Charles Horton Cooley 1864-1929

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Charles Horton Cooley

The Person

Charles Horton Cooley was born on the edge of the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, where he was to spend almost all his life. The Cooley family had its roots in New England. They were direct descen- dants of one Benjamin Cooley, who settled near Springfield, Massachusetts before 1640. Cooley's father, Thomas McIntyre Cooley, came to Michigan from western New York. Having been born into a large family of farmers living in straitened circumstances, Thomas Cooley felt that his only chance for acquiring an education and moving up the social scale was to move west. He settled in Michigan and first embarked on a career as an editor and real estate operator and then as a lawyer. An intensely ambitious, imperious, and energetic man, he managed to rise from obscure beginnings into a prestigious and honored position among Michigan's legal and social elite. He achieved recognition for the high caliber of his legal thinking and was appointed a member of a faculty of three at the newly organized University of Michigan Law School in 1859. In the year of Charles' birth, 1864, the father was elected to the Supreme Court of Michigan. He remained a Supreme Court Justice and professor of law for many years and in addition became well known nationally for a number of legal treatises, and as the first chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Charles, the fourth of the judge's six children, was born at a time when the family had already acquired considerable standing and lived in comfortable circumstances in Ann Arbor. Somewhat overawed by and alienated from his hard-driving and success-oriented father, young Cooley early developed the withdrawn, passive, and retiring character that was to mark his life-style throughout. For fifteen years he suffered from a variety of ailments, some of them apparently psychosomatic. Shy and a semi-invalid suffering from a speech impediment, he had few playmates and tended to daydreaming and solitary reading. Highly sensitive, he compensated for his insecurity by imagin- ing himself in the role of a great orator and leader of men The success-striv- ings that the father enacted in real life, the son dared to repeat only in his imagination. His fondness for strenuous rides on horseback and for carving and carpentering may perhaps be explained in terms of a typical Adlerian at- tempt to compensate for bodily weakness and social ineptness.

Cooley's college life lasted seven years, having been interrupted by illness, a journey through Europe, and brief periods of work as a draftsman and as a statistician. He graduated in engineering, a subject he did not particularly like, though he also took several courses in history and one each in philosophy and economics. During the college years and after, Cooley continued to read omnivorously. These independent readings, rather than formal courses of in- struction, finally led him to decide on his life career.

Having read a good deal of Darwin, Spencer, and the German organicist sociologist Albert Schaeffle, Cooley decided to return to the University of Michigan in 1890 for graduate work in political economy and sociology. He wrote a dissertation entitled "The Theory of Transportation," a pioneering study in human ecology, and was granted a Ph.D. in 1894. Since there was no formal instruction in sociology at Michigan, he was examined on questions that had been forwarded from Columbia by Franklin Giddings.

Cooley's unusually long period of apprenticeship and preparation may be accounted for in part by ill health but also by the fact that he was the son of well-to-do parents, who could afford to let their son take his time in deciding upon a career. Moreover, Cooley suffered from the fact that he stood under the shadow of a famous father. He once wrote to his mother: "I should like as an experiment to get off somewhere where Father was never heard of and see whether anybody would care about me for my own sake." It would seem that Cooley was long torn by an emotional dependence on a father from whom he was basically alienated, while being conscious of the fact that he was under an obligation to embark on a career that would do honor to his family.

Cooley's early work, a paper on the "Social Significance of Street Railways," which he read at a meeting of the American Economic Association in 1890, as well as his aforementioned dissertation, both grew from two years of work in Washington, first for the Interstate Commerce Commission and later for the Bureau of the Census. These were written in the tough-minded and "realistic" tradition of which his father presumably approved. His mature work, which is characterized throughout by a tender-minded, introspective approach more congenial to his fundamental nature, began to take shape only after he started to teach at the University of Michigan and had achieved in- dependence from his father.


Throughout his teaching career at Michigan, which began in 1892, Cooley was concerned with many social problems and issues of the day, but clearly preoccupation with the self--his own self--remained paramount to him. Hav- ing managed to assert his independence, Cooley was resolved to turn his shy- ness and his inability to compete with his father's driving ambition into an asset by devoting himself to work that derived in large part from self-examina- tion and the observation of the behavior of those close to him, more particularly his own children.

Cooley's marriage in 1890 to Elsie Jones, the daughter of a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, enabled him to concentrate fully on scholarly work and the contemplative life he prized above all. A highly culti- vated woman, Mrs. Cooley differed from her husband in that she was outgoing, energetic, and hence capable of ordering their common lives in such a manner that mundane cares were not to weigh very heavily on her husband. The couple had three children, a boy and two girls, and lived quietly; and fairly withdrawn in a house quite close to the campus. The children served Cooley as a kind of domestic laboratory for his study of the genesis and growth of the self. Hence, even when he was not engaged in the observation of his own self but wished to observe others, he did not need to leave the domestic circle.

From Coser, 1977:314-316.

(Special acknowledgement to Larry R. Ridener and The Dead Sociologists' Society)

The Sage of Ann Arbor

Cooley rose fairly rapidly through the academic ranks. He was made an assistant professor in 1899, an associate professor in 1904, and became a full professor three years later. He had none of the flashiness and brashness that appeals to the mass of students. The lectures that this slight, nervous, and somewhat sickly looking professor delivered with a high-pitched voice lacking resonance often would not go over well with the undergraduates. Yet he ap- pealed to a number of graduate students who were inspired by his probing and searching intellect. Many of the graduate students felt that it was a privilege to sit in his seminars and to watch him develop slowly and haltingly a train of thought that came from the very depths of his being. Cooley was inept at administrative detail, chafed at participating in the social and political life of the faculty and even found himself wanting when it came to directing the work of students or initiating faculty research projects. Yet, as many of his students have testified, those who managed to gain privileged access in his seminars and classes to the workings of his complicated mind were influenced by his approach throughout their lives.


