U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society
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U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society Outline of a Brief Discussion First and Second modernity: Beck’s general view on history and modernization Risk in the first and second modernity, and the unique place/function of risk: the institutional/system level and the personal level

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  • U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Outline of a Brief Discussion

  • First and Second modernity: Beck’s general view on history and modernization

  • Risk in the first and second modernity, and the unique place/function of risk: the institutional/system level and the personal level

  • Subpolitics: the changing nature of compliance

  • Globalization and individualization: the twin pillars of hope?

  • Observations

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • First and Second Modernity:

  • Control and predictability; linear; the triumph of the first opens the second to new problems; chief among them are globalization of issues, nature being industrialized, and culture being no longer totally separated from nature (as both creators of culture and creatures of instinct are under the same risk, the problems of second modernity are great levelers…)

  • The failure to make the unpredictable predictable in the second: one indicator is insurability; the scope, the process (gestation of BSE could take a long time), the end results, etc. are uncertain, either because of new technology applications, or because of the unforeseen chain of event straddling over different societies; the definition of risk (and thus responsibility, accountability, who to compensate, who to take up after-care, etc.) is also a legal issue

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Beck’s general imagery or guiding thought on history and modernity

  • large monolithic systems (like technocracy) will have downfall if the systems are independent of individuals (Giddens: system trust and (quality of) access points)

  • what characterizes the second modernity is not the emergence of new social systems or groups (rather, these have become more and more stabilized and constricting, i.e. unable to face new problems generated by world risk society), but reflexive modernization (individualization, pluralization, decidability, reflection, etc.)

  • risk is his take on the nature (problems) and future of the second modernity: at one level, it is a theory of modernity (continuing the classical tradition), a theory of the way industrial system, science/technology, corporations, government, and individuals inter-link (with consensus and contradictions) as they generate and face new problems; at another level, a plea for new forms of politics

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • The unique place/function/significance of risk

  • Risk as something different from natural disaster or man-made dangers (like traffic accidents); it is intimately linked to decision-making, especially industrial ones, that focuses on techno-economic advantages and opportunities, and thus accept risks as dark side of progress (‘From industrial society to risk society’, p.50) --- this is risk in the first modernity, and the faith is that human beings could increasingly reduce the scope of uncertainties

  • Risk in the first modernity generates a social pact: both government/corporations (public) and individuals (private) agree to the statistical appraisal of risks, and to the terms of compensation (‘money for damages’), responsibility (including after-care) and the ‘no-fault’ clause (that the damage/accident is not due to personal fault of negligence, or intentional damaging)

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • This social pact undergirds the strength of the first modernity; it assesses the systematic effects of risks and hazards; it in that sense de-individualizes risks; thus industrial hazards or road accidents are insurable on the consensus that the systematic effects of a (faulty) plant organization or a (lack of) precaution measures or system could be independently arrived at, with no recourse to individual (whether plant manager or worker) intentions or morality (it nearly takes the form of statistical probability: e.g., certain mortality rate could be expected given this degree of air pollution); the optimism is that we are on the road to a (increasingly) ‘residual risk society’

  • BUT this pact (and the attempt to make the unpredictable predictable) crumbles, when these things happen:

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • since the mid-20th century, self-generated risks could not be calculated meaningfully, because the scope could be total (global, wipe out the human race), or the scenario unknown, or the consequences unimaginable (open-ended debacle or ‘open-ended festival’ of destruction), or the damage irreparable (making compensation more or less meaningless)

  • nuclear, chemical, genetic and ecological mega-hazards are of such nature

  • At the system/institutional level, one main problem (or result) of the incalculability of consequences and damage is the lack of accountability for these risks (all are connected; disasters know no national --- and class ---boundaries); the result: manufactured or organized irresponsibility

  • At the individual level, ontological anxiety rises (‘What if it does happen after all?’ hovers on the mind), and many risks are actually inaccessible to our senses (e.g., atomic radiation, genetic mutations…); risks and their consequences are, in a sense, individualized

