Zygmunt Bauman, 1925-2017

Issued: Mon, 16 Jan 2017 11:18:13 GMT

In Zygmunt Bauman, sociology had one of its greatest advocates and teachers. To be a great teacher it isn’t enough to simply impart facts; one must seek to inspire a way of thinking and seeing the world. Bauman did this. Reading his work not only meant discovering something about the world in which one lived, but also put you on the receiving end of a passionate education on the value of a sociological perspective which ‘makes sense only in as far as it helps humanity in life’ (Bauman and Beilharz 1999:335).


Bauman’s belief in the value of sociology rests upon his conception of ‘sociological hermeneutics’ (outlined in 1978’s Hermeneutics and Social Science) which saw communications between sociologists and lay actors not as unlinear process of ‘experts’ passing on certified ‘knowledge’ but rather as part of an ‘on- going communication unlikely ever to grind to a halt; successive links in an ununfinished and unfinishable strong of exchanges’. Such a dialogue ‘neither knows of nor admits a division into blunderers and people-in-the-know, ignoramuses and experts, learners and teacher. Both sides enter the conversation poorer than they will in its curse become’ (Bauman 2008:235-236). It was this which led to Bauman to be so critical of the staid language and activities of grand style theorising ‘the most fashionable and snobbish game in town’ largely conducted ‘for the applause and self-aggrandisement of other “scientists of society”’ (Bauman and Beilharz 1999:337). Instead, Bauman wanted to enter a dialogue in which sociology seeks to uncover, and make us all aware of, the pressures and social situations which shape the choices we can, and cannot, make.


It was this which helped produce his unique writing style. In the afterthought to 2000’s Liquid Modernity, Bauman compared sociology to poetry. Both, he argued, were united in the goal of revealing the ‘yet-hidden human potentialities’ and of questioning the taken for granted ideas of our time (Bauman 2000:203). Bauman, by his own acknowledgement, was no poet, but he wrote in a fashion which sought to draw the reader in and, through metaphor and the skilful weaving of academic insight, popular culture and philosophical allegories, make the reader away of the socially constructed nature of the pressures they felt and woes they experienced. In this sense, Bauman’s sociology was unapologetically critical, focused on revealing the hidden sources limiting human potentials and thereby blocking the way to greater freedom, the ultimate normative goal of sociology. Sociology which didn’t do this ‘helps as much as a painstaking description of the technology of making nooses helps the convict to overcome his fear of the gallows’ (Bauman 1978:193).


But, Bauman also encouraged us to be aware of the ambivalences at heart of the sociological project. A critical perspective was required to aid humanity and achieve greater freedom, but this same critical awareness can be used to achieve greater control of the populace. Highlighting the ‘intrinsically conservative role of sociology as the science of unfreedom’ which sought to ‘save the individual from the torments of indecision and the responsibility he is too weak to bear, by sharply cutting down the range of acceptable options to the size of his ‘real’ potential’ (Bauman 1976:35-36) he reminded sociologists that a claim of being ‘critical’ was not sufficient grounds for the sociological project on its own. Furthermore, while he saw greater individual freedom as an appropriate normative goal for sociology, his Freudianism always reminded us that freedom is not an innately good state. People needed security to be able to live fully. It was this element of liquid modernity, the proclaimed emphasis on individual freedom while attacking the sources of collective security which inspired Bauman’s later work.


Bauman pursued this sociological project through a variety of different topics. Whether he was discussing the impacts of globalization, changes in the class regime, the development of consumerism, love and intimacy, community, Europe, fear, poverty or any of the many other topics he turned his pen too he sought to bring the awareness of human suffering to the fore, while also seeking to show the historically contingent social conditions producing it. This reached its apotheosis in perhaps his most important contribution: the sociology of morality. Drawing from his work on Modernity and the Holocaust Bauman sought to reverse the traditional sociological view by seeing society as the source of manipulation of the moral impulse to be for the other. This not only allowed for the Holocaust but facilitated the forms of what he would later call ‘moral blindness’ which allowed the sufferings of modern capitalist societies to continue unchecked (or even to be encouraged).


