Beyond the ‘Risk Society’? A critical Discussion of Ulrich Beck’s Sociology of Risk

    Publikation: Working paperForskning


    With his theory of the ‘risk society’, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck claims to put forward a new theoretical model for understanding our times. A model which emphasizes that contemporary society has changed radically compared to the ‘classic industrial society’ which was the object of the theories of Marx, Weber and Durkheim. At the same time, however, Beck repudiates the idea that this shift should lead to a relativistic, postmodern cultural and social condition where all binding standards erode. The article calls attention to some basic problems and inner contradictions in Beck’s theory of the risk society: The lack of clarification of the epistemological and ontological status of risk, the questionable view of the relation between knowledge and unawareness in relation to risks, and the rather vague notions of ‘social rationality’ and ‘discursive modernization.’ A main thread in the critique is that of addressing the limitations of Beck’s ‘realist’ notion of risk. In recent years Beck has attempted to solve the problem of the relation between realism and constructivism by advocating a ‘reflexive realism’, and in his most recent writings he advances an ambivalent and rather pragmatic ‘both-and’-attitude. The relation, however, between realism and constructivism still seems to be unclarified in Beck’s theory. With the alternative positions discussed in the article – represented by Niklas Luhmann, Mitchell Dean and Jeffrey Alexander – some indications are given as to how one might in a fruitful way elaborate on the problem of risk. It is suggested that risk could be seen as relating to the self-observation of modern society (Luhmann), to modern forms of governmentality (Dean), or to the general structures of meaning that regulate the self-understanding of a society (Alexander and Smith). A common characteristic of these alternative positions is that they avoid an exclusive focus on technology as well as a realist notion of risk. Thus, rather than a hard, ontological fact, the ‘risk society’ could be seen as indicating a new ‘semantics of crisis’, the emergence of new problems of governmentality, or a changing cultural self-understanding of late modern society.
    UdgiverRoskilde Universitet
    Antal sider28
    StatusUdgivet - 2006

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    Working paper that forms basis for later publications

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