I need some guidance and/or starting points for an essay on the topic: "Why are strangers strange? Discuss in relation to the work of Zygmund Bauman"

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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In the famous sociology treatise-turned-book Modernity and Ambivalence, Zygmunt Bauman presents the figure of "the stranger". Keep in mind that this concept:  the enigmatic, problematic, and unpredictable "stranger" goes beyond the idea of an unknown individual. It goes much farther than that.  Bauman argues that the stranger is actually not a stranger at all: Instead, it is someone who sticks to his or her individual nature as a human being, rather than render himself a subject of labeling based on his or her origins.

Here is the background that may help explain this further.

Sociologist George Simel first presented the concept of what is a "stranger" is under the parameters of Social Sciences in an excursus to his discourse on sociology of space. It is from Simel's Soziologie, and from Derida's own views on sociology and community, that Bauman developed his own concept of the stranger.

In a way that could have predicted the situation of many expats in the modern world, for Simel, the "stranger" is not a stranger, because he or she belongs somewhere. The problem is that said individual does not share into the dynamics of his or her natural group. This is someone who prefers to keep a distance from all of that. Why would someone do that? Perhaps because geographical distance has extinguished primary behaviors expected of his or her culture or ethnicity. Second, because a severance in communication may have led the individual to question his role within his native group, or the overall dynamics of the group, as a whole.

This individual simply does not feel that he or she needs to continue to perpetuate the behaviors that said individual was born into. It is not a rejection of one's nature. Rather, it is a contemplation of one's nature... from a distance.

Example: Think about a close-knit family who sends one of their own off to college, very far away. The distance, the exposure to other groups, self-contemplation, and many other variables slowly take away the most inherent and immediate behaviors that are evident when sharing within your own people. Hence, this individual may return home for the holidays and remain aloof to what is going on because of deep internal changes. This does not mean that the individual who has returned has less love for his or her cultural values. It simply means that there has been a paradigm shift based on exposure to others.

Modernity and Ambivalence

Bauman took Simel's view and crafted his own version of a "stranger" in his book Modernity and Ambivalence.The variable to Bauman's stranger, compared to Simel's, is that the "stranger" in Bauman's universe is someone who simply will not bow down to be what he is expected to be, regardless of nationality or ethnicity. Bauman adds the factor of "what others see" to the original definition of the stranger.

Like Simel's stranger, Bauman's also loves to stay on the sidelines and not become labeled. To the mainstream eye, this is a problem because, from an ethnocentric point of view, someone who is unwilling to submit to the ethnic and cultural expectations of his or her race or group simply cannot be controlled nor predicted. The media cannot track and define this person in "black and white" terms. Society will not know what to make of this person. The entertainment world would not know how to cartoon this person. This "stranger" still refuses to be defined by outside sources.

Best example: Baseem Youssef

A man who could very well be the epitome of Bauman's stranger is Baseem Youssef, who is known around the world as the "Arab Jon Stewart". This controversial man is both loved and vilified (depending on who you ask) for his assertion that he simply will NOT be labeled.

He is an Egyptian, a doctor, a comedian, a columnist, and a social critic. Like his idol, Jon Stewart (who, ironically, is of Jewish descent while Youssef is of Arab descent), Youssef calls people out on their unethical, crazy, mean, or unintelligent behaviors-- if these are people who are supposed to be in a position of power representing the rights of others. He is impartial as to who he criticizes: Arab, Jew, Muslim, Mexican, French, even himself--everyone is "game".  

Youssef represents himself for his personality traits, and not for his ethnic, educational, financial, or cultural background. Like he says about himself, he may "sound the part, look the part, act the part and feel the part...but he is not "the part". This means that he is beyond social labeling. He is a human being.

In his show, "Al Bernameg" (translated as "The Show")which he based out of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show", he expresses his views with no shame. All of these things would render him a perfect "stranger" in Bauman's terms.

An additional dimension that renders Youssef a perfect "stranger" is that he cannot be controlled by the media, or by his own people, because he has diversified himself into multiple variables of humanity. He is nobody, and he is everybody, at the same time.

 Conclusion

Bauman's "stranger" continues the idea of Simel's "stranger", but adds a world view of the stranger to his definition. The world is eager to label that which looks and tastes different. Society loves to attribute traits to specific people based on their background and origin. People love to predict behaviors in people whom the may consider "exotic".  Yet, when these very people choose not to abide by the social mandates of their group--what do they become? They are called strangers, while in reality, they are not. 

They are what they are and who they are. They simply will not circumscribe themselves to just one descriptor. This is what being human is all about; it is about the complexity, not the simplicity. This is why Bauman's concept is also universally accepted and understood by most.

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