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Louis Wirth

WIRTH, LOUIS (1897–1952), U.S. sociologist. Born in Gemuenden on the Main, Germany, Wirth emigrated to the United States as a young man and studied medicine and social work and then sociology. He taught at Tulane University and from 1940 to 1952 at the University of Chicago. He was an editor of the American Journal of Sociology, regional director of the National Resources Planning Board, director of planning of the Illinois State Postwar Planning Commission, and president of the Social Science Research Council (1932, 1937), the American Sociological Society (1947), and the International Sociological Association (1949). In addition, Wirth was active in the American Council on Race Relations and the American Jewish Committee.

A foremost representative of the Parkian school of sociology, Wirth combined theoretical insight with intensive practical application. His position was that sociology was concerned with unique phenomena only insofar as knowledge of them was required for the purpose of valid generalization and scientific prediction. His intense concern with the maintenance and development of democratic institutions and the furtherance of social justice led to his interest in the elimination of discrimination against racial and cultural minorities, in systematic socioeconomic planning, and in a workable theory of public opinion and mass communication. Methodologically, Wirth was a typologist, combining the "ideal type" construction of the German sociologists Max Weber and Ferdinant Toennies with the formulation of what may be called "real types," which is the hallmark of the Parkian school of sociology. A typology of minorities is contained in "The Problem of Minority Groups," in The Science of Man in the World Crisis (ed. Ralph Linton, 1945), and in "Morale and Minority Groups," in American Journal of Sociology, 47 (1941/42). His theory of urban sociology is expounded in "Urbanism as a Way of Life," American Journal of Sociology, 44 (1938/39). The Local Community Fact Book (1938) presents a model for the investigation of urban phenomena. Wirth's interest in the sociology of knowledge is documented in his preface to the English edition of Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia (1936).

Wirth was intensely interested in the sociology of the Jews, as part of his general interest in the incorporation of minorities in a democratic state. His dissertation The Ghetto (1928, 19562) analyzes the Jewish settlement on Chicago's west side not merely as a physical abode but as a state of mind; the outward pull of the larger society and discriminatory rejection by that society correspond to flight from the narrow restrictions of the ghetto and longing for its sheltering intimacy. Wirth saw the solution of the dilemma in the abolition of discrimination and complete acceptance of the democratic way of life.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.