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American Sociological Association: Louis Wirth
August 28, 1897 - May 3, 1952
Louis Wirth was born in Gemünden, a small village in Germany in 1897. His mother's brother had moved to the United States sometime earlier. On a return visit to Germany in 1911, he and his sister decided that there were more opportunities for Louis in the United States. Wirth lived first in Omaha, Nebraska before moving on to the University of Chicago.
After a short break after earning his undergraduate degree, Wirth returned to the University of Chicago for further studies, ultimately earning his doctoral degree in 1925. A few short assignments were followed by Wirth joining the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1931, under the chairmanship of Robert E. Park.
During his professional career, Wirth wrote extensively on urban life. In 1938 he published a book entitled Urbanism as a Way of Life, which argued for urbanism as the prevailing way of life in modern society. Wirth argued that the very size and density of modern cities had changed modern people and their relationships.
"Due to city size people cannot possibly know all other urbanites. Out of necessity, there is a shift away from primary relationships to secondary relationships. Urbanites interact with others not as individuals but with others in certain roles. For example, an urban dweller deals with many people in the course of the day such as the deli cashier and the doorman of his or her apartment building. The urbanite does not develop deep personal connections with these people but only interacts with them in terms of their roles. Personal relations become superficial and transitory. Urban life is marked by utilitarianism and efficiency. The density of living and heterogeneity of urban residents leads people to live in homogenous groups resulting in a 'mosaic of social worlds' in a city. Transitions across groups are difficult, and numerous social orders result adding to the segmentation of urban life." (World of Sociology, Palmisano (editor), 2001, p. 714)
Wirth was elected by his peers to serve as President of the American Sociological Society (later changed to Association) in 1947. His Presidential Address, "Consensus and Mass Communication", was delivered at the organization's annual meeting in New York City in December 1947.
Wirth died suddenly and unexpectedly one spring day in 1952 in Buffalo, New York at the young age of 55. He had been in Buffalo to speak at a conference on community relations; he collapsed and died following his presentation.
Upon his death in 1952, the following article in memory of Louis Wirth was published by Herbert Bloomer:
Louis Wirth, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, died on May 3, 1952, at the age of fifty-four years. He succumbed to a heart attack shortly after delivering an address at the University of Buffalo. There was no premonition of any coronary ailment.
His untimely death removes one of our most eminent sociologists. Coming at the prime of his intellectual vigor, his death occasions a serious loss to the field of sociology.
Dr. Wirth was born in Gemunden, Germany, on August 28, 1897. He came to the United States at the age of fourteen. After completing high school in Omaha, he pursued undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Chicago, receiving the Ph.B. degree in 1919, the M.A.. degree in 1925, and the Ph.D. degree in 1926. Aside from an appointment to Tulane University for the year 1928- 29, he had been on the staff of the department of sociology at the University of Chicago continuously since 1926, becoming assistant professor in 1931, associate professor in 1932, and full professor in 1940.
Dr. Wirth pursued a varied and productive professional career. His interests ranged widely, covering such fields as urbanization, community study, social planning, housing, social organization, human ecology, race relations, nationalities, minority groups, international relations, social theory, and the sociology of knowledge. To each of these areas he brought fresh perspective, realistic insight, and a high order of originality. He was equally at home in the realm of theory and in the field of minute empirical fact, and he had the rare gift of bringing the two into fruitful confluence. So outstanding was he in this respect that his advice and guidance were often sought by social scientists, scholars, government officials, foundations, research agencies, and action groups. That he was able, amid these formidable demands, to write so much of high professional quality is a tribute to his great capacity and to his gifted mind. His writings include several books, of which the first is his justly renowned The Ghetto, and over one hundred learned articles. He was an inspiring and highly effective teacher and mentor, stimulating and guiding a surprisingly large number of graduate students who have since risen to prominent positions in sociology and in other areas.
His distinguished career is mirrored in the many posts of eminence which he came to occupy. Among them were the following: secretary of the American Sociological Society (1932) and president (1947); regional chairman of the National Resources Planning Board; director of planning, Illinois Post War Planning Commission; president, American Council on Race Relations; editor, “Sociology Series” of the Macmillan Company; associate editor, American Journal of Sociology; and president, International Association of Sociologists. His election as the first president of the International Association of Sociologists – a position he held at the time of his death – is signal testimony to the high repute which he had achieved in world scholarship.
Even though he had already attained the highest eminence in the field of sociology, a brilliant future still lay ahead of Dr. Wirth. In a personal conversation a few days before his death he had indicated his intention to restrict the broad range of his interests and to focus his efforts more centrally on the development of systematic social theory. His rich scholarly knowledge, his broad practical experience, and his prodigious mental talents promised achievements of the highest order in this endeavor. The all too early ending of his career inflicts a grievous loss upon the sociological world.
