Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Interview with Mark Davis on the Bauman Institute

Photo: Mark Davis
(Simon and Simon,

Simon Dawes speaks to Mark Davis about the aims and research interests of the Bauman Institute, and about what it means to address Bauman’s challenge.

Simon Dawes: Could you start by telling us about the aims and interests of the Institute? It’s not just focused on Bauman’s own work, is it, but on some of the themes with which he’s associated, such as consumerism and uncertainty? But are there some themes in Bauman’s work which the Institute is not interested in (love, the Holocaust, the role of the intellectual, perhaps)? And is the Institute also interested in encouraging work that is critical of Bauman?

Mark Davis: Well, I believe that the Bauman Institute comes into being at a very important moment, both for sociology itself and for the wider world. Many of the old certainties of the past are beginning to fragment and there are multifarious crises across society, politics, and the economy that have serious implications for each one of us. Although hardly the first time we have paused to contemplate this, Weber’s question from Science as a Vocation nevertheless feels evermore pressing: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’. 

My hopes for the Bauman Institute are that it becomes a home for those who wish to address this significant question, for those who continue to believe that the world may be far better than it currently is. One of the ways of doing this, I think, is by embedding the spirit of critical thinking and ethical awareness into the fabric of the Bauman Institute. After all, it is well-known that Bauman’s sociology does not offer a set of clear methodological rules and guidelines that can simply be applied by others to given circumstances. Indeed, such a method would be almost anathema to his understanding of sociology. Bauman, both through his writing and in direct conversation, is forever encouraging one to follow their own thinking, to pursue their own ideas and instincts. Given this, it is important that the Bauman Institute becomes a centre that allows individuals to pursue their intellectual instincts, albeit one that offers Weber’s question as a shared focus.

So, these are the aims of the Institute. At a time when sociology faces many external challenges, the Institute hopes to play a part in a global poly-vocal conversation about how we should live together better than we currently do. This aim shapes both our research and teaching programmes, which are in constant dialogue to ensure our students are at the very forefront of global debates.

In terms of our interests, it follows that these extend beyond what we might call ‘Bauman Studies’. This is an important part of what we do, obviously. I offer a module on our Masters programmes entitled Liquid Sociology that is dedicated to reading Bauman’s work and I hope in time that we become the global centre for ‘Bauman Studies’. But, given the unusually wide scope of Bauman’s sociological optic, it is often difficult to think of any area of social life that cannot be read through Bauman’s work. As such, there are no aspects of his sociology that we are uninterested in, nor any sociological themes or questions that we would discourage. As I remarked in my article for the TCS Blog to mark Zygmunt’s 85th, the line that has stayed with me more than any other from Bauman’s work is ‘I happen to believe that questions are hardly ever wrong; it is the answers that might be so. I also believe, though, that refraining from questioning is the worst answer of all’ (Bauman 1999: 8), and so I don’t see any area of social life as beyond our interest. Actually, given the areas you have suggested as being perhaps beyond our interest, I would mention that amongst my existing PhD students are projects by Jasna Balorda concerning ‘Modernity and Genocide’, and Natasha Barnes on the sociology of ‘love’, so we are constantly approached with a great variety of dissertation topics and remain open to all sociological questions.

By encouraging others to address Weber’s broad question, and by following Bauman in ensuring that others ask their own questions and follow their own intellectual passions, I am hopeful that the Bauman Institute can become a home for critical thinking, for reflection on all aspects of the sociological imagination, and for debating those ‘live’ issues that affect all of us in the here and now, such as the global economic crisis, the growing democratic deficit in Western capitalism, and the need to alter our behaviour as consumers in the light of climate change. These issues have been at the forefront of my work with the Council of Europe in the last few years and so they have informed the teaching that we currently offer to our postgraduate students.

In short, I’m not interested in the Bauman Institute becoming merely a narrow hagiographical exercise. My own work at times is very critical of Bauman and I want others to approach his work with the same critical lens. I happen to believe, of course, that Bauman’s work is especially important for sociology and society in these dark times, but this does not render it beyond criticism.

SD: As both a research and teaching institute, how easy is it to combine the two roles? And could you tell us about the postgraduate programmes run by the Institute, and the sort of research you undertake – what sort of proposals and material do you receive and commission, for instance?

