Mark Davis on Zygmunt Bauman

Zygmunt Bauman
(Photograph: Grzegorz Lepiarz

To coincide with Zygmunt Bauman’s 85th birthday in November, we commissioned for the journal a special section of articles on his work (TCS 27.6), and for the blog we asked Mark Davis, Director of the Bauman Institute, to provide his own reflections on Bauman. Read more for Mark’s sociological, personal and birthday notes ‘For Zygmunt’

For Zygmunt: Three Notes

I am grateful to the editors of Theory, Culture & Society for the invitation to write a short article as an accompaniment to the journal’s special section to mark Zygmunt Bauman’s 85th birthday. What follows are three short notes intended, at the request of the journal editors, to offer both sociological and personal reflections upon my own encounters with Bauman since first discovering his work as an undergraduate student over a decade ago and first meeting with him in person upon completing my doctoral thesis. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to pursue and to realise my vision for the Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds and to have spent time in his company. Most recently, I was invited to join those accompanying him to Warsaw for a series of events there to mark his 85th birthday and it is this experience that provides the inspiration for my closing remarks. As such, although I certainly hope that what follows will be of some interest to the reader, I confess that these notes have been written very much ‘for Zygmunt’.

A Sociological Note

Zygmunt Bauman is one of the most prominent social thinkers of our times, frequently described as one of the world’s most influential sociologists. His work, which now spans six decades, addresses such timeless aspects of the human condition as freedom, consumerism, responsibility, morality, identity, community, uncertainty, and love. In his most recent work, Bauman has employed the notion of ‘liquidity’ to capture the dramatic social changes taking place in our everyday lives. In this way, he seeks to convey the increasing absence of solid structures that once provided the foundations for human societies. This new ‘liquid modern’ world of ours, like all liquids, cannot stand still and keep its shape for long. Everything seems to change – the fashions we follow, the events that catch our attention, the things we dream of and the things we fear. Not only are both powerful politicians and global financiers deemed to be far beyond our reach, but there is also a fleeting and fluid quality to the immediate social settings in which we act out our daily life-politics.

Forever able to respond quickly to dramatic social events, Bauman recently described the rescue of the global banking system as the truly remarkable creation of a ‘welfare state for the rich’ (Bauman 2010: 21). Assembled in an instant by immediately employing the full might of global states in order to protect the vested interests of an elite few, the legitimate daily demands of the many were once again simply brushed aside and left for another day. Constantly informed by two clear and non-negotiable principles – first, that it is ‘the duty of the community to insure its individual members against individual misfortune’; and second, that ‘just as the carrying capacity of a bridge is measured by the strength of its weakest support, so the quality of a society should be measured by the quality of life of its weakest members’ – Bauman’s sociology is well-known for refusing to entertain ‘morally-neutral’ ways of thinking sociologically (Bauman 2000: 216). In being permanently counter-cultural, Bauman’s sociology confronts the awesome task of breaking through the apparent ‘second nature’ of the present human-made world in order to remind individual men and women that an alternative way of living together is within our eminent capabilities. It is this that informs Keith Tester’s (2002; 2004) apt description of Bauman as a ‘sociologist of possibility’, acknowledging the significance of Antonio Gramsci in alerting Bauman to the chance that the present world, a world which can in part be seen as an affront to human dignity, does not have to be like this. Rather, human beings can themselves re–make the human world that they themselves have made. In pursing, and in encouraging others to pursue in their own way, a ‘morally-committed’ form of the discipline, Bauman’s work has become frequently subject to the charge that it is unduly pessimistic.

In response to this charge, Bauman once favoured pointing out that there are simply quite enough apologists for global capitalism that his own more sombre proclamations are offered as little more than a welcome contrast to the commonly held view that we reside in the best of all possible worlds (or, perhaps more accurately, the ‘least worst’ of all possible worlds). More recently, Bauman has been somewhat less prepared simply to accept that the label ‘pessimist’ adequately captures the essence of his position, declaring: “If an optimist is someone who believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist someone who suspects that the optimist may be right, the left places itself in the third camp: that of hope” (Bauman 2007). Bauman locates himself also firmly within this ‘third camp’, which is something that is often overlooked by those quick to dismiss Bauman’s account of ‘liquid modernity’ as simply too dark to offer much hoped for enlightenment. In my own reading of Bauman, I have preferred to identify his work as oscillating between moments of acute pessimism and those of spirited optimism (Davis 2008; forthcoming 2011).

