Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Urbanism as a way of life

Urbanism as a way of life

In modern industrialized societies, urbanism has become the predominant way of life. What constitutes this particular mode of living? It is difficult to give a precise answer. According to Some writers, urbanism indicates a wide acquaintance with things and people. Such acquaintance imbues the city dwellers with the spirits of tolerance.

“Urbanism as a way of life” article by Louis Wirth. Louis Wirth (August 28, 1897 – May 3, 1952) was an American sociologist and member of the Chicago School of sociology. Louis Wirth was inspired by the work of Simmel. Wirth writes that urbanism is a form of social organization that is harmful to culture, Wirth details the city as a “Substitution of secondary for primary contacts, the weakening of bonds of kinship, the declining social significance of the family, the disappearance of the neighbourhood and the undermining of traditional basis of social solidarity”. Wirth was concerned with the effects of the city upon family unity, and he believed urbanization leads to a ‘low and declining urban reproduction rates’. Families are smaller and more frequently without children than in the country. Wirth continues, marriage tends to be postponed, and the proportion of single people is growing leading to isolation and less interaction. But Wirth also stressed the positive effects of city life. The city everywhere has been the center of freedom and toleration, the home of progress, of invention, of science, of rationality.

Thus, urbanism as a way of life, following Louis Wirth, is characteristics by extensive conflict of norms and values, by rapid social change, by increased social differentiation, greater social mobility, by higher levels of education and income, by emphasis on materials possessions and individuals, by impersonality of relationships and decline in intimate communication and by increasing informal social contracts. This means that “urbanism” is not synonymous with the city. City refers to an area distinguished principally by size, population, density, and social diversity, whereas urbanism refers to a complex of social relations.

  1. Norms and social role conflicts: The diversity of social life is the most important characteristic of urbanism. It springs from the size, density and heterogeneity of population, extreme specialization of various occupations, and the class structure existing in the larger community.

  2. Rapid social and cultural change: “Rapid social and cultural change, disregard for the importance of stability of generations, and untempered loyalties also generally characterize urban life.” The result is the decline in the importance of the elements which are “traditional” or “sacred”.

  3. Impersonalness and lack of intimate communication: Being heterogeneous in compositions and highly specialized, urbanities know each other only in superficial and impersonal ways. A large proportion of urban social relations take place between nameless strangers, and they last only for a limited period of time.

  4. Materialism: In an urban society external appearances and material possessions are of primary importance. Urban dwellers are more often known for their status symbols.

  5. Individualism: The urban dwellers in their social relations give primary emphasis on their own interests and personal happiness. As individualism increases, competition also intensifies.

  6. Mobility: One of the distinctive features of urban life is greater mobility. The fact that most urban social relations are impermanent means that, unless the urbanite becomes either a recluse or an extreme interest, he continuously makes new social contacts.

  7. Increase informal social control: Whereas social control in a rural community is exercised with a minimum of formality, social control in urban society is more formal. The rural community feels little need of formal secondary controls becomes family and kinship ties, customs and mores are themselves effective as social pressures.


In Louis Wirth’s theory, three concepts are given.

The effects of size, density and heterogeneity.

The effect of size:

  1. The larger the population, the greater the chances for diversity and individualization

  2. Competition and formal mechanisms of social control would replace primary relations of kinship as a means of organizing society.

  3. The larger the population, the greater the specialization and functional diversity of social roles.

  4. Anonymity and fragmentation of social interactions increase with size.


The effect of density:

  1. Greater density intensifies the effects of large population size.

  2. Greater density produces greater tolerance for living closely with strangers, but also greater stress.

  3. Escape from density produces the development of the fringe and greater land value in suburbia.

  4. Density increase competition, compounding the effects of size.


The effect of heterogeneity:

  1. The greater the heterogeneity more tolerance among groups.

  2. Heterogeneity allows ethnic and class barriers to be broken down.

  3. Individual roles and contacts become compartmentalized according to different circles of contacts. Anonymity and depersonalization in public life increase.


He gave twelve propositions and presented numerous arguments about the consequences for organized social life of large size, high density and heterogeneity to relate each to the achievement of stability in the city (Morris 2013, pp.16-19).

  1. (a) Growth and diversity are associated in the city with relatively weak bonds among co-residents, since city-dwellers are less likely than country-dwellers to have lived together for some generations under a common tradition.

