Louis Wirth (August 28, 1897 - May 3, 1952) was an American sociologist and member of the Chicago school of sociology. His interests included city life, minority group behaviour and mass media and he is recognised as one of the leading urban sociologists.
Louis Wirth was born in the small village of Gemünden in the Hunsrück, Germany. He was one of seven children born to Rosalie Lorig (1868-1948, from Butzweiler/Eifel) and Joseph Wirth. Gemünden was a pastoral community, and Joseph Wirth earned a living as a cattle dealer. The family was Jewish and both of his parents were religiously active. Louis left Gemünden to live with his older sister at his uncle's home in Omaha, Nebraska in 1911. Soon after arriving in the United States, Louis met and married Mary Bolton. The couple had two daughters, Elizabeth (Marvick) and Alice (Gray).
Wirth studied in the United States and became a leading figure in Chicago School Sociology. His interests included city life, minority group behaviour and mass media and he is recognised as one of the leading urban sociologists. Wirth's major contribution to social theory of urban space was a classic essay Urbanism as a Way of Life, published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1938. In this essay Wirth used Weber's notion of the ideal type, seeing the urban and the rural as constituting two distinct types of community at opposite ends of a continuum.
His research was mostly concerned with how Jewish immigrants adjusted to life in urban America, as well as the distinct social processes of city life. Wirth was a supporter of applied sociology, and believed in taking the knowledge offered by his discipline and using it to solve real social problems.
Wirth writes that urbanism is a form of social organisation that is harmful to culture, and describes the city as a "Substitution of secondary for primary contacts, the weakening of bonds of kinship, the declining social significance of the family, the disappearance of neighbourhood and the undermining of traditional basis of social solidarity". Wirth was concerned with the effects of the city upon family unity, and he believed urbanization leads to a 'low and declining urban reproduction rates ... families are smaller and more frequently without children than in the country'. According to Wirth, marriage tends to be postponed, and the proportion of single people is growing, leading to isolation and less interaction.
But 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"; "metropolitan civilization is without question the best civilization that human beings have ever devised"; "the city everywhere has been the center of freedom and toleration, the home of progress, of invention, of science, of rationality" or: "the history of civilization can be written in terms of the history of cities".
The profound social understanding of minority groups that Wirth obtained first-hand as a Jewish immigrant 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, some seventy years after his original investigations.
A good example of Wirth's work, which includes a comprehensive bibliography, is On Cities and Social Life, published in 1964.
Salerno, Roger Allen (1987): Louis Wirth: A Bio-Bibliography. New York, Westport, London
Vortkamp, Wolfgang (2002): Partizipation und soziale Integration in heterogenen Gesellschaften. Louis Wirths Konzeption sozialer Organisation in der Tradition der Chicagoer Schule, Opladen ISBN978-3-8100-3069-6