Zymunt Bauman Essay Research Paper A Distinguished

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Zymunt Bauman Essay Research Paper

A Distinguished Man

Zygmunt Bauman was born in Poznan Poland in 1925. He moved to Britain with his wife Janina in the 1950’s and took up a position as Lecturer at both the University of Warsaw and the University of Tel Aviv. He held several visiting professorships before he became Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds in Yorkshire from 1972 until his retirement in 1990. Bauman is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at both the University of Leeds and University of Warsaw (www.sociologyonline). “He has been described by the British sociologist Anthony Giddens as: ‘the theorist of postmodernity he has developed a position with which everyone has to reckon’” (www.sociologyonline).

While heading the Department of Sociology at Leeds Bauman brought great qualities of intellectual leadership. “From the start he saw his task as one of inspiring students and among his academic colleagues promoting a collegial atmosphere in which new academic projects were welcomed and free and open discussion encouraged in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and understanding” (www.leeds.ac.uk). Since his retirement Bauman and his reputation has continued to benefit sociology at Leeds.

Zygmunt Bauman is a prolific writer known for such works as Legislators and Interpreters (1987) Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) and Postmodern Ethics (1993). He is the author of about 21 books two more projected for the early 2000s and of numerous articles and reviews (www.leeds.ac.uk). In 1990 Bauman was awarded the Amalfi European Prize followed by the Adorno Prize in 1998. “Today he is described variously as one of the twentieth century’s great social theorists and the world’s foremost sociologist of postmodernity” (www.leeds.ac.uk).

Influences to Bauman’s Work

Bauman’s logic can be traced back to his upbringing in the Polish Humanist tradition where society was culture. His most immediate teachers Julian Hochfeld and Stanislaw Ossowski viewed sociology as primarily a service to the common man seen simultaneously as a product and the producer of culture (www.ub.es). Bauman eventually learned to think of culture as the activity of structuring rather than structure as a matrix of permutations which he adopted from Claude Levi-Strauss’ theory. “He came to think of culture as existing solely in its permutations in making and unmaking distinctions tying and untying connections” (www.ub.es).

In an interview with Zygmunt Bauman published on October 25 1999 Marian Kempny asked what the most important influences on his intellectual development were. Bauman responded “If some ‘moment of revelation’ must be located I guess the encounter with Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks comes closest to the idea of such an event” (www.ub.es). Bauman goes on to explain that his background was mostly in the Marxist theory with all of its historical determination and solid structures. Gramsci’s writings made him realize that this rigid framework “was actually a fluid liquid flow of cultural transmutations and such a viewpoint has opened up a completely new approach to understanding and analyzing social reality” (www.ub.es). Bauman suggests “Gramsci immunized me once and for all against the na ve hope that cultural phenomena might be construed in terms of systems structures and functions” (www.ub.es).

There are two very different theories regarding social and cultural analysis- modernity and postmodernity. Zygmunt Bauman falls under the postmodernity category so in light of this it can be assumed that he writes in reaction to the modernist train of thought thus inadvertently influencing him. The modernist argument is that “personal and cultural experience in the contemporary world involves various tensions and ambiguities the distinctive characteristics of which involve contradiction fluidity and fragmentation” (Elliott 1996 pp6-7). They believe that our world is experienced by people as both an exciting opportunity and a threatening risk. Modernists want to reach some sort of balance between security and risk (Elliott 1996 p7). Postmodernism on the other hand “reacts against the tiredness of the modernist negotiation of risk and uncertainty by attempting to dissolve the problem all together’ (Elliott 1996 p7). They believe that cultural ambivalence cannot be overcome and that social and cultural organization cannot be rationally ordered and controlled (Elliott 1996 p7). In the words of Bauman:

Postmodernity does not necessarily mean the end the discreditation of the rejection of modernity. Postmodernity is no more (but no less either) that the modern mind taking a long attentive and sober look at itself at its condition and its past works not fully liking what it sees and sensing the urge to change (Modernity and Ambivalence 1990 p272).

Bauman believes that contemporary culture exercises both postmodern and modern orders simultaneously which leads to Bauman’s central thesis: “postmodernity as modernity without illusions” (Elliot 1996 p22).