Cooley's life-style was in tune with a pattern of academic mores that no longer exists. The academic setting was still dominated by a semi-aristocratic code of gentlemanly poise. Having no financial worries and living in an age in which the publish-or-perish philosophy had as yet made few inroads, Cooley could afford to devote himself to a life of unhurried contemplation and leisurely study. His books grew slowly and organically from notes he made over long periods of time. Human Nature and the Social Order was published in 1902 and its companion, Social Organization, followed seven years later. His third major work Social Process, appeared after an interval of nine years, in 1918. These three books, together with extracts from a journal he kept throughout his life, entitled Life and the Student (1927), constitute almost the whole of his intellectual output. His early papers in social ecology and a few other contributions written in later years are available in a posthumous volume, Sociological Theory and Social Research (1930).

Cooley's life was extremely uneventful. He shunned controversy and con- tention; any sort of conflict upset him and cost him sleep. He participated in the formation of the American Sociological Society in 1905 and went to most of its subsequent meetings, but the hustle and bustle of these meetings were hardly to his taste. After having become president of the Society in 1918 he began to enjoy the meetings a bit more, perhaps because, having now attained a measure of success, he was able to overcome his previous insecurity when meeting colleagues. The fact that his books sold well, and that he had by then acquired an enviable reputation both among peers and among the younger generation, probably also led to increasing self-confidence. His biographer notes that "the years from 1918 to nearly the close of his life, were perhaps Cooley's happiest."

Throughout his many years at the University of Michigan, Cooley had relatively little contact with his colleagues. He was a good deal older than the next man in the department, Arthur E. Wood, so that he found little com- panionship there. The Cooleys entertained rarely and went to few parties. They liked simple, informal contacts. Cooley often took long walks with a few choice companions and also went on camping trips with them to Canada for several years. They enjoyed roughing it and cooking picnic suppers for their wives. Most of the summer season Cooley and his wife would spend at Crystal Lake in Northern Michigan, where he built a cabin near the lake for the family, and went swimming, boating or walking with his wife and chil- dren. He was a good amateur botanist and bird watcher. During these sum- mers, especially during the last period of his life, Cooley seems to have attained the serenity and contentment that had eluded the young man for so long. "I am glad of life here, he wrote in his journal, "glad of the air, the food, and the lake, glad of the work of my hands, glad of my family, glad that I can probably come here every summer, glad of my books, my thoughts, my hopes."

Cooley received many calls to join more prestigious departments of sociology; Giddings invited him to Columbia, for example. But he never even considered these offers seriously. He felt bound to Ann Arbor and to a uni- versity where his father and the father of his wife had taught, and where he had spent almost all of his student career. He did not want the excitement and competitiveness of a large university such as Columbia.

In the last decade of his life Cooley became something of a University of Michigan institution. Although he never conformed to the outward trappings of the academic role, was a poor committee man and possibly an even worse department chairman, he had managed to produce a body of work that re- flected most favorably on his university.

Cooley summed up his career better than any commentator can when he wrote: "It is conducive to intellectual achievement in our universities to be known as incapacitated for anything else. One may be thankful for a poor voice and hesitating address, a perturbable and withdrawing disposition, a general appearance of scholarly inefficiency. It will retard his promotion, but he has some chance of doing something in the long run.'' Ensconced in the congenial setting of a university that was willing to give him a large measure of "idiosyncrasy credit" and to overlook his lack of regard for the ordinary wont and use of the academic man, Cooley used such institutional assets wisely. Protected from interference and cushioned against the impact of the wider world, Cooley managed during his long career to turn his initial weak- nesses--his shyness and sensitivity, his withdrawing nature, and his self- centeredness--into assets which allowed him to bring forth works that were the slowly ripened fruits of leisured contemplation and introspective observa- tion.

Late in 1928 Cooley's health began to fail, and the following March his trouble was diagnosed as cancer. He died on May 7, 1929.

From Coser, 1977:316-318.

Charles Horton Cooley

The Work

"Self and society," wrote Cooley, "are twin-born." This emphasis on the organic link and the indissoluble connection between self and society is the theme of most of Cooley's writings and remains the crucial contribution he made to modern social psychology and sociology.

The Looking Glass Self

Building upon the work of William James, Cooley opposed the Cartesian tradition that posited a sharp disjunction between the knowing, thinking sub- ject and the external world. The objects of the social world, Cooley taught, are constitutive parts of the subject's mind and the self. Cooley wished to remove the conceptual barrier that Cartesian thought had erected between the indi- vidual and his society and to stress, instead, their interpenetration. "A separate individual," he wrote,

is an abstraction unknown to experience, and so likewise is society when re- garded as something apart from individuals. . . ." Society" and "individuals" do not denote separable phenomena but are simply collective and distributive aspects of the same thing. . . When we speak of society, or use any other collective term, we fix our minds upon some general view of the people con- cerned, while when we speak of individuals we disregard the general aspect and think of them as if they were separate

Cooley argued that a person's self grows out of a person's commerce with others. "The social origin of his life comes by the pathway of intercourse with other persons." The self, to Cooley, is not first individual and then social; it arises dialectically through communication. One's consciousness of himself is a reflection of the ideas about himself that he attributes to other minds; thus, there can be no isolated selves. "There is no sense of 'I' without its cor- relative sense of you, or he, or they. "

In his attempt to illustrate the reflected character of the self, Cooley compared it to a looking glass:
Each to each a looking-glass
Reflects the other that doth pass.
"As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be, so in imagination we perceive in another's mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it."

