Louis Wirth Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.