Zygmunt Bauman, a sociologist and social theorist whose work examined the intertwined themes of globalization, consumerism and modernity, died January 9 in his adopted home of Leeds, England. He was 91.
An observer and a critic of modern civilization – he both fled the Nazis and then was expelled from his native Poland by a Communist regime that ignored his service during and after World War II — Bauman coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe how today’s society leaves humanity unmoored. “In a liquid modern life there are no permanent bonds,” he wrote, “and any that we take up for a time must be tied loosely so that they can be untied again, as quickly and as effortlessly as possible, when circumstances change – as they surely will in our liquid modern society, over and over again.” His wife Aleksandra Jasinska-Kania has said that with his death he has now gone “to liquid eternity.”
Born in Poznan, Poland in 1925 to Jewish family, Bauman’s family left for the Soviet Union’s zone of control after the invasion by Nazi Germany in 1939. He enlisted in the First Polish Army as a teenager in 1944 and was awarded the Cross of Valour the next year. After the war he joined Poland’s Internal Security Corps, which was charged with pacifying post-war Poland (sometimes brutally). Bauman had a promising career with the service, rising to rank of major and studying sociology at the Warsaw Academy of Political and Social Science while in uniform. But in 1953, after his father inquired about immigrating to Israel, Bauman was cashiered. Eventually, he took a position lecturing at the University of Warsaw.
Despite posting traditional academic successes and a commitment to socialism – “I was left-wing, I am left-wing, and I will die left-wing,” he would say years later – he never received a professorship despite being named chair of his department at the University of Warsaw. He taught Marxism in the philosophy department until 1956, when he became one of Poland’s first scholars of sociology.
During a 1968 purge, he renounced membership in the Polish communist party and, despite not being particularly religious and opposed to Zionism, he decamped for Israel. After a short spell teaching there, he took a position as chair of sociology at the University of Leeds, where he remained until his retirement in 1990.
“Professor Bauman was a man of deep intellect and compassion who inspired successive generations of staff and students at Leeds,” said Sir Alan Langlands, the university’s vide-chancellor. “A social theorist of great distinction, his insights and ideas were respected and admired around the world. We send our deepest condolences to his family and many friends.” Leeds founded the Bauman Institute in 2010 in Bauman’s honor.
Other honors included the European Amalfi Prize for Sociology (1992), the Theodor W. Adorno Award (1998) and the Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities (2010).Bauman was a prolific writer – his more than 50 books include Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) and the volumes Liquid Love, Liquid Fear, Liquid Lives and Liquid Times – that often defied easy categorization. “Bauman’s work is extensive, awesome, different,” wrote Peter Beilharz of Australia’s La Trobe University, in his Zygmunt Bauman: Dialectic of Modernity. “[I]t denies the systemic nature or relatively clear trajectory which characterizes other bodies of work, like, say, those of Habermas or Foucault. Bauman’s work is notoriously difficult, by comparison, at least inasmuch as it is slippery and shifting.”
He routinely spun off theoretical concepts that took on a life of their own with other thinkers. For example, as George Ritzer told Social Science Space in 2012, “Bauman has spun off an incredible number of very interesting ideas that have profoundly affected me (his ideas on the Holocaust played into my thinking about McDonaldization; his thinking on liquidity is central to my text on globalization).”
Bauman’s own views were influenced by an earlier generation of European leftist theorists, including Antonio Gramsci and Georg Simmel, and by his own life experiences of rootlessness and injustice. In writing about the Holocaust, for example, he insisted that it wasn’t as much an aberration as the inevitable product of societal forces such as industrialization. (In that same vein, in one of his last published pieces Bauman wrote that the road to Donald Trump’s election was paved by neoliberalism.)
As a result, his own work focused a great deal on ensuring social justice for those left behind or displaced by the modern.
“The task for sociology,” he said, “is to come to the help of the individual. We have to be in service of freedom. It is something we have lost sight of.”