Charles Horton Cooley:
A Sociologist's View of Self
by Kristi S. Lyons
Charles Horton Cooley was born in 1864 to a Michigan Supreme Court Judge.
Cooley and his five siblings were raised comfortably in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
They grew to be well-educated under their ambitious father who was full
of high expectations for his children. Cooley was much more passive and
sensitive than his father and for this reason never developed any deep
emotional bond with him. Cooley was in college for seven years, with interruptions
due to illness and travel. Cooley finally graduated, to his father’s satisfaction,
with a degree in engineering. Cooley was not interested in engineering
and when he broke from his father’s domineering ways, he went on to study
politics and sociology.
Cooley was an avid reader; among his frequent reading list were Spencer,
Darwin, and a German sociologist, Albert Schaeffle. Cooley’s early work
is characterized by numerous studies in human ecology, particularly the
importance and effect of transportation. Once Cooley broke ties with his
father, his work became more passive and reflective of his own inner thoughts.
It was during this time that Cooley developed the concept of the looking-glass
self and began to fully explore how the self is developed through society.
Cooley did marry in 1890, the couple produced three children. Cooley remained
quite introverted and when he tired of studying himself, he studied the
development of his children. It is important to note that even from childhood
Cooley was plagued with numerous illnesses, some diagnosed as psychosomatic
disorders. Periods of illness account for Cooley’s numerous breaks in work.
. His books grew slowly and organically from notes he made over long periods
Cooley’s published works developed slowly because his life was financially
stable and he had ample leisure time to study particular subjects. Human
Nature and the Social Order was published in 1902 and its companion, Social
Organization, followed seven years later. Social Process was published
in 1918. A published journal titled Life and the Student was completed
in 1927. Sociological Theory and Social Research was eventually published
in 1930, after his death from cancer in 1929.
Cooley’s most important concept, that of the looking-glass self, is
very Spencerian in nature. As Herbert Spencer wrote of the importance of
the components of society, the individuals, so Cooley picked up with how
the individuals, in turn, develop from society. Cooley believed that self
and society could be equated as the same entity. In this sense, like Spencer,
Cooley believed one could not exist, develop, or thrive without the other.
Cooley posited that individuals can have no concept of self lest they have
something with which to compare self. Thus individuals within society are
dependent upon one another not only for economic and political reasons,
but also for reasons of self-identity. "The social origin of his life comes
by the pathway of intercourse with other persons."(Coser, 305-7) According
to Cooley, no self can be isolated because her concept of herself must
always evolve from those she contributes to other selves. This is best
illustrated through Cooley’s analogy of the looking-glass, "Each to each
a looking glass, reflects the other that doth pass."(Coser, 305-7) As the
analogy indicates, the individual would be unable to see herself without
the looking-glass, so to would individuals be blinded from self-knowledge
without society. In an interesting aside, Cooley was developing the looking-glass
self simultaneously as Durkheim was developing his ideas of suicide. While
Cooley posited that individuals realize their identity through society,
Durkheim asserted that over-integration into society caused individuals
to lose their sense of self. These conflicting ideas represent the many
facets of sociological theory.
Cooley’s concept of the systematic nature of society is extremely similar
to Spencer’s idea of a society as a biological organism. While Cooley does
differ slightly from this analogy, he continues to posit that all social
processes are inter-related and dependent upon one another for growth.
Cooley’s concept of social processes and woman’s identity through society
seems to reflect the Marxist view of society and his idea that man is defined
by the work he does. The following statement reflects the strength with
which Cooley believed men were dependent upon society: "Our life 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." (Coser, 307) Such
ideas reflect the effect that Spencer and even Darwin had upon Cooley’s
theory. In reflecting that individuals are so drawn into the unique processes
of society, Cooley allowed for later sociologists to explain the self in
terms of the environment. In essence, Cooley’s theories of the self seem
to draw deeply on his experiences with his father’s over-bearing personality
and his own inability to accomplish his father’s expectations. Cooley was
showing that his personality and his interests were drawn from his surroundings
and his faults, or rather what his father chose to find faulted, could
not be attributed merely to Cooley himself, but also to his external contacts.
As Marx developed the idea of man’s identity stemming from his work and
interaction with the social system, so Cooley placed a similar importance
on human interaction. Cooley posited three distinct elements of the development
of self: 1) the imagination of our appearance to others, 2) our concept
of their judgment based on that, and 3) our reaction resulting from that
judgment. This process plays out again and again for individuals and the
repetition and results of this process reflect individuals’ concepts of
Once Cooley had established his theory of the self, he went on to study
groups within society. Cooley developed the concept of the primary group,
"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 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." (Coser, 310) This development
of a primary group is carried on through Weber’s discussion of primary
and secondary groups. Cooley’s primary group is similar to Weber’s in function.
For example, the family, the most common symbol of the primary group, is
one in which Cooley posits effects the components of the self to a great
extent. Here again, Cooley was most likely speaking from his own childhood
and the effects of his father’s ambition on his own formation of self.
Cooley believed that the ties of sympathy and affection were central to
binding primary group members together in a manner that would cause them
to disregard more individualistic notions. Solidarity within primary groups
came from the members themselves rather than the processes within the group.
According to Cooley, the primary group is an institution where the good
of the whole takes precedence over maximizing self interest (Coser, 310).
In conclusion, Cooley is known in sociology most commonly for his development
for the looking-glass self. Cooley was one of first to define the exact
importance that the society plays in forming the individual or the self.
Cooley, Charles H., 1902, Human Nature and the Social Order. New
Dead Sociologists Index, accessed April 28-29, 2003, with citings within