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Beck as seeing these changes as the continuation of the first modernity: industrial decisions that are oriented to new techno-economic advantages and opportunities (e.g. GM food as made possible by scientific advancements, and as more resistant to insects, and other benefits…); second modernity is thus an inevitable part of (further) reflexive modernization; risks are now on a global scale, thanks to the triumph of the first modernity)

  • But the new prominence of risk in the second modernity is also due to the fact that there are both many discourses (contested) on risks and many material facts of risk

  • There are also contradictions or ‘confusion’ of the two modernities: the institutions which are manufacturing and (presumably) protecting us from the risks are the same institutions in the first modernity, whereas the risks which we face now are risks whose consequences and damages could not be calculated

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Impact on the personal: ‘shoring’ the unimaginable (just pretending that things will not happen or will turn out fine --- thus ‘political stability in risk society is the stability of not thinking about things’, p.53); but Beck also sees this a natural/inevitable outcome of reflexive modernization; the latter means that we DO have to think for ourselves, and to make decisions (as ours is the age of individuality) when confronting risks

  • This individualization of risk is potentially political and subversive because

  • the risks we now face could be against the value of survival (such is the scale/scope/magnitude of damage)

  • often those who are supposed to protect one are also the perpetrators, endangering public well-being

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Risk in the second modernity is thus a political issue; this is due to

  • When one company sees business opportunities in a new field (even in ecology industries), alternative lines of activities are opened up; other competitors may appear, and they have to ‘sell’ their product and image to the government, interest groups, general public, etc.; new professions and experts would arrive on the scene; the system is up for more discussions, negotiations and conflicts; in other words, ‘their existence comes to depend on decision-making and legitimation, and they become changeable’, ‘Subpolitics, p.92)

  • And when risk happens and turns into hazard, i.e., whether to buy and eat certain types of food, or board the mtr tomorrow, then a whole array of parties are put on the defensive:

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • the corporation has to reaffirm safety, while minimizing the risk or turn it into technically manageable or correctable one

  • government or ministry responsible and gained acceptance on their guarantee of safety has to stage publicity activities to calm the public, to give confidence or reassurance (‘I eat chicken every day!’), to call on experts to work with the corporations, to set up a commission for enquiry, to reform the bureaucracy

  • risk-hazard is also in the hands of other people, viz. media, experts interviewed by media, who could one day aggrandize the hazard, and on another day underestimate it

  • Thus, for Beck, it is important that both government and scientific organizations making these decisions on risk have a greater participation and monitoring by the public; there must be such opening up or democratization for the decision on risk

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Implication 1: The defenses are like self-escalating spirals: corporations are under permanent pressure , and this ‘overtaxes expectations and sharpens attention’, so that ‘in the end not only accidents, but even the suspicion of them, can cause the facades of security claims to collapse’, ‘From industrial society to…’, p. 57)

  • Implication 2: Crisis/risk management in risk society: it could only manage the technically manageable or minor risks, but it often legalizes (and accepts as normal) the mega-hazards; day in and day out becoming more and more defensive, despite attempts to gain huge publicity success with personal confession of eating chicken…

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Overall implication: ‘How can a democratic political authority be maintained which must counter the escalating consciousness of hazards with energetic security claims, but in that very process puts itself constantly on the defensive and risks its entire credibility with every accident or sign of an accident?’ (‘From industrial society to…, p.58)

  • Risk thus means monolithic social systems now have a built-in political stability problem; risk thus opens the space for non-traditional politics, in spheres where people previously and otherwise unconnected now share common concerns and (political) causes

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Subpolitics

  • Beck believes that it’s inevitable that there are more (alternative) forms of politics in risk society

  • risks could not be externalized (unlike enemies in the first modernity), as they are the results of nature being re-created by science/industry

  • risks are part and parcel of an increasingly connected world; globalization means that there is increasing ‘sameness’ (both developed and developing countries are facing the same risks because of food chain, migration chain, ecological chain, etc., though ‘pollution follows the poor’)

  • most risks could not be solved by sovereign countries, or by international bodies; these countries are often the perpetrators of such manufactured uncertainties; traditional politics could not solve the problems because these problems fall through the mesh of politics, industry, ecology, economy

