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Cooley, Charles H.

Cooley, Charles H.



Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929), American sociologist, was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and spent almost his entire life there. His father, Thomas Mclntyre Cooley, was the first dean of the University of Michigan Law School, a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, first chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the author of several famous legal treatises. The younger Cooley, who was delicate in health and painfully shy, early discovered the joys of reading. From the age of 18 until the end of his life he kept a journal in which he set down his ambitions and cares, his reactions to the books he read, his comments on the world around him, and the first intimations of ideas that he later developed in his sociological works. This journal was the source of the pensées that make up his last book, Life and the Student (1927).

Emerson, Goethe, and Thoreau were among Cooley's early mentors. From Emerson he drew moral inspiration and a love for democracy, from Goethe the notion that one's life should be a work of art, and from Thoreau a taste for the simple life and the willingness to be a nonconformist.

Cooley's interest in sociology was first aroused by reading Spencer, but he soon concluded that Spencer's thought was too full of mechanistic analogies to be of much value. Albert Schaffle's Bau und Leben des socialen Körpers he found more satisfactory, although still too analogical. He read other early sociologists—Comte, Gumplowicz, Maine, Lewis Henry Morgan, Tarde—without enthusiasm. Tocqueville he found stimulating, but he did not share the view that democracy tends, by reducing everyone to the same level, to hinder distinctive achievement. Cooley met both Ward and Giddings early in his career and was grateful for their encouragement.

It was, however, to three men outside the field of sociology that he felt his greatest scientific debt. Foremost among these was Darwin, whose combination of patient empirical study and imaginative theoretical speculation Cooley greatly admired. Later in his life he was to regret that although he might claim to have accomplished something on the theoretical side, he had never matched it with the painstaking empirical work exemplified by Darwin's. To Darwin, perhaps more than to anyone else, he owed his appreciation of the interrelatedness of the elements of life and his conviction that parts are never separable from wholes.

James Bryce was another scholar Cooley revered. His careful analysis of American democracy and his belief in its strength appealed both to the sociologist and the optimist in Cooley. Finally, deeply impressed by William James's Principles of Psychology, he sought to emulate James's willingness to look at every new event without preconceptions, and he accepted James's belief that nature progresses through a trial-and-error process. He also greatly admired the beauty of James's literary style.

Cooley did not decide to devote himself to sociology until he was 28. He had prepared himself at the University of Michigan to be an engineer, and he worked briefly as a draftsman. But his heart was not in this work, and he accepted an opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., in preparation for graduate work in political economy. There he collected and analyzed statistics on street railways for the Bureau of the Census—his first research undertaking. Returning to the University of Michigan in 1890, he became an instructor while still a graduate student in economics. He had already begun to read Spencer and to become interested in sociology. It was arranged for him to take a minor in the subject for his doctorate (the examination was to be set by Giddings). He was awarded his PH.D. in 1894 and taught his first course in sociology that fall. His thesis, “The Theory of Transportation” (1894), is a pioneering study in human ecology, still highly regarded. But he had already begun to be dissatisfied with analyzing the external, ecological features of society and decided to attempt instead to search out the underlying sociopsychological facts. One of the works that stimulated him to turn his energies in this direction was James Mark Baldwin's Social and Ethical Interpretations in Mental Development.

There are two principal themes in Cooley's great trilogy, Human Nature and the Social Order (1902), Social Organization (1909), and Social Process (1918). One is his organic view of society; the other is the central role he gave to mind.

Society as an organism. Cooley was fully aware of the pitfalls in the analogy between society and the biological organism. By the organic view he meant merely that the student of society must avoid all particularistic theories. He must realize that neither the individual nor the group is basic, that both are aspects of the same whole. Different aspects of life are systematically related, so that an economic interpretation of history is no more plausible than a religious one. All elements of life interact with one another. For a particular purpose one can concentrate on the study of a single institution, but one must view it in the context of the whole and never forget that the special approach is just a convenience. Other starting points are equally valid; the ideal would be to take a number of standpoints until a rounded view is obtained.

