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Charles Horton Cooley

Charles Horton Cooley

August 17, 1864 - May 7, 1929

"There is nothing less to our credit than our neglect of the foreigner and his children, unless it be the arrogance most of us betray when we set out to 'Americanize' him." –Charles Horton Cooley

Charles Horton Cooley was born on August 17, 1864 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the fourth of six children. He was the son of Mary Elizabeth Horton and the renowned law school professor and State Supreme Court Justice Thomas McIntyre Cooley. Young Cooley was somewhat of a withdrawn, passive child. He felt intimidated and alienated by his successful father, a characteristic that haunted him for the rest of his life. Cooley attended the public schools of Ann Arbor and graduated high school in 1880.

Cooley attended college at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor where his father once taught. After seven years, interrupted by bouts of illness (some apparently psychosomatic), he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. After a period of travel to Europe, Cooley began work as a draftsman and statistician. While in school, he took several courses in history, philosophy and economics. These subjects peaked Cooley’s interest, and he began independent readings of Darwin, Spencer and the German sociologist Albert Schaeffle. Cooley returned to the University of Michigan in 1890 for graduate work in political economy and sociology. Because there was yet no formal instruction in sociology at the University of Michigan, he was forwarded test questions by Franklin Giddings. Cooley’s dissertation, “The Theory of Transportation” was most notable for its conclusion that towns and cities tend to be situated at the convergence of transportation routes. Cooley received his PhD in philosophy in 1894.

Soon thereafter, Cooley moved to Washington, D.C. to work for the Interstate Commerce Commission and later the Bureau of the Census. He read his dissertation paper, as well as a second work, “Social Significance of Street Railways” at a meeting of the American Economic Association in 1890.

Cooley married Elsie Jones, daughter of first Dean of the Homeopathic Medical College at the University of Michigan, in 1890. She was very outgoing and energetic and effectively balanced out Cooley’s shy, retiring side. They lived in Ann Arbor, within close proximity to the University, and had three children: a boy and two girls. Cooley was said to have enjoyed long walks with companions, camping trips to Canada and cooking picnic suppers for his wife. He built a cabin at Crystal Lake in Northern Michigan, where he and his family went swimming and boating. Cooley was also fond of amateur botany and bird watching.

In 1892, Cooley accepted an appointment as an instructor of political economy at the University of Michigan. He soon became an assistant professor of sociology and taught the university’s first sociology course in 1899. Cooley swiftly progressed to associate professor status in 1904 and became a full professor 1907. He was noted to have been invited to positions in other institutions around the country (on one occasion called to Columbia by Giddings), but he never wanted to leave Ann Arbor where his father and wife’s father both taught.

Cooley was fortunate to have had no financial worries in his life. He lived through an age in which the “publish or perish” philosophy had not yet developed, and he was able to enjoy a life of leisurely reflection and study. Cooley spent a great deal of time speculating and contemplating the subject of the self. He observed the development of his own children, which he used to construct his theories.

Cooley was greatly inspired by the writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Darwin. In his own works, Cooley sought to highlight the connection between society and the individual and felt that the two could only be understood in relationship to each other. One’s personality comes from one’s influences. He coined the concept of the “looking-glass self”, the social determination of the self, which later influenced George Herbert Mead’s theory of self and symbolic interactionism. Cooley ultimately wanted to show that the facts of social life are mental, and the conduct of persons, groups and institutions are the result of fundamental mental phenomena.

Cooley produced his next work, “Personal Competition” (1899) in which he noted an alarming trend. As the United States was expanding and becoming more industrialized, people seemed to become more individualistic and competitive, exhibiting less concern for traditional family and neighborhood. Cooley asserted that primary groups, a term he described as the foundation of one’s morals, sentiments and ideals, are ethically good because they provoke a sense of safety, belonging, fairness and consideration. He hoped that by calling attention to the significance of primary groups, individuals might revive traditional values and maintain social cohesion.

In Human Nature and the Social Order (1902), Cooley foreshadowed Mead’s discussion of the symbolism of the self, delving into the effects of social responses and social participation. In Social Organization (1909), Cooley expanded his ideas further, accentuating the importance of primary groups. He believed that the impact of one’s primary group was so great that one would cling to primary ideals in more complex associations and even generate new primary groupings within formal organizations.

In 1918 Cooley wrote Social Process. This work emphasized the nonrational, provisional nature of social organization and the impact of social competition. Cooley declared that present troubles were caused by the conflict between primary group values and institutional values. He also produced Life and the Student (1927), a collection of writings accumulated throughout his life, and Sociological Theory and Social Research (1930), pieces on social ecology.

Cooley participated in the founding of the American Sociological Society in 1905. As a member, he presented a paper at a 1907 meeting, "Social Consciousness", and in 1917 "Social Control in International Relations". He served as its eighth President in 1918. His Presidential address, delivered at the 1918 Annual Meeting was entitled "A Primary Culture for Democracy."

Cooley later published various articles in the Society’s journals, including “Reflections Upon the Sociology of Herbert Spencer” (American Journal of Sociology 1920, 26: 129-145), and "Now and Then" originally read at a dinner of the 1923 Annual Meeting (Journal of Applied Sociology 1924, 8: 259-262).

In 1928, Cooley’s health began to fail, and in March of 1929 he was diagnosed with cancer. He died on May 7, 1929.

"Our individual lives cannot, generally, be works of art unless the social order is also." –Charles Horton Cooley

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