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • There is increasing space for alternative forms of politics, especially when individuals have to take decisions in facing risk

  • they might realize that what they do (produce, consume, etc.) could be a reason (or one of the reasons) of such risks (e.g., ozone hole), and that science and industry are colonizing the future; the responsibility (via reflexivity) is put back on the individual

  • there could be a form of ‘risk habitus’ (subconsciously asking oneself when shopping for groceries: ‘is this safe?’): as risk turns into a hazard, they have to make decisions, they could stop smoking or engage in ‘ecological modernization’ or participate in green campaigns, etc.

  • world risk society thus gives rise to the last of the ‘democratizations’: first, political, then social, and now cultural; this is the promise of cultural cosmopolitanism (‘thinking of oneself, and living for others’)

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Global issues are now at the heart of political imagination, a politics that works bottom-up, and across the globe

  • thus for Beck, individuality or individualization does not mean ‘me-first’ (and all its negative connotations); the ‘me-first generation’ partakes of the wellspring of reflexive modernization, i.e., political freedom and its consequences for individuality; this wellspring self-replenishes itself by active everyday acting upon these new issues;’ me-first generation’ does not necessarily mean decay of solidarity and commitment; rather it could mean self-critical; it could result in altruistic or cooperative individualism, as people become more reflective and more connected over issues that previously have been the purview of national politics or organizational prerogatives

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • This leads to Beck’s relatively (or cautiously) optimistic appraisal of the future of second modernity:

  • Power of the small: young me-first generation actually are responding to issues largely ignored or ruled out by national states: aids, global environmental destruction, etc. ; they think in small spaces, but these small places are connected over the world because of communications freedom and technology; world issues are not just world issues in terms of origins and consequences (that spread beyond individual societies), but also in their concreteness in the here and now, for one society, for one political group, etc. p.15); this generation is not suffering from decline of values, but only decline of big and outdated creeds; theirs could be called ‘morality writ small’ (p.10); global from below is thus promising; but it needs to be further developed: this requires cultural democratization and political freedom, now on a global scale

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Beck’s ‘optimism’ is also derived from another source: the changing nature of compliance in risk society

  • how do large/monolithic self-referential social systems (class, national authorities, etc.) perpetuate or create a seemingly independent autonomy?

  • they receive our conformity/compliance; it is individuals giving consent to the systems (thus it is important to ask: ‘under what conditions do individuals create in their thought and action the social realities of systems that seem to be independent of individuals?’) (‘Subpolitics’, p. 95)

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

Changing nature of compliance, cont’d

  • this compliance is underlied or made possible by thought schemas (classification systems produced for judicial/administrative/scientific/organizational reasons) (which according to Foucault are never neutral or innocuous); thus from the most particular domestic setting to new babies to tramps, there are these schemes that give these phenomena a sense of reality, and to which we give (often unconsciously) our consent; labels are the devices of these classifications, and new labels bring forth new groups of people (just think of the way ‘value added’ becomes part of management-speak and academia-speak, and how new winners and losers are generated)

  • The basis of compliance is thus the availability (by carrot or stick) of such ‘cultural certainties’

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • In the world of labour, consent or compliance has its share of ‘carrot and stick’

  • labour in capitalism is contractually compelled labour: they have no alternatives (this is the ‘stick’)

  • labour agreement: ‘I, the entrepreneur, pay you and do not care what you do with your money in your leisure time, as long as you do not care what I do and produce with your labour power during the working hours that I pay you for’ (‘Subpolitics, p.96); workers enter this agreement (power agreement) because of the ‘stick’ reason, but also because of the firm’s culture (paternalistic or corporate culture/corporate identity), or fragmented nature of jobs, or hierarchical control clothed in scientific management, etc. (these could be the ‘carrot’)

  • The net outcome: yes, it is purchased consent, but it is also a cultural form of indifference on the part of workers

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Power is thus both ‘visible’ (labour agreement as power agreement) and ‘invisible’ (the indifference of workers to what they do and what they produce)