Cooley called the dynamic aspect of the organic view the “tentative process.” By this he meant that all forms of social life—whether persons, small groups, role-constituted institutions like schools, or abstract institutions like languages—are constantly growing and changing, attempting to push out into new territory. This thrusting forward, however, is a selective process. Some attempts succeed, some fail: the test is a pragmatic one. Those that are adapted to the surrounding situation survive because they “work.” This is as true of conscious try-outs—for example, applications for jobs—as it is of unconscious processes by which a language evolves. Cooley saw this tentative process as one of continual organization and reorganization, since the various elements are always developing new relations to one another as they move forward.

Consistent with this position, Cooley emphasized the dialectic or dramatic aspect of social life. He saw the thrust and counterthrust of forces in any social whole as being like the “conversations” among the various sections of a symphony orchestra.

Although Cooley did not use the term “functionalism,” his view is suggestive of it. If “to work” is to survive, then all existing culture traits and institutions must be functional.

Primacy of mind. The second principal theme in Cooley's work is that the essence of social life is its mental character. Mind is all-pervasive; it is the medium in which thought develops and through which it is communicated. Human action, so far as it is superior to the action of animals, flows from mind. Thus, there is a sort of universal stuff, mind, that becomes nucleated and organized at particular points—persons, groups, institutions, publics. The history of a language and the history of a human being are equally instances of mind in process.

Cooley was not merely saying that the mind of the child is developed socially, which is universally acknowledged, but something much more radical— that the theater of all interaction is the mind. Persons and groups exist for each other only as they are conceived in the mind, and thus their interaction takes place only within the mind. This extremely mentalistic view undoubtedly sprang from Cooley's own inclination toward introspective analysis. He sought to encompass society in his own mind, believed that others did the same, and made this activity a scientific principle.

It would be a mistake to suppose that Cooley's mentalistic emphasis is an emphasis on rationality. He believed that the child learns such sentiments as justice and kindness by experiencing them in his relations with others, by the same kind of intercourse through which thought is learned. The basic process in learning sentiments is what he called sympathy and what we would now call empathy. Since sentiments are symbolized in the process of learning, they can, like thought, be communicated.

In Human Nature and the Social Order, Cooley concentrated on the person and the subtleties of his relations with others. A central concept is the self, which to Cooley is composed of whatever the person appropriates from the general flow of life, in contrast to that which belongs to others. The self can be discovered by examining the referents of the word “I.” Although the physical body is included among them (except in the case of ascetic extremists), it is only a minor part of the self because men cherish their values, ideas, achievements, and possessions more than they do their bodies. Cooley worked out his conception of the self by studying the social development of his own children. Perhaps the best piece of empirical research he did was a verification (1908) of the hypotheses set forth earlier in the 1902 chapter, “The Meaning of ‘I.’”

To Cooley the sense of self arises partly from experience, as in the child's competitive appropriation of toys, but also from imagining others' conceptions of oneself. A person tends to accept the view of himself held by those whom he admires. In a brilliant analysis of various phases of the self he drew upon the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, Montaigne, Meredith, Stevenson, Thoreau, Thomas Aquinas, Disraeli, Pascal, Lecky, and George Eliot to discuss such matters as vanity, pride, humility, self-respect, withdrawal, and self-transformation. Although he did not use the term “reference group,” he clearly used the idea of reference persons in his treatment of emulation and fame and the idea of reference groups in his discussion of the need for setting of standards in society.

Conscience, for Cooley, was the expression of a mature participation in social life. “To violate conscience is to act under the control of an incomplete and fragmentary state of mind; and so to become less of a person, to begin to disintegrate and go to pieces” ([1902] 1956, p. 329). What is right is not necessarily what is altruistic, since one individual may be able to make a greater contribution with a scarce resource than another. Conscience is strongly affected by group norms and by ideal persons, but in the end the person has to synthesize all these influences and thus develop his conscience. In discussing morally deviant conduct, Cooley pointed out that the organic view diffuses responsibility but by no means exonerates the actor.

