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Books: What Use Is Sociology?

Bauman argues the case for sociology as an agent of change

What Use Is Sociology?

by Zygmunt Bauman

(Polity, £15.99)

Zygmunt Bauman is a name that carries considerable influence in the field of social research. Currently Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Leeds, the Polish exile is an international bestseller with works translated into more than 30 languages.

The book's title may present itself as something of an accusation and Bauman does not doubt that the social world is "capable of carrying on without the insights of sociology."

But in the conversations he holds with his contemporaries Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Keith Tester, a sociological inquiry becomes both a reflective and an active discipline.

Bauman strongly feels that in seeking alternatives currently unknown to us the vocation of sociology is worthwhile in itself. It is a useful tool to "help people in their fight against the double plague of ignorance and impotence."

Organised into four exploratory chapters, the conversations commence with Bauman's definition of sociology as an ongoing "dialogue with human experience." In this, he is at pains to differentiate between what is subjective - what the individual lives through - and experience - what happens to the individual - which holds the potential to be objective.

With a nod to C Wright Mills, Bauman believes that it is the sociological imagination that "makes the personal political."

Most interestingly, Bauman's methodology draws on creative writing and literary devices and he insists on the usefulness of metaphors when talking about the human condition.

For those seeking alternatives, metaphors can be the first step in creating a new understanding and elsewhere Bauman illustrates his own approach with a metaphor - entering the same room via different doors, so that his perspective differs each time.

Rather than viewing metaphor as a mere figure of speech, Bauman argues for its potential as a bridge between imagination and comprehension. In this way, he rejects Plato's stringent association of art with untruth.

But what can sociology achieve? Bauman reiterates that the discipline may not have a direct effect on the world but that its study can, at the very least, cause a shift in perception.

Thus its principle purpose is to rouse people out of indifference and into action and it is this transition from inert to active knowledge that Bauman convincingly argues can bring about real change.

Angel Dahouk


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