  • But power, to Beck, is not as monolithic as it seems: once the indifference is weakened (as e.g., workers begin to care about what they produce, as to whether they are ecologically friendly or not), then the consent is put into question

  • To Beck, the indifference is likely to be undermined for various reasons:

  • historically, modernity ushered in political suffrage, social democratization (educational/welfare and other citizenship rights), and finally cultural democratization (as everyone thinks of himself/herself and what he/she does rationally and reflexively)

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • the imperative to work may still be strong in a work-based society, but there are signs that this imperative is loosening a little, because of social security rights, of two-earners families (which makes things more flexible), of alternative lifestyles (of support, work and identity), and of (this may run against Sennett’s intentions) the ‘no long term’ situation in the world of labour

  • Once this happens, workers could be less dependent on work, and more demanding in their work (raising substantive demands on their work, from eco-safety to ill effects of free global trade); consent is thus no longer automatic, but has to be generated

  • At this point, power and power systems are more vulnerable; purchased consent is no longer that forceful, and other things (identity, cooperation, recognition, or just fun-loving) could make people more reflexive --- and thus less indifferent, and more conditional in their consent/compliance-giving

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Observations and Conclusion

  • Beck has some interesting things to say about modernity, and the experience of living in risk society

  • Whilst Giddens and Beck share similar views on the nature of modernity in advanced industrial capitalist societies (and Giddens also emphasized the notions of risk and confidence, etc.), they nonetheless have some differences

  • Giddens is more self-consciously scrutinizing and building upon classical theories, making his enterprise into a more coherent theoretical system/perspective; Beck is more interested in theorizing contemporary phenomena, especially in a European context

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • Giddens formulates his concepts more rigorously, while Beck seems to come up with concepts that he thinks would suit his purposes in analyzing phenomena; it will be difficult to construct a theoretical schematic for Beck, although some central notions are evident

  • The more important thing: both of them emphasize the reflexivity nature of modernity, and seemingly place their hope (cautiously optimistic) on it (without, of course, forgetting some of the real changes and challenges)

  • The meaning of risk: that it is an evitable by-product of techno-industrial advancement; what is different now is its globalized scale (again, a result of the triumph of the first modernity), its repercussions for ontological anxiety, its consequences in creating more fault lines and space in the political system (which now needs to generate legitimation in an increasingly defensive way), and….

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society


  • Its impact on individuals who, in the face of risk, are more connected than before, and who, in their own small spaces, connect with others on issues that lie in the interstices of government, industry, economy, ecology, etc.; these issues form the basis of a cultural change, as ‘cultural certainties’ and indifference are eroded

  • Beck called himself neither optimist nor pessimist, but pessimistic optimist; but is that qualified degree of optimism even warranted?

  • like Giddens, he seems to believe that ‘(just like) social classes, social systems and unitary organizations fade away in the wake of reflexive modernization’ (‘Subpolitics’, p.92) ------- Is this warranted?

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • work is still very much ‘contractually compelling’; all those changes that Sennett discussed (downsizing, delayering, etc.) harm those down in the work hierarchy; the world of work is still very much a source of identity (though Sennett would say it is ‘corrosion of character’) and action

  • Beck may over-exaggerate the ‘vulnerability’ of social/political systems: even when consensus is no longer automatic, such systems could still go on ‘business as usual’ fashion; he admits that ‘the impotence of institutions, growing with the uncertainty of a consensus, can itself remain latent so long as no one openly challenges it’ (‘Subpolitics, p.98)

U. Beck: Living in a Risk Society

  • In one sense, Beck is saying that risk ‘undermines’ power (as the latter could no longer take indifference or consent for granted, and as its traditional political system could not tackle the risk --- only reaffirm safety, or will away the risk); this is all very well --- and it goes well with his (and Giddens’) assumption that social systems do not reproduce themselves; only individuals in their indifference or something lend their consent to them

  • But is this too ‘naive’, too innocent? Compliance is an immensely important issue, and how risk society changes the forms and degree of compliance is something that has to be further theorized