In his 1951 book, American Sociology: The Story of Sociology in the United States through 1950, Howard W. Odum provided the following biographical sketch of Louis Wirth (pages 227-233):
In contrast to his distinguished colleague and forerunner, Albion W. Small, who, as an American, went to Germany for his degree in sociology, Louis Wirth, born in Germany, came to America and two years after his naturalization in 1924 received his Ph.D. degree in sociology at the University of Chicago, and a little more than two decades later had become professor of sociology, associate dean of the graduate school and thirty-seventh president of the American Sociological Society, in 1947, consultant and adviser for the Social Science Research Council of the National Resources Planning Board and the Federal Public Housing Authority, as well as a moving force in, and president of the American Council on Race Relations. Nearer home, he was chairman of the University Committee on Education, Training, and Research in Race Relations and director of planning for the Illinois postwar planning commission.
Wirth's story is again representative of American sociology in many ways. Graduating from the University of Chicago in 1919, with an M.A. in 1925 and a Ph.D. in 1926, he began as a social worker in 1919, acted as director of the delinquent boys' division of the Bureau of Personal Service, 1919 to 1922, started in the University of Chicago department of sociology as instructor from 1926 to 1928, became assistant professor in 1931, associate professor in 1932, and professor in 1940. His only excursions of any length away from the university were as associate professor in Tulane University, 1928-30, and research fellow in Europe for the Social Science Research Council in 1930-31.
Wirth, like so many others, came into the field of sociology through the influence of teachers. He writes: "I started out as a pre-medical student at the University of Chicago and in the course of my undergraduate work, as part of my optional courses, took some courses in sociology. This brought me in contact with Park, Burgess, Thomas and Small, and once having been exposed to them I soon discovered that there was the field where I wanted to work. I was enthusiastic and radical in those days in a sense that I believed a science of human behavior was not only possible but indispensable. What I read in the course of my studies impressed me as rather disappointing. Through the inspiration and the help of those teachers whom I have mentioned above, I was impelled to go on and do what little I could to make our knowledge in this field perhaps a little less disappointing to others."
Wirth belonged to various organizations including the Institut International de Sociologie and the Masaryk Sociological Society. He was a member of the Sociological Research Association and associate editor of The American journal of Sociology. In addition to many contributed articles to the sociological journals, The Survey, and others, his main published work includes The City, with Park and others, 1925; The Ghetto, 1928; Our Cities: Their Role in the National Economy, 1937; Urban Government, with others, 1938; Urban Planning and Land Policies, with others, 1939. He was also editor of Contemporary Social Problems, 1939, and A Decade of Social Science Research, 1940.
Wirth's contributions and methodology may be best understood from his own partial estimates. He regards sociology "as the study of what is true of man by virtue of the fact that everywhere and always he lives a group life. Of course, all of the social sciences are concerned with human nature and the social order, but each, on account of its own history as an intellectual discipline, emphasizes some aspects more than others. Thus, the economists are concerned with what is true of man by virtue of the fact that at least some of the things he seeks are scarce and that, hence, he has to `economize.' The political scientist is interested in what is true of man primarily by virtue of the fact that there are differential power relationships between men and, hence, that there is such a thing as the state and the formal organization of authority, as in government.
"Sociology, then, as I conceive it, is a general social science in the sense that the questions it asks about human nature and the social order are of a kind that cut across different specific contexts and accent the group factor in human behavior which, of course, is also present in the economic and political spheres. In another sense, sociology is a specific discipline in that it focuses on the nature and genesis and forms of the human personality and of attitudes (social psychology) ; in that it also is concerned with the structuring of group life; formal and informal groups; social stratification; social mobility; castes; classes; status groups; racial and ethnic groups; communities, urban and rural; sects and denominations, races and nationalities; the family and so forth (social organizations)."
Concerning the scientific nature of sociology, Wirth has a great deal to say. "Insofar as we wish to be a science, however, we must seek to establish valid generalizations. Hence, we are concerned with a description of unique instances only insofar as they can be used for the establishment of generalized descriptions and more abstract general propositions. We should try to carry our findings to as precise a point of mensuration as the data and our techniques allow. I do not, however, agree with those who believe that measurement is the only criterion of science. The propositions at which we arrive should have predictive value, but here again quantification is not a necessary element in prediction. There are certain aspects of our subject that lend themselves especially well to quantification, such as population studies where we are dealing with countable units, but as in other fields, I would be content if for the time being we could arrive at an approximate magnitude expressed in such terms as `more or less' hoping, of course, that sometime we might also be able to say `by how much.' It is my impression that in a good many mensurative studies the original categories we employ are so rough and the units of measurement so vague that the more refined mathematical statistical procedures are somewhat out of place or at least premature."
