Louis Wirth Essay - Critical Essays

Wirth, Louis


Wirth, Louis 1897-1952

American sociologist, educator, essayist, and nonfiction writer

Although he did not seek to develop a comprehensive social theory, Louis Wirth made a lasting contribution to sociology through his studies of urban communities and their effect on the individuals within them. A committed liberal both in thought and action, Wirth rejected the rigidity of Marxism, but built on Marxist themes of alienation in his urbanism, utilizing a pragmatic empirical framework that had little place for iron-clad predictive theories of human behavior. Other significant influences included Karl Mannheim, whose ideology and Utopia he helped translate, as well as Robert Park, George Simmel, and Albion W. Small. Wirth represented a link between these sociologists of an earlier era and the "urban ecologists" of the mid-twentieth century. He spent much of his professional life at the University of Chicago, where he became a significant member of that institution's burgeoning "Chicago School" of social sciences, and in his most significant work, The Ghetto, he examined the lives of individuals and groups within the city's Jewish population. Likewise in his pivotal essay "Urbanism as a Way of Life," Wirth explored the means by which the urban environment exerts its pull even on persons living within tradition-based communities. It was his view—one which would have enormous impact on later work in urban studies—that the city supplants traditional modes with a way of life that at once offers the individual a greater sense of freedom and a heightened awareness of isolation.

Biographical Information

Wirth was born in 1897 into a bourgeois Jewish family in Gemünden, in the Rhineland. In 1911, the Wirths moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and in 1919 Wirth earned his Ph.B. at the University of Chicago. Thus he began a relationship with the university, where he earned his M.A. in 1925 and his Ph.D. in 1926, that would continue for the remainder of his life. He would also remain active in social work and causes, beginning with a period as a social worker from 1919, and continuing in his position as director of the delinquent boys' division of the Jewish Charities of Chicago. In 1925, Wirth made his first significant publication with the contribution of a substantial essay to The City, edited by Park, Burgess, and Roderick McKenzie. The following year he became an instructor of sociology at the University of Chicago, but took a position as an associate professor at Tulane in 1928, the same year that The Ghetto was published. From 1929 to 1930 he held a Social Science Research Council fellowship in Europe, but returned to the University of Chicago in 1930. Wirth spent most of his remaining life at the university, working successively as assistant professor, associate professor, and from 1940, professor of sociology. He also served as associate dean of social science from 1940 to 1945. Wirth was associate editor of the American Journal of Sociology from 1926 to 1928, and he continued in that role from 1931 until his death in 1952. He also took part in numerous Chicago Round Table radio broadcasts from 1938 on, and served as consultant to several boards which made recommendations concerning national policy during World War II, including the Federal Housing Authority and the National Resources Planning Board. In addition, Wirth served as president of the American Sociological Society in 1947.

Major Works

Wirth held that sociology is essential to the proper study of humankind precisely because individuals "everywhere and always" find themselves within groups. His principal works are concerned with the impact of two quite different types of social order: race and ethnicity on the one hand and, on the other, the less organic—but no less influential—structures of human behavior informed by life in the urban community. These dual themes pervade his most significant study, The Ghetto, in which he presented the Jewish community of Chicago as a group which both influences and is influenced by its surroundings. "Urbanism as a Way of Life," a pioneering work in sociological understanding of urbanism, dealt with questions of alienation and the means by which the city produces its own modes of behavior. In Wirth's view of the urban environment, not only are individuals challenged as much by a sense of loneliness as by an awareness of freedom, they are equally divided in their response to outside influences. Thus whereas traditional groups—or indeed any groups—fail to hold a determining influence on the lives of persons within an urban setting, those individuals are more vulnerable than their rural counterparts to the appeal of mass movements. In "Consensus and Mass Communication," Wirth explored another theme he considered vital to the study of sociology: "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," he wrote, "the analysis of consensus rightly constitutes the focus of sociological investigations." Wirth took a pragmatic approach to sociological studies, and thus neither claimed to have developed a comprehensive theory that would predict all the particulars of social life, nor sought to do so; characteristically, he presented much of his most important work in the form of essays rather than books. In 1964, Albert J. Reiss, Jr. collected a number of Wirth's writings in On Cities and Social Life.

Principal Works

The Ghetto (nonfiction) 1928

"Urbanism as a Way of Life" (essay) 1938

"Consensus and Mass Communication" (essay) 1948

On Cities and Social Life: Selected Papers (essays and nonfiction) 1964


R. D. McKenzie (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: A review of The Gold Coast and the Slum and The Ghetto, in The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, November, 1929, pp. 486-87.

[In the following essay, McKenzie reviews The Ghetto along with another study of urbanism and ethnicity, Harvey W. Zorbaugh's The Gold Coast and the Slum.]

These two products from the University of Chicago [The Gold Coast and the Slum by Harvey W. Zorbaugh and The Ghetto by Wirth] are essentially studies of urban segregation. Zorbaugh approaches the subject from the standpoint of place. He analyzes the changing forms of human segregation within a specific region—the Near North Side of Chicago, an area a mile and a half long and a mile wide, in which live about ninety thousand people. Wirth, on the other hand, focuses his attention on the communal habits of a people, the Jews, and studies the ghetto in its natural development and various manifestations throughout Europe and America.

