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 on Charles Horton Cooley

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 Biography Sources

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

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