(b) (i) Formal methods of social control must therefore substitute for allegiance to a common tradition;


(b) (ii) The problem of social control in a diverse population will have to be solved by separating the diverse sub-groups physically. People will tend to reach to the great diversity by withdrawing from those with characteristics different from their own. In this manner, relatively homogeneous areas will form within the city; and within these areas stronger bonds may be maintained.

  1. (a) As a town or city grows, it becomes less likely that any resident will know all the others personally; hence the character of social relationships changes. At the same time, there is an increase in the number of persons whom one meets, and on whom one is to some extent dependent. One is less dependent on particular people; and one’s dependence on another is more likely to be limited to a single facet of one’s life.

(b) The majority of one’s social contacts in the city are therefore likely to become ‘impersonal, superficial, transitory and segmental’.

Each is likely to involve only the surface, or limited segments, of one’s personality for a relatively short period. People expect less of those with whom they are in contact in the city.

(c) The city-dweller is therefore more likely to treat social relationships as means to his own ends, thus behaving in what Wirth call rational, sophisticated manner. In becoming more calculating, he loses some of the ‘spontaneous self-expression, the morale, and the sense of participation that comes from living in an integrated society’. Wirth was presumably regarding these as characteristics of primary groups and of rural life in general.

  1. (a) A highly developed division of labour is associated with the emphasis on the treatment of social relationships as means to one’s ends. This is most developed, according to Wirth, in the professions.

(b) The large firm will tend to dominate the small family business as the division of labour develops. The large firm has limited liability, can bring together greater resources, and can draw its leaders from wider circle. Equally important, however, is the fact that, according to Wirth, ‘the corporation has no soul’.

(c) Social integration therefore requires the development of codes of ethics and etiquette for occupational groups; without such codes, occupational relationships in the city would tend to be ‘predatory’.

  1. (a) The elaborate division of labour grows as the market grows. Not only do cities perform different economic functions from their hinterlands; particular cities will specialize in particular products where this is profitable. In this way, their markets will be national and international, and not merely local.

(b) Extreme specialization and interdependence is associated with an unstable equilibrium in the city. Wirth does not explain what he means by this.

  1. (a) As the city grows, it becomes impossible to assemble all its residents in a single place.

(b) Therefore increasing reliance has to be placed on indirect communication as a method of spreading information and opinion and of making decisions. The mass media and the representatives of special interests become important links in the communication between decision-makers and the general public.

  1. (a)As the density of population in an areas increases, greater differentiation and specialization tends to results. This will reinforce the effect of size in inducing greater specialization.

(b) Greater differentiation and specialization are indeed essential if the area is to support the increased numbers. This argument is based on the analogy with the survival of animals or plants on a given tract of land.

  1. (a) Physical contact in the city are close, where most social contacts are relatively superficial.

(b) People are therefore categorized, and responded to, in terms of visible symbols such as uniforms and material possessions.

  1. (a) The city’s pattern of land use is the result of competition for a scarce resources: land tends to be owned by those who can derive the greater economic return from it.

(b) The desirability of an area for residential purposes is influenced by many social factors: its prestige, its accessibility to work, the ethnic and racial composition of its population, the absence of such nuisance as smoke, dirt and noise, for example.

(c) People with similar backgrounds and needs therefore consciously select, unwittingly drift, or are forced by circumstances into the same section of the city. The different parts of the city thus have different economic functions, and many of them come to be identified with a particular social class or occupational group: Whitehall, the jewellery quarter, Soho, Coronation Street. While these sections may cover a very small area, each one is itself much less diverse than the city as a whole.

  1. (a) The absence of close sentimental and emotional ties between co-workers and between co-residents fosters competition and mutual exploitation rather than cooperation.

(b) High population density implies frequent physical contact and living at a fast pace, since one is constantly receiving new stimuli and meeting new people.

(c) The combination of frequent contacts and weak emotional ties can be maintained only if there are orderly and meaningful routines which can control the resultant friction. The traffic light, the policeman, the clock and the conventional working day symbolize these formal routines.

  1.  (a) The interaction of persons with very varied roles and personalities breaks down simple class distinctions. A person belongs to a variety of groups and may be judged by a variety of visible symbols; these may be associated with quite different prestige levels in society.

(b) As a result, the class structure is less clear, and a person’s positions within it may be somewhat inconsistent with each other.

  1.  (a) City dwellers belong to a variety of groups, and their loyalties to these groups often conflict, since the groups usually call forth quite different aspects of the personality, and since their claims are not necessarily harmonious.

