Consumerist Culture in Zygmunt Bauman's Critical Sociology: A Comparative Analysis of His Polish and English Writings

By Brzeziñski, Dariusz | Polish Sociological Review, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Consumerist Culture in Zygmunt Bauman's Critical Sociology: A Comparative Analysis of His Polish and English Writings


Brzeziñski, Dariusz, Polish Sociological Review


Introduction

Zygmunt Bauman pursued his scholarly interests over a period of more than sixty years: first in Poland (1953-1968), then in Israel (1968-1971), and finally in the UK (1971-2017). Throughout his career, he repeatedly switched between research trends and paradigms, while his worldview underwent a far-reaching evolution. The range of his analyses, too, was exceptionally diversified due to his adoption of a very broad definition of sociology as a dialogue with human experience (Bauman, Jacobsen, and Tester 2014: 7-34). Finally, it is noteworthy that Bauman's studies were essentially of a transdisciplinary nature and that he himself often stressed the groundlessness of establishing strict boundaries between individual disciplines (see: Bauman 1966a: 29-30; Bauman and Tester 2001: 39-40). However, despite the fact that the presence of many paradigms, threads, and disciplines was constitutive of Bauman's scholarly endeavor, it is possible to specify the threads and subjects that constantly recurred in his writings. Bauman himself at one point indicated two such issues, namely, culture and suffering (Bauman 1992: 206-207). Looking back at the whole of his now complete oeuvre, these words still hold true. Bauman began his regular studies of culture in the sixties. While in Poland, he devoted many articles and two books to this theme: Culture and Society [Kultura i społeczeństwo] (1966a) and Sketches in the Theory of Culture [Szkice z teorii kultury]; however, the latter of the two, which for many years was considered to have been lost, was published as late as in 2017.1 The theory, sociology, and anthropology of culture figured prominently in the papers Bauman published while in exile. He presented his reflections on the above issues within the frameworks of structuralism, ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, and the theory of modernity, post-modernity and liquid modernity (see, e.g., Bauman 1973; 1978; 1987; 1997; 2011b). The problem of suffering appeared in his analyses of groups that were subject to exclusion. Initially, he focused on the situation of the working class, and only later substantially extended the scope of his research (see: Bauman 1982). In the eighties, he started to investigate the consequences of the development of disciplinary practices (Bauman 1987; 1989). At a later stage, he mainly stressed the difficulties arising from deepening social divisions in the era of a globalizing society (Bauman 1998; 2004; 2011a). Both in the writings he produced in Poland from the moment he started to identify himself with revisionist thought, and in the whole of his later scholarly output, the engaged nature of his sociology was based mainly on a demonstration of the need for critical and alternativist thinking (Dawson 2017: 224-242). As Dennis Smith (1998: 40) rightly observes, "(...) the driving force behind Zygmunt Bauman's work as a sociologist has been two things: first, a sense of intellectual and moral outrage about the extent to which societies are run on the basis of untruth and self-deception; and, second, a deep dissatisfaction with the evil and suffering this makes possible. His own unerring instinct has been to move against these tendencies."

Consumerist culture is a research area which brings into focus the two aforementioned issues. Bauman addressed this phenomenon throughout the whole of his academic activity and his interpretations were invariably critical (Davis 2008; Blackshaw 2008: 117-135). In his Polish works, he initially focused on what he saw as the ever-increasing role of the consumerist aspirations of socialist societies (Bauman 1962: 77-90; 1965a: 124-134). In his later, more general reflections regarding the socio-cultural transformation, he underlined the relation between the process of heterogenization and the central position which market mechanisms and consumerist culture held in the social reality. Against this background, he wrote about the progressing commodification of human life and the related reification of individuals (Bauman 1966a: 374-450; 1966d: 58-74). …

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