Louis Wirth was born in the small village of Gemünden in the Hunsrück, Germany. He was one of seven children born to Rosalie and Joseph Wirth. Gemünden was a pastoral community, and Joseph Wirth earned a living as a cattle dealer. The family was Jewish and both of his parents were religiously active. Louis left Gemünden to live with his older sister at his uncle's home in Omaha, Nebraska in 1911. Soon after arriving in the United States, Louis met and married Mary Bolton. The couple had two daughters, Elizabeth (Marvick) and Alice (Gray).
Wirth studied in the United States and became a leading figure in Chicago School Sociology. His interests included city life, minority group behaviour and mass media and he is recognised as one of the leading urban sociologists. Wirth's major contribution to social theory of urban space was a classic essay Urbanism as a Way of Life, published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1938.
His research was mostly concerned with how Jewish immigrants adjusted to life in urban America, as well as the distinct social processes of city life. Wirth was a supporter of applied sociology, and believed in taking the knowledge offered by his discipline and using it to solve real social problems.
Wirth writes that urbanism is a form of social organisation that is harmful to culture, and describes 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 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’. According to Wirth, 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 beginning of what is distinctively modern in our civilization is best signalized by the growth of great cities“; "metropolitan civilization is without question the best civilization that human beings have ever devised“; "the city everywhere has been the center of freedom and toleration, the home of progress, of invention, of science, of rationality“ or: "the history of civilization can be written in terms of the history of cities“.
The profound social understanding of minority groups that Wirth obtained first-hand as a Jewish immigrant in America, can equally be applied to understanding the problems of other minority groups in society, such as ethnic minorities, the disabled, homosexuals, women and the elderly, all of whom have also suffered, and/or continue to suffer prejudice, discrimination and disenfranchisement from the more numerically dominant members of a host society. It is in this respect that Wirth's path-breaking and insightful work still amply rewards detailed study even today, some seventy years after his original investigations.
A good example of Wirth's work, which includes a comprehensive bibliography, is On Cities and Social Life, published in 1964.
- (1928): The Ghetto. Chicago
- (1936): Preface to „Ideology and Utopia“, by Karl Mannheim. In:Shils, E.;Wirth, L. (ed.), Ideology and Utopia, by Karl Mannheim, NY, p. XIII-XXXI
- (1936): Types of Nationalism. In: AJS, Vol. 41, no.6, May, p. 723-737
- (1937): The Urban Mode of Life. In: New Horizons in Planning. Chicago, p. 23-30
- (1938): Urbanism As A Way of Life. in: AJS 44, p. 1-24
- (1939): Social Interaction: The Problem of the Individual and the Group. In: AJS, Vol. 44, May, p. 965-979
- (1940): Ideological Aspects of Social Disorganization. In: American Sociological Review, Vol. 5, no.4, p. 472-482
- (1940): The Urban Society and Civilization. In: Wirth, Louis (ed.), Eleven Twenty Six: A Decade of Social Science Research, p. 51-63
- (1941): Morale and Minority Groups. In: AJS, Vol. 47, no.3, November, p. 415-433
- (1941): The Present Position of Minorities in the United States. In: Studies in Political Science and Sociology. Philadelphia, p. 137-156
- (1944): Race and Public Policy. In: Scientific Monthly, Vol. 58, April, p. 302-312
- (1945): Group Tension and Mass Democracy. In: American Scholar, Vol. 14, No.2, p. 231-235
- (1945): Human Ecology. In: AJS, Vol. 50, no.6, May, p. 483-488
- (1945): The Problem of Minority Groups. In: Linton, Ralph (ed.), The Science of Man in the World Crisis, New York; p. 347-372
- (1946): A Sociologist Looks at the Community. In: Wirth, Louis; et al. (ed.), Community Planning for Peacetime Living. Stanford, Calif.: p. 3-89
- (1947): American Sociology 1915 - 1947. In: AJS. Index to Volumes 1-52, 1895–1947, Chicago; p. 273-281
- (1947): Ideas and Ideals as Sources of Power in Modern World. In:Bryson,L. et al. (ed.), Conflicts of Power in Modern Culture. NY, p. 499-508
- (1948): Consensus and Mass Communication. In: American Sociological Review Vol. 13, no.1, February, p. 1-15
- (1948): World Community, World Society, and World Government. In: Wright, Quincy (ed.), The World Community, Chicago; p. 9-20
- (1951): The Significance of Sociology. In: International Social Science Bulletin (UNESCO), Vol. 3, no.2, Summer, p. 197-202
- (1956): Community Life and Social Policy. Marvick, Elizabeth Wirth/Reiss, Jr. Albert J. (ed.), Chicago/London
- (1964): On Cities and Social Life. Reiss, A. J. (ed.), Chicago/London
- Reiss, Albert J.jr. (1964): "Introduction", Sociology as a Discipline. In: Wirth, Louis (1964)
- Guide to the Louis Wirth Papers, University of Chicago Library
- Salerno, Roger Allen (1987): Louis Wirth: A Bio-Bibliography. New York, Westport, London
- Vortkamp, Wolfgang (2002): Partizipation und soziale Integration in heterogenen Gesellschaften. Louis Wirths Konzeption sozialer Organisation in der Tradition der Chicagoer Schule, Opladen ISBN 3-8100-3069-4
- Biographical note in the Guide to the Mary Bolton Wirth Papers, University of Chicago
- Wirth, Louis (1938) Urbanism as a way of life
- Wirth, Louis (1938) Urbanism as a way of life
- The City. (The City as a Symbol of Civilization.); The Papers of Louis Wirth, The Joseph Regenstein Library, Special Collections/University of Chicago, Box: 39, Folder: 6
- Life in the City. In: Wirth 1956: p. 206-217
- Wirth, Louis (1940): The Urban Society and Civilization. In: Wirth, Louis (ed.), Eleven Twenty Six
- Wirth, L: "The Problem of Minority Groups.", page 347 in Ralph Linton (ed.), The Science of Man in the World Crisis, New York: Columbia University Press, 1945.