Ulrich Beck: A Critical Introduction to the Risk Society

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In both class and risk societies the wealthy can only aspire to relative rather than absolute security: 'smog is just as hierarchical as poverty so long as some places are less smoggy than others' Scott, : Questioning Beck's preference for a politics of risk, both Rose and Dickens have countered the suggestion that bads should supersede goods on the political agenda: Getting the whole of Europe back to work, reducing the high levels of male violence and xenophobia, responding more effectively to the re-emergence of genocide are arguably as big problems as managing risk to the environment, and, so far as the new genetics are concerned, to 'us'.

Rose, : 64 Insofar as Rose's sentiments are intuitive rather than empirically evidenced, the general point retains value. Beck does assume that a radical shift from the politics of class to the politics of risk is both desired and desirable. While problems of scarcity have not evaporated, of late they have been shoulder-charged off the agenda by matters of risk. Of course, spectacular one-off risk incidents - such as the terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid and London - are eminently more reportable for the media than ongoing global problems of grinding poverty and inequality Anderson, ; Boyne, : Indeed, it is quite possible that imbalanced media coverage has in part contributed towards the skewing of public concerns, with extensive reporting of new terrorism, MRSA and Avian Flu catapulting risk forward as a politically hot issue see Furedi, ; Ungar, As Rose : 65 argues, it is likely that such an unstinting focus on risk has served to cloud the continuance of traditional inequalities.

Current tensions between the East and the West are the result of an admixture of conflicting religious beliefs, ethnic identities, conflicting values and differential resource distribution. Other high profile struggles - for example, in Spain, Canada and Ireland - are rooted in matters of cultural identity rather than risk. As such, we have to question the assumption that the locus of politics has changed as a direct response to social bads.

Ultimately, it is probable that the formation of oppositional politics is a reflection of public disenchantment with existing political structures: The rise of protest parties, extremist right-wing parties and regional and secessionist parties in many western countries suggests that mainstream politics has become less capable of commanding allegiance. However, whether this decline can be accounted for in terms of the state's decreasing capacity to meet safety and security pledges in the face of new risks and hazards is less certain.

One could probably make a more convincing case for attributing the decline in legitimacy to the failure of governments in the West to arrest the rise in structural unemployment, and to the accompanying process of social and geographical polarization. Goldblatt, : 4.

In this sense, Beck devotes insufficient attention to the cultural geography of risk. There is perhaps something perverse about the post-scarcity politics of risk when positioned against the backdrop of persistent and marked global inequalities. In many regions, the disenfranchised have little option but to continue to exhaust natural resources and literally swallow the environmental consequences. For the poor in continents such as Africa, Asia and South America, prioritising the political management of technological risks may smack of decadence.

The global political failure to meet fundamental human needs serves as a sharp reminder to those absorbed with the possibilities of a high-tech risky future: 1. As a consequence of such severe poverty, million persons are today malnourished; million are without access to health services, one billion are without adequate shelter, 1. Pogge, : 27 4. The traditional determinants of goods stratification - of class, gender, ethnicity, age and geography - are still key indicators of life chances in western society and will remain so into the foreseeable future.

Social bads have been superimposed upon issues of class, poverty, health and education, rather than supplanted by them. The Politics of Risk and the Risks of Politics 5. To provide balance, evidence of a movement towards a global politics of risk will be measured against the possibility that risk is being employed as an instrument of geopolitical control.

In recent times, global events do appear to have accentuated the contours of risk and this has been reflected in the political language circulating within supranational bodies, such as the United Nations. As discussed earlier, ongoing world conflicts are underscored by the continuing uncertainty surrounding the production of nuclear and chemical weapons. Meanwhile, fears abound about the possible use of biochemical weapons by terrorist groups.

On the back of intense media coverage, dirty bombs, ricin and sarin have crept into the public vocabulary. Travelling with Beck : 5 , the uncertainty generated by 'transnational terror networks' is in many senses general rather than specific. Given the global geographic within which terrorist cells operate, the risk of harm is theoretically universal: 'there are no bystanders anymore' Beck, : Naturally, we should be concerned that the current climate of uncertainty does not degenerate into a permanent spiral of unease: There is fear of other kinds of terrorism, the prospect that biological and chemical weapons will contaminate the air we breathe and the water we drink.

This time we are trying to name the future, not in our normally hopeful way, but guided by dread. DeLillo, : 2 5. Yet fear of the future has become a standard feature of the rhetoric espoused by senior politicians. In the international arena, world leaders talk about a 'post-secure' world in which an 'axis of evil' threatens to spread 'global terror'. It would seem that political visions promoting the good life have been superseded by offers to protect us against the bad life. Something fundamental has changed in relation to the way in which policy makers understand and present the concepts of safety and danger.