The notion of the looking-glass self is composed of three principal ele- ments: "The imagination of our appearance to the other person, the imagina- tion of his judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification." The self arises in a social process of communicative interchange as it is reflected in a person's consciousness. As George H. Mead put it when discussing Cooley's contribution, "By placing both phases of this social process in the same consciousness, by regarding the self as the ideas entertained by others of the self, and the other as the ideas entertained of him by the self, the action of the others upon the self and of the self upon the others becomes simply the interaction of ideas upon each other within mind."

This somewhat abstract notion can be illustrated by a delightful example which Cooley gave himself when he imagined an encounter between Alice, who has a new hat, and Angela, who just bought a new dress. He argues that we then have,

I) The real Alice, known only to her maker. 2) Her idea of herself; e.g. "I [Alice] look well in this hat." 3) Her idea of Angela's idea of her; e.g. "Angela thinks I look well in this hat." 4) Her idea of what Angela thinks she thinks of herself: e.g. "Angela thinks I am proud of my looks in this hat." 5) Angela's idea of what Alice thinks of herself; e.g. "Alice thinks she is stunning in that hat." And of course six analogous phases of Angela and her dress.

"Society," Cooley adds, "is an interweaving and interworking of mental selves. I imagine your mind, and especially what your mind thinks about my mind, and what your mind thinks about what my mind thinks about your mind. I dress my mind before yours and expect that you will dress yours before mine. Whoever cannot or will not perform these feats is not properly in the game." Multiple perspectives are brought into congruence through continued multi- lateral exchanges of impressions and evaluations between our minds and those of others. Society is internalized in the individual psyche; it becomes part of the individual self through the interaction of many; individuals, which links and fuses them into an organic whole.


From Coser, 1977:305-307.

The Organic View of Society

Cooley's sociology is decidedly holistic. When he speaks of society as an organism, he does not want to make an analogy with biology in the manner of Spencer, but means to stress the systemic interrelations between all social processes. "If . . . we say that society is an organism, we mean . . . that it is a complex of forms of processes each of which is living and growing by inter- action with the others, the whole being so unified that what takes place in one part affects all the rest. It is a vast tissue of reciprocal activity.''

This organic view of society leads Cooley to his principled objection to the utilitarian individualism that is at the basis of classical economics and Spen- cerian sociology alike.

So strong is the individualist tradition in America and England that we hardly permit ourselves to aspire toward an ideal society directly, but think that we must approach it by some distributive formula, like "the greatest good of the greatest number." Such formulas are unsatisfying to human nature.... The ideal society must be an organic whole, capable of being conceived directly, and requiring to be so conceived if it is to lay hold upon our imaginations.

"Our life," Cooley reiterated over and over again, "is all one human whole, and if we are to have any real knowledge of it we must see it as such. If we cut it up it dies in the process.''

From Coser, 1977:307.

The Primary Group

This emphasis on the wholeness of social life led Cooley to focus his analysis on those human groupings that he conceived to be primary in linking man with his society and in integrating individuals into the social fabric. "By primary groups," he writes,

I mean those characterized by intimate face-to-face association and coopera- tion. They are primary in several senses but chiefly in that they are funda- mental in forming the social nature and ideals of individuals. The result of intimate association, psychologically, is a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole, so that one's very self, for many purposes at least, is the common life and purpose of the group. Perhaps the simplest way of describ- ing this wholeness is by saying that it is a ''we.''

Cooley did not argue, as is sometimes assumed, that the unity of the primary group is based on harmony and love alone. He stressed that it is usually a competitive unit, admitting of self-assertion and passionate conten- tions. But he held that "these passions are socialized by sympathy, and come, or tend to come, under the discipline of a common spirit. The individual will be ambitious, but the chief object of his ambition will be some desired place in the thought of the others.''

The most important groups in which the intimate associations characteris- tic of primary groups have had a chance to develop to the fullest are the family, the play group of children, and the neighborhood. These, Cooley be- lieved, are practically universal breeding grounds for the emergence of human cooperation and fellowship. In these groups men are drawn away from their individualistic propensity to maximize their own advantage and are permanently linked to their fellows by ties of sympathy and affection. In other forms of association (which are now referred to as secondary groups, though Cooley himself never used that term) men may be related to one an- other because each derives a private benefit from that interchange or inter- action. In such groups the other may be valued only extrinsically as a source of benefits for the self; by contrast the bond in the primary group is based upon an intrinsic valuation of the other as a person, and appreciation of others does not result from anticipation of specific benefits that he or she may be able to confer. The primary group is built upon the diffuse solidarity of its members rather than upon an exchange of specific services or benefits. It is, moreover, a nursery for the development of human warmth and sympathy, which is contrasted to the formal coldness, the impersonality, the emotional distance of other types of relations.

A few examples will help clarify the distinction. A member of a family, say, the mother, may gladly engage in personally unrewarding labor within the family context because she measures her work in terms of her contribution to the whole, the We, of the family. What she would consider scandalous exploitation in outside employment, she finds acceptable within the family, for she views it as a service to the collectivity. Husbands and wives, parents and children, relatives and friends will cheerfully sacrifice self-interest if it inter- feres with their duties to the primary group of which they are a part. They will view each other on the basis of intrinsic characteristics rather than in instru- mental terms. If a student were asked why a certain person was his friend and he replied, "Because he helps me pass my math exams," that reply would be judged most inappropriate: the student confused the primary character of a friendship group with the instrumental purposes that govern other types of associations. The primary group, in other words, is the domain where Hobbes- ian man holds no sway, where devotion to the whole and to the other as a full person takes precedence over the maximization of self-interest.

