I remember being sat in the library at the University of the West of England. By that time I had read a lot about the Flâneur and the arcades of Paris during an early 19th century era of high modernity. Walter Benjamin’s theorisation of Flânerie had already been profound and attempting to read alternative analyses, I had begun to nod off a little. Then for the first time I picked up a book and read Zygmunt Bauman’s (1925-2017) critical chapter and critical interpretation of the lonesome figure of the Flâneur. The whole subject was then revitalised and rejuvenated. Bauman’s amazing abilities to place me, the reader, within the context of a rapidly modernising Paris, to place me in the position of the Flâneur, and then in the position of the impartial observer of a Flâneur, was absolutely unique. From that point onwards, I felt extremely comfortable picking up any book by Bauman. All academics are critical, as well as political representatives, but what Bauman cannot be criticised for is his near absolute accessibility in academic publishing. He wrote well, you read well.
One of the things studying for a PhD makes you realise is just how abstract a lot of general social theory is. Especially as you attempt to apply abstract, general ideas to real world situation. It is a real struggle to squeeze the quotes obtained from interviewees into some grand, overarching theory. The two are detached and mutually exclusive. It was not particularly the case that I was able to do this with Bauman over any other general theorist. But, this realisation has given me a deeper appreciation of Bauman’s abilities. What he seemed to have possessed was a unique ability to discuss theory and empirical observations within the same breath. When reading Bauman you are constantly presented contemporary case studies about modern factories, shopping malls or Jane Fonda. These real world things are comfortably coupled with critical theories of the Frankfurt School, Hegel, Habermas, Giddens, and so on. It will be incredibly difficult for sociology, as a discipline, to find another thinker capable of accomplishing this almost impossible task with such fluidity and fluency.