From Charles Horton Cooley, Social Organization: A Study of theLarger Mind. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909, pp. 25-31.


Primary Groups

By primary groups I mean those characterized by intimateface-to-face association and cooperation. They are primary in severalsenses, but chiefly in that they are fundamental in forming thesocial nature and ideals of the individual. The result of intimateassociation, psychologically, is a certain fusion of individualitiesin a common whole, so that one's very self, for many purposes atleast, is the common life and purpose of the group. Perhaps thesimplest way of describing this wholeness is by saying that it is a"we"; it involves the sort of sympathy and mutual identification forwhich "we" is the natural expression. One lives in the feeling of thewhole and finds the chief aims of his will in that feeling.

It is not to be supposed that the unity of the primary group isone of mere harmony and love. It is always a differentiated andusually a competitive unity, admitting of self-assertion and variousappropriative passions; but these passions are socialized bysympathy, and come, or tend to come, under the discipline of a commonspirit. The individual will be ambitious, but the chief object of hisambition will be some desired place in the thought of the others, andhe will feel allegiance to common standards of service and fair play.So the boy will dispute with his fellows a place on the team, butabove such disputes will place the common glory of his class andschool.

The most important spheres of this intimate association andcooperation--though by no means the only ones--are the family, theplay-group of children, and the neighborhood or community group ofelders. These are practically universal, belonging to all times andall stages of development; and are accordingly a chief basis of whatis universal in human nature and human ideals. The best comparativestudies of the family, such as those of Westermarck [1] or Howard,[2] show it to us as not only a universal institution, but as morealike the world over than the exaggeration of exceptional customs byan earlier school had led us to suppose. Nor can any one doubt thegeneral prevalence of play-groups among children or of informalassemblies of various kinds among their elders. Such association isclearly the nursery of human nature in the world about us, and thereis no apparent reason to suppose that the case has anywhere or at anytime been essentially different.

As regards play, I might, were it not a matter of commonobservation, multiply illustrations of the universality andspontaneity of the group discussion and cooperation to which it givesrise. The general fact is that children, especially boys after abouttheir twelfth year, live in fellowships in which their sympathy,ambition and honor are engaged even more, often, than they are in thefamily. Most of us can recall examples of the endurance by boys ofinjustice and even cruelty, rather than appeal from their fellows toparents or teachers--as, for instance, in the hazing so prevalent atschools, and so difficult, for this very reason, to repress. And howelaborate the discussion, how cogent the public opinion, how hot theambitions in these fellowships.

Nor is this facility of juvenile association, as is sometimessupposed, a trait peculiar to English and American boys; sinceexperience among our immigrant population seems to show that theoffspring of the more restrictive civilizations of the continent ofEurope form self-governing play-groups with almost equal readiness.Thus Miss Jane Addams, after pointing out that the "gang" is almostuniversal, speaks of the interminable discussion which every detailof the gang's activity receives, remarking that "in these socialfolk-motes, so to speak, the young citizen learns to act upon his owndetermination." [3]

Of the neighborhood group it may be said, in general, that fromthe time men formed permanent settlements upon the land, down, atleast, to the rise of modern industrial cities, it has played a mainpart in the primary, heart-to-heart life of the people. Among ourTeutonic forefathers the village community was apparently the chiefsphere of sympathy and mutual aid for the commons all through the"dark" and middle ages, and for many purposes it remains so in ruraldistricts at the present day. In some countries we still find it withall its ancient vitality, notably in Russia, where the mir, orself-governing village group, is the main theatre of life, along withthe family, for perhaps fifty millions of peasants.

In our own life the intimacy of the neighborhood has been brokenup by the growth of an intricate mesh of wider contacts which leavesus strangers to people who live in the same house. And even in thecountry the same principle is at work, though less obviously,diminishing our economic and spiritual community with our neighbors.How far this change is a healthy development, and how far a disease,is perhaps still uncertain.

