Louis Wirth (August 28, 1897 – May 3, 1952) was a German born, Jewish-American sociologist. He was a member of the Chicago school of sociology. He made significant contribution to sociology through his studies of urban life and the social problems of urban residents.
As a member of the Jewish immigrant minority, Wirth understood first-hand the challenges of minority groups in society. Although not subscribing to Marxist theory, he built upon its theories of human alienation in order to understand the dynamics of social life and human relationships in large cities. Wirth's insights continue to be of value in efforts to understand the problems, and derive solutions, for those who struggle and suffer in urban life.
Louis Wirth was born on August 28, 1897 in the small village of Gemünden im Hunsrück, Germany. He was one of seven children of Rosalie Lorig and Joseph Wirth. Gemünden was a pastoral community, and Joseph Wirth earned a living as a cattle dealer. At the time Gemünden had 900 inhabitants of which 20 percent were Jewish. Because of that and because its synagogue the town was called “Little-Jerusalem” in the local community. Both of his parents were active in their religious community.
In 1911, Louis left Gemünden to live with his older sister at his uncle’s home in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents joined them there later in 1936. After completing high school in Omaha, Wirth attended the University of Chicago where he obtained his bachelor's degree in 1919. He became interested in sociology through the influence of Ernest W. Burgess, William I. Thomas, and Albion W. Small, who were teaching at the university at the time.
Wirth earned his M.A. degree in 1925, and the Ph.D. degree in 1926. He became a staff member of the department of sociology at the University of Chicago in 1926, assistant professor in 1931, associate professor in 1932, and full professor in 1940. He was also a associate professor in Tulane University, 1928-1930, and research fellow in Europe for the Social Science Research Council in 1930-1931.
During his career Wirth occupied numerous posts. He was regional chairman of the National Resources Planning Board; director of planning, Illinois Post War Planning Commission; president, American Council on Race Relations; editor, Sociology Series of the Macmillan Company; and president, International Association of Sociologists.
Wirth was associate editor of the American Journal of Sociology from 1926 to 1928, and again from 1931 until his death in 1952. Wirth served as a secretary of the American Sociological Society in 1932 and a president in 1947. His Presidential Address, Consensus and Mass Communication, was delivered in New York City in December 1947.
In the spring of 1952, Wirth traveled to Buffalo, New York to speak at a conference on community relations. Following his presentation he suddenly collapsed and died shortly afterwards. He was 55 years-old.
Louis Wirth became a leading figure in Chicago School of Sociology. His interests included urban life, behavior of minority groups, housing, social organization, human ecology, race relations, and the sociology of knowledge.
In 1928, Wirth published his renowned The Ghetto, which described the Jewish immigrant community in Chicago. Wirth analyzed how Jewish immigrants adjusted to life in urban America, as well as the distinct social processes of city life. Wirth was a strong supporter of applied sociology, taking the knowledge offered by his discipline and using it to solve real social problems. He rejected Marxism, but built on its theories of alienation.
Wirth's major contribution to the social theory of urban life was a classic essay "Urbanism as a Way of Life," published first in the American Journal of Sociology in 1938. There, Wirth dealt with the question of alienation, and described how city life produced its own dynamics of human relations.
Wirth believed that urbanism was a form of social organization that is harmful to social relations. He criticized the city for
[s]ubstitution of secondary for primary contacts, the weakening of bonds of kinship, the declining social significance of the family, the disappearance of neighborhood and the undermining of traditional basis of social solidarity (Wirth 1938).
low and declining urban reproduction rates ... families are smaller and more frequently without children than in the country (Wirth 1938).
Wirth also argued that in the city marriage tended to be postponed, and the increasing proportion of single people was leading to isolation and less interaction.
However, Wirth also stressed the positive effects of city life—"the beginning of what is distinctively modern in our civilization is best signalized by the growth of great cities" (Wirth 1938). He believed that metropolitan civilization was among the best civilization that human beings have ever created. He said:
the city everywhere has been the center of freedom and toleration, the home of progress, of invention, of science, of rationality (Wirth 1956)
the history of civilization can be written in terms of the history of cities (Wirth 1940).
Wirth was also interested in the role of mass media. He believed that because urban life produced higher levels of alienation and loneliness, people in the cities were more prone to the appeal of mass movements than their rural counterparts. He thus considered it rather important for sociologists to study this type of phenomena. In Consensus and Mass Communication he wrote:
Because the mark of any society is the capacity of its members to understand one another and to act in concert toward common objectives and under common norms, the analysis of consensus rightly constitutes the focus of sociological investigations (Wirth 1948).
The profound social understanding of minority groups that Wirth obtained first-hand as an immigrant Jew in America can equally be applied to understanding the problems of other minority groups in society, such as ethnic minorities, the disabled, homosexuals, women, and the elderly, all of whom have also suffered, and/or continue to suffer prejudice, discrimination, and disenfranchisement from the more numerically dominant members of a host society. It is in this respect that Wirth's path-breaking and insightful work still amply rewards detailed study even today, many decades after his original investigations.
Although he never developed any comprehensive social theory, Louis Wirth made a significant contribution to sociology through his studies of urban life. His work has had a great influence on later work in urban studies.
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