Charles Cooley

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Charles Horton Cooley
Born (1864-08-17)17 August 1864
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Died 8 May 1929(1929-05-08) (aged 65)
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Alma mater University of Michigan
School School of symbolic interactionism
Institutions University of Michigan
Main interests Politics, economics, psychology, sociology, social psychology

Charles Horton Cooley (August 17, 1864 – May 8, 1929) was an American sociologist and the son of Thomas M. Cooley. He studied and went on to teach economics and sociology at the University of Michigan, and he was a founding member and the eighth president of the American Sociological Association. He is perhaps best known for his concept of the looking glass self, which is the concept that a person's self grows out of society's interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others.


Charles Horton Cooley as a young man

Charles Horton Cooley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan August 17, 1864, to Mary Elizabeth Horton and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas M. Cooley. He was the fourth of six children. Nevertheless, Cooley had a difficult childhood and was somewhat of a passive child. [1] The intimidation and alienation he felt by his own father at a young age took a toll in his life later on.Due to this situation, he suffered for fifteen years from a variety of illnesses, some appearing to be psychosomatic. He was shy and developed several insecurities due to his speech impediment, and lack of playmates. [2]


Cooley grave in front of Cooley family obelisk, Forest Hill Cemetery, Ann Arbor

Cooley graduated from University of Michigan in 1887, "where his father once taught" [3] and continued with a year's training in mechanical engineering at the same school. In 1888, he returned for a Master's degree in political economics, with a minor in sociology. He began teaching economics and sociology at the University in the fall of 1892. Cooley went on to receive a PhD in 1894. His doctoral thesis was The Theory of Transportation in economics. He began teaching sociology in the academic year of 1894 to 1895.

Family life[edit]

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 cultivated 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 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.

Contributions to social theory[edit]

Cooley's methodology[edit]

Cooley is noted for his displeasure at the divisions within the sociological community over methodology. He preferred an empirical, observational approach. While he appreciated the use of statistics, he preferred case studies: often using his own children as the subjects on his observation.[4]

Theory on transportation and the shift to sociology[edit]

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 analysis 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" (I am, who I think you think, that I am) in his next book, Social Organization (1909), in which he sketched a comprehensive approach to society and its major processes.

Social organization[edit]

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. class differences reflect different contributions to society, as well as the phenomena of aggrandizement and exploitation.

Social process[edit]

Cooley's last major work, Social Process (1918), emphasized the non-rational, 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.

Cooley and social subjectivity[edit]

Cooley's theories were manifested in response to a threefold necessity that had developed within the realm of society. The first of which was the necessity to create an understanding of societal phenomena that highlighted the subjective mental processes of individuals yet realized that these subjective processes were effects and causes of society's processes. The second necessity examined the development of a social dynamic conception that portrayed states of chaos as natural occurrences which could provide opportunities for "adaptive innovation." Finally, a need to manifest publics that were capable of exerting some form of "informed moral control" over current problems and future directions.

In regards to these, aforementioned, dilemmas Cooley responded by stating "society and individual denote not separable phenomena but different aspects of the same thing, for a separate individual is an abstraction unknown to experience, and so likewise is society when regarded as something apart from individuals."[5] From this, he resolved to create a "Mental-Social" Complex of which he would term the "Looking-glass self."

The Looking-glass self is created through the imagination of how one's self might be understood by another individual. This would later be termed "Empathic Introspection." This theory applied not only to the individual but to the macro-level economic issues of society and to those macro-sociological conditions which are created over time.

To the economy, Cooley presented a divergent view from the norm, stating that "...even economic institutions could [not] be understood solely as a result of impersonal market forces." With regard to the sociological perspective and its relevancy toward traditions he states that the dissolution of traditions may be positive, thus creating "the sort of virtues, as well as of vices, that we find on the frontier: plain dealing, love of character and force, kindness, hope, hospitality and courage." He believed that Sociology continues to contribute to the "growing efficiency of the intellectual processes that would enlighten the larger public will."[6]

The "Looking Glass Self"[edit]

Main article: Looking glass self

The concept of the "looking glass-self" is undoubtedly his most famous, and is known and accepted by most psychologists and sociologists today. It expanded William James's idea of self to include the capacity of reflection on its own behavior. Other people's views build, change and maintain our self-image; thus, there is an interaction between how we see ourselves and how others see us. According to Cooley (1902), in his work Human Nature and the Social Order, his "looking-glass self" involved three steps:

• You imagine how you appear to the other person.

• You imagine the judgment of the other person.

• You feel some sense of pride, happiness, guilt, or shame. [7]

Following William James thoughts, this concept of "looking glass-self" tied in to the destruction of "Cartesian disjunction between mind and the external social world." Cooley wanted to destroy the barrier the Cartesian thought erected between the individual and his society. [8]

A self-idea of this sort seems to have three principal elements: 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.

