Despite officially retiring in 1990 as professor of sociology at Leeds University, the 84-year-old has remained remarkably productive – churning out a book a year from his home in a leafy Yorkshire suburb. His latest, entitled 44 Letters from the Liquid Modern World, is a collection of columns written for Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper featuring pithy potshots at Twitter, swine flu hysteria and the cultural elite.
Such is his star power that when Leeds opened the Bauman Institute for sociology in September, more than 200 foreign delegates flew in to listen to the octogenerian thinker. Despite the plaudits, Bauman appears to be a prophet everywhere except in Britain. This may be because until now he had proved unwilling to provide politicians with grand overarching theories to explain what they were doing and why – unlike Lord (Anthony) Giddens, the sociologist whose “third way” political approach was embraced by Tony Blair’s New Labour.
That has all changed with the arrival of Ed Miliband as Labour party leader and his Baumanesque analysis that the party had lost its humanity by embracing the market. The sociologist says he was encouraged by Miliband’s first speech as leader to the Labour party conference, saying that it offered a chance to “resurrect” the left on a moral basis.
Several thoughts come to mind:
1. It is interesting that Britain has sociologists who are influencing politicians and policies. Does any sociologist in the United States play a similar role?
2. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Bauman called a major thinker. And yet, how many Americans (or even American sociologists) have heard of him? I think I once read a piece by him regarding modernity but other than that, haven’t really encountered his work.
3. This all is a reminder that there is a role for the public intellectual in Britain and Europe that doesn’t really exist in the United States.
Additionally, Bauman comments on the ability of sociology to help solve the major problems in society:
Despite such interrogative success, Bauman today is sanguine about his own discipline’s ability to find answers for such problems. He warns that sociology, with its falling student rolls and insular outlook, is caught between number crunchers and philosophers. “The task for sociology 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,” he says.
What kind of freedom is Bauman talking about? Freedom from repressive dictators? Freedom from traditional metanarratives? Freedom from restrictive social structures?