Louis Wirth (August 28, – May 3, ) was an American sociologist and member of the His interests included city life, minority group behaviour and mass media and he is recognised as one of the leading urban sociologists. Wirth writes that urbanism is a form of social organisation that is harmful to culture , and. Louis Wirth posits similar reasons for the differences in the urban and rural milieu as does Georg Simmel. Wirth argues that the shift between. Louis Wirth has mentioned four characteristics of urban system or urbanism Following Louis Wirth, Urbanism is a way of life, is characterised by extensive.

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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. In viewing urban-industrial and rural-folk society as ideal types of communities, we may obtain a perspective for the analysis of the basic models of human association as they appear in contemporary civilization. A sociologically significant definition 1 of the city seeks to select those elements of urbanism which mark it as a distinctive mode of human group life.

The characterization of a community as urban on the basis of size alone is obviously arbitrary As long as we identify urbanism with the physical entity of the city, viewing it merely as rigidly delimited in space, and proceed as if urban attributes abruptly ceased to be manifested beyond an arbitrary boundary line, we are not likely to arrive at any adequate conception of urbanism as a mode of life.

The technological developments in transportation and communication which virtually mark a new epoch in human history have accentuated the role of cities as dominant elements in our civilization and have enormously extended the urban mode of living beyond the confines of the city itself. The dominance of the city, especially of the great city, may be regarded as a consequence of the concentration in cities of industrial, commercial, financial, and administrative facilities and actvities, transportation and communication lines, and cultural and recreational equipment such as the press, radio stations, theaters, libraries, museums, concert halls, operas, hospitals, colleges, research and publishing centers, professional organizations, and religious and welfare institutions.

Were it not for the attraction and suggestions that the city exerts through these instrumentalities upon the rural population, the differences between the rural and the urban modes of life2 would he even greater than they are. Urbanization no longer denotes merely the process by which persons are attracted to a place called the city and incorporated into its system of life.

It refers also to that cumulative accentuation of the characteristics distinctive of the xs of life which is associated with the growth of cities, and finally to the changes in the direction of modes of life recognized as urban which are apparent among people, wherever they may be, who have come under the spell of the influences which the city exerts by virtue of the power of its institutions and personalities operating through the means of communication and transportation.

The shortcomings which attach to number of inhabitants as a criterion of urbanism apply for the most part to density of population as well Since our census enumerates the night rather than wag day population of an area, the locale of the most intensive urban life the city center generally has low population density, and the industrial and commercial areas of the city, which contain the most characteristic economic activities underlying urban society, would scarcely anywhere be truly urban if density were literally interpreted as a mark of urbanism.

The fact that the urban community is distinguished by a large aggregation and relatively3 dense concentration of population can scarcely be left out of account in a definition of the city; nevertheless wirrh criteria must be seen as relative to the general cultural context in which cities arise and exist A sociological definition must obviously be inclusive enough to comprise whatever essential characteristics these different types of cities have in common as social entities, but it obviously cannot be so detailed as to take account of all the variations implicit in the manifold classes sketched above.

Presumably some of the characteristics of cities are more significant in conditioning the nature of urban life than others, and we may expect the outstanding features of the urban-social scene to vary in accordance with size, density, and differences in the functional type of cities.

Moreover, we may infer that rural life will bear the imprint of urbanism in the measure that through contact and communication it comes under the influence of cities It is particularly important to call attention to the danger of confusing urbanism with industrialism and modern capitalism.

The rise of cities in the modern world is undoubtedly not independent of lif emergence of modern power-driven machine technology, mass production, and capitalistic enterprise; but different as the cities of earlier epochs may have been by virtue of their development in a preindustrial and precapitalistic order from the great cities urbanisk today, they were also cities. For sociological purposes a city may be defined as a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals.


On the basis of the postulates which this minimal definition suggests, a theory of urbanism may be formulated in the light of existing knowledge concerning social groups. A Theory of Urbanism The central problem of the sociologist of the city is to discover the forms of social action and organization that typically emerge in relatively permanent, compact settlements of large worth of heterogeneous individuals.

We must also infer that urbanism will assume its most characteristic and extreme form in the measure in which the conditions with which it is congruent are present. Thus the larger, the more densely populated, and the more heterogeneous a community, the more accentuated the characteristics associated with urbanism will be. It should be recognized, however, that social institutions and practices may be accepted and continued for reasons other than those that originally brought them into existence, and that accordingly the urban mode of life may be perpetuated under conditions quite foreign to those necessary for its origin The city has thus historically been the melting-pot of races4, peoples, and cultures, and a most favorable breeding-ground of new biological and cultural hybrids.

