Neil Gross in the New York Times: With the death last month of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman at age 91, the intellectual world lost a thinker of rare insight and range. Because his style of work was radically different from that of most social scientists in the United States today, his passing is an occasion to consider what might be gained if more members of our profession were to follow his example….
Weber saw bureaucracies as powerful, but dispiritingly impersonal. Mr. Bauman amended this: Bureaucracy can be inhuman. Bureaucratic structures had deadened the moral sense of ordinary German soldiers, he contended, which made the Holocaust possible. They could tell themselves they were just doing their job and following orders.
Later, Mr. Bauman turned his scholarly attention to the postwar and late-20th-century worlds, where the nature and role of all-encompassing institutions were again his focal point. Craving stability after the war, he argued, people had set up such institutions to direct their lives — more benign versions of Weber’s bureaucracy. You could go to work for a company at a young age and know that it would be a sheltering umbrella for you until you retired. Governments kept the peace and helped those who couldn’t help themselves. Marriages were formed through community ties and were expected to last.
But by the end of the century, under pressure from various sources, those institutions were withering. Economically, global trade had expanded, while in Europe and North America manufacturing went into decline; job security vanished. Politically, too, changes were afoot: The Cold War drew to an end, Europe integrated and politicians trimmed back the welfare state. Culturally, consumerism seemed to pervade everything. Mr. Bauman noted major shifts in love and intimacy as well, including a growing belief in the contingency of marriage and — eventually — the popularity of online dating.
In Mr. Bauman’s view, it all connected. He argued we were witnessing a transition from the “solid modernity” of the mid-20th century to the “liquid modernity” of today. Life had become freer, more fluid and a lot more risky. In principle, contemporary workers could change jobs whenever they got bored. They could relocate abroad or reinvent themselves through shopping. They could find new sexual partners with the push of a button. But there was little continuity.
Mr. Bauman considered the implications. Some thrived in this new atmosphere; the institutions and norms previously in place could be stultifying, oppressive. But could a transient work force come together to fight for a more equitable distribution of resources? Could shopping-obsessed consumers return to the task of being responsible, engaged citizens? Could intimate partners motivated by short-term desire ever learn the value of commitment?…(More)”