Charles Horton Cooley

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Charles Horton Cooley (August 17, 1864 – May 8, 1929) was an American sociologist. Cooley believed the human beings are essentially social in nature, and that a significant source of information about the world comes through human interaction with others, including the concept of one’s self. He is most famous for the concept of the "looking glass self," the idea of how people appear to others, which he regarded as an essential component of the development of self-image.

Cooley also believed that human society functions "organically," and is healthy and successful when each individual member lives for the sake of others, not limited by selfish individualism. He is known for his criticism of apparently successful nations, such as England and the United States, noting that selfish individualism prevented them from achieving an ideal society.


Charles Horton Cooley was born on August 17, 1864, in Michigan. Cooley's family had roots in New York and Massachusetts. His father, Thomas Cooley believed the only way to obtain an education and social status was to move west. He settled in Michigan where he worked as a real estate operator and lawyer. Eventually Thomas Cooley served on the Michigan Supreme Court and as a faculty member at the University of Michigan Law School. Beyond that, Thomas Cooley served as the first chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Thomas Cooley provided a comfortable life for his family.

Charles was the fourth of his family's six children. He developed a withdrawn personality as a result of a speech impediment and being partially invalid.[1] Cooley was intimidated by the great success of his father, which probably also contributed to his personality. He apparently had few playmates as a child.

He received a BA in engineering from the University of Michigan in 1887 after seven years of study, which were interrupted by illness and work. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1894 in economics. His dissertation was a work in social ecology entitled, "The Theory of Transportation."

Cooley married Elsie Jones in 1890. The couple had three children. He taught at the University of Michigan starting from 1892, and remained there until the end of his life.

Charles Cooley died of cancer in 1929.


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 that could provide opportunities for "adaptive innovation." Finally, a third necessity examined the 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 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." From this, he resolved to create a "Mental-Social" Complex, which he termed the "Looking glass self." This "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."

Regarding economics, 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 stated 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." [2]

"Self and society," wrote Cooley, "are twin-born." This emphasis on the organic and indissoluble connection between self and society is the theme of most of Cooley's writings and remains the crucial contribution he made to modern social psychology and sociology.[3]

Looking Glass Self

The concept of the "looking glass self" is undoubtedly the most famous aspect of Cooley's work, and became known and accepted by most psychologists and sociologists. 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 self-image; thus, there is an interaction between how people see themselves and how others see them.

Cooley's term "looking glass self" means that people see themselves as others see them, as if reflected in a mirror. According to this concept, in order to develop and shape behavior, interactions with others must exist. People gain their identity and form their habits by looking at themselves through the perception of society and other people they interact with. This concept of self, created by others, is unique to human beings. It begins at an early age and continues throughout the entirety of a person's lifespan. A person will never stop modifying their "self" unless they become removed from society and cease social interactions.

According to Cooley, in his work Human Nature and the Social Order (1902), the "looking glass self" involves three steps:

  1. To begin, people picture their appearance of themselves, traits and personalities.
  2. They then use the reactions of others to interpret how others visualize them.
  3. Finally, they develop their own self-concept, based on their interpretations. Their self-concept can be enhanced or diminished by their conclusions.

Cooley developed this concept in 1902, after extensive sociological testing of children in a controlled environment. Children were told to enter a room containing a bowl of candy and take only one piece. The children were then let into the room and monitored by video camera. The children, unaware of being watched, took as much candy as they could. The experiment was then repeated, but this time the room the children entered was lined with mirrors so the children could see themselves. In almost all cases the children took only one piece of candy. In Cooley's interpretation, the children, by observing their own behavior in mirrors, modified themselves out of guilt. Cooley believed that the images the children saw in the mirrors represented how they believed society saw them. Because they saw that others would see them as gluttons in the mirror, the children felt like gluttons and altered their behavior.

In his attempt to illustrate the reflected character of the self, Cooley compared it to a mirror, or looking glass in which people study their reflection:

As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be, so in imagination we perceive in another's mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it (Cooley 1902).

Society as Organic

Cooley stressed the systematic relationships between social processes in society. He argued each aspect of society was dependent on others for its growth and survival. This organic ideal put him at odds with the classic selfish individualism of economics and of the sociology of Herbert Spencer. Cooley's sociology is holistic, in describing society as an organism, he makes no analogy with biology in the manner of Spencer, but is looking at the systemic interrelations between all social processes: "Our life," Cooley stated, "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."

Cooley believed that utilitarian individualism prevented America and England from achieving an ideal society.

Primary Groups

Because Cooley viewed society as organic, he believed the points of interaction between people and their society to be of the utmost importance. He called these groups "primary groups." Some examples of primary groups include the family, children's playgroups, and one's neighborhood or local community. Primary groups are built upon diffuse solidarity, not exchange of ideas or benefits. Cooley argued that people are ambitious within these groups, usually based on a desire to be seen as successful to the others within the group. Because of the interplay between the looking glass self and the primary group theories, Cooley believed that groups are where individuals grow most as people.