Besides these almost universal kinds of primary association, thereare many others whose form depends upon the particular state ofcivilization; the only essential thing, as I have said, being acertain intimacy and fusion of personalities. In our own society,being little bound by place, people easily form clubs, fraternalsocieties and the like, based on congeniality, which may give rise toreal intimacy. Many such relations are formed at school and college,and among men and women brought together in the first instance bytheir occupations--as workmen in the same trade, or the like. Wherethere is a little common interest and activity, kindness grows likeweeds by the roadside.

But the fact that the family and neighborhood groups are ascendantin the open and plastic time of childhood makes them even nowincomparably more influential than all the rest.

Primary groups are primary in the sense that they give theindividual his earliest and completest experience of social unity,and also in the sense that they do not change in the same degree asmore elaborate relations, but form a comparatively permanent sourceout of which the latter are ever springing. Of course they are notindependent of the larger society, but to some extent reflect itsspirit; as the German family and the German school bear somewhatdistinctly the print of German militarism. But this, after all, islike the tide setting back into creeks, and does not commonly go veryfar. Among the German, and still more among the Russian, peasantryare found habits of free cooperation and discussion almostuninfluenced by the character of the state; and it is a familiar andwell-supported view that the village commune, self-governing asregards local affairs and habituated to discussion, is a verywidespread institution in settled communities, and the continuator ofa similar autonomy previously existing in the clan. "It is man whomakes monarchies and establishes republics, but the commune seems tocome directly from the hand of God." [4]

In our own cities the crowded tenements and the general economicand social confusion have sorely wounded the family and theneighborhood, but it is remarkable, in view of these conditions, whatvitality they show; and there is nothing upon which the conscience ofthe time is more determined than upon restoring them to health.

These groups, then, are springs of life, not only for theindividual but for social institutions. They are only in part mouldedby special traditions, and, in larger degree, express a universalnature. The religion or government of other civilizations may seemalien to us, but the children or the family group wear the commonlife, and with them we can always make ourselves at home.

By human nature, I suppose, we may understand those sentiments andimpulses that are human in being superior to those of lower animals,and also in the sense that they belong to mankind at large, and notto any particular race or time. It means, particularly, sympathy andthe innumerable sentiments into which sympathy enters, such as love,resentment, ambition, vanity, hero-worship, and the feeling of socialright and wrong. [5]

Human nature in this sense is justly regarded as a comparativelypermanent element in society. Always and everywhere men seek honorand dread ridicule, defer to public opinion, cherish their goods andtheir children, and admire courage, generosity, and success. It isalways safe to assume that people are and have been human.

It is true, no doubt, that there are differences of race capacity,so great that a large part of mankind are possibly incapable of anyhigh kind of social organization. But these differences, like thoseamong individuals of the same race, are subtle, depending upon someobscure intellectual deficiency, some want of vigor, or slackness ofmoral fibre, and do not involve unlikeness in the generic impulses ofhuman nature. In these all races are very much alike. The moreinsight one gets into the life of savages, even those that arereckoned the lowest, the more human, the more like ourselves, theyappear. Take for instance the natives of Central Australia, asdescribed by Spencer and Gillen, [6] tribes having no definitegovernment or worship and scarcely able to count to five. They aregenerous to one another, emulous of virtue as they understand it,kind to their children and to the aged, and by no means harsh towomen. Their faces as shown in the photographs are wholly human andmany of them attractive.

And when we come to a comparison between different stages in thedevelopment of the same race, between ourselves, for instance, andthe Teutonic tribes of the time of Caesar, the difference is neitherin human nature nor in capacity, but in organization, in the rangeand complexity of relations, in the diverse expression of powers andpassions essentially much the same.

There is no better proof of this generic likeness of human naturethan in the ease and joy with which the modern man makes himself athome in literature depicting the most remote and varied phases oflife--in Homer, in the Nibelung tales, in the Hebrew Scriptures, inthe legends of the American Indians, in stories of frontier life, ofsoldiers and sailors, of criminals and tramps, and so on. The morepenetratingly any phase of human life is studied the more anessential likeness to ourselves is revealed.

