“De-familiarize the familiar” and “Familiarize the unfamiliar”

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Part 1 of Zygmunt Bauman Interview

Zygmunt Bauman is a renowned Polish sociologist and intellectual, who has lived in Leeds (England) for the past four decades. In the last half-a-century he has written more than thirty-five books (published in English) which provide critical analyses, and in-depth and incisive diagnoses of the human condition. In his work, Bauman has developed a comprehensive and colourful conceptual apparatus to chart the contorted and tortuous path from premodernity through solid modernity to postmodern society or what he today prefers to label ‘liquid modernity’. He has tangoed with and touched upon a multitude of themes ranging from sexuality, poverty and morality; globalization, freedom, community and individualization to the Holocaust, death, love and utopia (just to mention a few).

 

Despite his current status as a renowned stalwart in the sociological landscape, he has never quite embraced the mainstream of academia. His many books provoke conventional understandings or the social common sense; and iconoclastically and consciously sit astride the academic barriers erected and intended to keep things apart.

 

Bauman maintains a peculiar presence – at one and the same time an insider and an outsider.

 

In these interviews – conducted over the past few years via electronic interface as well as face-to-face-conversations – Zygmunt Bauman reflects on the changing role of sociology in a world that has moved from the certainties of ‘solid modernity’ to a ‘liquid modern world’ characterized by uncertainty and unpredictability. The intefviews are broken into two-parts.

 

In the interview, Bauman reflects upon contemporary society, and touches on the role(s) and goal(s) of social science with respect to the human condition, what it is all about, and the need for multiple voices and actors in the social sciences.

 

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MHJ: Michael Hviid Jacobsen (MHJ) Professor of Sociology, Aalborg University, Denmark KT: Keith Tester (KT) Professor of Sociology,
University of Hull, United Kingdom
ZB: Zygmunt Bauman  (ZB) Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Leeds & Warsaw

 

 Interview with Zygmunt Bauman

(in 2 Parts – This is Part 1)

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MHJ/KT: Thank you so much for giving your time so freely. “Thank you” usually heralds the end of an interview. In a way, we start this interview with the end because we want to ask the future question first: What next for sociology? Do you have any predictions on what waits around the corner for sociology?

 

ZB: I have no skills of a prophet! I repeat this, as I have done so often before. And that all suggestions of scientists and experts possessing such (future-prediction) powers thanks to their professional training are in my view fraudulent!

When I scan my life experience, what I see is a huge graveyard of failed forecasts overgrown by plants sown and sprouting with no warning … The future is not reachable through extrapolation of current statistical trends.

 

MHJ/KT: Towards the end of his classic book The Sociological Imagination (1959) American sociologist C. Wright Mills claimed that the purpose of sociology is “to improve the quality of human life”. As you see it, is it the purpose of sociology to improve, enhance or embetter society/human life, and if so, how?

 

ZB: At all times of its two-centuries long history sociology focused on the aspects of human condition deriving from the fact of being a ‘social animal’ – living in society, in the company of others, interacting in others etc.: ‘sociality’ of humans being for sociologists that “difference that made difference”. Long before C. Wright Mills, another social scientist – Albion Small, one of the pioneers of sociology in the US, pointed out that sociology was born of the desire to improve society – the tacit premise being Aristotle’s proposition that ‘good life’ is conceivable solely inside a good polis and that only beasts or angels can live without a polis.

 

Do you want to do something about the quality of human life?

Start from doing something about the quality of society humans inhabit!

 

There was, so to speak, a sort of ‘elective affinity’ between such an understanding of the services sociology was bent on rendering and promising to render, and the ‘managerial reason’ of the time, bent on determining the forthcoming of desirable human actions by manipulating its probability through the manipulation of the setting in which the actions are to take place – manipulation that was calculated to limit, better still to eliminate altogether the actors’ choice.

 

Managerial reason has changed since, alongside the strategy of domination – shifting from the emphasis on ‘hard power’ (extricating discipline through coercion) to ‘soft power’ (relying on temptation and seduction).

 

The idea of ‘good life’ nowadays is cut out from the idea of ‘good society’ and turned into a DIY (do-it-yourself) job, a matter of individual concern and individual performance: no longer the question of ‘improving society’ but finding/constructing a relatively comfortable niche in a hopelessly discomforting social setting. The resulting radical change in human condition confronts sociology with the need to re-think and recompose its vocation …

 

MHJ/KT: So, what do the social sciences need to do in order to re-think its vocation or calling - What will be the main challenges for the discipline in the years to come?

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ZB: As Vaclav Havel put it in his inimitable poetic idiom, to predict the future one needs to know what songs the nation likes to sing; but there is no way to guess what songs the nation will sing next year … The future of sociology will be composed (brought into being!) by the social scientist’s choices.