MD: We are very fortunate here at Leeds to have an institutional commitment to research-led teaching and so combining the two roles is already embedded in everything that we do. When I was designing the two new postgraduate programmes run by the Institute, I was able to ensure that the content of each of the modules reflected the research we had been involved in, both directly through my work with the Council of Europe, and by drawing upon colleagues from across campus to contribute relevant sessions on their areas of expertise.

To coincide with the Institute’s launch in September 2010, we launched the MA Social and Political Thought and the MA International Social Transformation. Both programmes allow our students to be actively involved in directing their own learning through a principle of ‘negotiated assessment’ that encourages students to pursue their own research questions into topics of interest that reflect those wider aims of the Institute that I mentioned earlier. With a commitment to critical thinking, the programmes strike a balance between the obvious value of deep, theoretical reflection with the analysis of concrete social and political problems in a rapidly changing world. To achieve this, we offer modules on Contemporary Social Thought, Liquid Sociology, Globalization and International Development, Critical Theory, Fundamental Issues in Social Research, and a range of optional modules in Race and Ethnicity, Gender, and Disability from other MA programmes offered in the School at Leeds.

In terms of research, our principal project to date has been our role in the drafting of a new European Charter on Shared Social Responsibilities. The project is run by the Social Cohesion Division at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and started in April 2009 by bringing together expertise from across Europe in order to identify and assesses the best ways for Europe to respond to the challenges of the current economic crisis, the threat of climate change, and the loss of trust in democratic institutions and processes as shown through the declining involvement of citizens in the public sphere. The ‘Expert Advisory Group’ consists of academics, think tanks, policy makers, NGOs, and civil society groups from all across Europe, but we are the only representative from a UK university. The aim of the project is to produce a new Charter of Shared Social Responsibilities that proposes fundamental changes to existing governance structures in Europe at all levels and in all sectors, in the hope of developing a shared vision for the future that secures the well-being of all in society.

My own contributions to the project have been focused upon the social and political consequences of consumerism and I’ve written several commissioned articles to be published by the Council of Europe. Broadly, these concern the urgent need to rethink consumerism in order to create fairer, more stable, and more sustainable global societies, as well as an exploration of the concept of interdependence in order to develop a sociological critique of neoliberalism. We recently presented the Charter as a working document to the European Commission in Brussels at a major conference, 28 February-1 March 2011, which was attended by over 500 people across the two days.

We have two other major research projects currently in development and I hope to be announcing these through the Institute’s website in the next few weeks.

SD: The Institute was launched in September with a conference on ‘Rethinking Global Society’. Could you tell us a little about the conference, and any other future conferences or events the Institute is planning?

MD: Well, the first thing I would like to say is a sincere thank you to everyone involved in the conference, especially the delegates who made a wonderful effort to attend in such large numbers. I spent around a year micro-managing every aspect of the conference, which I wanted to be a significant event to mark the launch of an Institute that proudly bears Bauman’s name. I was always hopeful that we would attract a lot of interest, but I was genuinely overwhelmed by the response. To have over 200 delegates attending from around the world – with some travelling from Australia, Japan, Mongolia, Canada, the USA, Brazil, and elsewhere – to be with us was remarkable and is testimony, I think, to the genuine global affection for Zygmunt Bauman’s sociology and the inspiration acquired from his writing.

My abiding memory of the conference is the genuinely genial atmosphere. There seemed to be a palpable sense of goodwill towards both Zygmunt – who was present throughout the two day event – and the Institute itself as a new sociological project. This lively and amiable atmosphere was helped by the range of contributions that we had from delegates, both in terms of presentations and debates, but in particular by our plenary speakers and the two special panel sessions that we arranged to ‘book-end’ the conference. I’m grateful to all involved in these sessions – to Zygmunt Bauman, Neal Lawson, Daniel Libeskind, George Ritzer, and Saskia Sassen as our plenary speakers; to Peter Beilharz, Antony Bryant, Bryan Cheyette, Griselda Pollock, Vic Seidler, Max Silverman, Keith Tester, and Janet Wolff as members of our special panels – but especially to Keith Tester and Max Silverman who assisted me in organising the panel sessions. We now have all of the plenary and special panel sessions available to view as videos on our website for anyone who wasn’t able to join us in person.