The notions of the looking-glass self and of the primary group are closely intertwined in Cooley's thought. Sensitivity to the thought of others--respon- siveness to their attitudes, values, and judgments that is the mark of the mature man according to Cooley--can be cultivated and fostered only in the close and intimate interactions of the primary group. Hence, this group is the cell in which characteristically human growth takes place. In the primary group the immature and self-centered person is slowly attuned to the needs and desires of others and becomes fitted to the give-and-take of mature social life. The primary group fosters the ability to put oneself into the position of others, drawing the individual out of egotistic isolation by building into him that sensitivity to the clues of others without which social life would be impossible. "In these [primary groups] human nature comes into existence. Man does not have it at birth; he cannot acquire it except through fellowship, and it decays in isolation.''

Cooley's social philosophy was grounded in the idea that human progress involves the ever-widening expansion of human sympathy so that primary group ideals would spread from the family to the local community, to the nation, and finally to the world community. His was indeed, as Philip Rieff has said, a "small-town doctrine of human nature." Cooley's social thought, George H. Mead wrote, "was in a sense an account of the American com- munity to which he belonged, and pre-supposed its normal healthful process." His benign optimism, his somewhat romantic idealism, are likely to appear antiquated to modern observers who view the world through lenses ground by harsh historical experiences from which the sage from Ann Arbor was spared. Yet even in sections of his work that seem marred by an overindul- gence in soft-minded benevolence, there can be found hard nuggets of solid sociological insight.

Consider, for example, Cooley's discussion of the twin evils of formal- ism and disorganization. The first, he avers, "is mechanism supreme"; the sec- ond, "mechanism going to pieces." "The effect of formalism upon personality is to starve its higher life and leave it the prey of apathy [and] self-compla- cency. . . . Disorganization, on the other hand, "appears in the individual as a mind without cogent and abiding allegiance to a whole, and without the larger principles of conduct that flow from such allegiances." The modern sociological reader may hardly notice such passages in Cooley's work since he is familiar with Durkheim's more extended and detailed treatment of "anomic" phenomena. But it should be noted that despite his generally optimistic views, Cooley was nevertheless sensitized to those phenomena of incipient crisis that loomed large in Durkheim's social awareness. In regard to prescribing the cure of modern man's ailments, Cooley often wrote in a strikingly Durk- heimian vein. "The idealization of the state, the impressing of a unitary life upon the hearts of the people by tradition, poetry, music, architecture, national celebrations and memorials, and by a religion and philosophy teaching the in- dividual that he is a member of a glorious whole to which he owes devotion, is in line with human nature, however it may be degraded in use by reac- tionary aims.''

Cooley's renown does not come from having parallelled some of Durk- heim's insights but rather from his crucial contribution to the problems of internalization. Perhaps Parsons puts the matter a bit too sharply when he writes: "Durkheim was the theorist of society as an object in the external world; Cooley was the theorist of society as part of the individual self." But in a general sense Parsons is still correct in stressing that for Cooley, as dis- tinct from Durkheim, society was uniquely a mental phenomenon. "The imaginations people have of one another," he wrote, "are the solid facts of society." "Society . . . is a relation among personal ideas."

Later critics, notably George H. Mead, were to criticize Cooley's exces- sively mentalistic view of the constitution of the self, but none would deny that he should receive credit, along with such major figures as William James, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, and George H. Mead, for having succeeded in destroying the Cartesian disjunction between mind and the external social world. Cooley elaborated in convincing detail the notion that man and society, the self and the other, are linked in an indissoluble unity so that the quality of one's social life, of one's relations with his fellows, is a constitutive element of his personality.

From Coser, 1977:307-310.

Sociological Method

In addition to these substantive concerns, Cooley, like W. I. Thomas and George H. Mead, made a crucially important contribution to sociological method. Independently of Max Weber, but at roughly the same time as he, they argued that the study of human actions must be concerned with the meanings human actors attribute to the situation in which they find them- selves; hence, the study must go beyond purely behavioral description.

The sociology of a chicken yard, Cooley and his co-thinkers insisted, could only be based on descriptions of the chickens' behavior, since we can never understand the meanings that chickens attach to their activities. But the sociol- ogy of human beings can pursue a different strategy, since it can probe beneath protocols of behavior into the subjective meanings of acting indi- viduals. The social sciences, Cooley argued, deprive themselves of a most precious tool if by a self-denying ordinance they abstain from examining the motivational structure of human action. Even if it be granted that Cooley's approach to the problem of the imputation of motives is too speculative, his thoughts moved on the right track.

Cooley distinguished between "spatial or material knowledge" and "per- sonal or social knowledge." The latter

is developed from contact with the minds of other men, through communica- tion, which sets going a process of thought and sentiment similar to theirs and enables us to understand them by sharing their states of mind.... It might also be described as sympathetic, or, in its more active form, as dramatic, since it is apt to consist of a visualization of behavior accompanied by imagination of corresponding mental processes.

The difference, Cooley argued, between our knowledge of a horse or a dog and our knowledge of man is rooted in our ability to have a sympathetic understanding of a man's motives and springs of action.

What you know about a man consists, in part, of flashes of vision as to what he would do in particular situations, how he would look, speak, move; it is by such flashes that you judge whether he is brave or a coward, hasty or deliberate, honest or false, kind or cruel.... It also consists in inner senti- ments which you yourself feel in some degree when you think of him in these situations, ascribing them to him.... Although our knowledge of people is . . . behavioristic, it has no penetration, no distinctively human in- sight, unless it is sympathetic also.