Zorbaugh's book is a graphic and intimate account of life among the most divergent groups which the processes of city growth have placed side by side in urban structure. Facing the lake is the "Gold Coast," girdled on the west by the "world of furnished rooms," which fades into the "rooming house area" and finally declines into a great "slum" section lying farther west. By direct observation, personal interviews, the use of documents, maps, and some statistical data, the author has succeeded in painting a very vivid picture of life in its contrasts and extremes in this section of Chicago. Dr. Zorbaugh, however, writes from the standpoint of a reporter rather than of a scientist. In his desire for descriptive effect he frequently violates the principles of scientific caution. Too often he yields to the temptation to generalize his illustrations and to explain uncommon behavior by ready-made formula.

For instance, after the quotation "One no longer is born to social position; one achieves social position by playing the social game," it adds nothing but rhythm to generalize, "And this is as true of the society of...

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William L. Kolb (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: A review of Community Life and Social Policy, in American Sociological Review, Vol. 21, No. 6, December, 1956, pp. 788-89.

[In the following essay, a review of Community Life and Social Policy, Kolb discusses Wirth's contributions to sociology within the context of a larger tradition.]

Somewhere in the recent literature it is written that the day of the system-builder in sociology is over. Yet this is true only in the sense that the builder of the "personal" system is no more. The task of testing, broadening, and deepening the theoretical tradition we have inherited goes on, not in isolation from research but in interactive relationship with it....

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Amitai Etzioni (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "The Ghetto— A Re-Evaluation," in Social Forces, Vol. 37, No. 3, March, 1959, pp. 255-62.

[In the following essay, occasioned by the republication of The Ghetto more than a quarter-century after its original release, Etzioni critiques the seminal work.]

The republication of The Ghetto by Louis Wirth1 seems to be an appropriate occasion for a re-evaluation2 of his thesis. It is of importance to state at the very beginning of this discussion that, although some concepts and conclusions of Wirth will be sharply criticized, in general this is one of the most important studies of the sociology of the Jews, a much...

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Joan Aldous (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Urbanization, the Extended Family, and Kinship Ties in West Africa," in Social Forces, Vol. 41, No. 1, October, 1962, pp. 6-12.

[In the following essay, Aldous, applying methodology pioneered by Wirth, examines the effects of urbanization on family systems in parts of West Africa.]

The effect of urbanization upon extended family relations has been extensively investigated within the last 10 years. The starting point for many of these studies has been Wirth's analysis of urbanism as a way of life written in 1938. According to Wirth, the city is a social organization that substitutes secondary for primary group relationships. Though dependent on more people for...

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Albert J. Reiss, Jr. (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Introduction: Sociology as a Discipline," in On Cities and Social Life, by Louis Wirth, The University of Chicago Press, 1964, pp. ix-xxx.

[In the following essay, an editor's introduction to Wirth's selected papers, Reiss provides an overview of Wirth's sociological ideas, and discusses these within the framework of the discipline as a whole.]

Sociology, for Louis Wirth, is a more or less organized body of knowledge about human behavior—"What is true of human behavior by virtue of the fact that always and everywhere men live a group existence?" Like others from the "Chicago school" of sociology, he held that the discipline of sociology consists of three...

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Earl Smith (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Louis Wirth and the Chicago School of Urban Sociology: An Assessment and Critique," in Humanity and Society, Vol. 9, No. 1, February, 1985, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Smith delineates the particulars of the Chicago School of Sociology and Wirth 's model of the city, then discusses these in light of later perspectives in urban studies.]

The city as a built form can .. . be regarded as a set of objects arranged according to some pattern in space. But there are few who would argue that cities are just that.

—David Harvey
Social Justice and the City


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Zane L. Miller (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Pluralism, Chicago School Style: Louis Wirth, the Ghetto, the City, and 'Integration'," in Journal of Urban History, Vol. 18, No. 3, May, 1992, pp. 251-79.

[In the following essay, Miller provides an overview of Wirth's career with special attention to the Chicago School and the influence of Karl Mannheim, and divides Wirth's sociology work into two distinct phases.]

Dick Wade, in 1989, reprimanded me for missing a convention session on the theoretical roots of the "new" urban history, then made his case about the roots of the "old" urban history. He located them in sociology, rather than economics or geography, and specifically in the Chicago school sociology...

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Further Reading


Salerno, Roger A. "Works about Wirth." In Louis Wirth: A Bio-Bibliography, pp. 108-30. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.

An extensive annotated list of writings about Wirth, including reference books; theses and dissertations; books, journals, periodicals, and papers; criticisms and analyses; and book reviews.


Christensen, James A. "Urbanism and Community Sentiment: Extending Wirth's Model." Social Science Quarterly 60, No. 3 (December 1979): 387-400.

Applies Wirth's urban model to a study of mostly rural communities in 100 counties of North Carolina.


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