The balance of the status quo in advanced western nations is described according to colour coded security levels. Times which would once have been described as safe and orderly become nothing more than periods 'between attacks'. Tales of the largesse of capitalism have given way to flashes of the dark underbelly of risk.

Belatedly, it is being acknowledged that globalization opens up windows not only for entrepreneurs and jetsetters, but also for criminals, drug traffickers and agent provocateurs. It is apparent too, that global bads can produce domino effects.

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Stock markets around the world tumble in the wake of risky incidents, with sensitive industries - such as insurance, agriculture and airlines - being hit hard. In stark contrast to creative notions of the good which characterised industrial society, the language of politics has become more restrained and defensive. It is probable that the increased visibility of global bads has encouraged the consolidation of a political discourse of global danger, crystallised in the formation of 'activist' American and British foreign policy.

In terms of discursive formations of risk, a subtle twist is at play, with 'What if? The following two quotations are apposite examples of 'What if? We are in mortal danger of mistaking the nature of the new world in which we live.


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This is not a time to err on the side of caution, not a time to weigh the risks to an infinite balance Blair, : 7. Beneath the top level construction of a politics of risk, risk continues to act as a lever for public involvement and direct action. The subpolitical activity which Beck attaches to bads is aptly demonstrated by the protest marches of millions of anti-war campaigners around the globe.

Layered over the top of everyday risk negotiations - around work, relationships and health - unease about global warfare, economic depression and terrorism have added to the general mood of apprehension.

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As Jasanoff comments: Just, as a century ago, the idea of progress helped to name an optimistic era, so today risk, by its very pervasiveness, seems to be the defining marker of our own less sanguine historical moment. Jasanoff, : 5. However, although there is some justification for flagging the comparative prevalence of risk in contemporary political debates, the impact of risk on public participation remains opaque.

Where Beck maintains that social bads act as a conductor for political reflexivity and collective action, risk can also be used to dissipate opposition and reinforce political control see Castel, ; Culpitt, ; Dean ; Mythen and Walklate, Social bads may operate as a political catalyst for some, but they are equally powerful as a mechanism through which unequal power relations are legitimised and reproduced Lupton, : ; Wales and Mythen, Prisoners of war held at Guantanemo Bay became conveniently rebranded as 'enemy combatants' to validate the removal of basic human rights. Rather than being seized as an opportunity to engage in dialogue and confront embedded differences, the bad of terrorism has been coded as a heroic struggle between good and evil and deployed as a foil for cultural and economic imperialism.

The message transmitted to other countries and regimes which make up the 'axis of evil' hardly needs deciphering. Mimicking the US administration, the UK government is currently riding the legislative ripples of risk, most notably in its proposals to curb terrorism. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary has recently floated the idea that phone, internet and email records should be archived by service providers for at least a year to create databases of information. So far as European Law is concerned, there is no legal basis for such legislation to be passed.

Even more problematic is the announcement that arcane Treason laws may be resurrected to charge those sympathetic to terrorist groups. Though politically convenient, it is not sensible - nor ethically appropriate - to push through draconian law and order measures in a time of raised tension and high anxiety. Amidst the legitimate concern about the terrorist risk, there is a need to ensure that legislative responses are commensurate with the level of threat. The discursive construction of the terrorist threat brings to the surface the relationship between social bads and ideological stigmatisation.

Clearly, the individualization of blame can be utilised as a strategy to conceal institutional responsibility for risk. The social construction of 'new terrorism' is melded to and subsumes existing 'problem groups'. In this way, fears about terrorism become linked to contemporary folk devils: religious zealots, bogus asylum seekers and dole scroungers. The pervasive use of cultural stereotypes by dominant groups indicates that a distrust of 'otherness' can easily escalate into the attribution of blame Lash, : 51, Woodward, : In effect, subordinated groups can act as a convenient sink for depositing risk.

As Dean : points out, 'the significance of risk does not lie with the risk itself, but what risk gets attached to'. In this way, discourses of danger are being utilised for hegemonic purposes, with the anxiety of the risk society functioning as an expedient political tool see Furedi, ; O'Malley, To this end, Kellner : 21 identifies the emergence of a 'new barbarism', in which violent and reactive behaviour is being dressed up and sold off as a fight to maintain the free world. Given the current mix of political turmoil and military violence, Beck's clarion call for transnational cooperation seems to be ringing on deaf ears.

In stark contrast, the darker politics of economic imperialism and cultural binarism appear to be in the ascendance. Rather than generating a drive towards urgently needed democratic debate, the threat of 'global terrorism' has instead resulted in accusation, vilification and ethnic reductionism. O' Tuathail, : 9. Conclusion: Questioning the Reinvention of Politics 6.

