Zygmunt Bauman: visionary sociologist dies aged 91

Fellow scholars pay tribute to the thinker who transformed our understanding of the contemporary world with his concept of ‘liquid modernity’ 

January 10, 2017
Zygmunt Bauman
Source: Rex

World-renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has died at the age of 91.

For more than 60 years, and particularly since 1990, when he retired from his position as professor of sociology at the University of Leeds, Professor Bauman produced a steady stream of books examining the state of the world today and engaging deeply in debates around, for example, the refugee crisis and the impact of social media.

Even in his eighties, he once told Times Higher Education, he was still driven by the curiosity that had fired him in his youth, arguing that “the volume of knowledge possessed by scholars working in the humanities tends to grow with their owners’/carriers’ age”.

Professor Bauman, who died on 9 January, was born in Poznań, Poland on 19 November 1925, fled to the Soviet Union after the Nazis invaded his home country and later served in the Polish army and Polish military intelligence before becoming a lecturer at the University of Warsaw (1954-68). When he fell from favour in 1968, he went to teach at Tel Aviv University and then moved to Leeds in 1971.

Many scholars have been deeply influenced by his insights.

For Anna Minton, reader in the School of Architecture, Computing and Engineering at the University of East London, Professor Bauman was “an intellectual tour de force, a prolific writer and mesmerising speaker able to articulate the fracturing of contemporary society years before it became apparent. It is no exaggeration to say that he was a visionary…He seemed to come from another era, a time when ideas and intellectual rigour had real value in contrast to today’s ‘post-truth’ discourse.”

Matt Dawson, lecturer in sociology at the University of Glasgow, saw the importance of Professor Bauman’s work in the encouragement it gave sociologists to remember “the morally ambivalent nature of social life. In books such as Modernity and the Holocaust, Postmodern Ethics and Liquid Modernity, he continually emphasised the ways in which the dignity of human life and the moral impulse to be for the other are denied.

“Yet his work also reminded us that this moral impulse was one of the building blocks of society, which would find ways to express itself in even the most extreme of circumstances.”

The sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor noted that he had sometimes found himself marking essays “full of pessimism and gloom aroused in the students by reading too much Bauman”. Yet in person, Professor Bauman was always “a great sprayer-around of ideas”, in refreshing contrast to the timidities of British empiricism.

In 2000, recalled Ralph Fevre, professor of social research at Cardiff University, Professor Bauman “responded to my pestering him to write a foreword to my new book by sending me half a dozen generous pages.

“Somewhere in the book I had said that, although his work was an inspiration to me, I wanted to write mine in a more accessible style than he normally used. When it arrived, the writing in his foreword put mine to shame. It was elegant, clear and a joy to read…Bauman showed us that great theorists should have the courage to make sure we know what they mean and to let us draw our own conclusions about the merit of their ideas.”

In 2014, Professor Bauman was accused of introducing errors into a 2013 book by relying on unchecked online sources, including Wikipedia. Meanwhile in 2015, he faced claims that he had recycled large amounts of his own material in many of his later books.

His response to the Wikipedia allegations hinted at his rebellious streak, commenting that he could “only pity” his critic and saw no link between “obedience to technical procedural rules of quotations” and “the quality (reliability, effectiveness and above all social importance) of scholarship”. 

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com

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