Last Updated 28 Jan 2021

Ideas of Charles Cooley

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Charles Cooley was born on 17th August 1864 and died on 8th May1929. He was George Mead’s contemporary, and each greatly influenced the other’s thinking. Like Mead, Cooley believed that social interaction is the basis of the socialization process. Cooley saw the individual and society as parts of a whole, not as separate entities. In Cooley’s theory, each individual is linked to the social world mainly through the looking glass self. His own self-examination and observation of his children aided him in forming his concepts of the looking-glass self and primary groups.

This essay focuses on the looking glass self theory of Charles Cooley and his other ideas. Sociologist Charles Cooley is best known for his concept of looking glass self, the theory that self-image is formed largely by the message we get from others, and an individual’s interpretation of those messages. Cooley argued that a person’s self grows out of a person’s transaction with others. One’s consciousness of him or herself is a reflection of the ideas about him or herself that he or she attributes to other minds; thus, there can be no isolated selves.

In other words Cooley says that we see ourselves as we think others see us. For example, when learning table manners children develop a sense of what others find acceptable and as they a taught they become socialized. Through the looking glass, we learn that we are intelligent or dull, attractive or unattractive. Cooley argues that the judgments of some people in our lives are more important than judgments of others, for example a spouse’s compliment or low opinion may have a greater effect on someone’s self perception than the same comment made by some stranger.

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The lingering influence of significant of others helps explain how we can sometimes maintain a positive self image at times when many people look down on us, or negative self image when many people think well of us. The looking glass self is a simple and domestic metaphor for the way society’s image for us becomes incorporated into our own self image. The looking-glass self begins at an early age and continues throughout a person’s entire life as one will never stop modifying their self unless all social interactions cease.

We do not see ourselves us through the eyes of others quite as literally as we see ourselves in an actual mirror. Our notion of how others see us may not be quite accurate and we may also be evaluated differently by different people. What others think of you is no doubt very important in making your self-image and as a result, who you are and what you do. According to Cooley, we gain a definition of our self in three steps: firstly through the beliefs about how we appear to others, secondly through the beliefs about their judgments of how we appear to them and thirdly the response to the imagined judgment.

Through the imagined judgment we develop pride, shame, improved self-esteem, slightly damaged self-esteem, and other attributes of the self. Once Cooley had established his theory of the self, he then focused his analysis on the human groupings that he conceived to be primary and secondary in linking man with his society and in integrating individuals into the social fabric. Cooley defined primary groups as those small groups in which all the members have enduring, intimate face-to-face interaction and cooperation. Cooley coined the term primary for these groups because they include the family, our first social group, and social linkages.

Close friends, children’s play groups, and perhaps some neighbors and some work groups also constitute primary groups. As Cooley explains, primary groups are important in forming the social nature and ideals of individuals. In primary groups, members value each other as individuals and achieve from personal fulfillment. They do things that will benefit the group, without expectation of payment or self-serving benefit. Example, one member of a family might wash laundry or perform housework that benefits all members.

On the other hand, secondary groups are larger groups in which all members do not interact directly and have relationships that are not permanent. Members do not share intimate bonds like those in primary groups. People do join these groups for benefits in some way. They may leave the group or join other groups when they feel like it is necessary. However, these groups may still have some shared norms and sense of group identity. Examples of secondary groups include office workers and students in an exercise class. These groups are also important to our views of ourselves, but less to the primary groups.

The notions of the looking-glass self and the primary group are closely related in Cooley's views. The reactions to the thoughts of others is the mark of the mature human and according to Cooley can be developed and fostered only in the close and intimate interactions of the primary group. Hence, this group is the cell in which characteristically human growth takes place. In the primary group the immature and self-centered person is slowly attuned to the needs and desires of others and becomes fitted to the give-and-take of mature social life.

The primary group fosters the ability to put oneself into the position of others, drawing the individual out of egotistic isolation by building into him that sensitivity to the clues of others without which social life would be impossible. The differences between primary and secondary groups are as follows, primary groups are smaller because it consists of few members and this helps develop its members personal relations among themselves while secondary groups are larger and due to its size the members do not have personal relations. Relation is natural in primary groups and formal in secondary groups.

Also the position of members is determined by his work or function in secondary groups but in primary groups, the position of each person is determined on the basis of the family. Cooley’s sociology is holistic. He stressed about the systematic relationships between social processes in society. He argued that each aspect of society was dependent on others for its growth and survival. If we say that society is an organism, we mean that it is a complex form 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.

In addition to these essential concerns, Cooley, like W. I Thomas & George H Mead made a crucial important contribution to sociological method. Independently of Max Weber but roughly the same time as he, they argued that the study of human actions must be concerned with the meanings human actors attach to the situation in which they find themselves hence the study must go beyond purely behavioral description. Cooley believed that the social sciences deprived themselves of their best material by leaving out human motives for action.

Cooley emphasized that the study of the human social world must be centered upon attempts to examine the subjective meanings human actors attribute to their actions, and that such meanings must be studied in part through 'understanding' rather than through exclusive reliance on the reporting of behavior. Cooley's theories provided evidence in response to a threefold necessity that had developed within the society. The first of which was the necessity to create an understanding of ocietal phenomena that highlighted the subjective mental processes of individuals yet realized that these subjective processes were effects and causes of society's processes. The second necessity examined the development of a social dynamic conception that pictured states of chaos as natural occurrences which could provide opportunities for "adaptive innovation. " Finally, a need to demonstrate that people were capable of exerting some form of "informed moral control" over current problems and future directions.

In conclusion, Charles Cooley is known in sociology most commonly for his development for the looking glass self. Cooley was one of the first to define the exact importance that society plays in forming the individual. He was also renowned for discovering human groups within the society stating that there are primary and secondary groupings that link man to society each having different, however, similar functions. Moreover, he argued that society is like an organism in the sense that each aspect of society is dependent on the other in order to survive.

Furthermore Cooley argued that the study of human actions must be concerned with the meanings humans attach to the activity. Finally, Cooley’s theories provided evidence in response to a threefold necessity that developed within the society – necessities to create an understanding of social phenomena, a necessity that examined a social dynamic conception and a need to demonstrate that people were capable of exerting some form of informed moral control.

Bibliography Coser L. A, Masters of Sociological Thought, 2nd Ed, Aarcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1977. Levine, D. N, Visions of the Sociological Tradition. The University of Chicago Press, 1995 Starks, R. Sociology. 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. Stolley, K. S, The Basics of Sociology, Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut, 2005

Ideas of Charles Cooley essay

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