Social Process

Cooley had relatively little to say about social structures; in his organicview he conceived of social life as a seamless web and was not sensitive tostructural variables In regard to social process, however, he proved to be anacute observer and analyst.

In Cooley's view society consists of a network of communication betweencomponent actors and subgroups; therefore, the process of communication,more particularly its embodiment in public opinion, cements social bonds andinsures consensus. Cooley saw public opinion as "an organic process," andnot merely as a state of agreement about some question of the day. It is nota "mere aggregate of separate individual judgments, but an organization, acooperative product of communication and reciprocal influence. It may beas different from the sum of what the individuals could have thought out inseparation as a ship built by a hundred men is from a hundred boats eachbuilt by one man." In other words, public opinion does not emerge fromprior agreement but from reciprocal action of individual opinions upon eachother--from the clash of ideas in the process of communication. "It is not atall necessary that there should be agreement; the essential thing is a certainripeness and stability of thought resulting from attention and discussion.""Mature public opinion," as distinct from "popular impression," emerges fromdebate. It does not "express the working of an average or commonplace mind. [It is not] some kind of mean between the higher and the lower intelligencesmaking up the group." It is created through the interchange between opposedtendencies of thought. "Communicated differences are the life of opinion, ascross-breeding is of a natural stock." To be sure, when there is no "under-lying like-mindedness, sufficient for mutual understanding and influence,among members of the group," they cannot act together. But given a com-mon frame of reference, public opinion is the product of communicated dis-agreement refined through debate and intellectual confrontation.

What holds for public opinion holds for other types of interactions. Intune with his emphasis on social process, Cooley conceived social conflict asnecessary and ineradicable.

The more one thinks of it the more he will see that conflict and coopera-tion are not separable things, but phases of one process which always involvessomething of both. . . . You can resolve the social order into a great numberof cooperative wholes of various sorts, each of which contains conflicting ele-ments within itself upon which it is imposing some sort of harmony with aview to conflict with others.

Conflicts, in Cooley's view, are healthy and normal occurrences, provided theyproceed from a ground of underlying consensus about basic matters. He wasa passionate defender of the virtues of democracy precisely because he saw itas a mode of governance that arrives at moral unity not through the suppres-sion of differences but through their acting out on the forum of public opinion.

From Coser, 1977:312-313.

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