Louis Wirth (1897-1952) was a sociologist from the"Chicago school" tradition. His research was concerned with 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.
Louis Wirth was born on August 28, 1897 in the small village of Gemuden, Germany. He was one of seven children born to Rosalie Lorig and Joseph Wirth. Gemuden was a pastoral community and Joseph Wirth earned a living as a cattle dealer. The Wirths were one of only a few Jewish families in the village. Both of his parents were active in their religious community.
Wirth and his siblings attended the local Protestant elementary school and were taught religion and Hebrew privately. Most children from Gemuden went to work after finishing the eighth grade and very few had the opportunity to go on to secondary school. Wirth's mother strongly supported her children's education. When Wirth finished grade school, his mother arranged for her brother, Isaac Lorig, to take Wirth and his older sister, Flora, to the United States where her four brothers lived so they could continue their education. In 1911 Wirth and his sister moved to Omaha, Nebraska to live with Emanuel Lorig and his family. There they learned English and went to high school. Wirth worked in his uncle's dry goods store. This uncle expected him to help with the business once he graduated from high school. Instead, Wirth won a regional scholarship to the University of Chicago and went to college.
Wirth began his college career as a pre-medical student, but soon realized he was more interested in sociology. At that time the famous "Chicago school" of sociology was just beginning. Wirth was educated by the founders of this classical school—Albion Small, W.I. Thomas, Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and George Mead. They developed a particular approach to urban sociology, focusing especially on immigration and assimilation, that strongly shaped Wirth's academic career. Wirth embraced the city of Chicago and took advantage of the cultural, educational, and political resources that it had to offer. During this time he developed his political beliefs, which were decidedly anti-capitalist. He also reconsidered his religious beliefs, declaring himself to be an atheist. Wirth served as president of the Cosmopolitan Club, which was concerned with world political and social issues. In 1917 he met Mary Bolton, a student from Paducah, Kentucky, whom he would eventually marry.
Wirth received his Bachelor's degree in 1919 and began to work full time as a social worker for Jewish Charities of Chicago. He was still enrolled at the University of Chicago as a part-time graduate student. In 1922 he returned to Germany for the first time since 1911 and brought Mary Bolton with him to meet his family. There was some tension in the family towards the interfaith relationship, but they soon learned to like his future wife. When the couple returned to the United States they were married on February 14, 1923. Wirth then became a full-time graduate student while his wife worked as a social worker. He completed his master's degree in 1925 and his dissertation a year later.
Researched Jewish Immigration
Wirth's graduate work explored how Jewish immigrants assimilated into American culture. He used his position at the Jewish Charities in Chicago to interview Jewish families and try to understand how they adapted to urban American life after living in rural European communities. Wirth concluded that there was "cultural conflict" between old values and new experiences that led to social disorganization among Jewish immigrant communities. According to biographer Roger A. Salerno, Wirth's graduate work was his "first significant expression of interest in urban social disorganization, ghetto life, assimilation, consensus, and urban cultural conflict."
Wirth pursued these themes in his doctoral dissertation on the Jewish ghetto. He examined the historical development of this ethnically segregated enclave in the city and the sociological organization of ghetto life. In an article entitled "The Ghetto" published in the American Journal of Sociology in July 1927, Wirth wrote that "The ghetto exhibits at least one historical form of dealing with a dissenting minority within a larger population, and as such has served as an instrument of control." This work was published as a book called The Ghetto in 1928 and was Wirth's only authored book published during his academic career. It was well received in the academic community as representative of the "Chicago school" and an important work in Jewish studies.
Wirth began teaching part-time at the University of Chicago as a graduate student in 1925 and remained there until 1928. When he did not receive a permanent teaching position at Chicago he moved with his wife and daughter, Elizabeth, to New Orleans, where he got a teaching position at Tulane University. Wirth remained at Tulane until 1930, but his contract was not renewed after that. It is believed that Wirth's progressive views on racial assimilation did not sit well with conservative southern university officials.
Wirth spent the following year traveling in Europe on a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. He was studying the sociology of knowledge and met with some of the leading European scholars of that time, including Karl Mannheim. While he was in Europe, his former mentor, Robert Park, became acting chairperson of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. He offered Wirth a faculty position. In 1931 Wirth became an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. That same year he also served as the secretary and treasurer of the American Sociological Association and the managing editor of the American Journal of Sociology . In 1932 Wirth and one of his graduate students, Edward Shils, finished a translation of Karl Mannheim's book Ideology and Utopia.