Conception of social structure. In Social Organization Cooley shifted the focus from the person to the social structure, but he did not abandon the mental emphasis. Society is a mental complex; it is tied together by communication. For Cooley the social mind is molded in the intimacy of the primary group—the family, the children's play group, the neighborhood or local community. Experience in the primary group underlies both the development of the person and the development of the larger organization of society. From this experience the person receives his fundamental orientation to life, and the society receives its model for integrated living.

Cooley did not define his concept of human nature until he discussed primary groups, although he had used the term in the title of his previous book. By human nature he did not mean original biological nature but that nature which everywhere and always develops in the intimate contact with others that is characteristic of primary groups. Beneath cultural differences there is a common core of experience in primary groups which is so similar around the world that it produces a common human nature.

The connection between primary groups and the wider society is made through what Cooley called primary ideals. He believed that life in the primary group tends to be satisfying and that it generates an ideal of moral community. For analytical purposes this ideal can be broken up into loyalty, truth, service, and kindness, but actually it is the broad notion of living in a moral whole that is idealized. Indeed, Social Organization can perhaps best be seen as an attempt to analyze the difficulties in and opportunities for achieving some kind of moral wholeness in a complex industrialized society.

For Cooley, a truly democratic society—one in which the self-expression of all leads to the decisions in accordance with which controls are exercised—is an embodiment of primary ideals. He conceived of public opinion not as the aggregated individual judgments of a majority of the people but as the crystallized judgment of all persons, whether they are in the majority or in a minority. “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” ([1909] 1956, p. 122). Thus, public opinion is a stage in a process. The masses contribute to it sentiment and general tendency; the leaders, the formulation of alternatives for policy. Public opinion can judge only broad questions of change and readjustment; the details of public business must generally be handled by specialists. But Cooley realized that democracy will not work unless there is a latent moral unity—a tradition of justice, freedom, and humanity—beneath the differing class views expressed in public opinion.

Since Cooley saw wealth as generalized power, he tended to see social classes as economically based. He discriminated, however, between a caste system and a system of open classes. The caste system tends to be fostered by cultural and racial differences in the population, by the absence of social change, and by a low level of education and enlightenment. Because a democracy enlists the energies of all and educates its citizens, an open-class system is suitable to it. To the degree that public opinion operates successfully, hostile feeling between classes is kept in check.

Consistent with his general view of social organizations, Cooley defined an institution as “a definite phase of the public mind”; it is the organization of human thought around a certain task. The state, for example, represents the practical working out of men's ideas in the field of government. A social structure is developed within which individuals participate, but they participate with only a specialized part of themselves. An institution represents the accumulation of human experience, but it does not have the wholeness and humanness of the person. Institutions all too readily become formalized, since formalism represents the line of least resistance for the participants. If formalism goes so far that participants lose all interest, it may result in decay and disorganization; or a reform movement may successfully spur reorganization.

Cooley's ideas about institutions may be illustrated by his discussion of pecuniary valuation in Social Process. He demonstrated that economic value is not merely the result of free market choices of autonomous individuals; it also results from a special structure of thought and action that has to be studied in its own right if current values are to be understood. Thus, each rising generation is conditioned to want certain things and not others—breakfast cereals, perhaps, but not bird's-nest soup. Further, those of great wealth have a disproportionate amount of influence in setting standards of taste because they consume more goods and services. In addition, in the great corporate structures of our day the salaries of high officials are not set by a market mechanism; hence, these officials determine their own value. In short, economic institutions, like all others, are not merely the result of great impersonal forces but are in part the result of a special stream of thought and practice. When an institution becomes too divergent from the general norms of the society, critics, inspired by human values, lodge protests and attempt to initiate reform.

Social philosophy. Cooley mixed his aspirations for democracy with his sociological analysis. He defined success as self-development in social service; he had great confidence in the moral integrity of the common man; and he thought that there is a natural affinity between democracy and art, that communication fosters humanitarianism, and that there is an onward and upward tendency to life. Behind his sociology, and combined with it, was a social philosophy. He believed that as communication improved life was organized humanely in wider and wider circles. As a result, national democracies were already in being, and some sort of democratic world order was bound to come.