Cooley's own use of the method of sympathetic understanding was some- what marred, as George H. Mead, among others, has pointed out, by his ex- cessively mentalistic and introspective emphasis, and by his failure to make needed distinctions between the imputation of meaning all men must make in the course of interaction and the disciplined and controlled imputations of the social scientist. He must nevertheless be reckoned among the pioneers in socio- logical method. Like Max Weber and his co-thinkers in Germany, Cooley emphasized that the study of the human social world must be centered upon attempts to probe the subjective meanings human actors attribute to their actions, and that such meanings must be studied in part through "understand- ing" rather than through exclusive reliance on the reporting of behavior.

From Coser, 1977:310-311.

Social Process

Cooley had relatively little to say about social structures; in his organic view he conceived of social life as a seamless web and was not sensitive to structural variables In regard to social process, however, he proved to be an acute observer and analyst.

In Cooley's view society consists of a network of communication between component actors and subgroups; therefore, the process of communication, more particularly its embodiment in public opinion, cements social bonds and insures consensus. Cooley saw public opinion as "an organic process," and not merely as a state of agreement about some question of the day. It is not a "mere aggregate of separate individual judgments, but an organization, a cooperative product of communication and reciprocal influence. It may be as different from the sum of what the individuals could have thought out in separation as a ship built by a hundred men is from a hundred boats each built by one man." In other words, public opinion does not emerge from prior agreement but from reciprocal action of individual opinions upon each other--from the clash of ideas in the process of communication. "It is not at all necessary that there should be agreement; the essential thing is a certain ripeness and stability of thought resulting from attention and discussion." "Mature public opinion," as distinct from "popular impression," emerges from debate. It does not "express the working of an average or commonplace mind. [It is not] some kind of mean between the higher and the lower intelligences making up the group." It is created through the interchange between opposed tendencies of thought. "Communicated differences are the life of opinion, as cross-breeding is of a natural stock." To be sure, when there is no "under- lying like-mindedness, sufficient for mutual understanding and influence, among members of the group," they cannot act together. But given a com- mon frame of reference, public opinion is the product of communicated dis- agreement refined through debate and intellectual confrontation.

What holds for public opinion holds for other types of interactions. In tune with his emphasis on social process, Cooley conceived social conflict as necessary and ineradicable.

The more one thinks of it the more he will see that conflict and coopera- tion are not separable things, but phases of one process which always involves something of both. . . . You can resolve the social order into a great number of cooperative wholes of various sorts, each of which contains conflicting ele- ments within itself upon which it is imposing some sort of harmony with a view to conflict with others.

Conflicts, in Cooley's view, are healthy and normal occurrences, provided they proceed from a ground of underlying consensus about basic matters. He was a passionate defender of the virtues of democracy precisely because he saw it as a mode of governance that arrives at moral unity not through the suppres- sion of differences but through their acting out on the forum of public opinion.

From Coser, 1977:312-313.

Institutional Analysis

Cooley held with Veblen that systems of economic values, more particu- larly pecuniary values, are institutional in character, that "their immediate source is a social mechanism, whatever their indirect relation to human nature may be." The market is to Cooley an institution just like the church or the school. He therefore argued that it is futile to discuss economic values without reference to their institutional matrix and antecedents. More particularly, he urged that in the study of pecuniary values it would be fruitful to pinpoint the ways in which control by dominant classes shapes institutions such as the market. In agreement with Veblen, and in contradistinction to the classical ap- proach in economics, Cooley urged his students to see that the industrial sys- tem is not a self-adjusting mechanism, but a complex of institutions shaped by habit, custom and law, and "administered by a class, which will largely con- trol its operation."

Earlier historians of institutional economics tended to put Cooley's name next to Veblen's as a major contributor to that branch of economic theory. His name no longer looms as large in this field--in fact, he is not even men- tioned in the article on institutional economics in the International Encyclope- dia of the Social Sciences. The reason for this is that he did not go beyond Veblen in his institutional analysis and, although he used an institutional terminology and approach, his contributions to the subject matter consisted mainly of generalities. Cooley will probably rate only a footnote in future histories of economics. But the chances are high indeed that no history of sociological thought will fail to take into account the man to whom we owe the twin notions of the looking-glass self and the primary group.

From Coser, 1977:313.


From Charles Horton Cooley, Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909, pp. 25-31.



Primary Groups

By primary groups I mean those characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation. They are primary in several senses, but chiefly in that they are fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of the individual. The result of intimate association, psychologically, is a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole, so that one's very self, for many purposes at least, is the common life and purpose of the group. Perhaps the simplest way of describing this wholeness is by saying that it is a "we"; it involves the sort of sympathy and mutual identification for which "we" is the natural expression. One lives in the feeling of the whole and finds the chief aims of his will in that feeling.

It is not to be supposed that the unity of the primary group is one of mere harmony and love. It is always a differentiated and usually a competitive unity, admitting of self-assertion and various appropriative passions; but these passions are socialized by sympathy, and come, or tend to come, under the discipline of a common spirit. The individual will be ambitious, but the chief object of his ambition will be some desired place in the thought of the others, and he will feel allegiance to common standards of service and fair play. So the boy will dispute with his fellows a place on the team, but above such disputes will place the common glory of his class and school.


