When faced with the convoluted plethora of moral conflicts and human relationships that exist in all societies, there is little comfort for the sociologist in extricating herself from the mass of humanity and observing it with the objective eye of the scientist. Rather, when discussing social dynamics and power structures, one should start with the implicit assumption that the author, as a human, is influenced by the biases and internal set of beliefs with which we all must struggle.
This is very true of Thinking Sociologically, in which Bauman exudes the political and philosophical undertows that inevitably pull the reader towards the left of the political spectrum, with the obvious consequences on sociological comment and analysis.
However, it is the intricate web of human interaction that is woven in Thinking Sociologically and the exploration of many aspects of moral dilemmas within an essentially humanist context that defines Bauman as a writer. The book refuses to apply social reductionism to the many-splintered problem of ethics, a popular route to take by many contemporary social scientists apparently self-conscious about the status of sociology or philosophy in relation to the physical sciences.
Bauman deals with the individual’s relations within and towards institutions and systems, however organised, like state bureaucracies, or ad hoc, such as the ‘imagined communities’ that link us in a psychological and emotional way to other individuals with whom we identify. A reoccurring theme in Thinking Sociologically is the effect of consumerism and the clash between capitalist society and moral obligations, for example ‘Going about the Business of life’ (Chapter 11) and ‘Gift and Exchange’ (Chapter 5).
Instead of trying to succinctly summarise the issues raised, Bauman simply holds a light up to the uncomfortable, often unpalatable truths that at times seem blaringly obvious. In ‘Gift and Exchange’, for example, the obligations felt by differing people depending on the intensity of their relationship is a central thread in communitarian thinking and yet is so often taken for granted. This is not to say that Bauman’s conclusions are inevitably concomitant with the truth, if absolute truth exists at all, and there are some general areas of contention to be found with the book as a whole which will be briefly outlined, as well as in the chapter on ‘self-preservation and moral duty’ that will be reviewed in greater depth further on.
A major detraction of Thinking Sociologically is the fact that, while it claims to be dealing with some universal issues like Chapter eight’s ‘Nature and Culture’ or social politics in Chapter nine’s ‘State and Nation’, there is a tendency to focus on Western attitudes with the exception of the mention of abstract ‘primitive societies’ used only to perpetuate the somewhat erroneous idea of the noble savage that is corrupted by the competition and ruthlessness of modern industrial capitalist society.
In this oversimplification of industrial and non-industrial societies much of the more profound philosophical deductions are diluted and the ethical dilemmas seem presupposed, entangled in Bauman’s own conceptions of power and freedom and almost imposed on two-dimensional, homogenous groupings labelled ‘the poor’, or ‘the elite’ or ‘primitive cultures’. Although, that said, in the second chapter ‘Them and Us’ he articulates the subtle nuances and ethnocentrism of any society in relation to the ‘other’ with exceptional clarity, which only frustrates in later chapters as he glosses over the importance of self-identity and concepts of community as factors in moral decisions.
In ‘Self-Preservation and Moral Duty’ Bauman discusses the reasons why an individual might choose self-preservation above his or her supposed moral obligation to others. This is first analysed through the ownership of property, an indication of Bauman’s Marxist beliefs, and begins by illustrating the connection between ‘goods’, where they represent a commodity lacking in one’s life, and the need for them. For Bauman such ‘goods’ need not necessarily be the ones we typically associate with consumables, he suggests safety in the streets and clean water and so on are ‘goods’ essential to a human’s self-preservation.
Here the crux of Bauman’s argument seems to sag somewhat, in that he never actually elaborates on what is meant by self-preservation. While this may seem a superficial criticism, there is an element of ambiguity for the reader as to how far the preservation alludes to life in mainstream society or the retention of life itself. Is it social status people aim to preserve or do his arguments rest on the assumption that one will die if they do not compete for resources available? Although this is a clearer cut issue in his more extreme examples, when he uses the Holocaust to illustrate moral choices for example, but in relation to the more mundane interactions in society the definition is left open-ended.
Bauman believes that most philosophers and political commentators have misconceived the relationship between owners and their property as ‘private when in fact it overlooks the interplay between the owner, the property and the rest of society. He sees this as the essential key to understanding how excluding others from property is linked inextricably with power, ownership and freedom: ‘Think of it: whenever I say, “This is mine”, I mean also, though I do not say it or think of it at all, this is not yours… Ownership therefore, establishes a mutual dependence.’
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