Ulrich Beck and the Risk Society

Very sad at the loss of sociologist Ulrich Beck. One of his most significant sociological insights that impacted my training was his writing on The Risk Society. Beck showed how modern life was characterised by a focus on mitigating the notion of risk. He charted how knowledge workers took over from manufacturing workers as new technologies facilitated globalisation. As world cultures become more cosmopolitan, risk has been a prevailing idea shaping social relations.

The notion of risk is a way to control behaviour but it is shaped by culture and politics. For example, what may have been tragic world news events previously, such as the September 11,  2001 attacks in the USA and the Bali Bombings in 2002, are now constructed as a local risk in Australia. Social policies changed swiftly giving greater power to some Government agencies to mitigate the risk of international movements of political violence. Political events overseas become national risks, which the media frames as being a personal risk. Xenophobia, specifically fear of Islam, becomes justified in public discourses. Our collective behaviour is compelled to change; we are more conscious of the daily possibility of terrorist threats through security screenings at airports, through media reports that invite fear of Muslims, and so on.

Conversely, other global events, such as climate change, are not overwhelmingly framed as a personal risk. Climate change has a greater risk towards all Australians, and everyone else in the world, but Australian social policy and the media do not make this risk personal. Environmental damage is constructed as a distant risk; it’s someone else’s problem to manage this risk, in the future. While some individuals think more about the environmental consequences of their daily consumption, social norms  and policies do not make environmental risk a collective concern. In fact, environmental damage has a more direct, daily impact on each and every one of us than many other risks that dominate media and political discourse, as our actions contribute to environmental risks, and we will all be forced to live with these consequences.

Similarly we collectively worry more about random acts of violence by strangers but we do not collectively mitigate risks against domestic violence that daily impact on more women and children. We fret about the risks posed by the poor and disadvantaged but our governments do not act with the same punitive laws to manage the financial risks of corporations. 

Beck’s research showed that there is no reason why one set of risks should be seen as any more or less “risky” than others. Risk is emotionally charged. On the personal level, we buy insurance for some future unforeseen event, even though the chances of any given tragedy impinging on us is low. On a societal level, as a collective, we don’t generally question why Governments pay more attention to some risks over others. Beck argues that the very idea of risk is normative; the way we think about and act upon risk reveals something profound about our social values.

Beck shows that historically, societies have never been so concerned with risk and the logic used to discuss risk needs to be critically re-evaluated. 

RIP 1944-2015.

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3 thoughts on “Ulrich Beck and the Risk Society

  1. Thanks for this post, Zuleyka Zevallos​! I find the human miscalculation of risk fascinating… And I imagine it had a lot to do with our complete inability to intuit random numbers and probabilities. We have a very hard time understanding that we should be less concerned about bad unlikely events than about bad likely events.


  2. Thanks for your comment! I really like this: “We have a very hard time understanding that we should be less concerned about bad unlikely events than about bad likely events. ” Agreed. More critical thinking and weighing up evidence!


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