A revealing example of this ‘dialectic’ between optimism and pessimism, which I see as present throughout his work, can be located in his writings either side of the momentous world historical events of 1989. Bauman’s initial response to those ‘intimations of postmodernity’ (Bauman 1992), implied by the perceived opportunities afforded human societies following the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’, was undoubtedly one of hope. In that book, the reader can find Bauman continuing to express his thorough disenchantment with the project of ‘modernity-as-order’ (Beilharz 2000), and at the same time seeing ‘postmodernity’ as a moment when both human society and the discipline of sociology had a chance to reinvigorate themselves. Bauman’s initial enthusiasm did not last long, however. Throughout the course of the 1990s, it is possible to see his initially optimistic stance towards postmodernity irremediably fragment as he becomes increasingly pessimistic about all of the ‘rubbish written in the name of postmodern theory’ (Bauman, Cantell and Pedersen 1992, 135), which subsequently led to his conscious distancing from it in favour of his now well-known ‘liquid modernity’ thesis (Gane 2004).

In this context, it is worth reflecting briefly upon what Gregor McLennan has termed a ‘new positivity’ (McLennan 2000) within the social sciences, which I follow Hayden and El-Ojeili (2009: 8) in seeing as being part of those wider calls for a new direction to be adopted such that sociologists once again accept their critical role as public intellectuals and ‘actually say something about the structure and direction of the world we inhabit, and about the values which will guide a better human future’ (McLennan 1999: 566). In the same way that postmodernity presented sociology with an opportunity to reinvigorate itself, so too does the advent of ‘liquid modernity’ call out to all those ‘morally-committed’ sociologists who believe that their discipline has much to offer humanity at a time of significant global crises. Perhaps unlike any other living sociologist, Bauman is the critical public intellectual, whose work translates seemingly with ease into a variety of different world contexts (1). For Bauman, those dramatic social changes that arrived with the ‘liquid modern’ call for a radical rethinking of the concepts that we use to narrate contemporary human experience, calling out for sociologists to engage with the public so as to renew their dialogue with those men and women admirably trying to live their lives in an age of uncertainty.

This ability to communicate is surely one of the reasons why Bauman is regarded as one of the world’s most influential sociologists. In spite of his formal retirement from the University of Leeds in 1990 (or rather, ‘because of’ his formal retirement: Zygmunt is fond of mischievously reminding current academics that they can only fully embrace their intellectual vocation once the various demands of administration have been finally cast aside with retirement), he has maintained an astonishing rate of productivity – delivering at least one book a year ever since – which has meant keeping up with Bauman is often as exhausting as it is frequently exhilarating. This was certainly the experience I had during my doctoral studies at Leeds, when a four year period saw no fewer than nine books and countless articles published. This generosity is remarkable, bestowing the gift of so many messages in bottles that we are far better able to respond to the ever-changing world of ‘liquid modernity’. And it is this personal encounter with Zygmunt Bauman’s generosity that I offer as my second note.

Mark Davis and Zygmunt Bauman
(Photograph: Simon and Simon

A Personal Note

The first I time heard the name Zygmunt Bauman was as an undergraduate at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, having been directed by Les Gofton to go and read a new book called Work, Consumerism and the New Poor (1998) for my dissertation. Having acquired the book from the high-street (the library having not yet obtained a copy of this recent work) I found myself reading the book attentively again and again, finding within its pages what I still believe today are the most urgent sociological questions. The dramatic shift from a society of producers to a society of consumers had not, as of course I had long suspected, created a world in which ‘we are all bourgeois now’, but rather the spectre of exclusion continued to haunt those ‘flawed consumers’ who were now perilously beyond the moral obligations of the consuming majority. Bauman’s analysis, at the dawn of the New Labour era, is unnervingly prescient when revisited today in the context of the Coalition Government’s assault on public and welfare spending in the UK.

Having had my sociological imagination fired yet again, both local civic pride and a desire to continue my critical thinking about consumerism at the institution synonymous with Bauman’s sociology led me to pursue postgraduate study at the University of Leeds. Leeds, after all, was the place where Bauman had spent his sociological career within the UK and, through their Festschrift, Leeds sociologists Richard Kilminster and Ian Varcoe (1996) had made the first momentous contribution to Bauman scholarship. As my doctoral research developed, the idea that was to become the Bauman Institute began to form in my mind. Although the possibilities for what an Institute bearing Bauman’s name might be able to contribute to sociology were exciting, specifically through providing a home for the kind of critical thinking that is the hallmark of his work, it was only upon meeting Zygmunt in person for the first time and receiving his support that I decided to commit myself totally to the project.

