This paper calls attention to some basic problems and inner contradictions in the German sociologist Ulrich Beck’s theory of the ‘(world) risk society’ or reflexive (second) modernity. A main thread in the critique is that of addressing the theoretical ambiguities that seem to characterize Beck’s at the same time ‘social constructivist’ and ‘realist’ notion of risk; ambiguities that seem to be repeated on the one hand in Beck’s view on the relation between knowledge and unawareness in reflexive modernity and on the other hand in his view on the role of the mass media in the ‘(world) risk society’. Moreover, Beck’s notions of second modernity, reflexivity, rationality and critique are critically examined. With the alternative positions discussed in the paper – represented by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Niklas Luhmann and Mitchell Dean – some indications are given as to how one might fruitfully elaborate on the problem of risk. Thus, rather than a mainly technology-driven new type of social reality, the ‘(world) risk society’ could perhaps better be seen as indicating a changing cultural self-understanding of late modern society, a new ‘semantics of crisis’, or the emergence of new forms of governmentality in the contemporary welfare state. In conclusion some indications are given as to how an analysis of more specific ‘risk logics’ or ‘rationalities’ could be elaborated on, and a terminology that reflects this more differentiated approach to risk in late modern society is suggested.
- World risk society, reflexive modernity, governmentality, mass media, culture of fear