As for our future plans, I am fortunate enough to have been invited to run a workshop for the Bauman Institute at the Thesis Eleven ‘Festival of Ideas’ event in Melbourne this June. Peter Beilharz and I have agreed a formal Memorandum between the Bauman Institute and Thesis Eleven at La Trobe, so this is the first event in that spirit. Following the first special panel session at the conference, entitled ‘Remembering Janina Bauman’, Keith Tester and I are also arranging a special event to celebrate Janina’s work in association with the Polish Cultural Institute. This will probably be in the late summer and in London we think. Both Keith Tester and Peter Beilharz are now Visiting Professors at the Bauman Institute, so I am very grateful to them for their on-going support. Later this year, in early November, we also have an event planned with Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Anders Petersen at Aalborg University, which I am very much looking forward to. I expect an announcement to be made about this event very soon.

SD: You’ve also recently co-edited a book with Keith Tester, called Bauman's Challenge: Sociological Issues for the Twenty-First Century. Could you tell us about some of the contributions to this book? And, finally, what do you see as the sociological issues of the twenty-first century; and what, in a nutshell, is Bauman’s challenge?

MD: The collection is a series of critical engagements with Bauman's sociology that seeks to identify and better understand those diverse challenges that face each one of us at the start of the twenty-first century. It is also a consideration of how sociology as a discipline might best respond to such challenges, both in terms of where it should focus its attention and the kinds of questions it ought to be asking. So, chapters therein deal with the future of Europe, at a time when political power appears evermore fragmented; the enduring issue of global social exclusion, the darker side to the glittering world of consumer capitalism; the challenge of establishing a meaningful ethics in the face of epistemological and ontological uncertainty wrought by the challenge of relativism; the changing role of religion and theology in a seemingly ‘post-secular’ social life; the increasing bureaucratisation and micro-management of everyday life and the challenge this presents to genuine critical thinking; the importance of utopia as an operational concept in Bauman’s work and for sociology more widely; and, the enduring significance of sociology as a discipline that continues to address these challenges in evermore dynamic and insightful ways.

As editors, Keith and I invited contributors to go beyond mere exegesis on Bauman and, instead, seek to show the multifarious and manifest uses to which his work might be put, the contemporary issues that it reveals. Again, given my earlier comments about the Bauman Institute being more than a mere hagiographical exercise, this critical approach to the collection was important to us.

Finally, I think there are two ways to respond to your last question. One response is to rehearse Bauman’s conclusion to the book, which is that the challenge for the new century is to reunite power with politics, to develop an art of living permanently with uncertainty, and to ensure that global problems are met with global solutions. This is the ‘triple challenge’ as he describes it and sociology is encouraged to pursue these issues.

A second response, still very much in this spirit, is to acknowledge the importance of an abiding theme throughout Bauman’s work and one of the central reasons I am so drawn to his writing. As is particularly evident in Paul A. Taylor’s contribution to the collection, there is a creeping trend to eliminate critical thinking and the art of questioning. False dualisms seem to dominate popular discourse and, especially in the UK’s new ‘age of austerity’, we are reminded (it seems hourly) that ‘there is no alternative’. I think Bauman’s challenge is therefore to revitalise the art of questioning, to refuse to accept the ‘is’ at the expense of the ‘ought’, and to seek collective solutions to commonly shared problems, which has been at the heart of the sociological imagination since C. Wright Mills so vividly captured its essence in the distinction between ‘public issues’ and ‘private troubles’.

To end our conversation where it began, in a nutshell, I would propose that Bauman’s challenge is for each one of us to debate seriously the question: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’.

Mark Davis is Lecturer in Sociology and Director of the Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds, UK. He is the author of Freedom and Consumerism: A Critique of Zygmunt Bauman’s Sociology (Ashgate 2008) and co-editor of Bauman’s Challenge: Sociological Issues for the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan 2010, with Keith Tester). His on-going research interests are focused upon the social and political consequences of consumerism in a global age, in particular how freedom and choice can be reconciled with the challenge of creating fairer, more sustainable, and more stable societies around the world. He is working as an expert advisor to the Council of Europe on creating a ‘Europe of Shared and Social Responsibilities’ (CDCS 2009) and is currently writing his next book on ‘post-consumerism’. Email:

TCS has published over 30 articles by and about Zygmunt Bauman over the past 27 years. Follow the links below to access our selected archive, which is free for everyone to access until the end of April, as well as our recent Special Section on Bauman, and our previous Blog material on and with Bauman :

TCS and B & S are published by SAGE.


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