, and improper coalitions.  
Older son families were less likely than older daughter families to 
form revolutionary or improper coalitions.


* This is a revised version of a paper presented at the Asian-Pacific 
Regional Conference of Psychology, International Union of 
Psychological Science, Guangzhou, China, 1995.  Grusky and Bonacich 
gratefully acknowledge the support of National Science Foundation 
grant SOC-78-07131 and National Institute of Mental Health grant MH-


Bonacich, Phillip, Oscar Grusky, and Mark Peyrot. 1985. "Family 
Coalitions: A New Approach and Method." Social Psychology Quarterly

Caplow, Theodore. 1968. Two Against One: Coalitions in the Triad. 
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Coleman, James. 1991. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, 
Massachusetts: Belknap Press.

Cook, Karen S. and Mary R. Gillmore. 1984. "Power, Dependence, and 
Coalitions."  in Edward J. Lawler (ed.), Advances in Group Processes, 
Vol. 1, 27-58, Greenwich, Connecticut: Jai Press.

Cousins, Albert N. 1960. "The Failure of Solidarity" in Norman W. 
Bell and Ezra F. Vogel (eds.), The Family, 403-416, Glencoe, llinois: 
The Free Press.

Gamson, William A. 1961a. "A Theory of Coalition Formation." American 
Sociological Review, 26:373-382.

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                            [page 29]

------. 1962b."An Experimental Test of a Theory of Coalition 
Formation."  American Sociological Review 26:565-573.

Grusky, Oscar, Phillip Bonacich, and Mark Peyrot. 1988. "Group 
Structure and Interpersonal Conflict in the Family."  in Edward J. 
Lawler and Barry Markovsky (eds.), Advances in Group Processes, Vol. 
5, 29-51, Greenwich, Connecticut: Jai Press.

McGinnis, Michael. 1991. "Richardson, Rationality and Restrictive 
Models of Arms Races."  Journal of Conflict Resolution, 35:443-73.
Rappoport, Anatol. 1957. Fights, Games, and Debates.  Ann Arbor, 
Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Schelling, Thomas C. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict. London: Oxford 
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Willis, Richard H. 1962. "Coalitions in the Tetrad."  Sociometry 


Oscar Grusky is Professor of Sociology at UCLA and Director, NIMH-
supported AIDS research training program. His current research concerns
the organization of managed mental health care systems for children and 
adults with emotional disorders and the role of the child in family 
coalitions. Email address:

Phillip Bonacich is Professor of Sociology at UCLA. His current research 
interest is power and coalitions within exchange networks. Email address:

Cynthia Webster is Lecturer in Sociology at UCLA. She received her Ph.D. 
from the University of California, Irvine in 1993. Her current research 
interests are social networks and quantitative methods. Email address:

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