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Zygmunt Bauman (Key Sociologists)

Blackshaw, Tony
Routledge, London
2005
0415355044 (pb)

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Cover of book Initially, I expected this review would involve listing the various sections of Blackshaw's exposition and making a few critical comments. Such a "conventional" review would connect Blackshaw's achievement with other "secondary works" (Smith, Beilharz, Tester). It would also be a useful exercise to deepen my own thinking about Bauman's contribution to scholarship and reflection. That it has been, but not exactly in the way I had anticipated.

Early on at page 4 "Points of Emphasis" Blackshaw makes the following announcement of his intention.

This book signals a new direction in Bauman studies. It parts company with the other key introductions, such as Dennis Smith's (1999) Zygmunt Bauman: Prophet of Postmodernity; Peter Beilharz's (2000) Zygmunt Bauman: Dialectic of Modernity and Keith Tester's (2004) The Social Thought of Zygmunt Bauman, each of which follow a similar intellectual trajectory by mapping Bauman's project, chronologically, from his Marxist beginnings, through his 'postmodern' turn to the emergence in his writings of the idea of liquid modernity. Although each of these books [] rely too heavily on the notion that Bauman's key ideas will speak for themselves if they are presented in sufficient detail. In this sense they collectively fail to place Bauman's special way of going about sociology in a context which is accessible to undergraduates and other readers who are not conversant in social theory. This is a book which if it is critical in its focus it is not so polemical as to forget the interests and needs of the reader who is coming to Bauman for the first time, or who wants step-by-step guidance.
Blackshaw does not maintain a strict scholarly style; nor is he emulating the careful literary composition of his specially chosen intellectual predecessor. My question is, Why? My answer, this book is composed primarily with the author's students in mind. It is offered to those inhabiting the under-graduate mosh-pit of "liquid modernity". Blackshaw assumes that a massive change in life-style and personality will be needed if these people in his classes are ever to stop "reading on the run". Bauman stopped Blackshaw in his tracks and Blackshaw now runs with his students as they try to understand what they have been assigned. The scholarly preconditions for careful and critical reading of Bauman et al are not what they were for under-graduates in former times.

The hallmark of Blackshaw's "scholarly" contribution in this book, for all its racey incoherence, is his complex and comprehensive documentation of Bauman's response to the "liquid modern" world-view. Has Blackshaw's Zygmunt Bauman presented anything more than his own enthusiasm for the theory of "a man who not only manages to write challenging and important books, but who in each and every one of them seems to make sociology more essential than it ever has been"? This unashamed enthusiast for Zygmunt Bauman's sociology is obviously not afraid of being considered strange by students who expect something other than enthusiasm for a theorist in the lecture hall.

I don't know liquid-modern English under-graduates sufficiently to hazard a guess as to whether they will be impressed by Blackshaw's lively and provocative narrative. Would an under-graduate now turn to Bauman for further sustained consideration? Maybe this book documents Tony's memorable lectures on Bauman. If so, I can imagine 5 lectures accompanied by Bauman's Powerpoint slides. The ethic of this book shines through - it is also the author's love for his students - and that is worth a lot. Blackshaw wants to convey to (his) students that it will enrich their lives and their thinking, if they read Bauman (slowly and methodically) for themselves. Clearly Bauman's exposé of "liquid modernity" and much else, has inspired Blackshaw to return to his students with deepened enthusiasm.

The well-percolated "Suggestions for Further Reading" (pp.141-144), speaks of Blackshaw's scholarly rigour. But the book begins to make better sense when it is read as a set of introductory under-graduate lectures on Bauman the sociologist. Yet, an unplugged, white-water rafting Bauman evinced from Blackshaw's poetry, does remind us, reflexively, of the internal difficulties of academic sociology under State dominance. I reminded myself that I had lived through the gruesome transformation of the Australian academic culture - the emergence of the "liquid university" - and this helped me "to get into the head of my subject" (p.5) (i.e. Blackshaw rather than Bauman) for this review.

The value of this book is in its concerted effort to serve under-graduate students and to commend a disciplined study of social life that stands (i.e. which stops running about from here to there) within and with and not just against the lives of those whose individual and group-corporate actions call forth a "sociological imagination" from those of us who have come to interpret historically and sociologically. It is an invitation to the student to engage with Bauman's theory via Bauman's writing.

Before reacting to Blackshaw in utter disbelief, critical readers might first consider how else a British academic sociologist might introduce Zygmunt Bauman to under-graduate students. Blackshaw is evidently a hard-working, sensitive, worker for justice, who also has the "pointless and inevitable" demands of the UK research assessment exercise (RAE) to worry about if he is to stay in his job and retain a modicum of sanity as a Senior Lecturer specialising in sport and leisure (p.15). The book is written for those locked into such commuting patterns, helping them snatch a segment between stops, for students who are busy negotiating crowds, who have to read while catching a bite to eat before a long night of serving at tables, delivering pizza or quizzing the uncomfortable who answer their telephones.

At this point I would intimate a criticism. The liquid-modern freedom in which Blackshaw's students swim is presented artfully and cogently. But his enthusiastic scholarly commendation of the exploration of liquid modernity with Zygmunt Bauman seems to assume that it is a scholar's enthusiasm for scholarship which differentiates scholarship from any other form of enthusiasm or any other "commodity". The final pages (pp.133-140) are said to be a critical discussion of "the implications of consumerism for sociology and the conditions this places on the development of intellectual activity" (p.112). But this concluding exploration is much too compact to provide a hopeful conclusion for any student dismayed by pointlessness of sociology's "domesticated careerism" (p.15). Perhaps this indicates the need for an extra chapter, but would this exceed the publisher's "wordage" limits? Still, the book is sensitively written with concern for students who have to travel to and fro, from home to lectures to work to lectures to home, all in one day.

Bruce C Wearne
Member of Editorial Board, The America Sociologist

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This book signals a new direction in Bauman studies. It parts company with the other key introductions, such as Dennis Smith's (1999) Zygmunt Bauman: Prophet of Postmodernity; Peter Beilharz's (2000) Zygmunt Bauman: Dialectic of Modernity and Keith Tester's (2004) The Social Thought of Zygmunt Bauman, each of which follow a similar intellectual trajectory by mapping Bauman's project, chronologically, from his Marxist beginnings, through his 'postmodern' turn to the emergence in his writings of the idea of liquid modernity. Although each of these books [] rely too heavily on the notion that Bauman's key ideas will speak for themselves if they are presented in sufficient detail. In this sense they collectively fail to place Bauman's special way of going about sociology in a context which is accessible to undergraduates and other readers who are not conversant in social theory. This is a book which if it is critical in its focus it is not so polemical as to forget the interests and needs of the reader who is coming to Bauman for the first time, or who wants step-by-step guidance.