Vagabonds and Tourists: reflections on the refugee crisis

zygmunt-bauman-006There is one person who has been coming to mind night after night as I have watched in despair the refugee crisis unfolding over recent weeks. That person is the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.

Why Bauman? Because one of his most memorable metaphors that he uses to describe our global society is that of vagabonds and tourists.

Bauman, now in his eighties, was one of the leading sociologists of the last century. An unrelenting critic of modern society, he was himself a refugee, forced to flee Poland in 1971 by a Communist anti-semitic movement. He took refuge in the UK and became Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds, where he has been ever since (it is a strange coincidence that I have actually written this on the train to Leeds).

His genius lay partly in his ability to capture his thoughts in a series of metaphors: solid to liquid as metaphors of society; from gamekeeping to gardening to hunting as metaphors of utopia (The Hunger Games exemplifies the hunting metaphor more than he could ever have foreseen), and then vagabonds and tourists as metaphors of people.

For Bauman, the world is divided into two types of people. The vagabonds are those who have no choice but to move: forced from their homes by environmental and social dislocation, needing to find work and the means of sustenance. The tourists are those who move by choice, free to move and take good jobs, moving around the world on holiday.

As I have watched the scenes of death, panic, desperation and heartache that have been relayed to us through our various screens – in Greece, Hungary, Croatia… – I have realised just how prescient Bauman was in his use of these metaphors. Nowhere has this been brought home to me more forcibly than on the islands of Kos and Lesvos where literal tourists are finding themselves mingling unintentionally with literal vagabonds, washed up on the shores from Syria.

Bauman’s metaphors are, of course, polemical: designed to create a forceful response, not too dissimilar to Jesus’ parables, and there are many nuances that need to be brought out (you’ll have to wait till next March to read those though because I explore them in my new book, due out then!).

In the meantime I am reminded that probably all of us reading this would fall into the category of tourist. When we travel it is out of choice. We can choose whether we move or stay.

The question I am left with then is how, as a tourist, will I respond to the vagabonds? Will I notice them and get involved, through praying… giving… speaking out… offering hospitality…. or will I turn a blind eye as I live my life and walk by on the other side?

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7 thoughts on “Vagabonds and Tourists: reflections on the refugee crisis

  1. Pingback: Vagabonds and Tourists: reflections on the refugee crisis | Breathe

  2. Hi Ruth Hope this reaches you! I’ve just read your post below and was really moved by it…would love to be in touch with you…hope this finds you and family well.Kim x From: Ruth Valerio To: kimaleji@btinternet.com Sent: Tuesday, 22 September 2015, 22:20 Subject: [New post] Vagabonds and Tourists: reflections on the refugee crisis #yiv7125071459 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv7125071459 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv7125071459 a.yiv7125071459primaryactionlink:link, #yiv7125071459 a.yiv7125071459primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv7125071459 a.yiv7125071459primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv7125071459 a.yiv7125071459primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv7125071459 WordPress.com | ruthvalerio posted: “There is one person who has been coming to mind night after night as I have watched in despair the refugee crisis unfolding over recent weeks. That person is the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.Why Bauman? Because one of his most memorable metaphors that h” | |

  3. I agree, a good read is Zygmunt Bauman’s book on vagabonds and tourists. He is still alive. I attended one of his lectures while studying in Poland. Yes, he looks at post modern life as basically having two types of people: tourists and vagabonds. The tourists move about the world because they want to and vagabonds, if they are able to move at all, move about because they are forced to (e.g., forced to migrate to escape poverty (and to find work) because of war, discrimination, and the like). Moving about the world voluntarily as a tourist is a much more pleasant and rewarding experience than being forced to move about as a vagabond. I can say as a sociologist, Bauman though insightful misses that there are a range of people. And, their moving about or not is based on other variables not just economics. In my dissertation, I wrote on Ideal Society, and I can tell you that most people stay where they are put because it is ‘home’ as it is where they are from and it contains their identity. Sure, tourists can pretend to belong elsewhere (its exciting and I’ve done it) while they know where home is and even the vagabonds can pretend that they are ‘home’ and do while elsewhere. This is the problem for refugees.

    • Hi, thanks so much for these comments. And you’re right – like I say in the post, it’s actually more nuanced than Bauman would have it, but that doesn’t suit his polemical style!

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