Louis Wirth August 28, — May 3, was an American sociologist and member of the Chicago school of sociology. His interests included city life, minority group behavior, and mass media, and he is recognised as one of the leading urban sociologists. He was the first president of the International Sociological Association —   and the 37th president of the American Sociological Association The family was Jewish and both of his parents were religiously active. 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
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Industrialism does not simply increase numbers; it distributes them in particular ways, concentrating mass populations in cities. Modern life is unquestionably urban life. It may be argued that it was in the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome that a distinctively urban existence was first brought to that pitch of refinement that signifies an advanced civilization.
Certainly for those fortunates who were free citizens the Athens of Pericles provided an agreeable existence. The Italian cities of the Renaissance, too, provided a distinctly urban culture. Industrial urbanism differs from preindustrial urbanism in two ways. The first is in its quantitative reach and intensity; the second is in the new qualitative relationship it sets up between the city and society.
For all the culture and sophistication of the preindustrial city , it remained a minority experience. Full participation in urban life was available to no more than the 3 or 4 percent of the population who were city dwellers in 3rd-millennium- bc Egypt and Mesopotamia and to the 10 to 15 percent of Romans who lived in cities at the zenith of imperial Rome but who were heavily dependent on food supplies from North Africa.
These latter represent a high point of preindustrial urbanism. Industrialization brings a growth in trade and manufactures. To serve these activities it requires centralized sites of production, distribution, exchange, and credit. It demands a regular system of communications and transport. It multiplies the demand that political authorities establish a dependable coinage, a standard system of weights and measures , a reasonable degree of protection and safety on the roads, and regular enforcement of the laws.
All these developments conduce to a vast increase in urbanization. Whereas in typical agrarian societies 90 percent or more of the population are rural, in industrial societies it is not uncommon for 90 percent or more to be urban. The growth of cities with industrialization can be illustrated by the example of the United Kingdom.
In about a fifth of its population lived in towns and cities of 10, or more inhabitants. By two fifths were so urbanized; and if smaller towns of 5, or more are included, as they were in the census of that year, more than half the population could be counted as urbanized. In the span of a century a largely rural society had become a largely urban one. The pattern was repeated on a European and then a world scale as industrialization proceeded. At the beginning of the 19th century, continental Europe excluding Russia was less than 10 percent urbanized, with respect to cities of 10, or more; by the end of the century it was about 30 percent urbanized 10 percent in cities with , or more , and by the urban population was roughly 78 percent.
In the United States in , only 6 percent of the population lived in towns of 2, or more; in the census reported that for the first time more than half of the American people lived in cities. Taking the world as a whole, in no more than 2.
This trend has been accompanied by a great growth of very large cities, of a type virtually unknown in the preindustrial world. Cities of more than 1 million inhabitants numbered 16 in , 67 in , and in In , 16 cities had populations exceeding 6 million. As with population growth, it was in the underdeveloped nations that the fastest rates of urban growth were to be found.
The rapidly expanding population of a countryside unable to support it sought the city for both escape and opportunity, though in many cases it was a perilous choice. In the early 21st century, Africa and Asia were nearly 40 percent urbanized. But while urbanization in the underdeveloped nations repeats some of the more distressing features of its Western counterpart—overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and unemployment—the compensation and eventual remedy of economic growth has been largely lacking.
With some partial exceptions, such as Brazil, Mexico, South Korea , Taiwan , southern coastal China , and Singapore, the underdeveloped world has known urbanization without industrialization. The result has been the rapid growth of shantytowns on the edges of the big cities. It has been estimated that about four or five million families in Latin America live in shantytowns.
Urbanism cannot be understood simply by statistics of urban growth. It is a matter, too, of a distinctive culture and consciousness. Urbanism is a way of life, as classically analyzed by the German sociologist Georg Simmel and the American sociologist Louis Wirth. It may encourage frivolous and fleeting cults and fashions. It can detach people from their traditional communal moorings, leaving them morally stranded and so inclined to harbour unreal expectations and feverish dreams.
In the very number of social contacts it necessarily generates, it may compel individuals to erect barriers to protect their privacy. Individuals may be forced into an attitude of reserve and isolation. At the same time, cities promote diversity and creativity.
They attract the best and the brightest. If anything is to be accomplished in modern society, it almost certainly will be in the city. Cities are the forcing house of change and growth. Minds naturally are there oriented to the future. But whether they deplored or praised urban life, most commentators have agreed that, with industrialism, the city moved into a pivotal new relation with society as a whole. Preindustrial cities were islands in an agrarian sea.
They hailed each other across vast alien tracts of nonurban life, which remained largely indifferent to and unaffected by their practices. Essentially they were parasitic on the countryside and on the peasant masses whose agricultural labour sustained them. Their disappearance not only would not have mattered to the peasants but would in most cases have been welcomed.
With industrial urbanism, this relationship was reversed. The countryside now became dependent on the city. It became an integral but peripheral part of a single economic system revolving around trade and commerce that was centred on the cities.
Largely emptied of people, the countryside was now in effect simply another theatre of industrial operations for city merchants and bankers. Political and economic power resided in the city; industrial and financial corporations became the dominant landowners, replacing individual proprietors. Except in pockets largely maintained as quaint retreats for tourists, rustic life virtually disappeared; certainly it no longer significantly affected the values and practices of the larger society.
The city became both the symbol and the reality of industrial society as a whole. No longer, as in the past, standing in a merely mechanical relation to other parts of society, the city took its place at the centre of an increasingly organic whole. Industrialism created a centralized web of social relationships, and the city was the node.
It dictated the style and set the standard for the whole society, imposing on all its own economic, political, and cultural framework. Article Media. Info Print Print. Table Of Contents. Submit Feedback. Thank you for your feedback. Introduction Becoming modern The revolution of modernity The West and the world The dual revolution The nature of modern society General features Economic change Population change Urbanism as a way of life Work and the family Social structure Secularization and rationalization Social problems Modern society and world society Western and non-Western routes to modernity One world or many Postmodern and postindustrial society New developments in economic and social structure New patterns of urban life.
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Louis Wirth's Urbanism as a Way of Life
Industrialism does not simply increase numbers; it distributes them in particular ways, concentrating mass populations in cities. Modern life is unquestionably urban life. It may be argued that it was in the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome that a distinctively urban existence was first brought to that pitch of refinement that signifies an advanced civilization. Certainly for those fortunates who were free citizens the Athens of Pericles provided an agreeable existence.
Urbanism as a way of life
Just as the beginning of Western civilization is marked by the permanent settlement of formerly nomadic peoples in the Mediterranean basin, so the beginning of what is distinctively modern in our civilization is best signalized by the growth of great cities Because the city is the product of growth rather than of instantaneous creation, it is to be expected that the influences which it exerts upon the modes of life should not be able to wipe out completely the previously dominant modes of human association. To a greater or lesser degree, therefore, our social life bares the imprint of an earlier folk society, the characteristic modes of settlement of which were the farm, the manor, and the village. This historic influence is reinforced by the circumstances that the population of the city itself is in large measure recruited from the countryside, where a mode of life reminiscent of this earlier form of existence persists. Hence we should not expect to find abrupt and discontinuous variation between urban and rural types of personality. The city and the country may be regarded as two poles in reference to one or the other of which all human settlements tend to arrange themselves.