Charles Horton Cooley: Reluctant Sociologist

Cooley, born during the year of African slave emancipation in America, died in the year of another historic event: Black Friday, the year The Great Depression began. Like many great minds, he came from dark times.

Cooley’s father was a Michigan State Supreme Court Justice, who also taught at Michigan, the place Cooley would also later teach. Cooley was one of America’s first sociologists (and disliked being labeled a sociologist). He influenced many eminent scholars such as, George Herbert Mead and the psycholgist, William James, who was cousin to philosopher, Jeremy Bentham.

Cooley began his academic career with an engineering degree, working briefly for the Census office and the Interstate Commerce Commission. After his graduate studies, Cooley taught Michigan~Ann Arbor’s first sociology course, and immersed himself with theorizing and research regarding the concept of the ‘self’.

Cooley’s notion of the ”looking~glass self” (his most significant idea) highlighted that peoples’ self~concept and personalities were socially constructed, that we are social reflections, that we are the image people reflect back upon us.

Cooley provided an additional contribution in 1899, when he noted in a paper, that the rise of industrialization had led to the subsequent weakening of the nuclear family (mom, dad, kids: the nucleus). Cooley stated Industrialization had stretched the primary family bonds and traditions, and the weakening family had become an exacerbated problem by the increase in individuality.

These two (2) concepts remain relevant and even puzzling. This is because Cooley expounded upon them, lived in heightened awareness of an era of extensive social changes, but he could do nothing to fix them! The images his ideas conjure, when combined, are of Cooley standing helplessly amid the fraying traditional American family, and all the while acknowledging he is but a reflection of them, of society; aware of the changing fabric and unable to reflect much back, being prodded by his own invention!

That society and the individual influence eachother is not a profound concept; it’s profound, however, when individuals refuse to positively influence their world, to shape it: THAT is truly profound.

Here at the RippleFX Foundation, we help you to influence others, taking each quadrant of society and creating a movement toward synergy between the people and their communties. We need you to help us, to recall what you really need your reflection to mean. After all, while the ‘self’ is yours alone, it is the people who give that to you.

It’s time to pick up where Cooley could not: help us give back to our community using the principle of the ripple effect. What can you accomplish for others?
Knowing you can fix a problem and ignoring that call is a neglegent act. Turn to the light?


-John Scott and Gordon Marshall. DICTIONARY OF SOCIOLOGY. Oxford U.P. : NY 2005.

-photo: public domain


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