Sociology and Anthropology Monday: Charles Horton Cooley


Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929)

Cooley was one of the leading American sociologists of the second generation who, along with George Herbert Mead (see last week’s column), developed a sociological theory of the self – the looking-glass self – which was probably influenced by Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments in which the self was understood to be a construct based on the observation of others in relation to the self. Trained as a mechanical engineer and as an economist, Cooley later gravitated to his minor in Sociology, publishing three major books in that field: Human Nature and the Social Order (1902), Social Organization (1909) and Social Process (1918). He was influenced in his thinking about social psychology by the writings of Giddings, Ward, James, Royce and Baldwin and in general by the writings of Johann Wolfgang Goethe and the American thinkers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Cooley rejected the opposition of the individual and society and the notion of a pre-social individual. Society is a phase of Life, according to Cooley, not a thing in its own right. It is a mental construct which emerges in social communication and interaction. “Society, then, in its immediate aspect, is a relation among personal ideas” (Human Nature, p. 119) and the “solid facts of society” are “the imaginations which people have of one another.” (op. cit. 121).  As Cooley put it, “the self that is most importunate is a reflection, largely from the minds of others.” (H.N., 246). To put it simply, for Cooley, I am what I imagine others imagine me to be. Whereas for G. H. Mead, the self is an entirely social construct, absent at birth, for Cooley we are born with a self-feeling around which the social self is constructed.


On Cooley see:

For writings of Cooley see the bibliography for Cooley in the Mead Project:

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