Living in and coping with world risk society – Ulrich Beck

In this talk (from a few years ago, 2011 I think), sociologist Ulrich Beck outlines and updates his theory of reflexive modernization and the ‘risk society’. He suggests that, to the extent that risk is experienced as omnipresent in the current age, there are only three possible reactions: denial, apathy or transformation. The first, he says, ‘is largely inscribed in modern culture, the second resembles post-modern nihilism, the third is the “cosmopolitan moment” of world risk society’.

In the talk that follows he structures his argument around three key points. In  the first he outlines the distinctive, new features of this world risk society. There is a distinction between risk and catastrophe – they are not the same things. Risk is about the anticipation of catastrophe. This is why, despite the fact that Europe and ‘The West’ are relatively safe, globally speaking, or perhaps even ‘objectively’ so, it is the global anticipation of catastrophe (propagated via symbolic forms in the mass media etc) that is fundamental to the shaping of contemporary societies. These global perceptions of risk have three features: de-localization ( in spatial, temporal and social terms), incalculableness, and non-compensatibility.

His second key point stresses the fundamentally global character of these process, over and against the nation-state as a political level of analysis, and transformative action. Against this methodological nationalism he offers a defence of his cosmopolitan vision for the social sciences, outlined in more detail in his Power and the Global Age (2005). His final point offers some consequences of his position, in general, and a (sympathetic) critique of alternative theoretical conceptions of risk, most notably those of Mary Douglas and Michel Foucault. What is needed is a paradigm shift in the social sciences – the emergence of a cosmopolitan social science – a ‘cosmopolitan turn’.

This defence of cosmopolitanism – his cosmopolitical realpolitik –  is, of course, open to many criticisms and questions, as are his wider arguments about risk, decision-making etc.  There are some questions/discussion after 26 mins or so.