 

MHJ/KT: What are these choices for the social scientist?

 

ZB: Social science (and most other sciences) spent the first part of its history trying to be of service to the modern project or modern obsession of “order building” – creating an ordered system and social life.

 

The social sciences were then, so to speak, a ‘science/technology of un-freedom’.

 

It defined its task as designing social arrangements fit to answer what Talcott Parsons had called ‘the Hobbesian question’: How to induce/force/indoctrinate human beings, who seem to have this ambiguous and endemically prankish gift of free will, to be normatively guided – to make humans (who can be unpredictably autonomous) to follow routinely an orderly, predictable courses of action? In short, how to make people to do voluntarily and gladly what doing they must?

 

However, in our increasingly individualized society, in which resolution of socially created problems is relentlessly shifted from the social (spaces and powers) onto the shoulders of individual men and women, social science faces the chance (though, admittedly, no more than a chance) of turning instead into a science/technology of freedom.

 

Knowledge of the ways and means through which the individuals-by-decree and de jure of these “liquid-modern” times may be lifted to the rank of individuals-by-choice and de facto.

 

This is, I repeat, a chance – though I believe that this is also, and even in the first place, a moral obligation: the task which social science owes to the men and women of our times. But to acquit itself honourably of this moral duty, sociology needs nowadays to engage in a continuous dialogue with the daily experience of those men and women.

 

Once humans become also our partners of dialogue, and of a dialogue calculated to service their needs and respond to their quandaries, sociologists lose the luxury enjoyed by the sciences of the non-human: the privilege of ignoring opinions held by the objects of their study, and exercising full, indivisible and inalienable, ‘professional’ sovereignty over the meaning-creation and over the separation of truth from untruth …

 

Ultimately social sciences and sociology is a ‘conversation with human experience’.

 

MHJ/KT:  What do you mean by ‘conversation with human experience’?

 

ZB: I mean both Erfahrungen and Erlebnisse: the two different phenomena generated at the person/world interface, which Germans distinguish and set apart yet English speakers due to the lack of distinct names usually blend in one notion of ‘experience’. Erfahrung is what happens to me when interacting with the world; Erlebnis is ‘what I live through’ in the course of that encounter – the joint product of my perception of the happening(s) and my effort to absorb it and render it intelligible.

 

Erfahrung can, and does, make bid for the status of objectivity (supra- or inter-personality), whereas Erlebnis is evidently and overtly, explicitly subjective; and so, with a modicum of simplification, we may translate these concepts into English as, respectively, objective and subjective aspects of experience; or, adding a pinch of interpretation, actor-unprocessed and actor-processed experience …

 

The first may be presented as a report from the world external to the actor; the second, coming from actor’s ‘inside’ and concerning private thoughts, impressions and emotions, may only be available in the form of an actor’s report. In reports of the first category we hear of inter-personally testable events called ‘facts’; the contents of the second kind of reports are not testable inter-personally – beliefs as reported by the actor are, so to speak, the ultimate (and only) ‘facts of the matter’.

 

Epistemological statuses of Erfahrungen and Erlebnisse differ therefore sharply; a circumstance responsible for quite a few confusions in the practice of sociological research and above all the interpretations of its findings. Reliability and relevance of witness-supplied evidence changes with the object of witnessing – and that applies to both partners in the on-going ‘dialogue between sociology and human experience’; though despite the seminal intervention of Alfred Schütz, an immigrant from Germany, and his American disciple Harold Garfinkel, this has been neglected in by no means a minor part of sociological investigation – to the detriment of its validity.

 

MHJ/KT: You also say that social scientists must ‘engage in a continuous dialogue.’ What is this “dialog” that you envision? Is this different than a debate on issues?

 

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ZB: The kind of dialogue I have in mind (for social science) is a difficult art.

Instead of aiming at defeating alternative views (what a debate usually does) – the social scientist has to be animated by the wish to keep the conversation going, rather than by a desire to grind it to a halt. Mastering that art is terribly time-consuming, though far less time-intensive than practising it. It also calls for humility, surrendering the privileges of an unerring expertise, exposing oneself to the risk of being proven wrong …

 

It involves committing the partners-in-conversation to an intention to jointly clarify the issues, rather than to win the argument and carry one’s own point; to multiply voices, rather than reducing their amount; to widen the set of possible sequels, rather than denigrate and exclude all alternatives; thereby to jointly pursue understanding.

 

The quality of this dialogue is measured by the progress of mutual comprehension and by relevance to the interests and the tasks of the objects of research, rather than to the researchers themselves. It is that loss (rather voluntary surrender) of the monopoly on interpretive rights, and our agreement to share them with our ‘objects’, that is mistaken by some for the ‘loss of technical quality.’