In 1938 Wirth and his assistant, Margaret Furez, compiled the first Local Community Fact Book containing important census data on 75 Chicago communities. The book became instantly popular among academics and public officials alike. The same year Wirth published his most famous paper, "Urbanism as a Way of Life," in the American Journal of Sociology . This paper was Wirth's only published attempt at proposing a formal theory of urbanism. It combined both European and Chicago School perspectives to analyze urbanization as a social process. According to biographer Roger A. Salerno, "It represents the epitome of classic urban sociological literature. By utilizing the concepts, methods, and pragmatic posture of his teachers, Louis Wirth attempted to create a theory of urbanism which would be representative of an urban sociological paradigm in the tradition of the Chicago school." In this essay Wirth wrote that "The distinctive feature of man's mode of living in the modern age is his concentration into gigantic aggregations around which cluster lesser centers and from which radiate the ideas and practices that we call civilization."
In this essay Wirth explained that size, density, and heterogeneity defined the city. It was these three features that created the specifically urban way of life. Like the classical theorists Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, Wirth believed that the development of institutions and bureaucracies created an impersonal, segmented, and superficial lifestyle which would lead to personal and community breakdown. Because of these views, the "Wirthian" perspective became associated with a pessimistic type of urban theory. However, Wirth himself also saw beneficial features of urban life. In particular he noted that the city afforded a great deal of personal freedom and mobility that led to greater opportunities for personal expression and creativity.
Family and Community Life
As Wirth was establishing his academic career in Chicago, he was also trying to help his family escape Nazi Germany. At this time Wirth and his wife lived in a small apartment near the university with their two daughters, Elizabeth and Alice. In the late 1930s the Wirths sponsored the immigration of 13 relatives from Germany, including Wirth's parents. The family members lived in the Wirth apartment until they were able to establish themselves. In 1941 the Wirths were finally able to buy a house.
Aside from Wirth's academic responsibilities, he was also involved in citizen's groups and government projects. He believed that sociological knowledge should be applied to practical problems and had a strong sense of social commitment. He spent more of his time speaking in public than in writing. He regularly attended professional meetings, conferences on housing, public hearings, and various community group meetings. He was an active member of the Urban League, the American Jewish Committee, president of the University of Chicago Quadrangle Club, and president of the Society for Social Research. He also belonged to the Public Administration Clearing House, the American Society of Planning Officials, and the National Association of Inter-group Relations.
Since Wirth was so interested in putting sociology into practice, it is no surprise that he was a strong supporter of urban planning. It was a way in which Wirth could take the knowledge gained through sociological research and use it to solve urban problems, such as housing development, zoning, and other land use issues. Urban planning became popular during the Roosevelt administration, it was recognized that engineers and architects alone were not sufficient to solve urban problems and social scientists were welcomed into the arena. In 1944 Wirth became the director of planning for the Illinois Post War Planning Commission.
End of Career
Wirth was not comfortable with theory construction and did not pursue the ideas he put forth in "Urbanism as a Way of Life." Instead he focused more attention on public speaking and applied sociology. He continued to be heavily involved in his professional responsibilities, serving as president of the American Sociological Association in 1947 and the first president of the International Sociological Association in 1950. Wirth died of a heart attack in Buffalo, New York on May 3, 1952, while participating in a conference on race relations and community living.
Wirth was a product and a pillar of the Chicago school of urban sociology. He was well respected as a scholar, teacher, and social activist. His early work on Jewish immigration is a classic example of this tradition and made a significant contribution to both sociology and Jewish studies. He was a strong proponent of the human ecology perspective on urban sociology and trained a generation of sociologists in this tradition. His best-known work, a theoretical article on urbanism, shaped the direction of urban sociology. However, it is ironic that he is best known for his theoretical work when, in fact, his lifelong focus was on applied sociology. He believed in using knowledge to solve real problems and was himself an active and dedicated community member.
Salerno, Roger A., Louis Wirth: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press, 1987.
Wirth, Louis, The Ghetto, University of Chicago Press, 1928.
Wirth, Louis, On Cities and Social Life: Selected Papers, University of Chicago Press, 1964.
American Prospect, May 22, 2000.