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Theorizing Society

The writings of Zygmunt Bauman have had an extremely important influence on many disciplines, and especially on the development of contemporary sociology. His works, especially those published in the 1980s and 1990s have played an invaluable part in the late modern or postmodern analysis and critique of contemporary civilization. Bauman unmasks not only the underlying factors encoded within society that may have contributed to events like the Holocaust but extends this analysis to include views on modern human freedom, identity and globalization.

Central to this critique is the interrogation of accepted sociological norms and ideas about society -- such as the way in which bureaucratic rationality excludes or distances moral responsibility in society. This includes by implication a questioning of the presuppositions and the way of thinking that is central to a discipline like sociology. Bauman's analysis also extends to his views on postmodernity and to the 'solid' and 'liquid 'forms of modernity.

The sociological analysis put forward by Bauman stresses a more human-centered and open -- ended approach to an understanding of society and civilization. He continually exposes and deconstructs rational rules and regulations as ideological constructs that can lead not only to order and harmony but to events such as the Holocaust.

Bauman is certainly an extremely important figure in the history of sociology and in the thinking about modern society. The following discussion will attempt to elucidate this thinking about the underlying causes of the Holocaust and the following section will attempt to explore this analysis in terms of the wider context of his writings.

2. Discussion

In Sociology after the Holocaust (1988) Bauman presents not only a reassessment of the causative factors in the event of the Holocaust but in the process of his analysis also places into question the meaning and role of modern sociology. In terms of the wider context of his work, Bauman also critiques the dominant rational and scientific mode of thinking in the Western world. As he states in the abstract to his paper;

While some attention has been paid to illuminating selected aspects of the Holocaust by the application of available sociological concepts, the possibility that the Holocaust experience demands a substantive re-thinking of the concepts themselves has not been seriously considered. (Bauman, 1988, p. 469)

In other words, Bauman questions the very concepts and assumptions or presumptions that play a crucial role in the sociological analysis of the Holocaust. Central among these is the view of civilization as rational, progressive and positive. This includes the view that the Holocaust was the result or outcome of "… rational bureaucratic culture." (Bauman, 1988, p. 469) The paper focuses not only on the events of the Holocaust but penetrates to the causative roots of analysis of this social phenomenon. This analysis suggests that the Holocaust came about as a 'natural' outcome of Western rational ideology and that these aspects of modern rationality are often "…not visible, or not salient enough, under normal conditions." (Bauman, 1988, p. 469)

In his analysis Bauman argues that there is the tendency for the sociological significance of events of this nature to become reduced by certain perceptions and ideological assumptions linked to the advancement of society and civilization and the ideals of 'progress'. Using the Holocaust as a prime example, Bauman states that the "There are two ways to belittle, misjudge, or shrug off the significance of the Holocaust for the theory civilization, of modernity, of modern civilization." (Bauman, 1988, p. 469)

Firstly, there is a tendency to view the Holocausts as something that impacts a selected group of people and as an event relegated solely to Jewish history. Another view is to see the Holocaust as a consequence of European anti-Semitism. As Bauman states, these stances tend to "explain" the Holocaust and make it comfortable within the framework of conventional sociological theory. He refers to the view of the Holocaust as an aberration which"… sheds some light on the pathology of the society in which it occurred, but hardly adds anything to our understanding of this society's normal state." (Bauman, 1988, p. 469) This attitude does not shed any light on the preconceptions that underlie the concept of civilization and which, in his view, should be the focus of sociological inquiry.

In his analysis Baumann asserts that these conventional theoretical trajectories avoid the real and underlying understanding of genocidal events.

At worst, the Holocaust is referred to the primeval and culturally inextinguishable, 'natural' predisposition of the human species - as in Lorenz's instinctual aggression & #8230; factors responsible for the Holocaust are effectively removed from the area of sociological interest. (Bauman, 1988, p. 469)

From this perspective events such as the Holocaust are seen as unique but normal within the ambit of the sociological models of civilization and social progress. This also means for Bauman that in terms of this view, …no major revision of our social theory is really necessary, our vision of modernity does not require another hard look, methods and concepts accumulated by sociology are fully adequate to handle this challenge - to 'explain it', to 'makes sense of it', to understand. (Bauman, 1988, p. 471)

This leads to what he terms a "theoretical complacency" and it is this complacency that he wishes to question in his work. This questioning of normative and accepted theories of civilization places sociological studies in a new and more interrogative light. From this point-of-view Bauman claims that the Holocaust in fact sheds light on the state of sociology as a discipline. (Bauman, 1988, p. 472)

The above stance leads to the view that the very nature of modernism and the development of a civilization based on the tenets of logical and rational bureaucracy is the foundational cause of events like the Holocaust. The rational and functionalist origins of modern sociological theory refuse to place into question the essential consequences of a logocentric model of human behaviour. In this regard he refers to Fein's sociological research.

Without sapping the very foundations of sociological discourse, one cannot do anything else than Fein has done: conceive of the Holocaust as a unique, yet fully determined product of a particular concatenation of social and psychological factors which led to a temporary suspension of the civilizational grip in which human behaviour is normally held. (Bauman, 1988, p. 472)

Bauman goes on to posit that the events of the Holocaust may not be an aberration or a deviation from the ideology of modern, rational civilized progress. It may be something other than "…a cancerous growth on the otherwise healthy body of the civilized society…" (Bauman, 1988, p. 475) and may in fact be the manifestation of another "face" of "… the same modern society whose other, more familiar, face we so admire." (Bauman, 1988, p. 475) In other words, Bauman is suggesting that there is something implicit within modern civilization which has resulted in the horror of the Holocaust -- a view that would seem to contradict the idea of civilised progress and the dominant modes of sociological theory.

Bauman's main thesis which builds on the above is that the Holocaust was a logical outcome of the process of rational and bureaucratic logic that is generally seen to be a positive element of modern society. However, while rationality is responsible for social order it can also result in a mode of thinking and action where the moral consequences of these actions do not accord with the ethos of bureaucratic reason. Moral culpability is bracketed, as it were, and deemed to be unnecessary within the patterns of intense loyalties and a thinking dominated by the tenets of reason and logic to the exclusion of all else. In this light the actions of the German people during the Holocaust are not seen as an aberration of civilized norms but rather as a fulfilment of the necessary and underlying rationality of extreme bureaucracy. Bauman outlines this point as follows:

In the Final Solution, the industrial potential and technological know-how boasted by our civilization has scaled new heights in coping successfully with a task of unprecedented magnitude. And in the same Final Solution our society has disclosed to us its heretofore unsuspected capacity. Taught to respect and admire technical efficiency and good design, we cannot but admit that in our praise of material progress our civilization has brought we have sorely under-estimated its true potential. (Bauman, 1988, p. 477)

This critique and analysis of a sociological examination of society and civilization in the light of the Holocaust brings Bauman to the perplexing question of why ordinary German's became the instigators and perpetrators of mass extinction. In answer to this question Bauman refers to the views of Herbert C. Kelman and the factors that tend to militate against moral inhibitions against atrocities of this nature. These reasons refer to official authorization of violence, the routinization and habituation of actions linked to these atrocities and to the dehumanization of the victims so that they are seen as inferior and not worthy of moral feelings or sympathy.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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