The Development of Sociology at Michigan[1]

Charles Horton Cooley

It is not unknown that universities, even in America, offer a certain resistance to novelty, and when a new plant of knowledge takes roots and flourishes within one it is almost always, I imagine, through the initiative of one or more individuals who set out the plant and devote themselves to its nurture and defense. So it was, at least, with the early growth of the study of sociology at the University of Michigan, and I do not see how the history of the department that later appeared there can begin otherwise than with some biographical matter—in this case autobiographical—relating to the first teacher.

One afternoon in the fall of 1892 I was walking down the diagonal walk on the Michigan campus with Henry Carter Adams, head of the Department of Political Economy, and Fred M. Taylor, assistant professor. Their conversation turned on proposed extensions of the department work, and in reply to some suggestion by Taylor in this direction, Adams said that "he would rather see a course in sociology offered." I imagine that his attention had been drawn to that subject through the course then recently offered by Professor Giddings at Bryn Mawr, though Adams himself was sociological in the breadth of his outlook, and is well known to have been a leader in enlarging the scope of economics. He must have known that I was interested in the subject, but probably had not thought f my attempting to teach it. There was, I think, no discus-

( 4) -sion of Adams's remark at the moment, but as soon as I saw him alone I said that I would like to offer a course in sociology and was encouraged to prepare myself to do so.

At that time, having taken my first degree in 1887, and stayed a year longer to study mechanical engineering, which I practiced for a few months in a shop at Bay City, I had spent two years at Washington in statistical work and the study of transportation; having been employed first by the Interstate Commerce Commission to prepare a report on safety appliances (for which my mechanical training was thought to qualify me), and later by the Census Bureau to collect statistics of street railways, I had then gone abroad for six months, returning to Michigan as a half-time instructor in political economy and a candidate for the doctorate in that subject. My thoughts, however, were turning more and more towards sociology, and it is time to tell how this had come to pass.

I can hardly say that any writer commonly reckoned a sociologist was of the very first importance in my mental growth. The three minds from which mine received its main impulses were, I believe, those of Emerson, Goethe and Darwin. From Darwin I got, in the long run, the most satisfactory idea of the general process of nature and of the way to study it, while for companionship and guidance in my efforts to understand the world of men, I resorted to writers of little system but great wisdom, to Emerson, chiefly as a young man, then to Goethe, and, in lesser measure, to Bagehot, William James and many others. The working up of my material into what seemed to me a logical and more or less verified body of social knowledge could not be done for me by any one but was a lifelong and laborious task of which my writings are the visible remains.

But I felt, at the start, the need of a system to serve as a framework for my accumulating ideas, and in pursuit of this I came, for a while, under the spell of Herbert Spencer, from whom I got my first outline of a general scheme of evolutionary knowledge. I began seriously to read him, and to buy his books (it was common, in those days, for students to accumulate a library), in 1888, and, I think, had read all those then published, except the Psychology, by 1892. It was his gen-

( 5) -eral conception of the progressive organization of life, especially as developed in the second part of First Principles, that appealed to me, rather than his more specific views on society, with which I was never in sympathy. Of Comte I knew nothing at that time, nor did he come later to have any considerable influence upon me.

As regards the academic possibilities of sociology I had been awakened by the papers of Professor Giddings which appeared about 189o, dealing with the province of the subject, its relation to political economy and its suitability for university study. [ may add that I had made the acquaintance of Giddings, probably at the 1890 meeting of the American Economic Association at Washington, where, at least, I remember hearing him speak, and that he had given kindly encouragement to my sociological aspirations. It was he more than any other who led me to believe that sociology might become a university subject, and myself a teacher of it.

Lester F. Ward was also at the Washington meeting and was most courteous to me, complimenting me on a paper that I read on what would now be called the ecology of street railways, and giving me a ticket to the Cosmos Club, which, however, I neglected to use. I knew hardly anything of his works at that time but read later, with profit, what I found to be the more readable of them, and had an interesting correspondence with him regarding Galton's views on genius. I had and have the greatest respect for Ward, and concur heartily as to the high rank assigned to him in American sociology, but it would be untrue to say that his writings had any large part in forming my own conceptions of the subject.

