Zygmunt Bauman (1927–) was born to a Jewish–Polish family in Poznan, Poland. Bauman experienced dislocation early in life, as his family was forced to flee to the Soviet Union when Nazi forces invaded Poland in 1939. There, Bauman became a communist and a member of the Polish First Army. He had a successful military career, being awarded the Military Cross of Valour in 1945 for his bravery in battles against German forces in World War II and eventually rising to the rank of major. In 1953, however, Bauman was dishonorably discharged from the military after his father made an inquiry to the Israeli Embassy in Poland about emigrating from the USSR to Israel (an idea that the Soviet government strongly opposed for political reasons).
After being discharged, Bauman completed an M.A. degree and later became a lecturer at the University of Warsaw from 1954 to 1968. During much of his early career, Bauman was a committed Marxist, but later changed his perspective as he became more critical of the communist government of Poland. As anti-Semitism grew among many in the government, Bauman decided to officially renounce his membership in Poland’s ruling Communist Party. That same year, an anti-Semitic political campaign succeeded in pushing most of the Jewish–Polish population out of the country, including Bauman. In exile for the second time in his life, Bauman first relocated to Israel to teach at Tel-Aviv University and then to England to become chair of sociology at the University of Leeds.
Bauman wrote several well-received books and articles during his career, including what is perhaps his most famous work, Modernity and the Holocaust, a disturbing analysis of how modern forms of bureaucracy and rationalization helped make the mass extermination of Jewish people possible. But, surprisingly, he has written the majority of his most influential work after retiring from the University of Leeds in 1990. Since then, Bauman has been incredibly prolific, writing on modernity and postmodernity, ethics, identity, globalization and many more of social theory’s most important themes. Today, Bauman is recognized by many as one of the world’s greatest living social theorists.
While Bauman was never affiliated with the Frankfurt School, he is still considered one of the leading intellectuals in the tradition of Critical Theory (he was even awarded the Theodor Adorno Award by the city of Frankfurt in 1998). Bauman’s wide-ranging work touches on both classical sociological themes like rationalization and modernity and extends social theory to address the most contemporary of social issues. In doing so, he confronts us with both the problems and possibilities of living in what many believe to be a new stage of social life. Bauman is required reading not only for those interested in cutting-edge social theory, but for anyone concerned with how contemporary society affects our abilities to be ethical and to live deeply meaningful lives.
Bauman’s personal experience with anti-Semitism and his later research on the Holocaust led him to question whether modern forms of social organization and rationality, often championed as signs of human progress, actually undercut moral obligation and responsibility. In Modernity and the Holocaust, for example, Bauman provocatively argues that the Holocaust, far from being a barbaric counter-example to modern morality, was actually in line with many modern principles of rationality that are seen as morally superior in most other circumstances. Modern principles such as instrumental rationality, rule-following, the ordering and categorization of all of social life, and a complex division of labor all played a role in making the mass extermination of Jews possible. In his later writings, Bauman explores the possibilities for ethics in a more “postmodern” social world.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Bauman was known as a key theorist of postmodernity. While many theorists of the postmodern condition argued that it signified a radical break with modern society, Bauman contended that modernity had always been characterized by an ambivalent, “dual” nature. On the one hand, Bauman saw modern society as being largely characterized by a need for order—a need to domesticate, categorize, and rationalize the world so it would be controllable, predictable, and understandable. It is this ordering, rationalizing tendency that Max Weber saw as the characteristic force of modernization. But, on the other hand, modernity was also always characterized by radical change, by a constant overthrowing of tradition and traditional forms of economy, culture, and relationship—“all that is solid melts into air,” as Marx characterized this aspect of modern society. For Bauman, postmodernity is the result of modernity’s failure to rationalize the world and the amplification of its capacity for constant change.
In later years, Bauman felt that the term “postmodern” was problematic and started using the term liquid modernity to better describe the condition of constant mobility and change he sees in relationships, identities, and global economics within contemporary society. Instead of referring to modernity and postmodernity, Bauman writes of a transition from solid modernity to a more liquid form of social life.
For Bauman, the consequences of this move to a liquid modernity can most easily be seen in contemporary approaches to self-identity. In liquid modernity, constructing a durable identity that coheres over time and space becomes increasingly impossible, according to Bauman. We have moved from a period where we understood ourselves as “pilgrims” in search of deeper meaning to one where we act as “tourists” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences.
The University of Leeds has established the Bauman Institute, an organization dedicated to addressing social problems and the themes that characterize Bauman’s thought. Check it out at:
For a more in-depth profile of Zygmunt Bauman, see the following article from the Guardian:
Want to know more about Bauman’s thoughts on liquid modernity? Click below to see an extended interview with him done for “The Trouble with Being Human These Days,” a new documentary about the life and thought of Zygmunt Bauman:
Bauman’s work on the Holocaust was largely inspired by the experiences of his late wife, Janina, who was forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Read part of her story here, at the Second World War Experience Centre:
Janina was also an accomplished writer, writing a number of books on her experience in the Warsaw Ghetto, including Winter in the Morning: