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.


3 Replies to “Living in and coping with world risk society – Ulrich Beck”

    1. Hi Sheila, I think that experience has taught me that, in posts aimed (more or less specifically) at undergrads I am teaching, I should keep my own critical reflections to a minimum. Over the years I have found that anything I might say of my own in relation to these things tends to be interpreted as ‘gospel’ or ‘what he’s really looking for’ etc. I have found my words reflected back at me, more or less verbatim, in essays and exams, so have tended to restrict my critical comments to lectures (though not necessarily represented on slides in detail), in the hopes that students will come to their own conclusions and exercise their own critical capacities, rather than reproducing mine.

      But, briefly, what I think is that Beck’s approach is problematic from a number of perspectives. The thesis of reflexive modernization appears over-extended – to the extent that it can be applied at all, this is in very advanced liberal democracies – whole regions might be excluded. There remains a residual instrumentalist approach to human action, and an over-reliance on decision-making in his conceptualization of the actor. This actor is also, and relatedly, a fairly disembodied entity – while affect and emotion are mentioned they are not satisfactorily treated or incorporated into the theory. Other problems include the inherent optimism of his position, which might also be related to his call for a ‘cosmopolitan social science’. This strikes me as utopian, and I am not sure that, even if it were possible, that it would be welcome.

      This is not to say that Beck’s work isn’t important work. It is, and, at the very least, it is good to think through it and against it as we try to develop other perspectives on the contemporary condition.

  1. I understand your approach in class and I get the point. Its true a lot of people will tailor answers to the opinions of the lecturers. I just thought id ask because most interesting blogs are great rants on something or other and I enjoy a good debate that shows the writer has got an opinion. As we discussed in class. Unfortunately debate is very difficult to find in academic classes esp in MA level mainly because theres no tutorials. I agree it is utopian but isnt that what all of human kind want to believe in… utopian ideas and ideology. Its perhaps why I dont enjoy functionalist perspectives because they are so practical and so clearly rational.

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