The most important spheres of this intimate association and cooperation--though by no means the only ones--are the family, the play-group of children, and the neighborhood or community group of elders. These are practically universal, belonging to all times and all stages of development; and are accordingly a chief basis of what is universal in human nature and human ideals. The best comparative studies of the family, such as those of Westermarck [1] or Howard, [2] show it to us as not only a universal institution, but as more alike the world over than the exaggeration of exceptional customs by an earlier school had led us to suppose. Nor can any one doubt the general prevalence of play-groups among children or of informal assemblies of various kinds among their elders. Such association is clearly the nursery of human nature in the world about us, and there is no apparent reason to suppose that the case has anywhere or at any time been essentially different.

As regards play, I might, were it not a matter of common observation, multiply illustrations of the universality and spontaneity of the group discussion and cooperation to which it gives rise. The general fact is that children, especially boys after about their twelfth year, live in fellowships in which their sympathy, ambition and honor are engaged even more, often, than they are in the family. Most of us can recall examples of the endurance by boys of injustice and even cruelty, rather than appeal from their fellows to parents or teachers--as, for instance, in the hazing so prevalent at schools, and so difficult, for this very reason, to repress. And how elaborate the discussion, how cogent the public opinion, how hot the ambitions in these fellowships.

Nor is this facility of juvenile association, as is sometimes supposed, a trait peculiar to English and American boys; since experience among our immigrant population seems to show that the offspring of the more restrictive civilizations of the continent of Europe form self-governing play-groups with almost equal readiness. Thus Miss Jane Addams, after pointing out that the "gang" is almost universal, speaks of the interminable discussion which every detail of the gang's activity receives, remarking that "in these social folk-motes, so to speak, the young citizen learns to act upon his own determination." [3]

Of the neighborhood group it may be said, in general, that from the time men formed permanent settlements upon the land, down, at least, to the rise of modern industrial cities, it has played a main part in the primary, heart-to-heart life of the people. Among our Teutonic forefathers the village community was apparently the chief sphere of sympathy and mutual aid for the commons all through the "dark" and middle ages, and for many purposes it remains so in rural districts at the present day. In some countries we still find it with all its ancient vitality, notably in Russia, where the mir, or self-governing village group, is the main theatre of life, along with the family, for perhaps fifty millions of peasants.

In our own life the intimacy of the neighborhood has been broken up by the growth of an intricate mesh of wider contacts which leaves us strangers to people who live in the same house. And even in the country the same principle is at work, though less obviously, diminishing our economic and spiritual community with our neighbors. How far this change is a healthy development, and how far a disease, is perhaps still uncertain.

Besides these almost universal kinds of primary association, there are many others whose form depends upon the particular state of civilization; the only essential thing, as I have said, being a certain intimacy and fusion of personalities. In our own society, being little bound by place, people easily form clubs, fraternal societies and the like, based on congeniality, which may give rise to real intimacy. Many such relations are formed at school and college, and among men and women brought together in the first instance by their occupations--as workmen in the same trade, or the like. Where there is a little common interest and activity, kindness grows like weeds by the roadside.

But the fact that the family and neighborhood groups are ascendant in the open and plastic time of childhood makes them even now incomparably more influential than all the rest.


Primary groups are primary in the sense that they give the individual his earliest and completest experience of social unity, and also in the sense that they do not change in the same degree as more elaborate relations, but form a comparatively permanent source out of which the latter are ever springing. Of course they are not independent of the larger society, but to some extent reflect its spirit; as the German family and the German school bear somewhat distinctly the print of German militarism. But this, after all, is like the tide setting back into creeks, and does not commonly go very far. Among the German, and still more among the Russian, peasantry are found habits of free cooperation and discussion almost uninfluenced by the character of the state; and it is a familiar and well-supported view that the village commune, self-governing as regards local affairs and habituated to discussion, is a very widespread institution in settled communities, and the continuator of a similar autonomy previously existing in the clan. "It is man who makes monarchies and establishes republics, but the commune seems to come directly from the hand of God." [4]

In our own cities the crowded tenements and the general economic and social confusion have sorely wounded the family and the neighborhood, but it is remarkable, in view of these conditions, what vitality they show; and there is nothing upon which the conscience of the time is more determined than upon restoring them to health.

These groups, then, are springs of life, not only for the individual but for social institutions. They are only in part moulded by special traditions, and, in larger degree, express a universal nature. The religion or government of other civilizations may seem alien to us, but the children or the family group wear the common life, and with them we can always make ourselves at home.


By human nature, I suppose, we may understand those sentiments and impulses that are human in being superior to those of lower animals, and also in the sense that they belong to mankind at large, and not to any particular race or time. It means, particularly, sympathy and the innumerable sentiments into which sympathy enters, such as love, resentment, ambition, vanity, hero-worship, and the feeling of social right and wrong. [5]

Human nature in this sense is justly regarded as a comparatively permanent element in society. Always and everywhere men seek honor and dread ridicule, defer to public opinion, cherish their goods and their children, and admire courage, generosity, and success. It is always safe to assume that people are and have been human.

It is true, no doubt, that there are differences of race capacity, so great that a large part of mankind are possibly incapable of any high kind of social organization. But these differences, like those among individuals of the same race, are subtle, depending upon some obscure intellectual deficiency, some want of vigor, or slackness of moral fibre, and do not involve unlikeness in the generic impulses of human nature. In these all races are very much alike. The more insight one gets into the life of savages, even those that are reckoned the lowest, the more human, the more like ourselves, they appear. Take for instance the natives of Central Australia, as described by Spencer and Gillen, [6] tribes having no definite government or worship and scarcely able to count to five. They are generous to one another, emulous of virtue as they understand it, kind to their children and to the aged, and by no means harsh to women. Their faces as shown in the photographs are wholly human and many of them attractive.

And when we come to a comparison between different stages in the development of the same race, between ourselves, for instance, and the Teutonic tribes of the time of Caesar, the difference is neither in human nature nor in capacity, but in organization, in the range and complexity of relations, in the diverse expression of powers and passions essentially much the same.