It is difficult to convey in words how I felt upon receiving that first email from Zygmunt. He had heard (to this day, I’m not sure how) that I had recently produced a thesis on his work and posed a simple question: ‘why don’t we look each other in the eyes?’ With this, our conversation began and I was invited round to his home in a suburb of Leeds to discuss my critical reflections on his work. On arrival at his home, one cannot but be struck by the wilderness that is the surrounding garden (of course, recalling later that this garden belonged to the author of Modernity and Ambivalence, it is suddenly much less surprising. In a subsequent conversation, he would recommend to me as the world’s finest gardener none other than Charles Darwin, noting with respect to the overgrowth: ‘what crime have they committed that should lead to their expulsion?’). The conversation that ensued during that first meeting was notable principally for the generosity with which my work was treated. To say I was a touch apprehensive about the meeting is an exercise in gross understatement. It is testimony to my host that I was made to feel so comfortably welcome that we talked for hours at great ease over an endless supply of coffee and pastries. Those fortunate enough to have spent time in Zygmunt’s company cannot but be struck by this generosity, both in terms of the hospitality extended to those welcomed across the threshold and in terms of his capacity to convey the impression that what one has to say is of such interest and significance to him that time simply passes by unnoticed. This ability to encourage one to follow one’s own train of thought, to walk one’s own path, is particularly significant for someone with so many followers. As many of his commentators have pointed out, Bauman has never established a particular ‘School’ of thought or set out a specific method that can be applied by others to given circumstances. It was as a consequence of these observations that I was particularly keen to discuss with him the prospect of a Bauman Institute, which was intended to be the global centre for ‘Bauman studies’ of course, but in such a way that remains true to the spirit of his work, encouraging others to ask their own questions and to follow their own intellectual instincts, as opposed to being in any way hagiographical. After all, I believe that Bauman’s work is best interpreted as a torch by which to light our way in dark times, as it remains up to us to choose our own direction and to follow it with conviction, safe in the knowledge that the torch is there to highlight the various traps and pitfalls that lie ahead and that may otherwise have remained unnoticed. It was of paramount importance to me that such a venture should have the full support of Bauman himself and I will be forever grateful for the support that he has continued to provide to the project. Of course, this is support ‘Bauman-style’. Always so generous with his time and willing to offer advice when asked, he has nevertheless consciously remained a background presence, encouraging me to pursue my own vision for the Institute that now proudly bears his name. This can perhaps best be captured by a remark made during an early email exchange on the direction of the emerging Institute, when he noted: ‘this is your ship, dear Mark, you’ve set the Institute sailing and who am I to thrust in my mouldy oar?!’

With considerable assistance from the School of Sociology and Social Policy at Leeds, in particular the faith shown in the project by Nick Ellison as Head of School, the Bauman Institute was formally launched with a major international conference on 6th and 7th September 2010. With over 200 delegates from around the world in attendance – drawn from across Europe, as well as from Chile to Mongolia, Australia to Canada, Japan to the USA – and with plenary lectures from Neal Lawson, Daniel Libeskind, George Ritzer and Saskia Sassen,, as well as special panel sessions involving Peter Beilharz, Antony Bryant, Bryan Cheyette, Griselda Pollock, Vic Seidler, Max Silverman, Keith Tester and Janet Wolff, it felt to many as though something significant was happening. Not only was Leeds announcing itself as offering a centre for creative and critical thinking in sociology, but there was also a tangible spirit of goodwill harnessed by a collective recognition of the contribution that Bauman has made across the arts, humanities and social sciences during his long and continuing vocation as a sociologist.

For my part, as Director of the Bauman Institute, I believe that it comes into being at an important moment, both for sociology and for a wider world that is once again looking for those messages in bottles that have been quietly set to sail whilst everyone was too busy enjoying the distractions of the parties on the beach. It is my hope that the Bauman Institute – as a vibrant international research and teaching centre dedicated to the sociological analysis of those crises affecting rapidly changing global societies in the twenty-first century – will provide a space for those who continue to believe that the world may be better than it currently is and who wish to pursue the ‘morally-committed’ form of sociology that Bauman has so often encouraged. I hope the Institute will be able to spark other sociological imaginations and to communicate that enthusiasm for sociology that I was fortunate enough to discover in the pages of Work, Consumerism and the New Poor on the first day I heard the name Zygmunt Bauman.

