Ulrich Beck has died. His powerful concept of ‘Risk Society’ is relevant as never before

Renowned sociologist and social thinker Ulrich Beck has died. Ulrich Beck (Munich University and LSE) became one of the world’s most famous intellectuals and most quoted social scientists in recent decades.

Ulrich Beck / Foto -  -

Ulrich Beck’s book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1986/1992) is a scholarly and political bestseller which was translated into 35 languages, with about 24,000 academic citations. While firm in criticising those who claim Western societies are “postmodern”, Beck offers an immanent critique of modernity’s failed promises. Due to its own successes, modern society now faces failure: while in the past experiments were conducted in a lab, now the whole world is a test bed. Whether nuclear plants, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology – if any of these experiments went wrong, the consequences would have a global impact and would be irreversible. Ulrich Beck claims is that contemporary society is at the cusp of a transition between “industrial society” and “risk society”. Risk society is ‘an inescapable structural condition of advanced industrialization”. Modern society has become a risk society in the sense that it is increasingly occupied with debating, preventing and managing risks that it itself has produced. The changing nature of society’s relation to production and distribution is related to the environmental impact as a totalizing, globalizing economy based on scientific and technical knowledge becomes more central to social organization and social conflict. Whereas in earlier class-based societies only the proletariat was victimized, in the emerging worldwide risk society all groups – even the rich – are threatened. But Beck makes the important point that risk and class positions overlap on a national and an international scale. The concept of risk is directly bound to the concept of reflexive modernization. In this striking book Beck also provided a framework within which environmental politics can be understood, explained and developed. Beck recommends ignoring the mathematical morality of expert opinions, which seek to identify the level of a given risk by calculating the probability of its occurrence. Instead, man’s fear of collapse should offer an opportunity for international cooperation and a cosmopolitan turn in the social sciences.
Ulrich Beck’s other numerous and highly influential works have focused on topics like globalization, cosmopolitanism, labour and social inequalities.

“After all, the ecological issue, considered politically and sociologically, focuses at heart on a systematic, legalized violation of fundamental civil rights – the citizen’s right to life and freedom from bodily harm… In the ecological crisis we are dealing with a breach of fundamental rights that is cushioned and disguised during prosperity but that has socially destabilizing long-term effects that can scarcely be overestimated.” (quoted from: Beck, Ulrich. 1995. Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk SocietyHumanities Press. P. 8)

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