This is Not an Obituary
Professor Zygmunt Bauman, celebrated as one of the greatest social thinkers of our times, passed away on Monday 9th January 2017 at home in Leeds. He was 91. Professor Bauman was head of the sociology department at the University of Leeds until his retirement in 1990. The Bauman Institute was founded in 2010 in his honour.
With a nod to his 2012 book, This is Not a Diary, what follows is a collection of articles and personal reflections contributed by colleagues, friends, students, and the wider sociological community. Each offers a different door through which to enter the life and works of Professor Zygmunt Bauman.
Through the on-going work of its staff and students, The Bauman Institute will continue to honour his legacy of a morally-committed form of sociology providing a constantly critical commentary on everyday life.
Mark Davis and Tom Campbell, University of Leeds
Mark Davis, Founding Director of The Bauman Institute
The Washington Post
Times Higher Education
The Gryphon (interview from December 2016)
University of Glasgow
Manchester University Press
University of Nottingham
Zygmunt Bauman was a man of extraordinary intellect and deep compassion who believed in humanity. Sincerest condolences to his family.
Tributes from former students, University of Leeds
“His wisdom, his history, his politics, his compassion.”
Tina Bain (Sociology 1980)
“His astonishing insight and inexplicable faith in my ability despite my consistently letting him down. Have re-read his works in recent years and now have a million questions (nearly 30 years too late).”
Adrian Segens (Sociology 1986)
“Brilliant mind – but still knew how to speak to students, very approachable and interesting. Every student wanted to be like him.”
Patricia Mayo (Psychology/Sociology 1985)
“The essence of the man was remarkable; he taught me so much. Words cannot express!”
John Hales (Sociology 1979)
“His perspective on modernity and post modernity was inspirational because he gave a new perspective on contemporary issues. He has changed the way students see and understand issues such as the holocaust. He is one of the leading sociologists in the world.”
“RIP – a great man and a great mind”
Peter Morgan (Politics & Sociology 1986)
“Sad news. An incredible thinker and inspiring lecturer. Saw him speak on the subject of morality while at university and it has really stuck with me. A real loss, although his words will live on.”
Sarah Hill (BA English and History of Art 2010)
“I was green, both inspired and intimidated by him. I remember feeling out of place as a w/c boy in a m/c world but he was totally engaged with us all – wheeling fwd 1 leg crossed, puffing his pipe, questioning our prejudices. A giant. Thanks ZB.”
David (Sociology 1990-1993)
“RIP Prof Bauman. You gave me my chance to learn and enjoy my time at Leeds. Thank you.”
Duncan Pescod (1981)
“An inspirational thinker and exceptional writer. Regardless of where you go in life, his words stay with you.”
“I studied hermeneutics (sociology of knowledge) with him in 1979/80. He was so inspiring. I loved his lectures!! RIP…Zichrono levarech…”
Jenni Hamilton (1980)
“Remember attending his lectures in my first year at Leeds. Unforgettable. Great thinker. Great man. RIP.”
Tributes from former members of staff, University of Leeds
Zygmunt taught Social Theory to first year students when I came to Leeds in 1982 following 17 years in the catering industry and one year at Teacher training college. I was in one of his tutorial groups in my first year as an under-graduate -1982/3.
I won’t go into detail but I found his writing, particularly ‘Memories of Class’ really useful, but his teaching methods were ‘interesting’ but rather intimidating. Each week he would give one of his tutees a reading to present at the next tutorial group meeting. These were usually rather difficult obscure writings by people like Alfred Schutz, Following the presentation he would ask for comments. This would generally be followed by a rather uncomfortable silence as none of us knew how to respond or what to say. In the second semester he would take photographs of individual students during these silences without asking permission. I still have a picture he took of me staring out of the window which he gave me at the end of term.
Nonetheless, I have a great respect for him. He was a great man who, despite the above, manages to impress on me the importance of social theory and its reliance to our understanding of human behaviour. Much of which is in serious danger of being lost in the current economic and political climate.
The only other dealings I had with him were after he had retired. We both used to come in to the office at around 7.00am. We would say good morning to each other but that was it.
In 1979 I was in a first year lecture and Zygmunt – who puffed on his pipe throughout and had a magnetic effect on me – was discussing Norbert Elias and his Civilising Process thesis. I was fascinated and immediately “got” how the Sun King used manners to manage his court. But he kept referring to varting – as in why and when did varting become socially unacceptable? It took me some while to work out that he had difficulties pronouncing f. V Polish.
