Cooley was one of the first generation of American sociologists, but an eccentric who differed from most of his peers. Whereas the majority of the pioneers were Social Darwinists, Cooley was a less mechanical evolutionist: most were aiming to make sociology a rigorously objective science, while Cooley was more concerned with introspection and imagination—one of the earliest of humanistic sociologists.
Cooley sought to abolish the dualisms of society/individual and body/mind, emphasizing instead their interconnections, and conceptualizing them as functional and organic wholes. The root problem of social science was the mutual interrelationship between the individual and social order. In his view, the concepts of the ‘individual’ and of ‘society’ could be defined only in relationship to each other, since human life was essentially a matter of social intercourse—of society shaping the individual and individuals shaping society. However, his critics did not see him as being successful in this enterprise, ultimately siding too much with the individual and idealism.
Cooley launched his career ‘in defiance of categories’, refusing to label himself a sociologist, and seeking instead to merge history, philosophy, and social psychology. Two of his concepts have, nevertheless, captured the sociological imagination. The first is the looking-glass self: the way in which the individual's sense of self is ‘mirrored’ and reflected through others. This was an idea later to be greatly expanded by William James and George Herbert Mead in their attempts to build a general theory of the self. The second of Cooley's lasting concepts is that of the ‘primary group’, characterized by close, intimate, face-to-face interaction, which Cooley contrasted with the larger and more disparate ‘nucleated group’ (subsequently referred to more commonly as the ‘secondary group’), whose members were rarely if ever all in direct contact. (Families or friendship circles are typical primary groups; trade unions and political parties are characteristically secondary groups.)
Cooley was both a student and professor at the University of Michigan. His major works are Human Nature and the Social Order (1902), Social Organisation (1909), and Social Process (1918). See also symbolic interactionism.