—Charles Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, p. 152

Cooley's works[edit]

  • 1891: The Social Significance of Street Railways, Publications of the American Economic Association 6, 71-73
  • 1894: Competition and Organization, Publications of the Michigan Political Science Association 1, 33-45
  • 1894: The Theory of Transportation, Baltimore: Publications of the American Economic Association 9
  • 1896: Nature versus Nurture' in the Making of Social Careers, Proceedings of the 23rd Conference of Charities and Corrections: 399-405
  • 1897: Genius, Fame and the Comparison of Races, Philadelphia: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 9, 1-42
  • 1897: The Process of Social Change, Political Science Quarterly 12, 63-81
  • 1899: Personal Competition: Its Place in the Social Order and the Effect upon Individuals; with Some Considerations on Success, Economic Studies 4,
  • 1902: Human Nature and the Social Order, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, revised edn 1922
  • 1902: The Decrease of Rural Population in the Southern Peninsula of Michigan, Publications of the Michigan Political Science Association 4, 28-37
  • 1904: Discussion of Franklin H. Giddings', A Theory of Social Causation, Publications of the American Economic Association, Third Series, 5, 426-431
  • 1907: Social Consciousness, Publications of the American Sociological Society 1, 97-109
  • 1907: Social Consciousness, American Journal of Sociology 12, 675-687 Previously published as above.
  • 1908: A Study of the Early Use of Self-Words by a Child, Psychological Review 15, 339-357
  • 1909: Social Organization: a Study of the Larger Mind, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons
  • 1909: Builder of Democracy, Survey, 210-213
  • 1912: Discussion of Simon Patten's The Background of Economic Theories, Publications of the American Sociological Society 7, 132
  • 1912: Valuation as a Social Process, Psychological Bulletin 9, Also published as part of Social Process
  • 1913: The Institutional Character of Pecuniary Valuation, American Journal of Sociology 18, 543-555. Also published as part of Social Process
  • 1913: The Sphere of Pecuniary Valuation, American Journal of Sociology 19, 188-203. Also published as part of Social Process
  • 1913: The Progress of Pecuniary Valuation, Quarterly Journal of Economics 30, 1-21. Also published as part of Social Process
  • 1916: Builder of Democracy, Survey 36, 116
  • 1917: Social Control in International Relations, Publications of the American Sociological Society 12, 207-216
  • 1918: Social Process, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons
  • 1918: A Primary Culture for Democracy, Publications of the American Sociological Society 13, 1-10
  • 1918: Political Economy and Social Process, Journal of Political Economy 25, 366-374
  • 1921: Reflections Upon the Sociology of Herbert Spencer, American Journal of Sociology 26, 129-145
  • 1924: Now and Then, Journal of Applied Sociology 8, 259-262.
  • 1926: The Roots of Social Knowledge, American Journal of Sociology 32, 59-79.
  • 1926: Heredity or Environment, Journal of Applied Sociology 10, 303-307
  • 1927: Life and the Student, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons
  • 1928: Case Study of Small Institutions as a Method of Research, Publications of the American Sociological Society 22, 123-132
  • 1928: Sumner and Methodology, Sociology and Social Research 12, 303-306
  • 1929: The Life-Study Method as Applied to Rural Social Research, Publications of the American Sociological Society 23, 248-254
  • 1930: The Development of Sociology at Michigan. pp. 3–14 in Sociological Theory and Research, being Selected papers of Charles Horton Cooley, edited by Robert Cooley Angell, New York: Henry Holt
  • 1930: Sociological Theory and Social Research, New York: Henry Holt
  • 1933: Introductory Sociology, with Robert C Angell and Lowell J Carr, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons



See also[edit]


  • Marshall J. Cohen, Charles Horton Cooley and the Social Self in American Thought, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. (1982)


  • Barnes, Harry E (Editor). An Introduction to The History of Sociology. The University of Chicago Press . 1970. Chapter XLIII. Charles Horton Cooley: Pioneer in Psychosociology - Richard Dewey.
  • Coser, Lewis A., Masters of Sociological Thought : Ideas in Historical and Social Context, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. ISBN 0-15-555128-0. He has a chapter on Cooley. Archived August 9, 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  • Gutman, R. (1958). Cooley: A Perspective. American Sociological Review, 23 (3), 251-256.
  • Levine, Donald N. Visions of the Sociological Tradition. The University of Chicago Press. 1995. pgs. 263-267
  • Mann, Doug (2008), Understanding society : a survey of modern social theory, Oxford University Press, pg.183 
  • Mead, G. H. (1930). Cooley's Contribution to American Social Thought. The American Journal of Sociology, 35 (5), 693-706.
  • Lemert, Charles. 2009. Social Theory: The multicultural and classic readings. Fourth Edition. Westview Press.
  • Sica, Alan. 2005.Social Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Present. Pennsylvania State University.
  • Wood, A. E. (1930). Charles Horton Cooley: An Appreciation. The American Journal of Sociology, 35 (5), 707-717.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Wood, A. E. (1930). Charles Horton Cooley: An Appreciation. The American Journal of Sociology, 35 (5), 707-717.
  5. ^ Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, 1902, p.35
  6. ^ Levine, Donald N. Visions of the Sociological Tradition. The University of Chicago Press. 1995. pgs. 263-267
  7. ^ Mann, Doug (2008), Understanding society : a survey of modern social theory, Oxford University Press. pg.183, ISBN 978-0-19-542184-2 
  8. ^
  9. ^ Sica, Alan. Social Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Present. Pennsylvania State University. 2005. p.321
Preceded by
George E. Howard
President of the American Sociological Association
Succeeded by
Frank W. Blackmar

External links[edit]