Bauman’s Theory

Like stated above Bauman believes that there exists a union between the modernist and postmodernist train of thought. He suggests that “postmodernity is modernity coming to age it is coming to terms with its own impossibility (Elliot 1996 p5). He believes that postmodernism as a theory is not only real but necessary and that it provides an explanation of the condition of postmodernity (Turner 1996 p305). Bauman thinks that modernity’s greatest problem is its substitution of amoral objectives for ethically valued ends (Cohen 1996 p120).

Bauman suggests that modernity is about what is rational and what is rational can turn into evil. One example of this was depicted in his research on the Holocaust where he attempts to show the true face of modernity. Bauman shows how in the death camps everything was rationalized:

Each step on the road to death was carefully shaped as to be calculable in terms of gains and losses rewards and punishments. Fresh air and music rewarded the long unremitting suffocation in the cattle carriage. A bath complete with cloakrooms and barbers towel and soap was a welcomed liberation from lice dirt and the stench of human sweat and excrement (Modernity and the Holocaust 1989 p202-203).

The Holocaust in Bauman’s point of view shows the two-faced reality of modernity because this horrible occurrence took place in its midst:

The unspoken terror permeating our collective memory of the Holocaust is the gnawing suspicion that the Holocaust could be more than an aberration more than a deviation from an otherwise straight path of progress more that a cancerous growth on the otherwise healthy body of the civilized society; that in short the Holocaust was not an antithesis of modern civilization and everything (or so we like to think) it stands for. We suspect (even if we refuse to admit it) that the Holocaust could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other so familiar face we so admire. And that the two faces are perfectly comfortably attached to the same body (Modernity and the Holocaust 1989 p7).

It is plain to see that Bauman believes that modernist reason is not inherently good. It can be used for foul purposes and it can be an ally of evil. Bauman is attempting to argue that modernity is an illusion; it is not a reasonable unbiased approach for society to follow. The holocaust is a perfect example of this imperfection.

Bauman suggests that we are caught between two absolutisms neither of which will be able to evaluate constructively this “irreversible pluralism” (www.sociologyonline). He thinks that intellectuals have to adopt a new role if they are to take pluralism seriously; this role being that of translators. “Translators need to be present between the various traditions cultures and philosophies which constitute the plural world we live in they must develop a specialism of affecting positive communication between different cultures and traditions” (www.sociologyonline). Bauman believes that translation is both a necessary and a mundane skill implicit in everyday communication.

Bauman’s Current Condition

Zygmunt Bauman has had a lot of influence on many of his contemporaries as seen in the writings of such people as Elias Horkheimer/Adorno and Beck. He is a man of many talents- scholarly and literary of the researcher and the teacher. Bauman has international fame that is well deserved and rightly founded. Bauman’s work remains very important to sociological theory as his thoughts are always moving to break new ground. He is a man of great distinction having been awarded the Amalfi European Prize in 1990 followed by the Adorno Prize in 1998. Current sociological thought is grounded mainly on Bauman’s theory where he expresses an ethical distinctiveness of the postmodern age:

What the postmodern mind is aware of is that there are problems in human and social life with no good solutions twisted trajectories that cannot be straightened up ambivalences that are more than linguistic blunders yelling to be corrected doubts which cannot be legislated out of existence moral agonies which no reason-dictated recipes can soothe let alone cure. The postmodern mind does not expect any more to find the all-embracing total and ultimate formula of life without ambiguity risk danger and error and id deeply suspicious of any voice that promises otherwise. The postmodern mind is reconciled to the idea that the messiness of the human predicament is here to stay. This is in the broadest of outlines what can be called postmodern wisdom (Postmodern Ethics 1993 p245).


Bauman Zygmunt. Culture as Praxis.

Boston: Routledge & K. Paul 1973.

Bauman Zygmunt. Modernity and Ambivalence.

Cambridge: Polity 1990.

Bauman Zygmunt. Modernity and the Holocaust.

California: Stanford University Press 1989.

Bauman Zygmunt. Postmodern Ethics.

Oxford: Blackwell 1993.

Best Shaun. “Zygmunt Bauman; Personal refections

Within the mainstream of modernity.”

The British Journal of Sociology. V49 p311 June


Elliot Anthony. Subject to Ourselves.

Cambridge: Polity Press 1996.

Postmodernism: a reader. Ed. Thomas Docherty.

New York: Columbia University Press 1993.

Social Theory. Ed. Bryan s. Turner.

“The Nature of the Social”

“Theories of Action and Praxis” by Ira J. Cohen.

Oxford: Blackwell 1996.