 

The ultimate purpose of education in which sociologists would then engage (as the line separating communication in general, and a dialogue in particular, from reciprocal education, is anything but clear and non-negotiable) is however preparation of our partners-in-conversation for life, and sociology of the kind I’ve described here is bent on preparing them to live in the kind of society in which our pupils or students are bound to live and which they will be making while being made by it …

 

Having been already sentenced to individuality, our students will need yet to lift themselves from being individuals merely by the decree of fate to being individuals de facto: able to self-assert, to choose the kind of life they wish to lead, and to follow that choice.

 

Social sciences may help them to make them aware of what this endeavour is likely or bound to involve, and so to expand their options and by the same token serve the cause of their freedom.

 

MHJ/KT: You privilege dialogue between social scientists and the human beings they serve. But, doesn’t that dialog have to be critical in order to be meaningful? American sociologist Alvin Ward Gouldner once stated that “courtesy bites the tongue of critique”. Do we now live in a society that is too courteous and thus also too little critical? 

 

ZB: Perhaps I am blind and deaf, or perhaps the world has changed beyond recognition since Gouldner scribbled his verdict; or perhaps thresholds of civilized gentility have been radically lowered since – but ‘courtesy’ is one of the last words that would crop to my mind were I asked to describe the world we live in … ‘Hypocritical’, yes. Hypocrisy is the tendency to steer clear from what causes genuine pain and really makes people suffer, and to sell cruelty under the label of benevolence. ‘Political correctness’ being one of its blatant, even if hypocritically disguised, manifestation.

 

Confusing hypocrisy with courtesy is after all the hypocrisy’s foremost objective and trademark strategy.

 

That ‘world as we know it’ is a caddish/boorish world. Bushes are no longer for beating about. If Victorians crammed piano legs into stockings, we put pianos on legs previously to be savoured only on the pages of pornographic magazines. We use daily, publicly and ostentatiously, a kind of language once confined to the gutters and dens of vice.

 

We no longer respect rights to privacy and intimacy. May be the Englishman’s home is still his castle, but a castle open 24/7 to visitors, and inhabited by people fearing the absence or dearth of snooping onlookers as the most awesome of Egyptian plagues. We revel at the sight of the also-run apprentices having been shown the door, and of residents of Big Brother’s house voted out after a week-long string of routine humiliations and ridicule.

 

We respect neither the dignity of others nor our own. When we hear the word ‘honour’, we reach for a dictionary (that is, in case we swot for a ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ or a ‘Weakest Link’ quiz). And gratuitous (no longer punishable nor, indeed, censured and condemned) mud-slinging has reached unprecedented heights of facility – courtesy (sic!) of protection offered by the anonymity of internet calumny, slander and libel.

 

MHJ/KT: What is the consequence of all this hypocrisy for the human condition?  

 

 

ZB: Respect and (what follows!) trust are the two attributes of what used to be called ‘civilized society’ that are conspicuously missing from human interactions – whether conducted in private or put on public display. In fact, stripping individuals of respect and of the grounds to trust each other is in my view the paramount (and thus far astoundingly successful) stratagem in casting the ‘core concerns in society’ (as you put it) off limits of society’s attention, care, action – and, indeed, concern …

 

It is as if the ‘right to slander’ has become the one human right most likely to be universally respected and tooth-and-nail defended by law-guarding agencies …

 

I believe that it is the respect for humanity of an-other, and the right to be respected, which ‘critique’ needs to locate at the top or near the top of its agenda – if we wish it to stand a chance to reach the ‘core concerns of society’. Without resurrection of respect, there is no chance for solidarity. Without solidarity, there is no chance of awaking ‘core concerns in society’ from their present somnolence, and forcing them into the open out of the secure shelter of human inattention.

 

MHJ/KT: What is the role of social science, then, in all of this – in re-awakening the human in the human condition? 

 

ZB: I’d say that social science has twin roles to perform. Those of “de-familiarizing the familiar” (debunking its alleged self-evidence) and “familiarizing (taming, domesticating, making manageable) the unfamiliar.”

 

© Michael Hviid Jacobsen & Keith Tester

 


 

Also see The Bauman Institute, School of Sociology & Social Policy, University of Leeds inspired by the sociological imagination of this unique thinker.

 

Find more images and Articles :

http://beinghumanthesedays.com/bauman-and-gadacz-a-debate-in-warsaw/

http://octaedro.es/bauman-y-la-vida-liquida/zygmunt-bauman/

http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9780754670605

http://www.postcolonialeurope.eu/2012/06/liquid-europe-june-1st-univeristy-of.html

http://owni.eu/2011/03/25/egypt%E2%80%99s-liquid-modernity/

 


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