It has not only tolerated but rewarded individual differences. It has brought together people from the ends of the earth because they are different and thus useful to one another, rather than because they are homogeneous and like-minded.

A number of sociological propositions concerning the relationship between A numbers of population, B density of settlement, C heterogeneity of urbqnism and group life can be formulated on the basis of observation and research. Ever since Aristotle’s politics, it has been recognized that increasing the number of inhabitants in a settlement beyond a certain limit will affect the relationships lire them and the character of the city.

Large numbers involve, as has been pointed out, a greater range of individual variation. Furthermore, the greater the number of individuals participating in a process of interaction, the greater is the potential differentiation between them. The personal traits, the occupations, the cultural life, and the ideas of the members of an urban community may, therefore, be expected to range between more widely separated poles than those of rural inhabitants.

That such variations should give rise to the spatial segregation of individuals according to color, ethnic heritage, economic and social status, tastes and preferences, may readily be inferred. The bonds of kinship, of neighborliness, and the sentiments arising out of luois together for generations under a common folk tradition5 are likely to be absent or, at best, relatively weak in an aggregate the members of which have such diverse origins and backgrounds.

Under such circumstances competition and formal control mechanisms furnish the substitutes for the bonds of solidarity that are relied upon to hold a folk society together Characteristically, urbanites meet one another urbxnism highly segmental roles. They are, to be sure, dependent upon more people for the satisfactions of their life-needs than are rural people worth thus are associated with a greater number of organized groups, but they are less dependent upon particular persons, and their dependence upon others is confined to a highly fractionalized aspect of the other’s round of activity.

This is essentially what is meant by saying that the city is characterized by secondary rather than primary contacts6. The contacts of the city may indeed be face to face, but they are nevertheless impersonal, superficial, transitory, and segmental. The superficiality, the anonymity7, and the transitory character of urban social relations make intelligible, also, the sophistication and the rationality generally ascribed to city-dwellers.

Our acquaintances tend to stand in a relationship of utility to us in the sense that the role which each one plays in our life is overwhelmingly regarded as a means for the achievement of our own ends.

Urbanism as a Way of Life: Concept and Characteristics

Whereas the individual gains, on the one hand, a certain degree of emancipation or freedom from the personal and emotional controls of intimate groups, he loses, on the other hand, the spontancous self-expression, the morale, and the sense of participation that comes with living in an integrated society.

This constitutes essentially the state of anomia, or the social void, to which Durkheim alludes in attempting to account for the various forms of social disorganization in technological society. The segmental character and utilitarian accent of interpersonal relations in the city find their institutional expression in the proliferation of specialized tasks which we see in their most developed form in the professions.

The operations of the pecuniary nexus lead to predatory relationships, which tend to obstruct the efficient functioning of the social order unless checked by professional codes and occupational etiquette.

A sociological definition of the city

The premium put upon utility and efficiency suggests the adaptability of the corporate device for the organization of enterprises in which individuals can engage only in groups. The advantage that the corporation has over the individual entrepreneur and the partnership in the urban-industrial world derives not only from the possibility it affords of centralizing the resources of thousands of individuals or from the legal privilege of limited liability and perpetual succession, but from the fact that the corporation has no soul.

The specialization of individuals, particularly in their occupations, can proceed only, as Adam Smith pointed out, upon the basis of an enlarged market, which in turn accentuates the division of labor. This enlarged market is only in part supplied by the city’s hinterland; in large measure it is found among the large numbers that the city itself contains.

Urbanism as a way of life

The dominance of the city over the surrounding hinterland becomes explicable in terms of the division of labor which urban life occasions and promotes. The extreme degree of interdependence and the unstable equilibrium of urban life are closely associated with the division of labor and the specialization of occupations. This interdependence and this instability are increased by the tendency of each city to specialize in those functions in which it has the greatest advantage. In a community composed of a larger number of individuals than can know one another intimately and can be assembled in one spot, it becomes necessary to urbanims through indirect media and to articulate individual interests by a process of delegation.

Typically in the city, interests are made effective through representation. The individual counts for little, but the voice of the representative is heard with a deference roughly proportional to the numbers for whom he speaks Density as in the case of numbers, so in the case of concentration in limited space certain ,ife of relevance in sociological analysis of the city emerge. Of these only a few can he indicated. As Darwin pointed out for flora and kf and as Durkheim noted in the case of human societies, an increase in numbers when area is held constant i.


