Charles Horton Cooley

The Primary Group Is Morally Good

Many people fear that life now moves at such a fast pace that individuals are losing touch with one another. This is nothing new: Charles Horton Cooley shared this concern a century ago growing up in a small town and witnessing rapid change all around him. Home for Cooley was Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he spent his childhood and later returned to teach at the University of Michigan from 1892 until his death. His major contribution to sociology was exploring the character of the primary group.

Cooley noted a disturbing trend:As the United States was becoming more urban and industrialized, people seemed to become ever more individualistic and competitive, displaying less concern for the traditional family and local neighborhood. This transformation made Cooley uneasy because he was convinced of the crucial importance of small, cooperative groups to social life. Primary groups are morally good, he declared, because they engender in people a sense of secure belonging as well as a spirit of fairness and compassion. Cooley hoped that calling attention to the importance of primary groups might shore up traditional values and sustain social cohesion. Certainly, the United States has continued to change since Cooley’s lifetime, and not entirely in ways he would have liked. But even though he died some seventy years ago, many of Cooley’s social concerns are with us still.

Sources: Rieff (1962) and Coser (1977).

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