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Charles Horton Cooley was a sociologist who wanted to better understand society and human behavior. He believed that the influence of groups within a society had a strong impact on human behavior.

In this lesson, we will discuss primary groups, the theory of the looking-glass self and the concept that one’s self and society are distinctly one unit, not two.

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Why Cooley Studied Groups and Social Behavior

Charles Horton Cooley was a sociologist who wanted to better understand why human beings behave the way they do. One of Cooley’s most important contributions to sociology was his idea that by studying everyday social interactions between people, one could begin to better understand why people behave as they do. This is the basis of the interactionist perspective of sociology. Cooley stated that to understand behavior, we must first understand the meanings humans attach to certain situations and, thus, the behavior that is taught to go along with that situation. He believed that societies shape the lives of the people who live within them.

Cooley focused much of his work on primary groups.
Charles Horton Cooley

Cooley’s major contribution to sociology was the study of primary groups. Cooley coined the term ‘primary group,’ meaning that this is the first group one is introduced to and is the most influential on our learning of ideas, beliefs and ideals. When observing society, Cooley noticed that the more a society became industrialized, the more individualistic the members became. He saw that the people became more distant from each other, more competitive and were losing the connection to traditional family values and that of community. It was through his study of primary groups that Cooley hoped to instill more social unity and cohesiveness.

While society has continued to evolve and change even at a more rapid pace, many of the social problems Cooley was concerned with still exist today. However, with Cooley’s research, we better understand the importance of social unity and society’s influence upon individuals.

Cooley’s Career

Born in 1864 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a son of a Michigan Supreme Court Judge, Charles Horton Cooley grew up in a household where education was highly valued and with high expectations placed upon him by his ambitious father.In 1894, Cooley earned his PhD from the University of Michigan. In 1905, he founded the American Sociological Association and in 1907 became a full professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. He remained teaching at the university for his entire career.

Primary Groups

Like many sociologists, Cooley wanted to understand society better.

As mentioned earlier, Cooley found that the more advanced a society became, the more individualistic people became. He witnessed the breakdown of social cohesion and traditional family. He was convinced that it was the small, intimate groups which influenced behavior the most, and with a breakdown of these primary groups, we also had a breakdown of human behavior.

Families are examples of primary groups.
primary groups, which is defined as groups characterized by intimate, face-to-face association and cooperation. Primary groups come together for expressive reasons – to provide emotional support, love, companionship and security. It is through these groups that one begins to develop the sense of self.

The Looking Glass Self

Cooley is one of the founders of the interactionist perspective, which seeks to explain society by looking at the everyday forms of interaction between individuals.

Cooley’s theory of self is one in which we learn who we are through our interactions with others. This is known as the looking glass self. This basically means that our self-image comes from our own self-reflection and from what others think of us. Cooley believed that it is through these interactions that one begins to develop an idea of who they are; therefore, the self is a product of our social interactions.There are three phases to the development of self, according to the looking glass self theory:

  1. We imagine how we present ourselves to others.
  2. We imagine how others evaluate us.

  3. We develop some sort of feeling about ourselves based upon our perception of what we think others have of us.

The ‘self,’ then, emerges from one’s individual imagination of what we think others think of us. One critical element to this is that we may perceive someone’s impression of us incorrectly. For example: a parent criticizes something their child does; the child then feels that the parent thinks they are stupid, and thus, the child then begins to believe, ‘I am stupid.

‘Using the ‘social mirror’ as a measurement of ourselves, a positive reaction from someone creates a positive self-concept; a negative reaction, a negative self-concept. Cooley states that this is a never-ending process, for we are always meeting new people and reevaluating ourselves based upon our impression of what they think of us.

Cooley’s View of Self and Society

Cooley’s sociology is decidedly holistic. He speaks of society as being an organism. He states this by emphasizing the systematic interrelations between all parts of society and social processes.

To quote Cooley: ‘If…we say that society is an organism, we mean . . . that it is a complex of forms of processes each of which is living and growing by interaction with the others, the whole being so unified that what takes place in one part affects all the rest. It is a vast tissue of reciprocal activity.’Cooley, therefore, believed that self and society could be equated as the same entity. He once said, ‘Self and society are twin-born.

‘ He believed that one could not exist, let alone develop and thrive, without the other. Cooley stated that an individual could not develop a sense of who they are without something to compare it to. Thus, states Cooley, individuals in the same group and society are dependent upon one another for the development of their self-identity.

Cooley argued that a person’s self grows out of a person’s commerce with others. Cooley stated, ‘The social origin of his life comes by the pathway of intercourse with other persons.’ The self, to Cooley, is not first individual and then social; it arises side by side through communication. One’s consciousness of himself is a reflection of the ideas about himself that he attributes to other minds.

Thus, there can be no isolated selves. Cooley stated, ‘There is no sense of ‘I’ without its correlative sense of you, or he, or they.’

Lesson Summary

Cooley is known in sociology for his contribution to the development of the interactionist perspective and for his development of the looking glass self. He was one of the first to define the importance of society in forming the individual or self and the importance of primary groups. His organic link between society and self remains one of Cooley’s crucial contributions to the area of modern-day psychology and sociology.

Learning Outcomes

After completing the lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe Charles Horton Cooley’s contribution to sociology
  • Define primary groups, interactionist perspective and the looking glass self
  • Name the three phases of the development of the self
  • Explain the way Cooley believed self and society interact

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