With this preparation, and a very ardent purpose to share in that new development of social knowledge that seemed about to begin, I offered sociology as one of my minor subjects for the Doctor's degree, and set myself to study the accredited authors. I read enough of Comte to give me a general idea of his system, Ward's Psychic Factors of Civilization and part of his Dynamic Sociology, Darwin's Origin of Species and Descent of Man, and more or less in Gumplowicz, Quetelet (statistics was my other minor), Sir Henry Maine, Morgan, McLennan and Westermarck; also in Jane Addams and other

( 6) philanthropic writers. But more time and labor than I put on any of these went to an arduous perusal of the first volume of Schäffle's Bau and Leben des socialen Körpers. I was looking for a view of the social system that should be more satisfactory than Spencer's and it seemed to me that Schäffle offered the best prospect of it. Indeed, from my recollection of it, I have no doubt that his was in many respects a very good view indeed, but just how much it helped me in working out my own conceptions I am unable to say.

John Dewey, whose lectures on political philosophy I attended in 1893-4, certainly left a lasting mark, but rather by his personality, I think, than by his lectures. I had already known him some ten years, as he had come and gone from Michigan as a young instructor in the early eighties when I was an undergraduate. In the group to which I belonged his character was deeply admired, for its simplicity, perhaps, and for a fine gallantry, which, one felt sure, would never compromise the high purpose by which he was visibly animated. We believed that there was something highly original and significant in his philosophy, but had no definite idea as to what it was. The chief thing I now recall from his lectures is a criticism of Spencer, in which Dewey maintained that society was an organism in a deeper sense than Spencer had perceived, and that language was its "sensorium." I had already arrived at a somewhat similar view.

My examination came off in June, 1894, the questions in sociology being sent on from Columbia by Professor Giddings. They are now before me, and are divided into three groups : Society and Social Evolution, The Family, and Philanthropy. My answers are with the questions and I doubt whether any one ever read them.

Having taken my degree and being still, nominally, a half-time instructor in political economy, I offered, for the academic year 1894-5, three lectures a week in sociology throughout the year, the first semester being given to Principles, the second to Problems. I also gave a one-hour course to statistics and continued to do some teaching in political economy until, at the end of the year, I was appointed full-time instructor in sociology.

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The class in sociology which I faced in October, 1894, consisted of twenty-seven students, three of whom were graduates. One of the latter, John B. Phillips, took his doctorate at Cornell in 1897 and was later Professor of Economics and Sociology, first at the University of Colorado and later at Indiana University, where he taught, I believe, until his death. Another, Delos F. Wilcox, took a Doctor's Degree at Columbia in 1896 and has had since a distinguished career as a specialist —always on the side of the public—in franchises and public utility administration. Among the undergraduates was Robert H. Whitten, who became a Ph.D. of Columbia in 1898, was prominent in the public library and statistical services of the State of New York and is at present an expert in city planning.

The course in Principles began with a survey of early social development based on Darwin, Spencer, Maine and various ethnological writers. The analysis of contemporary life opened with a discussion of social organization in general, of the relation of the individual to the group, and of the growth of individuality and freedom. This, however, was not much like the psychological interpretation of those matters that I worked out later, but rather abstract and philosophical, and more concerned with economics than psychology. Then came a discussion of transportation and communication as social mechanism, including matter on imitation and tradition. Institutions followed—an attempt to show how they arose from enduring human interests—the family, government and the economic system being treated at some length. Finally there was a rather elaborate discussion of processes of competition and survival, and of the nature and test of progress.