Cooley did not suggest that primary groups are based on harmony and love alone, as he believed them to be competitive. Yet, he saw them as "a nursery" for development of empathy and emotional closeness:

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. Perhaps the simplest way of describing this wholeness is by saying that it is a "we." [4]

Sociological Method

Concurrently with Max Weber, Cooley developed the idea that sociology must study the importance of events to humans, rather than just analyzing human behavior. He believed the social sciences deprived themselves of their best material by leaving out human motives for action. "Cooley emphasized that the study of the human social world must be centered upon attempts to probe the subjective meanings human actors attribute to their actions, and that such meanings must be studied in part through 'understanding' rather than through exclusive reliance on the reporting of behavior."[5]


Cooley is credited with helping to finally solve the problem of the dual nature of the mind and body with his theory. He was later criticized by George Herbert Mead for his overly mental constitution of the self.[6] This same theory however influenced Mead's own theory of the self and eventually the sociological theory "symbolic interactionism," which became one of the most popular theories in sociology in the late twentieth century.


  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1891. “The Social Significance of Street Railways.” Publications of the American Economic Association 6: 71–73.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1894. “Competition and Organization.” Publications of the Michigan Political Science Association 1: 33–45.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1894. “The Theory of Transportation.” Publications of the American Economic Association 9.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1896. “‘Nature versus Nuture' in the Making of Social Careers.” Proceedings of the 23rd Conference of Charities and Corrections, 399–405.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1897. “Genius, Fame and the Comparison of Races.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 9: 1–42.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1897. “The Process of Social Change.” Political Science Quarterly 12: 63–81.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1899. “Personal Competition: Its Place in the Social Order and the Effect upon Individuals; with Some Considerations on Success.” Economic Studies 4.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. [1902] 1922. Human Nature and the Social Order, rev. ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1902. “The Decrease of Rural Population in the Southern Peninsula of Michigan” Publications of the Michigan Political Science Association 4: 28–37.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1904. “Discussion of Franklin H. Giddings' ‘A Theory of Social Causation.’” Publications of the American Economic Association 3(5): 426–31.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1907. “Social Consciousness.” Publications of the American Sociological Society 1: 97–109.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1907. “Social Consciousness.” American Journal of Sociology 12: 675–87.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1908. “A Study of the Early Use of Self-Words by a Child.” Psychological Review 15: 339–57
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1909. Social Organization: a Study of the Larger Mind. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1909. “Builder of Democracy.” Survey, 210–13.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1912. “Discussion of Simon Patten's ‘The Background of Economic Theories.’” Publications of the American Sociological Society 7: 132.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1912. “Valuation as a Social Process.” Psychological Bulletin 9.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1913. “The Institutional Character of Pecuniary Valuation.” American Journal of Sociology 18: 543–55.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1913. “The Sphere of Pecuniary Valuation.” American Journal of Sociology 19: 188–203.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1913. “The Progress of Pecuniary Valuation.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 30: 1–21.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1916. “Builder of Democracy.” Survey 36: 116.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1917. “Social Control in International Relations.” Publications of the American Sociological Society 12: 207–16.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1918. Social Process. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1918. “A Primary Culture for Democracy.” Publications of the American Sociological Society 13: 1–10.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1918. “Political Economy and Social Process.” Journal of Political Economy 25: 366–74.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1920. “Reflections upon the Sociology of Herbert Spencer.” American Journal of Sociology 26: 129–45.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1924. “Now and Then.” Journal of Applied Sociology 8: 259–62.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1926. “The Roots of Social Knowledge.” American Journal of Sociology 32: 59–79.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1926. “Heredity or Environment.” Journal of Applied Sociology 10: 303–7.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1927. Life and the Student. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1928. “Case Study of Small Institutions as a Method of Research.” Publications of the American Sociological Society 22: 123–32.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1928. “Sumner and Methodology.” Sociology and Social Research 12: 303–6.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1929. “The Life-Study Method as Applied to Rural Social Research.” Publications of the American Sociological Society 23: 248–54.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1930. “The Development of Sociology at Michigan.” In Sociological Theory and Research: Selected Papers of Charles Horton Cooley, ed. Robert Cooley Angell, 3–14. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1930. Sociological Theory and Social Research. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1933. Introductory Sociology, with Robert C. Angell and Lowell J. Carr. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.


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


  1. Lewis A. Coser, Charles Horton Cooley: The Person, in Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context (Harcourt, 1977 ISBN 0155551302), 314–316.
  2. Donald N. Levine, Visions of the Sociological Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 263–67.
  3. Lewis A. Coser, Charles Horton Cooley: The Work, in Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context (Harcourt, 1977 ISBN 0155551302), 305–7.
  4. Charles Horton Cooley, Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909), 25–31.
  5. Lewis A. Coser, Charles Horton Cooley: Sociological Method, in Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context (Harcourt, 1977 ISBN 0155551302), 310–11.
  6. Lewis A. Coser, Charles Horton Cooley: The Primary Group, in Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context (Harcourt, 1977 ISBN 0155551302), 307–10.


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