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Louis Wirth and Urban Ecology

Louis Wirth and Urban Ecology

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will describe, define, and discuss Louis Wirth and urban ecology.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. Hope you're doing well. We've got a great lesson on Louis Wirth and urban ecology. We're going to talk a lot about cities and how sociologists conceive cities and life in cities.

The growth of cities has been fascinating for sociology. In a sense, cities are laboratories for sociological investigation. Cities are confluence of economic, social, cultural, and political trends all intermingling.

People of all walks of life rub shoulders with one another every day. Where else do we find people of all different races, all different classes, even homeless people, all different genders, and sexual orientations, where else do they constantly intermingle, but in a city?

Moreover, cities are where we observe capitalism and economic trends most visibly. We used to be a manufacturing economy where manufacturing production was largely concentrated in cities. And now those are largely gone. We have an information economy where people are processing information with computers. And we can see this change in the very physical, social fabric of the city itself, and an urban cultural life.

All the old manufacturing plants, all the old warehouse district of cities are now being reconverted by artists into new things. So you can read the cultural, economic, and social trends in the very landscape of the city. So they're fascinating areas for sociological study. Cities are really the stuff then of sociology.

And sociologists have developed a concept to help work through this, urban ecology. Urban ecology is the study of urban centers as they're own ecosystems. So just like the rain forest has its own ecology, its own set of interactions among animals, plants, the environment, so to do cities have their own ecology, their own interactions among people, among the environment in the city, among culture and society

So Louis Wirth really got us going with the sociological study of cities among others. Louis Wirth was a Chicago guy. Chicago Department of Sociology was the first department really to hone in on urban sociology, and Louis Wirth was among them.

So what did Wirth do? What were his contributions? He theorized positive and negative aspects of social life. And remember, now we are products of the environment that we live in. The society we grow up in shapes us. And this is no different with an urban space. How does this city shape us? How has urbanization changed American culture and American society?

So think about this in your life. Do how do you have friends who have primarily grown up in rural areas and who have lived primarily in rural areas their entire life? What about friends or even yourself who live in cities or who have lived in cities most of their life?

Think about their cultural differences. What do these two groups of friends do with their time? What do they like to do? What are their tastes and preferences? What do they believe? What are their politics?

Well, Wirth argued that urban life shape the society, and gave us negative and positive aspects. On the negative side, cities are impersonal places. We have few ties to people. We just look at each other on the street, and just get by going most of the time.

It can produce alienation, meaning that we're isolated from each other, even though we're surrounded by each other since it's so impersonal. And this weak ties, their not a lot of strong family and community ties. We're just atomized urban dwellers who deal with each other impersonally. Yet we're not satisfied, because we don't have those close ties. So a city can produce alienation among its members, and it can decrease communal bonds.

This all sounds negative. But on the positive side, cities promote tolerance. They promote freedom, scientific investigation, inquiry, and then innovation. They also promote mass social movements, because people rubbing shoulders together and get their causes out there. So city life is a balance between these two forces.

And this balance, this interplay of these two forces of urban life then are what makes cities dynamic, exciting social spaces to be in, but at the same time they can be very lonely, soul crushing, hostile in defeating places.

Louis Wirth deserved much credit for helping to pioneer a study of urban social life at the University of Chicago. Wirth was influenced by Simmel, a German sociologist, and Simmel gave us the concept of the blase urbanite. Urban dwellers, people who habitually dwell in urban space, have to deal with too much stimuli all the time, Simmel argued.

We have a rush of events, of objects, of people, of noises of scents even. Cities are calamitous places, so habitual urban dwellers develop a blase and detached attitude from society. And this is why the stereotypes about urban dwellers is insensitive and impersonal. Because if they see like a struggle on the street, well they can just walk around it. It's not a big of a deal to them, because they've developed this blase, detached attitude.

This has been an introduction to urban ecology. Louis Wirth, and touching on some of Wirth's influences, Simmel. Have a great rest of your day.

  • Urban Ecology

    The study of human interactions with, and within, an urban environment.

  • Louis Wirth

    American sociologist from the Chicago school of urban qualitative researchers who studied city life.