Although Cooley did not regard himself as more than incidentally a social critic, his views on the world around him are clear in his work. He applauded differentiation as the main guarantee of democracy, and at the same time he was an enemy of particularism either in thought or in the guise of simplistic reforms. Provided that the system is an open one, he believed in altering it through gradual, not revolutionary, change. Although he found much that was crude and selfish in the capitalism of his day and much that was admirable in socialism (especially its humane spirit), he was in no sense a radical. He believed too strongly in a ramified tentative process to favor monolithic organization and too strongly in the need of guidance and control to embrace anarchism.

Assessment of Cooley. It is not accurate to label Cooley an “armchair” sociologist. It is true that he drew much from the great observers of life, such as Goethe and Bryce, that he did little systematic research, and that his students were not trained to become conventional researchers. But he did have an empirical bent. In his essay “Genius, Fame and the Comparison of Races” (1897), he marshaled both historical and contemporary evidence to refute those portions of Galton's Hereditary Genius that belittle the influence of social factors in producing great men. He also used empirical materials closer at hand. Among the important sources of his knowledge were self-analysis, the study of his children, novels about contemporary life, and the autobiographies that he encouraged students to write.

Again, Cooley was not a systematic theorist. His organic view postulates so seamless a web of social life that no emphasis on structure is made. Rather than constructing a general scheme and then successively dealing with each of its features, he preferred to dip into life at the points where he had a flash of insight, let his thought mature, express it beautifully and illustrate it convincingly, and then pass on to something else. He left it to the reader to fashion a general scheme.

Cooley was distrustful of reliance upon mensuration in sociology. He did not believe that units for measuring the subtleties of relation and process in social wholes had been devised. “The Roots of Social Knowledge” (1926) is a plea for using one's own experience as a means of interpreting the experience of those under study. Statistics are only as good as their basic units of measurement and are therefore of secondary importance in sociological research. Only mind can predict what mind will do. Since Cooley's day sociologists have tried to overcome the obstacles he saw by asking open-ended questions and coding the answers afterward and by social experiments in the laboratory, which include the simulation of lifelike situations. They have also greatly increased the use of his favored method, participant observation.

Throughout his career, Cooley lived a quiet, uncomplicated life. Reading, writing, and teaching were his daily round. Personal conflict was distasteful to him, and he had no fondness for administration. During his lifetime sociology at the University of Michigan remained under the wing of the economics department.

Soon after Cooley's death, George Herbert Mead (1930) wrote an appreciative critique of his work. In it, however, he disagreed with Cooley's view that the differentiation of self and other takes place wholly within mind. Whereas Cooley saw communication arising within mind, Mead saw mind arising in communication; he held that communication begins in gestures and preverbal sounds, to which words are gradually added to create mind. He also pointed out that it is very difficult to give adequate recognition to the nonmental side of the person and the technological side of the society if one views society as wholly mental. He admitted that the immediate process of most adult interaction is mental but not that mind is the ultimate social reality.

A second but more limited criticism was made by another admirer of Cooley, L. L. Bernard (1936). He doubted the validity of Cooley's belief that the larger relations of society could and should be controlled by the “extension of primary ideals.” He took the position that the problems of large-scale organization are so different from the problems of primary groups that special ideals (which he called derivative) would have to develop from the broader context to control social processes at this level.

A third criticism was leveled by both Jandy (1942) and Rieff (see Cooley 1902, “Introduction” to the 1964 edition). Although laudatory on many points, they took Cooley to task for his excessive optimism—for believing that American society was what he wanted it to be. They charged him with ignoring the deep schisms that are glossed over by the organic view, for believing that the majority of men are unselfish and capable of ascetic motivation, and for seeing modern communication as a means of humanizing urban life.

Perhaps these and other criticisms might be summed up by saying that Cooley's society, which he offered as the real world, is in fact a selective model, an ideal type. In it the mental aspect of life is salient, and within this aspect connection and balance are emphasized. The significance of crude power is not appreciated, since it is neither a mental phenomenon nor a reciprocal one. And Cooley did not deal adequately with social structure: there are no sharp edges in the mind, only the flow of messages through more and less permeable filters.

