Sociological Method

In addition to these substantive concerns, Cooley, like W. I. Thomas andGeorge H. Mead, made a crucially important contribution to sociologicalmethod. Independently of Max Weber, but at roughly the same time as he,they argued that the study of human actions must be concerned with themeanings human actors attribute to the situation in which they find them-selves; hence, the study must go beyond purely behavioral description.

The sociology of a chicken yard, Cooley and his co-thinkers insisted, couldonly be based on descriptions of the chickens' behavior, since we can neverunderstand the meanings that chickens attach to their activities. But the sociol-ogy of human beings can pursue a different strategy, since it can probebeneath protocols of behavior into the subjective meanings of acting indi-viduals. The social sciences, Cooley argued, deprive themselves of a mostprecious tool if by a self-denying ordinance they abstain from examining themotivational structure of human action. Even if it be granted that Cooley'sapproach to the problem of the imputation of motives is too speculative, histhoughts moved on the right track.

Cooley distinguished between "spatial or material knowledge" and "per-sonal or social knowledge." The latter

is developed from contact with the minds of other men, through communica-tion, which sets going a process of thought and sentiment similar to theirsand enables us to understand them by sharing their states of mind.... Itmight also be described as sympathetic, or, in its more active form, asdramatic, since it is apt to consist of a visualization of behavior accompaniedby imagination of corresponding mental processes.

The difference, Cooley argued, between our knowledge of a horse or a dogand our knowledge of man is rooted in our ability to have a sympatheticunderstanding of a man's motives and springs of action.

What you know about a man consists, in part, of flashes of vision as towhat he would do in particular situations, how he would look, speak, move;it is by such flashes that you judge whether he is brave or a coward, hasty ordeliberate, honest or false, kind or cruel.... It also consists in inner senti-ments which you yourself feel in some degree when you think of him inthese situations, ascribing them to him.... Although our knowledge ofpeople is . . . behavioristic, it has no penetration, no distinctively human in-sight, unless it is sympathetic also.

Cooley's own use of the method of sympathetic understanding was some-what marred, as George H. Mead, among others, has pointed out, by his ex-cessively mentalistic and introspective emphasis, and by his failure to makeneeded distinctions between the imputation of meaning all men must make inthe course of interaction and the disciplined and controlled imputations of thesocial scientist. He must nevertheless be reckoned among the pioneers in socio-logical method. Like Max Weber and his co-thinkers in Germany, Cooleyemphasized that the study of the human social world must be centered uponattempts to probe the subjective meanings human actors attribute to theiractions, and that such meanings must be studied in part through "understand-ing" rather than through exclusive reliance on the reporting of behavior.

From Coser, 1977:310-311.

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