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Charles Horton Cooley

Charles Horton Cooley

The American social psychologist, sociologist, and educator Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) showed that personality emerges from social influences and that the individual and the group are complementary aspects of human association.

Charles Horton Cooley was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Aug. 17, 1864, the son of a well-known jurist, Thomas M. Cooley. After graduating from the University of Michigan (1887), Charles studied mechanical engineering and then economics. In 1889 he entered government work, first with the Civil Service Commission and then with the Census Bureau. He taught political science and economics (1892-1904) and then sociology (1904-1929) at the University of Michigan.

Cooley's first major work, The Theory of Transportation (1894), was in economic theory. This book was notable for its conclusion that towns and cities tend to be located at the confluence of transportation routes—the so-called break in transportation. Cooley soon shifted to broader analyses of the interplay of individual and social processes. In Human Nature and the Social Order (1902) he foreshadowed George Herbert Mead's discussion of the symbolic ground of the self by detailing the way in which social responses affect the emergence of normal social participation. Cooley greatly extended this conception of the "looking-glass self" in his next book, Social Organization (1909), in which he sketched a comprehensive approach to society and its major processes.

The first 60 pages of Social Organization were a sociological antidote to Sigmund Freud. In that much-quoted segment Cooley formulated the crucial role of primary groups (family, play groups, and so on) as the source of one's morals, sentiments, and ideals. But the impact of the primary group is so great that individuals cling to primary ideals in more complex associations and even create new primary groupings within formal organizations. Cooley viewed society as a constant experiment in enlarging social experience and in coordinating variety. He therefore analyzed the operation of such complex social forms as formal institutions and social class systems and the subtle controls of public opinion. He concluded that class differences reflect different contributions to society, as well as the phenomena of aggrandizement and exploitation.

Cooley's last major work, Social Process (1918), emphasized the nonrational, tentative nature of social organization and the significance of social competition. He interpreted modern difficulties as the clash of primary group values (love, ambition, loyalty) and institutional values (impersonal ideologies such as progress or Protestantism). As societies try to cope with their difficulties, they adjust these two kinds of values to one another as best they can.

Further Reading

The most detailed biography of Cooley is Edward Jandy, Charles Horton Cooley: His Life and Social Theory (1942). A shorter review, by Richard Dewey, appears in Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948). Albert J. Reiss, Jr., ed., Cooley and Sociological Analysis (1968), contains a personal account by Robert Cooley Angell.

Additional Sources

Cohen, Marshall J., Charles Horton Cooley and the social self in American thought, New York: Garland Pub., 1982. □

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Cooley, Charles Horton

Cooley, Charles Horton (1864–1929) Cooley was one of the first generation of American sociologists, but an eccentric who differed from most of his peers. Whereas the majority of the pioneers were Social Darwinians, Cooley was a less mechanical evolutionist: most were reformists, often inspired by religion, while Cooley was more artistic and romantic; and most were aiming to make sociology a rigorously objective (positivist) science, but Cooley was an idealist, more concerned with introspection and imagination—one of the earliest of humanistic sociologists.

Cooley sought to abolish the dualisms of society/individual and body/mind, emphasizing instead their interconnections, and conceptualizing them as functional and organic wholes. The root problem of social science was the mutual interrelationship between the individual and social order. In his view, the concepts of the ‘individual’ and of ‘society’ could be defined only in relationship to each other, since human life was essentially a matter of social intercourse—of society shaping the individual and individuals shaping society. However, his critics did not see him as being successful in this enterprise, ultimately siding too much with the individual and idealism.

Cooley launched his career ‘in defiance of categories’, refusing to label himself a sociologist, and seeking instead to merge history, philosophy, and social psychology. Two of his concepts have, nevertheless, captured the sociological imagination. The first is the looking-glass self: the way in which the individual's sense of self is ‘mirrored’ and reflected through others. This was an idea later to be greatly expanded by William James and George Herbert Mead in their attempts to build a general theory of the self. The second of Cooley's lasting concepts is that of the ‘primary group’, characterized by close, intimate, face-to-face interaction, which Cooley contrasted with the larger and more disparate ‘nucleated group’ (subsequently referred to more commonly as the ‘secondary group’), whose members were rarely if ever all in direct contact. (Families or friendship circles are typical primary groups; trade unions and political parties are characteristically secondary groups.)

Cooley was both a student and professor at the University of Michigan. His major works are Human Nature and the Social Order (1902), Social Organisation (1909), and Social Process (1918). See also SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM.

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Cooley, Charles Horton

Charles Horton Cooley, 1864–1929, American sociologist, b. Ann Arbor, Mich., grad. Univ. of Michigan (B.A., 1887; Ph.D., 1894); son of Thomas M. Cooley. He taught in the sociology department at the Univ. of Michigan after 1892, although his degree was in economics. Cooley's major contribution to the field of sociology was his idea of the "looking-glass self" (a concept that emphasizes the social determination of the self) and primary groups—e.g., the family, the play group, or the neighborhood. He wrote Human Nature and the Social Order (1902, rev. ed. 1922), Social Organization (1909), Social Process (1918), and Sociological Theory and Social Research (1930).

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