(b) Consequently the city dweller is more likely to be geographically and socially mobile, and less restrained by an overriding loyalty to a particular group, home or city.

(c) Consequently, too, the city dweller is likely to be sophisticate, in the sense of seeing his loyalties and principles in terms of shades of grey, rather than in black and white.

  1.  (a) The division of labour, combined with the emphasis on segmental relationships, exercises a levelling influence. The symbols, by which the occupant of a role is ‘placed’ socially, become standardized because this is economically more efficient. Tailor-made articles and specialized or personal services become very expensive, by comparison with those which can be mass-produced for the ‘average person’.

(b) This levelling influence can be seen also in the development of the ‘pecuniary nexus’, the tendency to judge all goods and services against a common standard-money-and to believe that almost any good or service can be obtained if one can only muster enough money to make it profitable.

(c) This standardization provides elements for a common culture in the society: both common material and common symbolic cultural objects.

Aims of Wirth’s theory

Wirth’s aim was to clarify the limitations of which he was conscious. To bring clarity with that criticism which was based on a misunderstanding or misreading of his work can only be covered on the matter which he deliberately and explicitly omitted on the gaps in his theory.

Firstly, he recognized that the influence of the city stretches far beyond its administration boundaries and often across national frontiers. Urbanism was to be understood as a set of social institutions and attitudes which would tend to be found whenever people settled permanently in large, dense and heterogeneous groups.

Secondly, Wirth recognized that among cities, size was a poor indication of urbanization. The residents of a small dormitory town on the edge of a conurbation might be more organized in their way than the residents of a larger town in a larger area.

Thirdly, Wirth made it that his definition was not intended as a complete description of all the characteristics which cities shared. His objective, rather, was to select the minimum number of key features which taken in conjunction were required to account in deep for the nature of urban life. The development of cities has often coincided with the growth of large scale industrial organizations and with modern capitalism.


Major criticisms:

The criticisms which have been levelled against Wirth’s theory are numerous. If those which are based on misunderstandings are omitted, such as the criticism that not every relationship in the city is secondary, and not every relationship outside the city limits is primary, the remaining objections can be arranged into four groups.

The first criticism, Wirth desired generalizations which would hold for all the cities. Some of his deduction applies only to the industrial cities. Interaction between the members of different classes in the pre-industrial limits to blur class distinction. Finally, the survival of the small business in pre-industrial cities means that the levelling and unifying influence associated mass production are much less apparent then the in the industrial city. While goods and services are frequently judged in monetary terms. Most goods and services remain unstandardized indeed the weighing and measuring instrument which standardized in the west.

The second objection concerns Wirth view that relationships in the rural society tend to be primary, while those urban society tends to be secondary in society. from rural to urban society did not involve the replacement of primary of secondary relationships with the result that the number of primary relationships one made in an urbanized area was smaller but simply that the number of secondary relationships one establishes rises faster than the number of primary relationships as one moves from a rural to an urbanized area, with the result that only the proportion of primary relationship in the city is smaller.

The third criticism is that he defined the city inpart, as an unusually heterogeneous grouping. It represents in part a realization that one is omitting very significant aspect of city behaviour if one concentrates on its impersonal features. The urban resident has far more opportunities than the rural resident to form secondary relationships.

The final criticism is Wirth describe some conditions which must be met if a large, dense, heterogeneous grouping of people is stable and to operate without excessive friction.



Many of Wirth’s assertions appeared to be accurate Descriptions of Social interaction in the large city, and they help to provide a more detailed picture of What urbanism as a culture like small towns are affected by many of the same social forces as the central city, although the types of behaviours that we observe in these environments may differ in type and intensity. Wirth held strongly to the view that the true effects of urbanism would occur as a matter of evolution as cities operated on immigrant groups. To break down traditional ways of Interacting overtime He did not see the larger city acting as an environment to bring about immediately the change he predicted. These things would take time, perhaps a generation Urbanism as a way of life inspired other urban sociologists to analyze the development of new urban lifestyles and to compares urban lifestyles.


The American Journal of Sociology-Urbanism as a way of life ~ Louis Wirth
Urbanism as a way of life
Urbanism as a way of life
Urbanism as a way of life~ppt

APA~Morris, R. N. (2013). Urban sociology. Routledge.

MLA~ Morris, Raymond N. Urban sociology. Routledge, 2013.

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