There is no better proof of this generic likeness of human nature than in the ease and joy with which the modern man makes himself at home in literature depicting the most remote and varied phases of life--in Homer, in the Nibelung tales, in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the legends of the American Indians, in stories of frontier life, of soldiers and sailors, of criminals and tramps, and so on. The more penetratingly any phase of human life is studied the more an essential likeness to ourselves is revealed.


To return to primary groups: the view here maintained is that human nature is not something existing separately in the individual, but a group-nature or primary phase of society, a relatively simple and general condition of the social mind. It is something more, on the one hand, than the mere instinct that is born in us--though that enters into it--and something less, on the other, than the more elaborate development of ideas and sentiments that makes up institutions. It is the nature which is developed and expressed in those simple, face-to-face groups that are somewhat alike in all societies; groups of the family, the playground, and the neighborhood. In the essential similarity of these is to be found the basis, in experience, for similar ideas and sentiments in the human mind. In these, everywhere, human nature comes into existence. Man does not have it at birth; he cannot acquire it except through fellowship, and it decays in isolation.

If this view does not recommend itself to common sense I do not know that elaboration will be of much avail. It simply means the application at this point of the idea that society and individuals are inseparable phases of a common whole, so that wherever we find an individual fact we may look for a social fact to go with it. If there is a universal nature in persons there must be something universal in association to correspond to it.

What else can human nature be than a trait of primary groups? Surely not an attribute of the separate individual--supposing there were any such thing--since its typical characteristics, such as affection, ambition, vanity, and resentment, are inconceivable apart from society. If it belongs, then, to man in association, what kind or degree of association is required to develop it? Evidently nothing elaborate, because elaborate phases of society are transient and diverse, while human nature is comparatively stable and universal. In short the family and neighborhood life is essential to its genesis and nothing more is.

Here as everywhere in the study of society we must learn to see mankind in psychical wholes, rather than in artificial separation. We must see and feel the communal life of family and local groups as immediate facts, not as combinations of something else. And perhaps we shall do this best by recalling our own experience and extending it through sympathetic observation. What, in our life, is the family and the fellowship; what do we know of the we-feeling? Thought of this kind may help us to get a concrete perception of that primary group-nature of which everything social is the outgrowth.



1. The History of Human Marriage.

2. A History of Matrimonial Institutions.

3. Newer Ideals of Peace, 177.

4. De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1, chap. 5.

5. These matters are expounded at some length in the writer's Human Nature and the Social Order.

6. The Native Tribes of Central Australia. Compare also Darwin's views and examples given in chap. 7 of his Descent of Man.


Bibliographical Notes

1. Cooley's major works include: Human Nature and the Social Order (1902); Social Organization (1909); Social Process (1918); and Life and the Student: Roadside Notes on Human Nature, Society, and Letters (1927). A collection of his papers was published after his death, entitled Sociological Theory and Social Research (1930).

2. The term was probably first used as the chapter title "The Primary Social Group" by A. W. Small and C. E. Vincent in their Introduction to the Study of Society (1894).

3. For a general survey, see: Edward A. Shils, "The Study Of the Primary Group," in D. Lerner, et al. (eds.), The Policy Sciences (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1951), pp. 44-69.

4. See, for example, A. P. Bates and N. Babchuck, "The Primary Group: A Reappraisal," Sociological Quarterly, 2 (1961), 181-191; E. Faris, "The Primary Group: Essence and Accident," American Journal of Sociology, 37 (1932), 41-50; and T. D. Eliot, "Group, Primary," in H. P. Fairchild (ed.), Dictionary of Sociology (New York: Philosophical Library, 1944), p.135.

5. S. C. Lee, "The Primary Group as Cooley Defines It," Sociological Quarterly, 5 (1964), 23-34. For an example of modern research emanating from Cooley's work, see: G. E. Swanson, "To Live in Concord with a Society: Two Empirical Studies of Primary Relations," in A. J. Reiss, Jr. (ed.), Cooley and Sociological Analysis (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968), pp. 87-150 and 165-172.

6. For a biographical statement and appraisal of Cooley, the reader is referred to: Edward C. Jandy, Charles Horton Cooley: His Life and His Social Theory (New York: Dryden, 1942) .

Charles Horton Cooley

From Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner's, 1902, pp. 179-185.

The Looking-Glass Self

The social self is simply any idea, or system of ideas, drawn from the communicative life, that the mind cherishes as its own. Self-feeling has its chief scope within the general life, not outside of it; the special endeavor or tendency of which it is the emotional aspect finds its principal field of exercise in a world of personal forces, reflected in the mind by a world of personal impressions.

As connected with the thought of other persons the self idea is always a consciousness of the peculiar or differentiated aspect of one's life, because that is the aspect that has to be sustained by purpose and endeavor, and its more aggressive forms tend to attach themselves to whatever one finds to be at once congenial to one's own tendencies and at variance with those of others with whom one is in mental contact. It is here that they are most needed to serve their function of stimulating characteristic activity, of fostering those personal variations which the general plan of life seems to require. Heaven, says Shakespeare, doth divide


"The state of man in divers functions,

betting endeavor in continual motion,"


and self-feeling is one of the means by which this diversity is achieved.