Probably the most distinctive part of this offering was that dealing with transportation and communication. It is my observation that anything like an original view always comes gradually and as a result of working through some sort of experience, rather than by the mere pondering of second-hand ideas. I had just had an educative experience of this sort in regard to transportation, with which I had for two years been concerned at Washington. My Doctor's thesis, on the Theory of Transportation, had been an attempt to interpret this function in terms of an organic social whole. But while working

( 8) in this region I could not fail to reflect also on the psychic mechanism, embracing all sorts of language and the means of its transmission and record, whose function was analogous to that of transportation and even more intimately concerned with the social process. So I pursued these two mechanisms through history and contemporary life until I could see them and their social implications in something of the vividness and detail of actuality, acquiring thus a base from which I could develop my exploration of the social organism in any direction I wished. Communication was thus my first real conquest, and the thesis a forecast of the organic view of society I have been working out ever since.

From communication I went on, in my studies and in my lectures, to deal in a like sense with conflict, survival, adaptation, in short with all the main aspects of social process. Already, in 1893, I had read to the Michigan Political Science Association, and published in its Proceedings, a paper called "Competition and Organization," which aimed to present these two activities as complementary phases of social growth. An article called "The Process of Social Change," appearing in the Political Science Quarterly in 1897 was of a similar trend, and in 1899 the American Economic Association published as one of its Studies an essay of about 100 pages entitled, "Personal Competition; Its Place in the Social Order and Effect Upon Individuals, with Some Considerations on Success."

Still working out from communication I was also during this period becoming a social psychologist. It was more and more borne in upon me that I could never really see the social life of man unless I understood the processes of mind with which it was indissolubly bound up. I saw that there was a gap between the ideas of structure and function I had so far been working on and the actual motives and behavior of men, which left the former somewhat hanging in the air, like the end of an unfinished bridge. To fill this I resorted to observation, and set to work upon an assiduous though amateurish record of the mental-social development of my children, born in 1893 and 1897, at the same time reading whatever pertinent literature I could find. This study was of great advantage to me, and I retain from it a conviction that scientific observation of chil-

( 9) -dren requires the strenuous use of all the knowledge and imagination one can bring to bear, that it has not been undertaken seriously enough to be very fruitful, but that the possibilities of it, when you know just what to look for, are most inviting. I returned to this method, concentrating upon a limited problem, in 1908, when I wrote my "Study of the Early Use of Self-Words by a Child,"published by the Psychological Review in November of that year.

I had read, soon after I began to teach, Bagehot's Physics and Politics, certainly one of the really great books bearing on the psychology of society, and now I took up James's psychology, which made me long to treat sociology with something of his vividness and human breadth. I read also Tarde's Lois de L'imitation and Baldwin's Mental Development in the Child and the Race, and somewhat later, the latter's Social and Ethical Interpretations. I remember with peculiar pleasure ;a group of three, consisting of Harlow S. Person, now a great name in Business Administration, William M. Wherry, a youth of singular ability and personal charm, later, by way of Columbia, a noted New York lawyer and a lecturer on constitutional law at Dartmouth, and myself, which used to meet :about 1899 to discuss Baldwin's books.

Thus my first book, Human Nature and the Social Order, ;appearing in 1902, was the outcome of quite recent studies, while my earlier inquiries into social process were not mature and published until sixteen years later.

I was also considerably interested during the nineties in social biology, and especially in Galton, whose Hereditary Genius led me to attempt a refutation of his extreme view of the preponderance of heredity over social conditions in the forming of great men. This refutation consisted of research is well as argument and was published in 1897 by the Philadelphia Annals under the title, "Genius, Fame and the Comparison of Races."I also introduced my students to eugenics, .1 subject that at that time had apparently not been embraced by American academic biologists ; at any rate I had to buy the books relating to it for the Michigan library. During this early period, and indeed all through my teaching, I was giving to my students what I was in process of thinking out for myself.

( 10) This, I think, is a good way to teach, in spite of the crudeness of the matter thus offered, for one is apt to conceive an idea with more zest when it first appears to him than he ever will again; and it is zest and sincerity, quite as much as intrinsic worth, that gets the idea across.

