The Primary Group

This emphasis on the wholeness of social life led Cooley to focus hisanalysis on those human groupings that he conceived to be primary in linkingman with his society and in integrating individuals into the social fabric. "Byprimary groups," he writes,

I mean those characterized by intimate face-to-face association and coopera-tion. They are primary in several senses but chiefly in that they are funda-mental in forming the social nature and ideals of individuals. The result ofintimate association, psychologically, is a certain fusion of individualities in acommon whole, so that one's very self, for many purposes at least, is thecommon life and purpose of the group. Perhaps the simplest way of describ-ing this wholeness is by saying that it is a ''we.''

Cooley did not argue, as is sometimes assumed, that the unity of theprimary group is based on harmony and love alone. He stressed that it isusually a competitive unit, admitting of self-assertion and passionate conten-tions. But he held that "these passions are socialized by sympathy, and come,or tend to come, under the discipline of a common spirit. The individual willbe ambitious, but the chief object of his ambition will be some desired placein the thought of the others.''

The most important groups in which the intimate associations characteris-tic of primary groups have had a chance to develop to the fullest are thefamily, the play group of children, and the neighborhood. These, Cooley be-lieved, are practically universal breeding grounds for the emergence ofhuman cooperation and fellowship. In these groups men are drawn awayfrom their individualistic propensity to maximize their own advantage andare permanently linked to their fellows by ties of sympathy and affection. Inother forms of association (which are now referred to as secondary groups,though Cooley himself never used that term) men may be related to one an-other because each derives a private benefit from that interchange or inter-action. In such groups the other may be valued only extrinsically as a sourceof benefits for the self; by contrast the bond in the primary group is basedupon an intrinsic valuation of the other as a person, and appreciation ofothers does not result from anticipation of specific benefits that he or she maybe able to confer. The primary group is built upon the diffuse solidarity of itsmembers rather than upon an exchange of specific services or benefits. It is,moreover, a nursery for the development of human warmth and sympathy,which is contrasted to the formal coldness, the impersonality, the emotionaldistance of other types of relations.

A few examples will help clarify the distinction. A member of a family,say, the mother, may gladly engage in personally unrewarding labor withinthe family context because she measures her work in terms of her contributionto the whole, the We, of the family. What she would consider scandalousexploitation in outside employment, she finds acceptable within the family, forshe views it as a service to the collectivity. Husbands and wives, parents andchildren, relatives and friends will cheerfully sacrifice self-interest if it inter-feres with their duties to the primary group of which they are a part. They willview each other on the basis of intrinsic characteristics rather than in instru-mental terms. If a student were asked why a certain person was his friend andhe replied, "Because he helps me pass my math exams," that reply would bejudged most inappropriate: the student confused the primary character of afriendship group with the instrumental purposes that govern other types ofassociations. The primary group, in other words, is the domain where Hobbes-ian man holds no sway, where devotion to the whole and to the other as afull person takes precedence over the maximization of self-interest.

The notions of the looking-glass self and of the primary group are closelyintertwined in Cooley's thought. Sensitivity to the thought of others--respon-siveness to their attitudes, values, and judgments that is the mark of the matureman according to Cooley--can be cultivated and fostered only in the close andintimate interactions of the primary group. Hence, this group is the cell inwhich characteristically human growth takes place. In the primary group theimmature and self-centered person is slowly attuned to the needs and desiresof others and becomes fitted to the give-and-take of mature social life. Theprimary group fosters the ability to put oneself into the position of others,drawing the individual out of egotistic isolation by building into him thatsensitivity to the clues of others without which social life would be impossible."In these [primary groups] human nature comes into existence. Man does nothave it at birth; he cannot acquire it except through fellowship, and it decaysin isolation.''

Cooley's social philosophy was grounded in the idea that human progressinvolves the ever-widening expansion of human sympathy so that primarygroup ideals would spread from the family to the local community, to thenation, and finally to the world community. His was indeed, as Philip Rieffhas said, a "small-town doctrine of human nature." Cooley's social thought,George H. Mead wrote, "was in a sense an account of the American com-munity to which he belonged, and pre-supposed its normal healthful process."His benign optimism, his somewhat romantic idealism, are likely to appearantiquated to modern observers who view the world through lenses groundby harsh historical experiences from which the sage from Ann Arbor wasspared. Yet even in sections of his work that seem marred by an overindul-gence in soft-minded benevolence, there can be found hard nuggets of solidsociological insight.

Consider, for example, Cooley's discussion of the twin evils of formal-ism and disorganization. The first, he avers, "is mechanism supreme"; the sec-ond, "mechanism going to pieces." "The effect of formalism upon personalityis to starve its higher life and leave it the prey of apathy [and] self-compla-cency. . . . Disorganization, on the other hand, "appears in the individual as amind without cogent and abiding allegiance to a whole, and without thelarger principles of conduct that flow from such allegiances." The modernsociological reader may hardly notice such passages in Cooley's work since heis familiar with Durkheim's more extended and detailed treatment of "anomic"phenomena. But it should be noted that despite his generally optimistic views,Cooley was nevertheless sensitized to those phenomena of incipient crisis thatloomed large in Durkheim's social awareness. In regard to prescribing thecure of modern man's ailments, Cooley often wrote in a strikingly Durk-heimian vein. "The idealization of the state, the impressing of a unitary lifeupon the hearts of the people by tradition, poetry, music, architecture, nationalcelebrations and memorials, and by a religion and philosophy teaching the in-dividual that he is a member of a glorious whole to which he owes devotion,is in line with human nature, however it may be degraded in use by reac-tionary aims.''

Cooley's renown does not come from having parallelled some of Durk-heim's insights but rather from his crucial contribution to the problems ofinternalization. Perhaps Parsons puts the matter a bit too sharply when hewrites: "Durkheim was the theorist of society as an object in the externalworld; Cooley was the theorist of society as part of the individual self." Butin a general sense Parsons is still correct in stressing that for Cooley, as dis-tinct from Durkheim, society was uniquely a mental phenomenon. "Theimaginations people have of one another," he wrote, "are the solid facts ofsociety." "Society . . . is a relation among personal ideas."

Later critics, notably George H. Mead, were to criticize Cooley's exces-sively mentalistic view of the constitution of the self, but none would denythat he should receive credit, along with such major figures as William James,Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, and George H. Mead, for having succeededin destroying the Cartesian disjunction between mind and the external socialworld. Cooley elaborated in convincing detail the notion that man and society,the self and the other, are linked in an indissoluble unity so that the qualityof one's social life, of one's relations with his fellows, is a constitutive elementof his personality.

From Coser, 1977:307-310.

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