Louis Wirth “Urbanism as a Way of Life”

Louis Wirth posits similar reasons for the differences in the urban and rural milieu as does Georg Simmel. Wirth argues that the shift between nomadic civilization and contemporary civilization, and the shift from a predominately rural society to a predominantly urban society, is caused by the shift from agriculture to industrialism. This shift to an industrialized society has drastically changed social life. He states “The growth of cities and the urbanization of the world is one of the most impressive facts of modern times“, as it has given rise to a reshaping of the mode of living, sparking sociological interest in studying these changes and the process of urbanization.

Although experts in various fields of study have tried to constitute a definition of city, Wirth presents the sociological perspective on what social characteristics represent urban life. Rather than solely relying on quantitative characteristics such as density or location, urbanism, the life of the city dwellers, is best defined by the social characteristics that are transformed by, or that evolve from, these quantifiable characteristics. In other words, the numbers alone cannot simply explain social consequences of densely populated areas, with a large number of community members.

The level of heterogeneity in groups plays an important role in the urban mode of living. Statistically speaking, the larger a group becomes, the greater the likelihood that their differences are increased. As Simmel also points out, Wirth states that individuals with different values and social norms are not likely to bond and form kinship. This is normal as people tend to gravitate toward like-minded individuals. Groups are less homogenous in urban settings, and therefore social controls are weakened. Referring to my “The Metropolis and Mental Life” post, folks in the city are not as concerned about getting caught behaving badly, as the likelihood of them running into someone they know is low. Wirth also touches on the stress one would experience should they have a personal relation with the large number of people living in the city; instead urbanites tend to limit contact with neighbors choosing instead to interact with secondary contacts across segmented social situations.

Secondary, superficial relationships are exacerbated by population density. The shift to industrialization and the influx of people moving into the cities, created a need to develop specialized tasks and roles in order to “stand out” from the masses, further increasing the heterogeneity among groups. Wirth states “density thus reinforces the effect of numbers in diversifying men and their activities and in increasing the complexity of the social structure”. Complexity of the social structure results in high turnover rates in groups, and fluctuations in place of residence and employment lead to dissolution of organizations and solid relationships, both of which help to integrate society and create collective behavior. The sense of solidarity is often lost with the transient nature of city dwellers, i.e., most do not own homes and social mobility (up or down) allow for an easy departure form a community or organization.

The money economy grew as a result of industrialization and mass production, which Wirth proposes, “made for an impersonal market”. Although the language he uses evokes a more animalistic tone, Wirth’s idea of “predatory relationships” echoes Simmel’s “rational relationships” in that individuals lose some sense of humanity and compassion when the relationship is strictly quantitative in nature, rather than personal. Where each person is trying to get something out of the other, whether it is purchaser and seller or employer and employee. I would not argue, nor is Wirth arguing, that these relationships are inherently negative. Instead the argument should be made that an excess of these relationships are the underlying cause of the general mental condition Simmel and Wirth are eluding to.

The general consensus among sociologists is that an intersection of social characteristics, stemming primarily form the American movement toward industrialization in cities, creates an urban milieu known as urbanism. Drawing on Wirth’s observations that cities attract more minorities, more single parents and less family units, who rent rather than own, one solution to create a more cohesive environment with lasting relationships would be to create more opportunity for home purchases. Rent-to-own options could be made available and homeowners could receive tax break or other incentives for participating in the rent-to-own program. Another solution is to ensure that employment opportunities are available within communities to create that missing link between place of residence and place of employment. This would build a sense of community and solidarity.


Leave a Reply