To do this Bauman used an astounding range of literature. In drawing on writers such as Levinas, Marx, Gramsci, Simmel, Beck, Sennett, Freud and Luxemburg along with his novelists he admire so much such as Camus, Musil and Saramago eclecticism was always Bauman’s starting point. Perhaps the one continued reference point throughout Bauman’s eclectic work was the idea of socialism. Having experienced the worst of the so-called ‘Socialist’ regimes of Eastern Europe as a result of the anti-Semitic purges which forced him to flee Poland without any claim to citizenship he maintained a belief in socialism which:


means to me a heightened sensitivity to inequality and injustice, oppression and discrimination, humiliation and the denial of human dignity. To take a ‘socialist stance’ means opposing and resisting all those outrages whenever and wherever they occur, in whatever name they are perpetrated and whoever their victims are (Bauman and Rovirosa-Madrazo 2010:16).


In this sense, Bauman’s work was not solely the work of a sociologist. It was also the continued taking of a socialist stance and the resulting refusal to accept that self-congratulatory neoliberal capitalism faced no alternative.


I suspect that many sociologists, like myself, took inspiration from Bauman for the way he wrote and his continual insistence on the value of the sociological project as much as from his insightful comments on the nature of our liquid modern society. In Bauman’s 2001 conversation with Keith Tester the latter raises the fear common to many sociologists, that our work tends to have little impact on the institutions and forms of inequality around us and is only effective in changing the self-understanding of men and women. Bauman’s response is telling:


‘Sociology cannot change anything except the self-understanding’?! What is this ‘except’ supposed to mean? Is not ‘changing self-understanding’ already a titanic task?! If only we could be sure that we are up to that task (Bauman and Tester 2001:156-157)


Later Bauman would speak of sociology as ‘one voice among a cacophony of other voices...a voice crying out in the wilderness’. What separates sociology from the other voices is that ‘sociology speaks of the ways in which the wilderness turns wild and the ways in which it sheds the wildest of its qualities, so that, hopefully, no human voices need cry in the wilderness’ (Bauman and Gane 2004:44). Sociology helps humanity by, through a process of communication with lay understanding, realising human suffering, highlighting the social formation which gives birth to this and, by questioning their right to exist, ‘keeping other options alive’ (Bauman 2008:238). Consequently, Bauman always encouraged his readers to keep hope alive. Having once suggested he would like to be remembered as someone who ‘hoped against hope’ (Bauman and Beilharz 1999:344) he recently wrote:


As to the question of hope: if I did not have it, I would most probably not write books or give lectures. Why waste one’s breath or use up one’s pen, if there is no hope of being heard or read, and of that hearing or reading – possibly, though not necessarily – ‘making a difference', even a little one (Rome wasn’t built in a day). What humans have done, humans can undo. I do not accept that we have reached a point of no return: for the place in which we are now to become indeed a ‘point of no return’, we would need first to believe that it is already that, and is such irreversibly, once and for all. As long as a glimmer of hope blinks – even if from under a heap of ashes – we preclude such a possibility...While hope is still alive, writing obituaries for humanity is sorely premature. And I am unable to rid myself of the belief that hope is immortal; just like God, it can perish only together with humankind. (Bauman and Obirek 2015:44-45)


Rest in peace Zygmunt, we’ll miss you.




Bauman, Z. (1976) Towards a Critical Sociology: An Essay on Commonsense and Emancipation. London: Routledge.
Bauman, Z. (1978) Hermeneutics and Social Science: Approaches to Understanding. Oxon: Routledge.
Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. (2008) ‘Bauman on Bauman – Pro Domo Sua’, in M.H. Jacobsen and P. Poder (eds), The Sociology of Zygmunt Bauman: Challenges and Critique. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 231-40.
Bauman, Z. and Beilharz, P. (1999) ‘The Journey Never Ends: Zygmunt Bauman talks with Peter Beilharz’, in P. Beilharz (ed.), The Bauman Reader. London: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 334-44.
Bauman, Z. and Gane, T. (2004) ‘Zygmunt Bauman: Liquid Sociality’, in N. Gane (ed.), The Future of Social Theory. London: Continuum, pp. 17-46.
Bauman, Z. and Obirek, S. (2015) Of God and Man. Cambridge: Polity Press. Bauman, Z. and Rovirosa-Madrazo, C. (2010) Living on Borrowed Time. Cambridge:
Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. and Tester, K. (2001) Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman. Cambridge: Polity Press.