Charles Horton Cooley

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Cooley, Charles Horton


Born Aug. 17, 1864, in Ann Arbor, Mich.; died there May 8, 1929. American sociologist. Professor of sociology at the University of Michigan from 1907; president of the American Sociological Association in 1918.

Cooley was influenced by A. Comte (France), H. Spencer (Great Britain), and A. Schäffle (Germany), as well as by C. Darwin (Great Britain). Regarding society as a developing organic whole, he nevertheless rejected biological determinism and superficial analogies between society and the biological organism. Although he held consciousness to be social and collective, he erroneously identified society with consciousness, which led to his “psychologizing” of social relations.

The principal problems studied by Cooley were small groups and the development of the personality. He introduced the distinction between primary groups (a term he coined) and secondary social institutions. According to Cooley, primary groups— the family, children’s play groups, neighborhoods, and local communities—are the basic social nuclei, characterized by inti-mate, face-to-face, informal association, direct communication, stability, and small scope. It is here that socialization occurs, the development of the personality, which in the course of interaction assimilates the principal social values and norms and modes of action.

Cooley characterized personality as the sum total of a person’s psychological reactions to the opinions held about him by the people around him (the theory of the “mirrored I”). Thus he correctly noted certain essential aspects of socialization and the development of self-consciousness. Nevertheless, Cooley incorrectly reduced these aspects to the direct interaction between individuals. In his view secondary social institutions, such as classes, nations, and parties, form a social structure where impersonal relations evolve and into which the fully formed individual is only partially drawn as the performer of a certain function.

Although he linked the existence of classes to economic factors, Cooley underestimated the profound contradictions between them. An advocate of bourgeois democracy and a liberal critic of capitalism, he rejected the revolutionary transformation of society. Cooley’s works have influenced the development of bourgeois social psychology.


Human Nature and the Social Order. New York, 1902.
Social Organization. New York, 1909.
Social Process. New York, 1918.
Sociological Theory and Social Research. New York, 1930.


Jandy, E. C. C. H. Cooley: His Life and His Social Theory. New York, 1942.
Cooley and Sociological Analysis. Ann Arbor [1968].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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