Biography of Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley

Originator of the "Looking Glass Self"

a man drawing a smiley face on a steamy mirror
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Charles Horton Cooley was born August 17, 1864, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1887 and returned one year later to study political economics and sociology.

Cooley began teaching economics and sociology at the University of Michigan in 1892 and went on to receive his Ph.D. in 1894. He married Elsie Jones in 1890 with whom he had three children.

The doctor preferred an empirical, observational approach to his research. While he appreciated the use of statistics, he preferred case studies, often using his own children as the subjects on his observation. He died of cancer on May 7, 1929.

Career and Later Life

Cooley's first major work, The Theory of Transportation, was in economic theory. This book was notable for its conclusion that towns and cities tend to be located at the confluence of transportation routes. Cooley soon shifted to broader analyses of the interplay of individual and social processes.

In Human Nature and the Social Order, he foreshadowed George Herbert Mead's discussion of the symbolic ground of the self by detailing the way in which social responses affect the emergence of normal social participation.

Cooley greatly extended this conception of the "looking-glass self" in his next book, Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind, in which he sketched a comprehensive approach to society and its major processes.

In Cooley’s theory of the “looking glass self,” he states that our self-concepts and identities are a reflection of how other people perceive us. Whether our beliefs about how others perceive us are true or not, it is those beliefs that truly shape our ideas about ourselves.

Our internalization of the reactions of others towards us is more important than reality. Further, this self-idea has three principal elements: our imagination of how others see our appearance; our imagination of the other’s judgment of our appearance; and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification, determined by our imagination of the other’s judgment of us.

Other Major Publications

  • Life and the Student (1927)
  • Social Process (1918)
  • Sociological Theory and Social Research (1930)


Major Theorist of Symbolic Interactionism: Charles Horton Cooley. (2011).

Johnson, A. (1995). The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.

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Crossman, Ashley. "Biography of Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Crossman, Ashley. (2020, August 27). Biography of Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "Biography of Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).