Charles Horton Cooley

The Person

Charles Horton Cooley was born on the edge of the Ann Arbor campusof the University of Michigan, where he was to spend almost all his life.The Cooley family had its roots in New England. They were direct descen-dants of one Benjamin Cooley, who settled near Springfield, Massachusettsbefore 1640. Cooley's father, Thomas McIntyre Cooley, came to Michiganfrom western New York. Having been born into a large family of farmersliving in straitened circumstances, Thomas Cooley felt that his only chancefor acquiring an education and moving up the social scale was to move west.He settled in Michigan and first embarked on a career as an editor and realestate operator and then as a lawyer. An intensely ambitious, imperious, andenergetic man, he managed to rise from obscure beginnings into a prestigiousand honored position among Michigan's legal and social elite. He achievedrecognition for the high caliber of his legal thinking and was appointed amember of a faculty of three at the newly organized University of MichiganLaw School in 1859. In the year of Charles' birth, 1864, the father was electedto the Supreme Court of Michigan. He remained a Supreme Court Justice andprofessor of law for many years and in addition became well known nationallyfor a number of legal treatises, and as the first chairman of the InterstateCommerce Commission.

Charles, the fourth of the judge's six children, was born at a time whenthe family had already acquired considerable standing and lived in comfortablecircumstances in Ann Arbor. Somewhat overawed by and alienated from hishard-driving and success-oriented father, young Cooley early developed thewithdrawn, passive, and retiring character that was to mark his life-stylethroughout. For fifteen years he suffered from a variety of ailments, some ofthem apparently psychosomatic. Shy and a semi-invalid suffering from aspeech impediment, he had few playmates and tended to daydreaming andsolitary reading. Highly sensitive, he compensated for his insecurity by imagin-ing himself in the role of a great orator and leader of men The success-striv-ings that the father enacted in real life, the son dared to repeat only in hisimagination. His fondness for strenuous rides on horseback and for carvingand carpentering may perhaps be explained in terms of a typical Adlerian at-tempt to compensate for bodily weakness and social ineptness.

Cooley's college life lasted seven years, having been interrupted by illness,a journey through Europe, and brief periods of work as a draftsman and as astatistician. He graduated in engineering, a subject he did not particularlylike, though he also took several courses in history and one each in philosophyand economics. During the college years and after, Cooley continued to readomnivorously. These independent readings, rather than formal courses of in-struction, finally led him to decide on his life career.

Having read a good deal of Darwin, Spencer, and the German organicistsociologist Albert Schaeffle, Cooley decided to return to the University ofMichigan in 1890 for graduate work in political economy and sociology. Hewrote a dissertation entitled "The Theory of Transportation," a pioneeringstudy in human ecology, and was granted a Ph.D. in 1894. Since there was noformal instruction in sociology at Michigan, he was examined on questionsthat had been forwarded from Columbia by Franklin Giddings.

Cooley's unusually long period of apprenticeship and preparation maybe accounted for in part by ill health but also by the fact that he was the sonof well-to-do parents, who could afford to let their son take his time in decidingupon a career. Moreover, Cooley suffered from the fact that he stood underthe shadow of a famous father. He once wrote to his mother: "I should likeas an experiment to get off somewhere where Father was never heard of andsee whether anybody would care about me for my own sake." It would seemthat Cooley was long torn by an emotional dependence on a father from whomhe was basically alienated, while being conscious of the fact that he was underan obligation to embark on a career that would do honor to his family.

Cooley's early work, a paper on the "Social Significance of Street Railways,"which he read at a meeting of the American Economic Association in 1890,as well as his aforementioned dissertation, both grew from two years of workin Washington, first for the Interstate Commerce Commission and later forthe Bureau of the Census. These were written in the tough-minded and"realistic" tradition of which his father presumably approved. His maturework, which is characterized throughout by a tender-minded, introspectiveapproach more congenial to his fundamental nature, began to take shape onlyafter he started to teach at the University of Michigan and had achieved in-dependence from his father.

Throughout his teaching career at Michigan, which began in 1892, Cooleywas concerned with many social problems and issues of the day, but clearlypreoccupation with the self--his own self--remained paramount to him. Hav-ing managed to assert his independence, Cooley was resolved to turn his shy-ness and his inability to compete with his father's driving ambition into anasset by devoting himself to work that derived in large part from self-examina-tion and the observation of the behavior of those close to him, more particularlyhis own children.

Cooley's marriage in 1890 to Elsie Jones, the daughter of a professor ofmedicine at the University of Michigan, enabled him to concentrate fully onscholarly work and the contemplative life he prized above all. A highly culti-vated woman, Mrs. Cooley differed from her husband in that she was outgoing,energetic, and hence capable of ordering their common lives in such a mannerthat mundane cares were not to weigh very heavily on her husband. Thecouple had three children, a boy and two girls, and lived quietly; and fairlywithdrawn in a house quite close to the campus. The children served Cooleyas a kind of domestic laboratory for his study of the genesis and growth ofthe self. Hence, even when he was not engaged in the observation of his ownself but wished to observe others, he did not need to leave the domestic circle.

From Coser, 1977:314-316.


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