My situation, as regards encouragement to productive thought, was altogether fortunate. Professor Adams, in whose department I was, had confidence in me and allowed me to do absolutely as I pleased : I doubt whether there was another teacher in the University so completely his own master. And as I had no ambition or capacity for administrative work there was nothing to prevent my giving myself heartily to the development and imparting of any conception of sociology that might seem good to me. My promotion was not especially rapid—I became an assistant professor in 1899, an associate professor in 1904 and full professor in 1907—but there was not, so far as I know, the slightest opposition or ill will to me or to my subject. Indeed one of the Regents, Levi L. Barbour, a man of real distinction in mind and character, greatly interested at that time in penal reform, was most appreciative both of my work and of the promise of sociology. It was through his exertions, largely, that an instructorship in sociology was formally established in 1895, and that my later promotions were obtained.

I do not know that sociology was at any time objected to as a "radical" subject, but if so it was perhaps to my advantage, in this regard, that I was known to come of conservative antecedents, my father having been the first Dean of the Michigan Law School. I took some pains to counteract a possible conservative bias by living occasionally at social settlements and otherwise undergoing influences supposed to be radical. And certainly in treating such topics as the capitalist class, socialism, the labor movement, class control of the press and the like, I said precisely what seemed to me to be true and was never conscious of the least pressure to do otherwise. I may add, in this connection, that I was among the first at Michigan to expound the theory of evolution to beginning classes and to assume its general truth.

The growth in numbers of the classes in sociology was at

( 11) first rather slow : in 1902-3, the ninth year, there were fifty in the course in Principles, while that in Problems—always more popular—had 126. At about this time, however, something—perhaps the publication of Human Nature and the Social Order in 1902 had a share in it—brought a considerable accession, for two years later the numbers were 120 and 148. The classes were divided into small sections for quizzing, all of which I did myself, and I was never without a group of able and stimulating graduate students. Many of these have distinguished themselves since as teachers of sociology, or leaders in social work, though none, during the first ten years, took his Doctor's degree at Michigan in the subject. The variety of courses I was able to give was hardly sufficient as a preparation for the doctorate, and the opportunities for a career as a teacher were still very restricted. Our first Doctor was E. A. Hayden, a brilliant and lovable Irishman of somewhat neurotic constitution, who began graduate work at Michigan in 1902 and took his degree in sociology and psychology in 1907, presenting an able dissertation on "The Social Will" which appeared in the monograph series of the Psychological Review. He was professor for a time in the Normal School at Cape Girardeau, Mo., and afterwards, until his early death, in the Florida State College for Women at Tallahassee. We turned out no other doctor until after the Great War.

In the fall of 1901 Kenyon L. Butterfield came to the University for graduate work. He was already an ardent student of country life, and, one year later, by the aid of Professor Adams who immediately recognized his personal promise and the importance of his subject, he was appointed Lecturer on Rural Sociology. So far as I know (or Mr. Butterfield, now President of Michigan State College), this was the first use of that term. I do not remember who suggested it, probably Butterfield himself. He left at the end of the year and the course was not revived until some ten years later.

The direction of my studies and, in a measure, the trend of my teaching, during the periods 1902-1909 and 1909-1918, may be inferred from the books published at the end of these periods. During the first I was clarifying and verifying, to my own satisfaction at least, the ideas that appeared in Social

( 12) Organization. Since the matter in that book on Primary Groups has attracted much interest, it may be worth while to recall that this matter, although it appears early in the book, was the very last part to be conceived and written, not appearing in the earliest draft at all. When I had this draft before me there appeared to be a hole in my exposition which I was impelled to fill up. In the later period I was chiefly occupied with developing those early views regarding struggle and change which I had been brooding over so long into the treatment of Social Process, published under that title in 1918 (the year, also, when I was honored with the presidency of the American Sociological Society).

A University teacher has one great advantage over more solitary scholars, as regards the building of a novel structure of thought, in the fact that he may count on an intelligent audience to welcome, confirm or correct his work during the process of production. I always had such an audience, and have no pleasanter recollections than those of discussion with small groups of ardent students. Those were lively times, for instance, in 1902, when E. A. Hayden, Roy M. Sellars, now a famous philosopher, and Lues M. Perez, a brilliant Cuban, were in the seminary group. Two or three years later I note the names of Oswald Boucke, since then the author of several notable books, David Friday, the economist, Carl Parry, another, Arthur Pound, and Hortense Flexner. Between 1910 and 1914 there was a notable group, consisting mostly of Young instructors, which included Walton H. Hamilton, W. W. Stuart—both later professors at Amherst—and Warren S. Thompson. And these are only the more outstanding figures in a continuous procession.