Wirth is among those who wish to re-examine the concepts of values as related to sociology. "In my conception of sociology, I should not omit mention of our relationship to values. We are, of course, as scientists or would-be scientists, interested in understanding what is, rather than what ought to be. But it has been my experience that almost everything we do is tied up with the problem of values. Values determine our intellectual interests, the selection of our problems for analysis, our selection and interpretation of the data and, to a large extent, also our generalizations and, of course, our application of these generalizations. Therefore, I believe the sociologist, like other social scientists, must make greater efforts than physical and biological scientists to make explicit the value premises from which he proceeds."
Concerning his own work, Wirth sets down some of the things that he would like to have regarded as more or less representative of what he has done. About theory he writes: "I have, myself, worked a great deal in what is called the fields of Theory and History of Sociology, but most of what I have read of sociological theory had, for the most part, been best left unwritten, and most of what I have read of the history of sociology has been less an analysis of the cumulative growth of knowledge in our field than a piecing together of what so and so has thought about this or that, which seems to me to be a poor substitute for the history of an intellectual discipline. In my work in theory, especially through my years of teaching it to graduate students, I have tried to emphasize that theory is an aspect of everything they do and not a body of knowledge separate from research and practice. By theory I mean the definition of interests of scholars, the assumptions with which they start, the conceptual framework in terms of which they analyze their materials and the types of generalizations which they develop as they are related to other generalizations in the field as a whole or knowledge as a whole. "Next to being a theorist, I believe I have done something in the field of human ecology and the study of the community, especially the urban community. My interest in this field began largely through the stimulation of Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess. My first publication in this field was a bibliography of the urban community which appeared in Park et al., The City, which I still think has had considerable influence upon the formulation of courses and the writing of textbooks in the field of `urban sociology.' In my work on The Ghetto I fused two interests, namely my interest in racial and cultural relations. I have done perhaps more in the field of the city than in any other field. My published works, so far, are largely incorporated in the National Resources Planning Board's reports of the committee on urbanism, of which I was a member. In the course of my membership on that committee I did much of the research and writing, particularly on the volume Our Cities — Their Role in the National Economy which I think was some-thing of a pioneer study and became a rare thing among government publications, namely a best seller. The Local Community Fact Book on Chicago was a further development of my interest in the urban community. I think this work, too, established something of a pattern for urban community studies. The one publication in this field for which I have received perhaps more requests for reprints than for anything else I have ever done is the article in The American Journal of Sociology entitled Urbanism as a Way of Life which seeks to set forth a systematic, theoretical framework for the sociological analysis of urban phenomena.
"My second interest is in what is known as the sociology of knowledge. This is a field which is misnamed and with the misnaming of which, unfortunately, I have had something to do. It should rather be called the sociology of intellectual life. You may recall that I translated and wrote a rather extensive introduction to Mannheim's `Ideology and Utopia' and thus introduced this work to the English-speaking public. I have written very little in this field myself, aside from an article or two, but I have underway a monograph on the sociology of science which I hope will have some value. I have also directed a number of Doctors' theses in this field, such as one on the sociology of art and another one on the sociology of literature which begin to open these fields to empirical inquiry.
"My third, and at the present time, my main love is the field of race relations and minority problems. I have published a number of things in this field including a number of articles in the Journal, a little mono-graph for the Social Science Research Council on `Problems of Minorities in War Time,' a chapter in Linton's book on `The Science of Man in the World Crisis' entitled `The Problem of Minority Groups' which some of my friends think is one of the best things in the field, probably because it attempts to establish a typology of minorities. In this connection I cooperated with the Myrdal projects and published with Herbert Goldhamer a monograph in that series on miscegenation. I think in this field our action has so far outrun our knowledge that we must concentrate our efforts for some time to come on fundamental research concerning the nature and functioning of prejudice and antipathy, on problems of discrimination, on segregation, and on intergroup tensions and conflicts that furnish a more reliable basis for social action.
"I have also had a good deal of interest and experience in the field of housing and planning. Because I believe that planning is one of the roads by which we may preserve a democratic society, I have written and worked a good deal in this field."
"What I think about sociology and its task in the present-day world is perhaps best set forth in my Presidential Address. Although the subject matter of this paper was primarily consensus and mass communication, I believe similar ideas would also be relevant to problems of housing, planning, international relations, race relations, and others. I believe the time is past when we will be educating and training sociologists primarily to go out into the world to educate and train other sociologists. Sociologists will, of course, still be required to keep up the continuity of learning in their field, but more and more of them will be using their sociological knowledge as research workers, as analysts and as policy makers in the various fields of social life, such as government, labor, business, welfare, and education. They will be involved in the field of international relations, in industrial relations, labor relations, administration, race relations, social work, social psychiatry, mass communications, housing, planning, and a variety of other fields. There they will have to win their way by what they can contribute to the understanding and solutions of problems of human social life. I do not think we can win prestige either with academic administrations or with the public merely by asserting that we know something and can find out some-thing. We have to earn the prestige by what we can show we actually do know and by demonstrating the importance of what we have discovered in the course of intellectual competition with other scientific disciplines and with common sense knowledge."