After reading “Between Class and Elite” – I asked him (in a clumsy way I suspect) what he thought of fictional writers like George Orwell who it seemed to me in (e.g. Keep The Aspidistra Flying)- addressed “peculiarly English” patterns of consumption, class and culture? He responded with a warm and broad smile (there was something of the Cheshire cat in his smile) that he would – “take that as a compliment – thank you”. V English then as well.
Idioms are always tricky, Z often mixed them gloriously.
I remember him advising a staff meeting that we should not ‘jump the gauntlet’ in response to some university initiative.
The other bit of trivia that you must already know about concerns his legendary hospitality. He really would pour wine through your fingers if you tried to protect your glass from another top-up. I’ve seen it!
It was because I had read “Modernity and the Holocaust” that I knew of Sociology at Leeds when I applied for my first academic job in the Department, back in 1991. Sharing the author’s Polish Jewish heritage, and perhaps unconsciously yearning for a benign academic parental figure, I was just a little disappointed to find out that he had retired not long before I arrived. However, Zygmunt’s presence lingered on, as I inherited a yellowing keyboard with sticky keys that I was amused to find out had belonged to him, the sticky-ness the product of almost constant pipe-smoking as he typed away in his office in the Department. (This was long before smoking was banned in public buildings, a time when PCs were rarer and less personal than today, and were passed down the generations in post-Thatcherite cash-strapped universities).
In the years that followed, I expressed my criticism of what I called the “patriarchal pessimism” of some of Zygmunt’s theorizing of personal life, which seemed to hark back to imagined better days of stable male employment, traditional gender relations and more solid families, and we had some lively disagreements when he came to talk about his latest work at the University. But despite – or perhaps because of – this, I received invitations to his rambling 1930s house on the far flung leafy edge of Leeds, to partake of tea served in glasses or something a little stronger, and we had a number of memorable, and respectful, discussions about the ambiguous and ambivalent experience of individualization, and its gender politics, sitting in his timeless book-lined study, which felt to me like it could have been in Warsaw or Berlin or Vienna. And subsequently, I never passed up the opportunity to hear him speak – always eloquently and without notes – because, unfortunately for us, his unrelentingly negative societal diagnosis was all too often spot-on.
Zygmunt was a great European intellectual, who never shied away from the big questions of ethics, morality and humanity. Sociology is a richer and more thoughtful discipline for his many contributions. May future generations of students continue to read and engage with his work for many decades to come.
RIP Zygmunt Bauman. We used to share an office. I didn’t see him once. But from the odour of pipe tobacco next morning, I knew he had been there. Among other excellent books, his Postmodern Ethics was particularly inspiring to me.
I can relay that in my early years at Leeds he was often to be seen leaving the University early in the morning as he would come in to work while the department was quiet and no one was around.
I first met ZB when I came to the department around March 1978. After a telephone enquiry I had arranged to call in just to pick up some information about sociology and joint degrees. I was undecided as to whether to try for English literature, sociology or both. I was taking the two subjects at A level part-time at an adult education centre. At the time I was working as a bus driver in Leeds and was free in the middle of the day on a break from a split shift and so was wearing my WYPTE bus drivers uniform. I was somewhat dismayed to be led into ZB’s office for an interview! I was ushered into his office where I could hardly make him out through a thick fug of pipe smoke. I found it very difficult to understand what he was asking me (I guessed they were questions at any rate) but did my best to answer what I thought he was asking. I don’t know till this day if I was even close but shortly after the interview I was called into Dennis Warwick’s room (then the admissions officer) and offered a place as a mature student if I got at least two E grades. I had obviously answered his questions very well or ZB decided he needed a practising surrealist in the department.
I remember his 9.00 morning lectures. This seemed to be his preferred slot no doubt because of his habit of getting into the department in the early hours of the morning. (On one occasion, after a party in the department, Richard, Ian, Aidan, Steve Malloy and myself were having a last drink before clearing up at about 5.30 in the morning when ZB arrived to start his day’s work). He used to walk in at 9.00 am on the dot and start delivering his lecture immediately with no concessions to the hour or late comers. But the theatre was always packed. No one wanted to miss his lectures. Back in the late 70s and early 80s this was not normal student behaviour!
He always lectured with a scrap of paper in his hand or nothing. If you could get a glimpse of the scrap it had at most about 5 or 6 bullet points. The rest was ZB telling us a story.