Despite these deficiencies, Cooley's work stands as a monumental achievement. Indeed, his ideas seem so simple and so true that the reader may not appreciate their originality. His empirical work on the sense of self, for instance, was ground breaking. With his conception of primary groups he crystallized prior thought and added to it the significant idea that human nature is developed in such groups. His organic view of public opinion was a fresh insight, and his treatment of public will foreshadowed information theory and cybernetics. He anticipated Durkheim in his understanding of the role of festivals in revitalizing the spirit of large groups. His analysis of pecuniary valuation was a significant contribution to institutional economics. His treatment of social classes in Social Organization was vastly superior to anything in the American sociological literature that preceded it. Cooley did not create a system of sociology, but he greatly enriched the discipline in many areas.

Robert Cooley Angell

[For the historical context of Cooley's work, seeInteraction, article onsocial interaction; and the biographies ofBaldwin; Bryce; Darwin; Giddings; James; Spencer. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeCreativity, article onSocial aspects; groups, article onthe study of groups; Reference groups; Transportation, article onsocial aspects; and the biographies ofBernard; Mead; Ross; Thomas; Waller.]


(1894) 1930 The Theory of Transportation. Pages 15–118 in Charles H. Cooley, Sociological Theory and Social Research, Being the Selected Papers of Charles Horton Cooley. With an introduction and notes by Robert Cooley Angell. New York: Holt.

(1894–1929) 1930 Sociological Theory and Social Research, Being the Selected Papers of Charles Horton Cooley. With an introduction and notes by Robert Cooley Angell. New York: Holt.

(1897) 1930 Genius, Fame and the Comparison of Races. Pages 119–159 in Charles H. Cooley, Sociological Theory and Social Research, Being the Selected Papers of Charles Horton Cooley. With an introduction and notes by Robert Cooley Angell. New York: Holt.

(1902) 1956 Human Nature and the Social Order. Rev. ed. In Charles H. Cooley, Two Major Works: Social Organization and Human Nature and the Social Order. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → Each title reprinted with individual title page and pagination. A separate paperback edition of Human Nature was published in 1964 by Schocken; see especially the “Introduction” by Philip Rieff.

(1908) 1930 A Study of the Early Use of Self-words by a Child. Pages 227–247 in Charles H. Cooley, Sociological Theory and Social Research, Being the Selected Papers of Charles Horton Cooley. With an introduction and notes by Robert Cooley Angell. New York: Holt.

(1909) 1956 Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind. In Charles H. Cooley, Two Major Works: Social Organization and Human Nature and the Social Order. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → Each title reprinted with individual title page and pagination. A separate paperback edition of Social Organization was published in 1962 by Schocken.

(1918) 1966 Social Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.

(1926) 1930 The Roots of Social Knowledge. Pages 287–309 in Charles H. Cooley, Sociological Theory and Social Research, Being the Selected Papers of Charles Horton Cooley. With an introduction and notes by Robert Cooley Angell. New York: Holt.

1927 Life and the Student: Roadside Notes on Human Nature, Society, and Letters. New York: Knopf.


Angell, Robert C. 1930 Cooley's Heritage to Social Research. Social Forces 8:340–347.

Angell, Robert C. 1956 Introduction. In Charles H. Cooley, Two Major Works: Social Organization and Human Nature and the Social Order. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Bernard, Luther L. 1936 The Conflict Between Primary Group Attitudes and Derivative Group Ideals in Modern Society. American Journal of Sociology 41: 611–623.

Gutman, Robert 1958 Cooley: A Perspective. American Sociological Review 23:251–256.

Hamilton, Walton H. 1929 Charles Horton Cooley. Social Forces 8:183–187.

Jandy, Edward C. 1942 Charles Horton Cooley: His Life and His Social Theory. New York: Dryden. MEAD, GEORGE H. 1930 Cooley's Contribution to American Social Thought. American Journal of Sociology 35:693–706.

Wood, Arthur E. 1930 Charles Horton Cooley: An Appreciation. American Journal of Sociology 35:707–717.

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