Density thus reinforces the effect of numbers in diversifying men and their activities and in increasing the complexity of the social structure. On the subjective side, as Simmel has suggested, the close physical contact of numerous individuals necessarily produces a shift in the media through which we orient ourselves to the urban milieu, especially to our fellow-men.

Typically, our physical contacts are close but our social contacts are distant.

The urban world puts a premium on visual recognition. We see the uniform which denotes the role of the functionaries, and are oblivious to the personal eccentricities hidden behind the uniform.

We tend to acquire and develop a sensitivity to a world of artifacts, and become progressively farther removed from the world of nature. We are exposed to glaring contrasts between splendor and squalor, between riches and poverty, intelligence and ignorance, order and chaos. The competition for space is great, so that each area generally tends to be put to the use which yields the greatest economic return. Place of work tends to become dissociated from place of residence, for the proximity of industrial and commercial establishments makes an area both economicany and socially undesirable for residential purposes.

Density, land values, rentals, accessibility, healthfulness, prestige, aesthetic consideration, absence of nuisances such as noise, smoke, and dirt determine the desirability of various areas of the city as places of settlement for different sections of the population.

Place and nature of work, income, racial and ethnic characteristics, social status, custom, habit, taste, preference, and prejudice are among the significant factors in accordance with which the urban population is selected and distributed into more or less distinct settlements. Diverse population elements inhabiting a compact settlement thus become segregated from one another wirht the degree in which their requirements and modes of life are incompatible and in the measure in which they are antagonistic.

Similarly, persons of homogeneous status and needs unwittingly drift into, consciously select, or are forced by circumstances into the same area. The different parts of the city acquire specialized functions, and the city consequently comes to resemble a mosaic of social worlds in which the transition from one to the other is abrupt.

The juxtaposition of divergent personalities and modes of life tends to produce a relativistic perspective and a sense of toleration of differences which may be regarded as prerequisites for rationality and which lead toward the secularization of life. The close living together and working together of individuals who have no sentimental and emotional ties foster a spirit of competition, aggrandizement, and mutual exploitation.

Formal controls are instituted to counteract irresponsibility and potential disorder. Without rigid adherence to predictable with a large compact society would scarcely be able to maintain itself. The clock and the traffic signal are symbolic of the basis of our social order wirfh the urban world. Frequent close physical contact, coupled with great social distance, accentuates the reserve of unattached individuals toward one another and, unless compensated by other opportunities for response, gives rise to loneliness.

The necessary frequent movement of great numbers of individuals in a congested habitat causes friction and irritation. Nervous tensions which derive from such personal frustrations are increased by the rapid tempo and the complicated technology under which life in dense areas must be lived. Heterogeneity the social interaction among such a variety of personality types in the urban milieu tends to break down the rigidity of caste lines and to complicate the class structure; it thus induces a more ramified and differentiated framework loyis social stratification than is found in more integrated societies.

The heightened mobility of the individual, which brings him within the range of stimulation by a oc number of diverse individuals and subjects him to fluctuating status in the differentiated social groups that compose the social structure of the city, brings him toward the acceptance of instability and insecurity in the world at large as a norm. This fact helps to account too, for the sophistication and cosmopolitanism of the urbanite.

No single group has the undivided allegiance of the individual. The groups with which he is affiliated do not lend themselves readily to a simple hierarchical arrangement. By virtue of his different interests arising out of different aspects of social life, the individual acquires membership in widely divergent groups, each of which functions only with reference to a single segment of his personality.

Nor do these groups easily permit of a concentric arrangement so that the narrower ones fall within the circumference of the more inclusive ones, as is more likely to be the case in the rural community or in primitive societies.

Rather the groups with which the person typically is affiliated are tangential to each other or intersect in highly variable fashion.

On the basis of the three variables, number, density of settlement, and degree of heterogenity, of the urban population, it appears possible to explain the characteristics of urban life and to account for the differences between cities of various sizes and types.

Urbanism as a characteristic mode of life may be approached empirically from three interrelated perspectives: Urbanism as a form of Social Organisation.

The distinctive features of the urban mode of life have often been described sociologically as consisting of the substitution of secondary for primary contacts, the weakening of bonds of kinship, and the declining social significance of the family, the ubanism of the neighborhood, and the undermining of the traditional basis of social solidarity. All these phenomena can be substantially verified through objective indices.