To return to primary groups: the view here maintained is thathuman nature is not something existing separately in the individual,but a group-nature or primary phase of society, a relativelysimple and general condition of the social mind. It is somethingmore, on the one hand, than the mere instinct that is born inus--though that enters into it--and something less, on the other,than the more elaborate development of ideas and sentiments thatmakes up institutions. It is the nature which is developed andexpressed in those simple, face-to-face groups that are somewhatalike in all societies; groups of the family, the playground, and theneighborhood. In the essential similarity of these is to be found thebasis, in experience, for similar ideas and sentiments in the humanmind. In these, everywhere, human nature comes into existence. Mandoes not have it at birth; he cannot acquire it except throughfellowship, and it decays in isolation.

If this view does not recommend itself to common sense I do notknow that elaboration will be of much avail. It simply means theapplication at this point of the idea that society and individualsare inseparable phases of a common whole, so that wherever we find anindividual fact we may look for a social fact to go with it. If thereis a universal nature in persons there must be something universal inassociation to correspond to it.

What else can human nature be than a trait of primary groups?Surely not an attribute of the separate individual--supposing therewere any such thing--since its typical characteristics, such asaffection, ambition, vanity, and resentment, are inconceivable apartfrom society. If it belongs, then, to man in association, what kindor degree of association is required to develop it? Evidently nothingelaborate, because elaborate phases of society are transient anddiverse, while human nature is comparatively stable and universal. Inshort the family and neighborhood life is essential to its genesisand nothing more is.

Here as everywhere in the study of society we must learn to seemankind in psychical wholes, rather than in artificial separation. Wemust see and feel the communal life of family and local groups asimmediate facts, not as combinations of something else. And perhapswe shall do this best by recalling our own experience and extendingit through sympathetic observation. What, in our life, is the familyand the fellowship; what do we know of the we-feeling? Thought ofthis kind may help us to get a concrete perception of that primarygroup-nature of which everything social is the outgrowth.


1. The History of Human Marriage.

2. A History of Matrimonial Institutions.

3. Newer Ideals of Peace, 177.

4. De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1, chap. 5.

5. These matters are expounded at some length in the writer'sHuman Nature and the Social Order.

6. The Native Tribes of Central Australia. Compare alsoDarwin's views and examples given in chap. 7 of his Descent ofMan.

Bibliographical Notes

1. Cooley's major works include: Human Nature and the SocialOrder (1902); Social Organization (1909); SocialProcess (1918); and Life and the Student: Roadside Notes onHuman Nature, Society, and Letters (1927). A collection of hispapers was published after his death, entitled Sociological Theoryand Social Research (1930).

2. The term was probably first used as the chapter title "ThePrimary Social Group" by A. W. Small and C. E. Vincent in theirIntroduction to the Study of Society (1894).

3. For a general survey, see: Edward A. Shils, "The Study Of thePrimary Group," in D. Lerner, et al. (eds.), The PolicySciences (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1951), pp.44-69.

4. See, for example, A. P. Bates and N. Babchuck, "The PrimaryGroup: A Reappraisal," Sociological Quarterly, 2 (1961),181-191; E. Faris, "The Primary Group: Essence and Accident,"American Journal of Sociology, 37 (1932), 41-50; and T. D.Eliot, "Group, Primary," in H. P. Fairchild (ed.), Dictionary ofSociology (New York: Philosophical Library, 1944), p.135.

5. S. C. Lee, "The Primary Group as Cooley Defines It,"Sociological Quarterly, 5 (1964), 23-34. For an example ofmodern research emanating from Cooley's work, see: G. E. Swanson, "ToLive in Concord with a Society: Two Empirical Studies of PrimaryRelations," in A. J. Reiss, Jr. (ed.), Cooley and SociologicalAnalysis (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968), pp.87-150 and 165-172.

6. For a biographical statement and appraisal of Cooley, thereader is referred to: Edward C. Jandy, Charles Horton Cooley: HisLife and His Social Theory (New York: Dryden, 1942) .


Back tothe Syllabus