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Louis Wirth's Urbanism as a Way of Life

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  • 0:01 Urbanism as a Way of Life
  • 1:17 What Is a City?
  • 2:36 Effects of the City
  • 4:10 Example of Urban Behaviors
  • 5:06 Pros and Cons of City Life
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson goes over the definition and characteristics of a city as described by the sociologist Louis Wirth. We'll go over what makes a city a city, according to Wirth.

Urbanism as a Way of Life

Have you ever been to or lived in a big city? Did you feel different when you were there, maybe compared to being in a more rural location? Do you wave hello to strangers when you're walking around? Have you ever thought about what, exactly, makes a city a city?

The famous sociologist Louis Wirth pondered similar questions when he wrote his landmark paper entitled 'Urbanism as a Way of Life'. Wirth published this piece in the American Journal of Sociology in 1938, as major transformations were occurring. More and more people were moving into cities and the world was rapidly urbanizing, and Wirth argued that urbanism, or the condition of living in a city, was become the way of modern life.

Wirth believed that there is something specific about living in a city that changes the ways people behave and interact. In other words, living in a city does something to our personalities and our very way of life. It's not just about living in a particular place. So, what exactly makes a city a city, according to Wirth?

What Is a City?

The most common way to define a city was by population size, or the total number of people. But Wirth was unsatisfied with this definition alone, arguing that there are more factors we must take into consideration.

In addition to size, Wirth argued that another defining feature of the city is density. This refers to the number of people settled in a particular area. This is important because a large cluster of people will impact how individuals interact with one another and with the city itself. Finally, Wirth believed that social heterogeneity was the third defining quality of a city. Heterogeneity in this context refers to the different racial and ethnic groups that make up a place. Cities have always been melting pots and destinations for immigrants.

Now that we know how Wirth would define a city itself, let's talk about what he saw as defining qualities of an individual person living in a city. In other words, Wirth believed there are certain things you are likely to experience when you live in a city.

Effects of the City

First, Wirth saw cities as promoting individualism. In other words, people in a city pursue their own interests over the interests of a collective. Second, he saw anonymity as a defining feature of cities. Urban residents do not know each other well. For the people that urban residents do know, these relationships are characterized by what Wirth called superficiality. This means that relationships are impersonal. Ever heard the expression 'lost in the crowd'? In a way, this is what Wirth is getting at.

Urban life is chaotic and we interact with many people, but, Wirth believed, only on a superficial level. Instead of developing or maintaining close relationships with people, we interact with so many people on a day-to-day basis in the city that our relationships become transitory, or superficial, and we might feel isolated. In other words, Wirth pointed out that when we live in urban places, we might know more people due to the size of the city, but we know these people in a less personal way. This is a little bit like quantity of relationships over quality.

Finally, Wirth noted that urban residents are transient. This means they tend to move around, not feeling much connection with their neighbors, thus making it easy to move on.

Example of Urban Behaviors

Let's look at an example. Say you live in New York City, the most populous city in the U.S. You wake up in the morning and you're running late for work. You race to the train and take the last seat, possibly cutting someone else off but pursuing your own interests. Next, you get off the train and grab a coffee and bagel. You might exchange pleasantries with the coffee shop cashier and a fellow customer, but you're all very anonymous.

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