Louis Wirth and Robert Park were both massive contributors to Urban Sociology. Both belonged to the Chicago School - focusing on human Ecology. Here we discuss their primary difference amidst their many, many similarities.
Both Louis Wirth and Robert Park agree on the majority of things outlining urban life. Especially those concerning the necessity for economic competition which drives the specialization of labor and its product: increasing interdependence on others and the simultaneous disintegration of community and transition to corporate relation. Even their definitions of the urban are similar - Wirth identifies it, most generally, as a physical structure, a system of social organization, and a set of attitudes and ideas.§ A population and ecological order, social structures with corresponding institutions and relationships, and behavioral collectivism, all follow respectively.§ Likewise, Park’s definition of human community can be reduced to population, artifacts/technology, and customs/beliefs, all of which are controlled by the natural resources that keep the “biotic balance and the social equilibrium, when and where they exist.”§
However, it is less prudent to focus on their many similarities and instead, more beneficial to exacerbate a rudimentary difference, what we’ll call Wirth’s ‘reciprocal urbanism’ and Park’s ‘recursive urbanism.’ Ultimately, Wirth views urbanism as a way of life and thus, reciprocal; urbanism for Robert Park is an environment that drives recursive adaptation.
Wirth delineates urbanism and urbanization - the former being the developmental force of urbansim which is that “complex of traits which makes up the characteristic mode of life in cities.”§ Park relies on Human Ecology (that process of maintaining biotic/social equilibrium and successive transitions) as a framing mechanism for his arguments.§ Park’s Human Ecology can be paradigmatically interpreted as Wirth’s urbanization - which is a force that propels change, but is not a ‘way of life.’ He interprets society as a “control organization” whose purpose is to “organize, integrate, and direct the energies resident in the individuals of which it is composed.”§
The human community, on the other hand, is that which is subject to the processes of dominance and succession, that which balances itself through competition and “its identity and integrity as an individual unit through the changes” it is exposed to.§ Following the ecological tradition, Park’s city is an environment, much like ‘nature’ which incorporates or houses within itself communities and organizations, rather than a state of being that can be altered by its population like Wirth supposes it to be.
Park proposes we live in a city; Wirth proposes we make up the city. Wirth’s argument is more logical because while nature is truly a monolithic entity, the conditions of the city (a man-built environment) are determined through sociocultural and physiological processes that only the human can create; this changes the urban environment, which in turn affects its inhabitants. Wirth notes “phases of the physical mechanism of the city are not isolated phenomena … but are affected by and affect the urban mode of life.”§ Hence, Wirth’s urbanism is a state of being that is reciprocally determined. In this way, Wirth responds to the ecological notion of dominance and succession; he views the city as a “product of growth” and so, it is logical that “the influences which it exerts ... should not be able to wipe out completely the previously dominant modes of human association.”§
This is, in a nutshell, Park’s idea of succession - the community “moves through a series of more or less clearly defined stages” until it reaches “a relatively permanent or climax stage.”§ He further notes that the “natural social order” does not fundamentally change social processes and that even if it does, its effects “will still be manifest in the succeeding social order and the subsequent course of events.”§ The usage of the word ‘subsequent’ is telling - it allows us to say that Park’s urbanism is recursive - or relying on the previous stage of succession to determine itself. ‘Itself’ of course, means human society, which is, according to Park, “a population settled and limited to its habitat,” but this is a strangling limitation and leaves Park unable to respond to the result of a community that has outgrown its territorial society both physically and socially.§ The recursive implies an infinite growth in social capital bounded only by physical limitation; it accounts for the city as a ‘closed community’ or uber niche environment which is unable to incorporate within itself any new outsiders not produced within the city. Wirth’s reciprocal urbanism, however, accounts for both of these points. Both the social and physical community determine each other, and are each other; and the city “does not reproduce itself, it must recruit its migrants from other cities … a most favorable breeding ground of new biological and cultural hybrids.”§
Thus, the rudimentary difference between Wirth and Park is one of reciprocity and recursiveness, respectively and Wirth’s argument is more logical within the socio-physical schema of the city.
Park, Robert, “Human Ecology.” in The Urban Sociology Reader. Edited by Jan Lin, Christopher Mele. 83-90. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
Wirth, Louis, “Urbanism as a Way of Life.” in The Urban Sociology Reader. Edited by Jan Lin, Christopher Mele. 32-41. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
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