Charles Horton Cooley
Charles Horton Cooley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1864 as the fourth of six children. At the time of his birth, his father Thomas Cooley was a Supreme Court Justice in Michigan and a professor of law. Thomas Cooley was a highly successful man, later well known nationally for several legal treatises and as the first chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission.
Charles Horton Cooley spent his childhood suffering from various ailments (some apparently psychosomatic) and was generally socially withdrawn. It is believed Cooley struggled with feelings of insecurity in the shadow of his father’s extreme success and ambition. Cooley spent seven years working on a college degree in engineering at the University of Michigan. In 1890, Cooley returned to the University of Michigan for graduate work in political economy and sociology. He completed a dissertation on human ecology and was granted a Ph.D. in 1894.
In 1890, Cooley married Elsie Jones, whose outgoing personality evened out Cooley’s more shy and pensive personality. The couple lived a quiet and somewhat secluded life with their three children, a boy and two girls.
In 1892, Cooley began teaching at the University of Michigan, where he spent a great deal of time theorizing on and contemplating the subject of the self. His lectures were often not popular among undergraduates, due to his nervous way of speaking and somewhat sickly appearance. Graduate students were more enthralled with his intense intellect and complicated mind.
In 1905, Cooley participated in the formation of the American Sociological Society and later became president of the society in 1918. He had received many offers to join more prestigious departments of sociology, but Cooley had no desire to leave the University of Michigan. He proved to be a valuable asset to the University as his body of work was very well received. In March of 1928 Cooley was diagnosed with cancer. The disease took his life on May 7, 1929.
Cooley sought to emphasize the interconnectedness of the dualism of society and the individual and felt the two could only be understood in relationship to each other. Despite his refusal to label himself as a sociologist (he merged together history, social psychology and philosophy) Cooley’s concepts of the “looking-glass self” and the “primary” and “secondary group” have had lasting impressions on the field of sociology. The concept of the looking-glass self influenced George Herbert Mead’s creation of a theory of self and has influenced the paradigm of symbolic interactionism.