Pursuing ‘Quality of Life’ in Liquid Modernity
‘Quality of life’ as a Social Problem
To join in inaugurating the Bauman Institute, and to acknowledge the intellectual contributions and ethical wisdom that Zygmunt Bauman has offered the world of scholars and critical audiences, my paper highlights key aspects of this august sociologist’s theoretical framework by taking a brief, selective tour through contemporary meanings and pursuits of ‘quality of life.’ Although I go easily here on incorporating specific elements of Bauman’s theory, my argument fits well within the picture of the individualized society of liquid modernity that Bauman has sketched in recent years, and readers may perceive the relevance of key texts like Work, Consumerism and the New Poor (1998), Liquid Modernity (2000), Consuming Life (2007) and The Art of Life (2008). Nonetheless, I hope this calls attention to internal tensions within his theoretical framework, notably around the question of reflexivity, and that it perhaps modestly contributes to a clearer resolution of these tensions in Bauman’s work.
A remarkably flexible concept that calls attention to the supporting mechanisms and subjective experience of human well‐being, ‘quality of life’ has become a ubiquitous and arguably primary framework with which modern societies debate the public good.1 Its very name evokes the critique of traditional quantitative measures of ‘growth’ and ‘progress’—one of the more important achievements of the social tumult and political ambitions in post‐WWII developed societies. Yet as the idea of quality of life (hereafter, QOL) has permeated public policy, the social sciences, and everyday discourse, it has become divorced from its critical origins in ways generally unnoticed by those who invoke it or identify the conditions that it seems to signal. Contemporary understandings of ‘QOL’ and pursuits to ‘enhance QOL’ increasingly obscure the historical contexts and social relations that were central to the idea’s origins, thereby robbing the idea of its critical promise.
1 I use the following conventions when referring to quality of life in this paper. To emphasize the properties and usage of an abstract idea of no specific attribution, I use single‐apostrophe quotation marks: ‘quality of life,’ ‘high’ quality of life, etc. Quotation marks with double apostrophes refer to statements, names, and ideas of specific attribution: the French government’s “Ministry of Quality of Life,” etc. Without quotation marks, I denote the empirical conditions and possessive relations of quality of life: the scholarly research on quality of life, etc.