A Birthday Note

‘Wer den Dichter will verstehen, muss in Dichters Lande gehen’ (Goethe cited in Morawski 1998: 29)

Photograph: Grzegorz Lepiarz,

I was recently reminded of the above quotation from Goethe – translated as ‘Who wishes to understand the poet, must go to the poet’s homeland’ – as I accompanied Zygmunt to Warsaw in November for a series of ceremonial events to mark his 85th birthday. Knowing the ‘Polish context’ in detail, I was curious to see how the returning poet would be welcomed back to the homeland.

Morawski is by no means alone in appreciating the importance of the Polish context. Peter Beilharz, in particular, has revealed the importance of this for the early formation and subsequent development of Bauman’s sociology (Beilharz 2000; 2002). In his ‘intellectual biography’ of Bauman, Dennis Smith’s explicitly states: ‘I believe the distinctiveness of Bauman’s wisdom comes out of the distinctiveness of his personal experience. So, in order to understand and appreciate Bauman properly, we need to know something about his background’ (Smith 1999: 35). Bauman’s life in Poland has certainly become one of the most well-known biographical accounts in sociology. One struggles to think of any other contemporary sociologist about whom we know so much biographical detail. Of course, at least a part of this fascination with Bauman’s background comes from the distinctiveness of his personal experience, as Smith rightly suggests.

There are familiar objections to the significance that can be placed upon biographical evidence for the understanding of any author’s work, however, and perhaps for sociological thinking specifically. As Barry Smart (2001: 328) has commented, it is worth remembering the Foucauldian dilemma of the ‘author function’, in which the author’s own biography is often speciously seen as providing a crucial insight into those ‘unifying principles’ that knit together the different threads of their work. Bauman himself, in interview with Peter Beilharz (Bauman and Beilharz 2001: 334), warned against conflating the ‘authorial’ with the ‘authoritative’, noting that authors themselves are often the least reliable judges of their own projects. Bauman insists that the authorial ‘story’ be treated simply as one more available interpretation amongst many others, itself waiting to be further discussed, criticized and challenged.

Moreover, and with Bauman specifically in mind, Keith Tester makes the case against placing too much significance upon an author’s biography (Bauman and Tester 2001, 2–5). First, Tester states that if an individual’s work does reflect their personal experiences, and that this is to be applied to every author, then it is necessary to conclude that all social thought is simply a personally selective autobiography. Secondly, given the critical approach that Bauman has adopted towards the colonization of the public sphere by the banalities of private lives, it would seem to run counter to the thrust of his own sociological argument to over–emphasize biographical influences on the shaping of his social thought. Finally, Tester sensitively suggests that if there is to be a biography of genuine significance to Bauman’s sociology, then it is not his own but rather that of his wife Janina which is deserving of so much scholarly interest. Her own texts (J. Bauman 1986; 1988) on the experiences of life in Poland during and after the Second World War are widely acknowledged as having had a profound impact upon Bauman’s sociological thinking, never more poignantly than in his own consideration of the Holocaust (1989).

Given the significance of these debates about the ‘Polish context’ amongst his leading interpreters, it was a considerable privilege to be invited to Warsaw to be a part of the events there to mark his 85th birthday. In a special ceremony – led by Bogdan Zdrojewski, Minister of Culture and National Heritage – Bauman was awarded the Gloria Artis Medal, which is given ‘for merit rendered to Polish culture, as well as for supporting Polish culture and art abroad and strengthening cultural relations between Poland and other countries’. Arriving for the ceremony, Bauman was immediately surrounded by journalists and film-crews, afforded the status of an intellectual ‘celebrity’ in spite of his avid attempts to avoid it. This is likely to reach a further level of intensity during 2011, a year that will see no fewer than three documentary films (2) released about his life, his work and his enduring significance given the stark challenges facing each and every one of us in the twenty-first century. As a part of the Gloria Artis ceremony, I was invited (3) to take part in a couple of short television interviews about Bauman’s sociology and was asked directly on one occasion about the peculiarly ‘Polish qualities’ of his work. Feeling terrifically under-qualified to respond to this question with any great insight, my mind was suddenly flooded with humorous remarks often given by Polish friends and colleagues as to their ‘national character’. As I stumbled through a response, I referred to a Polish friend who once said that, in Poland, there are very often “only five people in a room, but six opinions”, which at least seemed to chime with Bauman’s commitment to human understanding as a never-ending conversation that should be more than a mere dialogue, rather aiming at a polylogue. I took the opportunity to reveal my favourite Bauman quote, which to me has always captured the essence of his work: “I happen to believe that questions are hardly ever wrong; it is the answers that might be so. I also believe, though, that refraining from questioning is the worst answer of all” (Bauman 1999: 8). Whether any of this can be claimed as a specifically ‘Polish quality’, I leave for others to decide.