Agreeably to this view we find that the aggressive self manifests itself most conspicuously in an appropriativeness of objects of common desire, corresponding to the individuals need of power over such objects to secure his own peculiar development, and to the danger of opposition from others who also need them. And this extends from material objects to lay hold, in the same spirit, of the attentions and affections of other people, of all sorts of plans and ambitions, including the noblest special purposes the mind can entertain, and indeed of any conceivable idea which may come to seem a part of one's life and in need of assertion against some one else. The attempt to limit the word self and its derivatives to the lower aims of personality is quite arbitrary; at variance with common sense as expressed by the emphatic use of "I" in connection with the sense of duty and other high motives, and unphilosophical as ignoring the function of the self as the organ of specialized endeavor of higher as well as lower kinds.

That the "I" of common speech has a meaning which includes some sort of reference to other persons is involved in the very fact that the word and the ideas it stands for are phenomena of language and the communicative life. It is doubtful whether it is possible to use language at all without thinking more or less distinctly of some one else, and certainly the things to which we give names and which have a large place in reflective thought are almost always those which are impressed upon us by our contact with other people. Where there is no communication there can be no nomenclature and no developed thought. What we call "me," "mine," or "myself" is, then, not something separate from the general life, but the most interesting part of it, a part whose interest arises from the very fact that it is both general and individual. That is, we care for it just because it is that phase of the mind that is living and striving in the common life, trying to impress itself upon the minds of others. "I" is a militant social tendency, working to hold and enlarge its place in the general current of tendencies. So far as it can it waxes, as all life does. To think of it as apart from society is a palpable absurdity of which no one could be guilty who really saw it as a fact of life.


"Der Mensch erkennt sich nur im Menschen, nur
Das Leben lehret jedem was er sei." *

If a thing has no relation to others of which one is conscious he is unlikely to think of it at all, and if he does think of it he cannot, it seems to me, regard it as emphatically his. The appropriative sense is always the shadow, as it were, of the common life, and when we have it we have a sense of the latter in connection with it. Thus, if we think of a secluded part of the woods as "ours," it is because we think, also, that others do not go there. As regards the body I doubt if we have a vivid my-feeling about any part of it which is not thought of, however vaguely, as having some actual or possible reference to some one else. Intense self-consciousness regarding it arises along with instincts or experiences which connect it with the thought of others. Internal organs, like the liver, are not thought of as peculiarly ours unless we are trying to communicate something regarding them, as, for instance, when they are giving us trouble and we are trying to get sympathy.

"I," then, is not all of the mind, but a peculiarly central, vigorous, and well-knit portion of it, not separate from the rest but gradually merging into it, and yet having a certain practical distinctness, so that a man generally shows clearly enough by his language and behavior what his "I" is as distinguished from thoughts he does not appropriate. It may be thought of, as already suggested, under the analogy of a central colored area on a lighted wall. It might also, and perhaps more justly, be compared to the nucleus of a living cell, not altogether separate from the surrounding matter, out of which indeed it is formed, but more active and definitely organized.

The reference to other persons involved in the sense of self may be distinct and particular, as when a boy is ashamed to have his mother catch him at something she has forbidden, or it may be vague and general, as when one is ashamed to do something which only his conscience, expressing his sense of social responsibility, detects and disapproves; but it is always there. There is no sense of "I," as in pride or shame, without its correlative sense of you, or he, or they. Even the miser gloating over his hidden gold can feel the "mine" only as he is aware of the world of men over whom he has secret power; and the case is very similar with all kinds of hid treasure. Many painters, sculptors, and writers have loved to withhold their work from the world, fondling it in seclusion until they were quite done with it; but the delight in this, as in all secrets, depends upon a sense of the value of what is concealed.

I remarked above that we think of the body as "I" when it comes to have social function or significance, as when we say "I am looking well to-day," or "I am taller than you are." We bring it into the social world, for the time being, and for that reason put our self-consciousness into it. Now it is curious, though natural, that in precisely the same way we may call any inanimate object "I" with which we are identifying our will and purpose. This is notable in games, like golf or croquet, where the ball is the embodiment of the player's fortunes. You will hear a man say, "I am in the long grass down by the third tee," or "I am in position for the middle arch." So a boy flying a kite will say "I am higher than you," or one shooting at a mark will declare that he is just below the bullseye.

In a very large and interesting class of cases the social reference takes the form of a somewhat definite imagination of how one's self--that is any idea he appropriates--appears in a particular mind, and the kind of self-feeling one has is determined by the attitude toward this attributed to that other mind. A social self of this sort might be called the reflected or looking glass self:


"Each to each a looking-glass
Reflects the other that doth pass."

As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be; so in imagination we perceive in another's mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it.

A self-idea of this sort seems to have three principal element: the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification. The comparison with a looking-glass hardly suggests the second element, the imagined judgment, which is quite essential. The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another's mind. This is evident from the fact that the character and freight of that other, in whose mind we see ourselves, makes all the difference with our feeling. We are ashamed to seem evasive in the presence of a straightforward man, cowardly in the presence of a brave one, gross in the eyes of a refined one, and so on. We always imagine, and in imagining share, the judgments of the other mind. A man will boast to one person of an action--say some sharp transaction in trade--which he would be ashamed to own to another.

It should be evident that the ideas that are associated with self-feeling and form the intellectual content of the self cannot be covered by any simple description, as by saying that the body has such a part in it, friends such a part, plans so much, etc., but will vary indefinitely with particular temperaments and environments. The tendency of the self, like every aspect of personality, is expressive of far-reaching hereditary and social factors, and is not to be understood or predicted except in connection with the general life. Although special, it is in no way separate--speciality and separateness are not only different but contradictory, since the former implies connection with a whole. The object of self-feeling is affected by the general course of history, by the particular development of nations, classes, and professions, and other conditions of this sort.

 * "Only in man does man know himself; life alone teaches each one what he is." Goethe, Tasso, act 2, sc. 3.