Louis Wirth

Louis Wirth
by Jennifer Platt, University of Sussex, England

Born (in Germany):  1897   Died: 1952
Nationality: Emigrated to USA in 1911, naturalized 1924

Education
1919 PhB, University of Chicago
1925 MA, University of Chicago
1926 PhD, University of Chicago  (Thesis topic, ‘The ghetto: a study in isolation’,
supervised by Robert Park.)

Posts held
1919-22  social worker
1926-28  instructor/assistant professor dept. of sociology, University of Chicago
1928-30  associate professor, Tulane University[1]
1930-31  SSRC research fellowship to travel in Europe
1931  assistant professor, University of Chicago (and managing editor, American Journal of Sociology)
1932  associate professor, University of Chicago
1940  professor, University of Chicago

ISA participation, main roles
1948 - Participant in preliminary meetings to set up ISA.
1949-52 Founding President [died 1952]

Participation in other settings
President, American Sociological Association, 1947-48[2]
Institut International de Sociologie
Masaryk Sociological Society
President, American Council on Race Relations
American Jewish Committee
Public Administration Clearing House
American Society of Planning Officials
National Association of Inter-group Relations

Intellectual and ISA career
Wirth came from a Jewish family in an agricultural village in Germany; his father was a cattle dealerSome members of the family had migrated to the US, and an uncle had a farm in Nebraska.  At the age of fourteen (well before the issue of Nazism arose[3]) he was sent to live with this uncle, and did sufficiently well in high school to get a scholarship to the University of Chicago.

In Odum (1951: 227-233), an account written by Wirth himself for that book states a general intellectual position:

‘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... more and more of them will be using their sociological knowledge as research workers , as analysts and as policy makers in... 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... There they will have to win their way by what they can contribute to the understanding and solutions of problems of human social life.’ (Odum 1951: 233).

Wirth’s ‘Urbanism as a way of life’ (1938) is famous and has been widely influential, but he says that, though he has worked most in the area of the city, ‘My published works, so far, are largely incorporated in the National Resource Planning Board’s reports of the committee on urbanism’ (Odum 1951: 231)  He clearly exemplified his own principles in trying to contribute to the social good, and made an ideological link not always made in the US: ‘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’(Odum 1951: 232); this often took the form of activity in the institutions of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which opened up new opportunities. 

His concern with race relations and the position of minority groups obviously owed something to his personal experience of the historical events of his lifetime, but it extended well beyond issues of anti-Semitism; his daughter describes him as identifying with the  American Negro (Marvick 1964: 336).  In 1942, he was recruited by Gunnar Myrdal to edit the manuscript of his An American Dilemma, a key work on American race relations (Salerno 1987: 25). 

Albert Reiss says of him that ‘Wirth not only emphasises that some of the most important knowledge sociologists  might gain was the knowledge of how to make things work, but also that this kind of understanding could best be gained in action to change things… Wirth’s “competent sociologist” was one who experiences the reality he investigates and assumes the full role of citizen as well as the role of scientist qua scientist…[4]  The interplay of scholarly interest, citizen role, and sociological expert or investigator are exemplified in Wirth’s case both in his writing and in his public and professional life.’ (Reiss 1964: xxvii-xxviii)

Those themes fitted well into the concerns of UNESCO’s Social Science Department, and so, combined with his wide practical experience and recognised organisational competence, as well as his US base and European connections, made him a strong candidate for the first president of ISA.  In his opening/presidential address to the first World Congress he makes the case for the general importance of sociology in helping to solve pressing world social problems, and the urgency of the need for its further scientific and comparative development.

References, other sources of information, related work

  • Bendix, Reinhard (1954), ‘Social theory and social action in the sociology of Louis Wirth’, American Journal of Sociology 59: 523-529.
  • Blumer, Herbert (1952): ‘In Memoriam: Louis Wirth, 1897-1952’, American Journal of Sociology 58: 69.
  • Marvick, Elisabeth Wirth (1964), ‘Biographical memorandum on Louis Wirth’, pp. 333-340 in Louis Wirth, On Cities and Social Life: Selected Papers, ed. Albert J. Reiss Jr.
  • Myrdal, Gunnar (1944)  An American Dilemma
  • Odum, Howard W. (1951), American Sociology
  • Reiss, Albert J. Jr. (1964) ‘Introduction’, pp.  ix-xxx in Louis Wirth, On Cities and Social Life: Selected Papers, ed. Albert J. Reiss Jr.
  • Salerno, Roger Allen (1987): Louis Wirth: A Bio-Bibliography.
  • Wirth, Louis (1928)  The Ghetto
  • Wirth, Louis (1938)  ‘Urbanism as a way of life’, American Journal of Sociology 44.1: 1-14.
  • Wirth, Louis (1948) ‘Consensus and Mass Communication’, American Sociological Review13: 1-15.  [ASA presidential address].
  • Wirth, Louis (1948) ‘World Community, World Society, and World Government’, pp. 9-20 in Quincy Wright, (ed.), The World Community/

Web site
None found.  His papers are available in the University of Chicago archives.

Presidential address
None given, but a substitute is:

‘The significance of sociology’, opening address, First World Congress of Sociology; International Social Science Bulletin, summer 1951, III.2: 197-201

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[1]  Salerno (1987: 14) cites his daughter as suggesting that his contract at Temple was not renewed because of his public support for birth control, and opposition to racial segregation.

[2]  Herbert Blumer’s (1952) obituary says that Wirth was in 1932 Secretary of the ASA, though both volumes of the ASA’s official history list Blumer himself as Secretary at the time.  Perhaps Blumer recruited his colleague to stand in for him while he had funding to spend time in Paris researching the fashion industry?

[3]  Later, he was to bring out a large number of family members, housing them in his home until they could get established independently in America.

[4]  However, Wirth was a theoretical sociologist as well as an activist; he taught German theory and the sociology of knowledge, and was responsible (with his then student Edward Shils) for translating Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia into English.  Blumer (1952: 69) said of him that ‘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.’