Charles Horton Cooley (born August 17, 1864, Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S. died May 8, 1929, Ann Arbor) was a professor at the University of Michigan. He is the son of the influential Thomas Cooley, who was dean of the University of Michigan Law School and member of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Like many social scientists of his time, the younger Cooley was not first interested in sociology, but instead received his degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1887. (The Development of Sociology at Michigan 4) Shortly after graduation, he worked for the Census Bureau, collecting statistics for railways. After receiving his degree and guided in part by his work for the Census, he was drawn toward sociology. In 1894, he obtained a second degree from Michigan in political economy with a minor in sociology. While back at Michigan, he spoke with the head of the department of political economy about developing a sociology course, and shortly thereafter began teaching. He remained at Michigan until his death in 1929.

Cooley was interested in the ideas of Darwin and Spencer, as they provided him an evolutionary framework for how society is organized; however, he did not care for Spencer’s “specific views on society.” (Development, 5) This organic background heavily influenced his work and the training of his students. He also lists John Dewey and William James among his influences -- Dewey because he recognized that society was a much more complicated organism than Spencer first perceived, and James because he had “little system, but great wisdom” in his intellectual writings. (Development, 4)

Cooley considers his doctoral thesis -- The Theory of Transportation (1894) -- to be his most important work. As the head of the Interstate Commerce Commission, Cooley’s father certainly influenced Charles’ ideas about the geography and physics of transportation. He was also interested in social psychology, writing Human Nature and the Social Order which, though he considers his ideas to be less mature, is widely believed to be his most relevant work. Cooley also thought extensively about eugenics and social biology. He introduced his students to this concept in the early 1900s, before it was considered mainstream. Later in life, he published Social Organization, where he expounded on the formative influence of primary groups on individuals.

Michigan After Cooley

In 1933, four years after Cooley's death, Michigan sociologists Robert C. Angell and Lowell J. Carr published Introductory Sociology under Cooley's name. Angell was a nephew of Cooley, and Angell Hall is named after his grandfather, James Burrill Angell. Both he and Carr were graduate students of Cooley in the early 1900s.

Introductory Sociology contains chapters from two of Cooley's books: Human Nature and the Social Order and Social Organization. It includes a fair amount of new material written by Angell and Carr -- the chapters that are substantively original are marked. The book was written for an undergraduate population, and succinctly summarizes the key tenets of the field (a notecard found on Cooley’s desk stresses: “Write simply and use plenty of illustrations, and surely the task will be a success.”) Because of these properties, Sociology gives us an understanding of how Cooley’s work was interpreted shortly after his death, and how his students carried it forward at Michigan. A large number of notecards were collected from Cooley’s desk after his death; we also studied them to get a sense of where he was headed. These notes, written on 3x5 sheets of paper, included lecture notes, citation highlights, book outlines, and collections of thoughts organized by topic.

Cooley taught sociology from the department economics, but he was building the professional division between the two that we are familiar with today. A notecard from his desk gives us his opinion: “Economics assumes a man will take all he can get and doesn't allow for a working of community spirit. Economic values are a reflection of the social structure, and the social structure is not a reflection of the economic structure.” And indeed, Introductory Sociology contains chapters on social classes and social tensions, but they are chiefly written by Angell; there is no heading on economics.

Cooley remains critical of eugenics programs in both his notes and Sociology. He is not sure of their current scientific value, but is optimistic: they “could become a very powerful force for human welfare,” if the right people are selected. (notecard) His thoughts on biology and society have become more nuance nuanced, but the old themes remain. A social organism is “a complex organic whole, a product of a need of collective human mind growing with the growth of life, always taking shape but never defined, describable in vague terms because its nature unites the know with the unknown.” (notecard) Arguments from his 1897 critique of Galton are reiterated: “heredity merely lays down the general patterns, which are filled in by the developmental processes. Genes can be compensated for by [social] procedure.” (notecard)

Like many of the scholars at Michigan in the early 20th Century, Cooley made an academic attempt to face the vast social change of the time. In a notecard, Cooley writes that his is “a new time, one that has changed the way human nature manifests.” He is worried: “The neighborhood and community are gone. The country is too big for common uses. Social structure is not strong enough to stand up to discourse and criticism.” (notecard) The he was aware of the academic freedom issues approached by Dewey in the early 1900s is certain; he and his students cite Dewey’s academic writings in multiple places. Finally, Cooley sees a "trend towards simplification." New secondary associations are defined by purpose, distance, rules, and social barriers.

Cooley asks about the nature of modernism and change “ What is permanent, and what is a product of transition?” -- a question he had no solid answer for. His students, however, approached the issue, and they and their successors used Cooley’s work as a foundation to build their understanding of the world.


Charles Horton Cooley (born Aug. 17, 1864, Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S. died May 8, 1929, Ann Arbor) was an American sociologist and the son of Thomas M. Cooley. He studied and went on to teach economics and sociology at the University of Michigan, and he was a founding member and the eighth president of the American Sociological Association. He is perhaps most well known for his concept of the looking glass self, which is the concept that a person's self grows out of society's interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others.

Cooley's life-style was in tune with a pattern of academic mores that no longer exists. The academic setting was still dominated by a semi-aristocratic code of gentlemanly poise. Having no financial worries and living in an age in which the publish-or-perish philosophy had as yet made few inroads, Cooley could afford to devote himself to a life of unhurried contemplation and leisurely study. His books grew slowly and organically from notes he made over long periods of time. Human Nature and the Social Order was published in 1902 and its companion, Social Organization, followed seven years later. His third major work Social Process, appeared after an interval of nine years, in 1918. These three books, together with extracts from a journal he kept throughout his life, entitled Life and the Student (1927), constitute almost the whole of his intellectual output. His early papers in social ecology and a few other contributions written in later years are available in a posthumous volume, Sociological Theory and Social Research (1930).