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 of time.

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 self. 

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 York: Scribner's.

Dead Sociologists Index, accessed April 28-29, 2003, with citings within from Coser.