The absence of society

Zygmunt Bauman
21st Oct 2008

Has the absence of society created modern 'social evils'? Zygmunt Bauman, argues that these 'evils' are rooted in the socio-cultural and political transformations of the last decades.

This Viewpoint reveals a strong sense of unease about changes shaping British society. Zygmunt Bauman, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds, argues that these 'evils' are rooted in the socio-cultural and political transformations of the last decades.

Key points include:

  • social ills arise mostly from the absence of society, rather than from its pressures;
  • people no longer want to 'keep up with Joneses' but catch up with supermodels, premier league footballers and top-ten singers;
  • individuals are expected to devise solutions to socially generated problems, setting them in mutual competition, making communal solidarity irrelevant.
Summary

Summary

The JRF’s recent public consultation revealed a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping British society. This Viewpoint continues the discussion about modern 'social evils' on the theme of 'the absence of society'. Zygmunt Bauman argues that these 'ills' are products of the withdrawal of the traditional conception of 'society' and are rooted in the way of life of today's individualised society of consumers.

Key points

  • Today’s ‘social ills’ have their roots in the socio-cultural and political transformations of the last decades and are seated in the way of life of the liquid-modern, individualised society of consumers.
  • The most remarkable and insidious feature of the present-day edition of social ills is that they arise mostly from the absence of society, rather than from its pressures. They are products of the withdrawal of ‘society’.
  • Left increasingly to their own resources and acumen, individuals are expected to devise individual solutions to socially generated problems. Such expectation sets individuals in mutual competition and so communal solidarity is irrelevant, if not downright counter-productive.
  • The driving force of conduct is no longer the (more or less) realistic desire to ‘keep up with Joneses’, but the infuriatingly nebulous idea of catching up with supermodels, premier league footballers and top-ten singers.
  • Consuming more is the sole road to inclusion, but the inability to consume more is a sure recipe for exclusion.
  • Whereas the upper classes needed do little or nothing at all to retain their superior condition, and the lowest classes could do little or nothing at all to improve on their inferior lot, for the middle classes everything which they didn’t yet have appeared to be for the taking but what they already had could be easily lost.
  • Middle classes have not achieved their utopia of the ‘perfect balance’ between equally coveted freedom and security. Instead, instability of social location and the ensuing ‘existential uncertainty’ has become a universal human condition.
  • Denial of recognition, refusal of respect and the threat of exclusion are most commonly used to explain and justify the grudge individuals might bear towards society.
  • One-issue solutions aimed at mitigating the impact of one or another social ill may bring temporary and partial relief, but, short of reforming the individualistic way of life, they would not remove the cause.
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