My first regular assistant was Harry W. Crane, who began graduate work in the fall of 1909 and remained several years, taking his doctorate in psychology and also serving as chief investigator for the Michigan Eugenics Commission, whose Report to the Legislature in 1915 was mainly his work. He was a man of as devoted scholarship and as fine a moral fibre as I ever knew—now (still, I hope, possessed of these qualities) professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina.

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The growth of classes and of the prestige of the subject enabled me to add, beginning with the year 1913-14, a full time instructorship, for which I chose Warren S. Thompson, a graduate student of Columbia working at his Doctor's thesis on Malthusianism and already in a way to become an authority on population. He relieved me of much of the elementary teaching, revived rural sociology and added courses in Social Evolution and Immigration, resigning in 1918 to go into war work at Washington for a time, after which he taught sociology at Cornell Agricultural College until he became population expert for the Scripps Foundation. Roy H. Holmes, who succeeded Thompson, is still with us as assistant professor, giving courses in Rural Sociology, Immigration and Social Evolution, and having immediate administrative charge of the beginning course, which is now given both semesters and enrolls some nine hundred students a year. He has done much to improve the teaching in this course, especially as regards the "thesis" required in it, which we intend to be, for the student, an adventure in social observation and interpretation. Each of the nine hundred is asked to choose for himself a topic regarding which he has some personal knowledge and interest and make a study of it, with the aid of such counsel from his instructor as he cares to have, and with the expectation, which we are careful not to disappoint, that he will get a considerate criticism of his work. Probably the chief thing to be gained from an elementary course is a point of view and a method which the student can apply to the material offered by his own life. At any rate this, I am sure, is what intelligent young people are seeking, and the fact that we help them find it is the main inducement to elect our work. The general expansion of universities following the war was fully shared by Michigan and by its Department of Sociology—recognized as distinct for academic purposes, though still joined, on the administrative side, with Economics and Business Administration. Additional instructors were appointed, and in some cases retained and promoted. Lowell Juillard Carr, formerly on the editorial staff of the Detroit Free Press, took his doctorate at Michigan with a thesis in the field of Public Opinion, and after a year's study abroad, chiefly in London with Hobhouse, Malinowski

(14) and others, came back in 1925 as assistant professor. Robert C. Angell, whose thesis was on "The Student Mind," and whose book, The Campus, a sociological study of student life at an American university, is about to appear as I write, attained the same rank in 1926. Other recent Doctors are Walter A. Terpenning, 1924, Charles W. Margold, 1925, whose thesis was published under the title Sex Freedom and Social Control, Read Bain and Gerald Barnes, 1926, and Roy H. Holmes, 1927.

Particularly notable was the appointment, in 1916, of Arthur Evans Wood to an instructorship with the understanding that he was to develop social work courses and to cooperate in every way practicable with the social workers of the state. Wood, after graduating from Harvard, had taught social science for four years at Reed College, Portland, Oregon, and returned to take graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, serving also as secretary of the Intercollegiate Division of the National Municipal League. His doctoral dissertation for the Pennsylvania degree, completed while he was teaching at Michigan, was a social survey of Princeton, New Jersey. What his appointment led, to I will leave Professor Wood to tell.


  1. This was written at the request of Dr. L. L. Bernard early in 1928 for inclusion in the contemplated volume on the development of departments of sociology in American universities, under the editorship of Dr. Bernard. Dr. Bernard has kindly agreed to the publication of this material here before it appears in his own' volume. The present paper is of peculiar interest because it is so largely autobiographical in character. Strict conformity to the chronological arrangement of this volume would place this next to last, but it is put here because of its value as an introduction to Professor Cooley and his work.

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