The decidedly grainy picture of political participation is crystallised by the ambiguous responses to social bads which have emerged amongst different groups and across different cultures. In many western countries, there does appear to be growing public disenchantment with Byzantine systems of formal politics and a broader trend of scepticism toward expert systems.

In some countries, the growing popularity of direct protests is suggestive of a rise in political activity outside of the formal process. In Britain, the sheer volume of people marching to campaign about single issues - from the marginalisation of countryside issues to the anti-war movement - marks something of a watershed in the nature of political participation. Globally, the customary anti-capitalist demonstrations which appear around the world on Workers' Day, added to the direct actions of protestors at World Trade Organisation summits serve as ready-made examples of subpolitics in practice.

Nevertheless, such eye-catching examples need to be yoked to issues of ideological influence and the relative distribution of power. Whilst many people are making themselves heard on the margins of the formal process, the overwhelming majority of political decisions are still made by elites experts in power-bound spaces without public consultation.

Pushing aside the cloud of social bads, effective political opposition still remains vitally dependent upon the resources which enable action see Lodziak, So long as economic, cultural and technological capital remain unequally distributed, a critical disjuncture will continue to exist between public disquiet and oppositional mobilisation. The importunate appearance of bads alone does not guarantee argumentation and conflict between expert systems and subpolitical groups.

Nor is there any direct connection between the emergence of manufactured risk and the formation of political reflexivity Goldblatt, ; Tomlinson, : Risks will inevitably be approached with different political strategies according to social habits and cultural circumstances Alaszewski, ; Wynne, Inter alia, social bads can be productive of anxiety, inertia and political fatalism.

In some cases, risks may function to exacerbate ontological insecurity, stimulating political acquiescence rather than reflexive activity Caplan, : 23; Giddens, : It cannot be assumed that public concern about social bads will be translated into political mobilisation or institutional divestment of power. As has been demonstrated, the discursive construction of risk can be used to invoke the apportionment of political blame and the intensification of strategies of surveillance and control. Even though there is evidence to indicate that the unceasing appearance of manufactured risks has generated a net rise in subpolitical activity, the present scale of this activity does not bear testament to a transformation in the locus of politics.

We must also be clear that the radical changes necessary to counter the mass production of social bads require something of a cultural reformation. A significant movement toward eliminating risk would require a sizeable swing in public values and a sustained effort to sacrifice short-term for long-term gains.

Although many would agree in principle with policies that reduce pollution levels or redistribute global wealth, the knock-on effects of these policies may be less appealing. Inga Elgquist-Saltzman. Family and Intimate Mobilities. Imagined Futures in Science, Technology and Society. Gert Verschraegen. Strong and Smart - Towards a Pedagogy for Emancipation. Chris Sarra. Agile Actors on Complex Terrains. Graham Room. Critiquing Sustainability, Changing Philosophy. Jenneth Parker. Wendy Bottero. Community, Cosmopolitanism and the Problem of Human Commonality.

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Sociological Social Work. Priscilla Dunk-West. Gender Politics.

Ulrich Beck: A Critical Introduction to the Risk Society

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Criticism of the Risk Society Theory

Changing Pedagogical Spaces in Higher Education. Penny Jane Burke. Jack Whitehead. Educating Beyond Violent Futures. Francis Hutchinson. Marxism and Media Studies. Mike Wayne. Routledge Revivals: Teachers When Beck first outlined his 'risk society' thesis in English translation it established risk as a lens through which contemporary social reality could be viewed, and set out a vision of the future of politics that was both 'coming into view' and desirable.

But a number of significant critiques of his work have since emerged from both within sociology and elsewhere see, for example, Mythen and Walklate, The most discussion has centred on whether Beck's understanding of risk is a realist or constructionist one. Beck himself has addressed this ambiguity in later work by emphasising risk as a discourse distinct from 'hazards' or 'catastrophes' which refer to real dangers , or as a type of 'virtual reality' see, for example, Beck, , pages Whilst this has not clarified his position conclusively, any simplistic reading of Beck as arguing either that the world has become riskier see Mythen, , or that risk merely intervenes between 'really existing risks' and our response to them Aradau and Van Munster, , is untenable.

Beck is not guilty of the mistakes associated with cognitive approaches to risk communication, which seek to redress the disparity between real actuarial risk and perceived risk for a discussion, see Wilkinson, Nor is Beck's position as far from that developed by his Foucauldian critics--who have focused on how discourses and 'dispositifs' of risk function as forms of governance eg, Aradau and Van Munster, ; Lobo-Guerrero, --as is sometimes suggested.

From this perspective, discourses and dispositifs can both bring into being the risks they supposedly articulate and preemptively control behaviour. The latter has become a key focus of those who have critiqued the neoliberal discourse of risk as part of the 'responsibilisation' agenda eg, Rose, The risks discussed in this paper present a different set of issues.