This commitment to questioning and to seeking out the potential dangers in the often naive celebration of the present as the best (‘least worst’) of all possible worlds is a hallmark of Bauman’s sociology and no doubt part of its appeal, especially it seems amongst the growing ranks of his younger readers. Bauman’s work now spans six decades, but has lost none of its topicality. This was in evidence at the Kultura 2.0 conference in Warsaw, organised by the National Audiovisual Institute (NInA), which closed the weekend of events with a short lecture by Bauman on the role that new technologies are playing in (re)shaping our social lives, specifically the ways and means by which we now relate to each other. Captivating the audience of over 150 delegates with his analysis of Twitter, text messaging, and the curious Japanese phenomenon of ‘Love+’ (4), Bauman’s capacity to seek out the new and absorb its meaning is truly inspiring. Armed with his oft-noted Simmelian appreciation of human interaction, plus his Gramscian commitment to the belief that a human-made world can be human re-made, Bauman invited his audience to draw lessons from the most recent technological and social developments in the hope that we continue to question, never forgetting that things were once different before and so might again be different, be better, in the future. When suddenly invited by a member of the audience to say precisely how things might be better, he lights up and offers the mischievous claim that perhaps all we need to do is wait for ‘Love++’. Nobody present is left in any doubt that he feels another solution will be required.

In close, I hope that these three notes reveal the depth of appreciation that I have for the inspiration Bauman’s work has given to my own life, both sociological and personal. Through Bauman, I recognise the distinction between simply ‘doing’ sociology and rather ‘being’ a sociologist, embraced as a vocation, as a mode of being-in-the-world. I have learned a great deal from his writing and from his company and I am forever grateful ‘for Zygmunt’. Wszystkiego najlepszego z okazji urodzin.


1. If the consistent volume of enquiries received by the Bauman Institute is any guide, Bauman is currently experiencing a surge of interest in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, and South Korea, as well as the enduring interest throughout Europe, most recently particularly prominent in Italy and Spain. The latter context was no doubt influenced by Bauman receiving the Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and the Humanities in October 2010.

2. These include: i) the film Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman, directed by Krzysztof Rzączyński and produced by the National Audiovisual Institute (NInA) on the occasion of the Polish Presidency of the EU in 2011 and the European Culture Congress; ii) the film 1 Lawnswood Gardens: The World According to Zygmunt Bauman, directed by Pawel Kuczynski; and, iii) the film The Trouble with Being Human These Days, directed by Bartek Dziadosz and produced by Grzegorz Lepiarz. For a trailer and further information on this film, see:

3. These “talk show” interviews took place with Bauman present and were conducted along with Professor Antony Bryant, Professor Griselda Pollock and myself.

4. Released on September 3 2009 (only in Japan), Love+ is a dating sim developed and published by Konami for the Nintendo DS handheld video game console. One website describes it as follows: “Love+ is a unique Nintendo DS game where you will “seriously” have to seduce a girl and maintain a relationship with your virtual girlfriends”. The game garnered much attention when a Japanese college student actually married one of its simulated characters:


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Bauman, Z. (2010) Living on Borrowed Time: Conversations with Citali Rovirosa-Madrazo. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Mark Davis is Lecturer in Sociology and Director of the Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds, UK. He is the author of Freedom and Consumerism: A Critique of Zygmunt Bauman’s Sociology (Ashgate 2008) and co-editor of Bauman’s Challenge: Sociological Issues for the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan 2010, with Keith Tester). His on-going research interests are focused upon the social and political consequences of consumerism in a global age, in particular how freedom and choice can be reconciled with the challenge of creating fairer, more sustainable, and more stable societies around the world. He is working as an expert advisor to the Council of Europe on creating a ‘Europe of Shared and Social Responsibilities’ (CDCS 2009) and is currently writing his next book on ‘post-consumerism’. Email:

For further details on the Bauman Institute, please visit:

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