He was very good at stitching current affairs, even the mornings new, into his lectures.
At the time I was an undergraduate the annual intake to the department doing single subject sociology was only about 12 or so, about a third mature students, over 26 at the time I think. I was 32. The culture and pace of academic life was very different compared with the later 80s and onward as student numbers and ratios went up and the emphasis swung to research performance and using post grads for teaching. Then it was entirely usual for academic staff to have both the time and inclination to spend in the common room with students discussing sociology and the matters of the day. I can’t remember the full details but students were always invited to the regular weekly staff research seminars and even on occasion invited to present a paper. ZB ran a 3rd year advanced theory seminar that was entirely voluntary and not connected in any way to a specific course. Staff and students could attend and preparatory readings were allocated to anyone who wanted to contribute to or lead a session. As a third year student I did something on Brian Fay’s Social theory and political practice. Zygmunt treated all participants as entirely equal and deserving of respect. His comments and interventions were always considered and considerate. The discussions were never competitive (or not overtly!) and he managed an academic environment that was extremely supportive of students and participants generally. Two people throughout my 3 years as an undergraduate were the reason I decided to pursue academic sociology as a career – Richard who supervised my 3rd year dissertation and ZB for the consideration, encouragement, support and example he gave me. I even started smoking a pipe for a while!
I have a myriad of short reminiscences – the day word processing was introduced into the office, the journey with him to Sheffield for the première of his biographical documentary, his reaction at the inaugural conference to launch the Bauman Institute when delegates from Israel invited him back, as did a Polish contingent.
I arrived at Leeds several years after Zygmunt Bauman retired and never enjoyed the personal contacts that some of my more established colleagues had. However, his ideas permeated our work and we were very privileged that each year he gave a seminar to the department summarising his interpretations of social changes within the grand sweep of post-war societies. Regularly some of us, mainly Sasha Roseneil – a brave young academic, would challenge his androcentric lens on the world. Nevertheless, his seemingly pessimistic reminders of the dark shadows of humanity, of lost certainties, both inspired and provoked the research work that a group of us in the School developed in the early 2000s (known as CAVA) – an intensive and empirical study of how social and economic changes had affected the practical ethics that people drew on to guide important and difficult decisions in their personal relationships. It inspired us because we were also concerned with the significance of ethics; it provoked us because we felt that discussions about morality in sociology and philosophy were conducted at abstract or generalised levels. As much as the dark shadows, we were interested in the cracks where the light got in, the slivers that revealed more mutuality and care than people were given credit for.
Looking back, perhaps the influence of ZB was a bigger one than we admitted. In the interview on Al-Jazeera Television last year Zygmunt quotes Goethe who, when asked about his life, said he’d had a happy life but he said he couldn’t remember a single happy week. In other words, life is a struggle and happiness is the transitory resolution of troubles and struggles that continually face people. This signified, ZB said, his pessimism in the short term, and his optimism in the long term.
I was a colleague of Zygmunt’s from 1973, when he appointed me to the job at Leeds University, until 1986, when I left; we remained friends throughout the following years. This past September he suggested we write a book together, and we were discussing this up to the end of October. But now – no book.
In fact I met Zygmunt twice before 1973. The first time was in 1970, when he was still living in Israel. We were introduced in Haifa by a mutual acquaintance, Teodor Shanin. I can’t remember at all what we talked about – just going to his office after the introduction, and being quite charmed and perhaps a bit intimidated by him. I suppose it was on the strength of that, somehow, that he acted as external examiner for my PhD in 1972. It was a completely weird experience. The PhD was from Birmingham University, but by then I was living in London. My supervisor (at least nominally) was Charles Madge, of earlier Mass Observation fame, but he had retired and was living in France. Zygmunt will have been in Leeds by then. For some reason, it was agreed that the viva would be in the office where I was working as a part-time secretary at University College London. I think only in retrospect did I realise how completely surreal the encounter was (appropriately, given Madge’s 1930s interests). I doubt they knew anything about one another, but both were very elegant and polite. Though again I can’t remember any of the content of the discussion. I do remember that I had toothache, and had to go to the dentist right after the viva.
Soon after I arrived in Leeds, Zygmunt took me to lunch in a pub somewhere outside Leeds. In pseudo-quaint style, it had the toilets marked ‘Swain’ and ‘Wenches’. He had to come back to ask me which was which.
Bauman, in his own words…