Ulrick Beck (1944-2015) was an eminent German Sociologist of contemporary times. He is better known for his influential work entitled, ‘The Risk Society’ wherein he talked about the insecurities and risks produced by the late industrial society. Originally, this top-notch work was published in 1986 in German language and later on it got translated into English. In addition, Beck’s Risk Theory was further addressed by his friend and renowned Social Scientist Anthony Giddens in the late 90s.
Aforementioned, through his theory Beck has gone to considerable lengths in explaining the transition that has occurred in modern society and due to which we are certainly moving towards “risks.” One might wonder what sort of risks he is discussing ? To answer this, it could be said that being a sociologist, he is certainly talking in terms of Sociology and thus about the “Social Risks’ ‘ created by the postmodern conditions. It is imperative to mention that Beck is seemingly dissatisfied with the prefix ‘post’ and attempting to track it down. Broadly, Beck makes reference to two sorts of risks, i.e. Natural and Manufactured (man-made risks), Beck only takes into consideration the latter one and says that from the 1970s onwards societies, which he terms Second Modernity, have arisen as more hazardous than any other time; for now they are not just structured on the basis of wealth but on the basis of risks. To him, “Risk refers to potential hazards resulting from the progress of society.”
Similarly, in the preface of this book, he writes that “the modernisation within the horizon of experience of pre-modernity is being displaced by Reflexive Modernization.” And this Reflexive Modernisation is dominated by the ‘logic of risk.’ (Beck, 1992, p.11,12)
Besides, in 1992, Beck described the Risk Society as “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself”. (Beck, 1992, p. 21) Likewise, British sociologist Anthony Giddens describes a risk society as “a society increasingly preoccupied with the future (and also with safety), which generates the notion of risk.” (Giddens and Pierson, 1998, p. 209) Increasing pollution level, Rising temperatures, Ozone depletion, Cyber attack, Nuclear wars, increasing individualisation, and also the Pandemic Risk/Health Crisis could possibly serve as examples of Risks proposed by the late Modernity.
This article aims to develop his argument further and to consider it in the context of “Current Risks” brought on by the predominantly contemporary settings. Additionally, we would apply his thesis in particular to study COVID 19 as one of the most serious risks of our times.
Aforesaid Beck seems to be dissatisfied with the contemporary conditions. As he remarks, “ just as modernization dissolved the structure of feudal society in the 19th century and produced the industrial society, modernisation today is dissolving industrial society and another modernity is coming into being” He calls this ‘another modernity’ as Reflexive modernity, as he goes on to say that “in the 19th century, privileges of rank and religious world views were being demystified; today the same is happening to the understanding of science and technology in the classical industrial society.” (Beck, 1992, p. 10,11)
In simple words, Beck is saying that in advanced modernity the social production of wealth is accompanied by the social production of risks. These risks are inevitable; for they are the “unintended consequences of our march towards modernity.” At the dawn of this late modernity we thought that we had created a better and secure future for our generation but what we didn’t realise is the fact that everything has limitations and science is no exception. It can’t actually take care of the multitude of issues of mankind and it has additionally prompted some unanticipated issues with it, which are presently posing a danger to humankind.
In the current context, one of the most frightening risks created by reflexive modernisation is that of COVID-19, which is a virus. According to popular belief, this virus is believed to have spreaded first in 2019 in China and from there it spreaded around the world. Since then numerous theories have been put forth to explain its origin. From that point forward various speculations have been advanced to clarify its starting point. In any case, the most acknowledged clarification for the rise of COVID-19 is that it had spread from an animal in an open Chinese market. (Constantinou, 2020)
Furthermore, Ulrick Beck wrote an article in 1990 under the title, ‘On the Way toward an Industrial Society of Risk?’ In the same article, he put forth the 5 theses about the risks that could characterise what qualifies as “risks” in the late modern era. These risks could be explained well bearing in mind the Covid Outbreak.
- The first thesis is what he calls “the dependence of risks on knowledge.” According to which, he conveys that in the post-Industrial era, people tend to lose that track of their knowledge; for the risks are not lucidly visible. For instance, ever since the outbreak of Covid-19, there are many speculations about its origin and spread but no one has one answer to this. Lay people, particularly, have to depend upon the knowledge of medical officials. Nonetheless, even these people who claim to have expert knowledge are certainly not in the position to answer their queries. For example, imposition of lockdowns, forced vaccination and even the long-term effects of vaccination are some of the matters that are outside the domain of technocratic experts. Regardless of the reality, people have to reluctantly adhere to their guidelines and rely on the knowledge of so-called experts.
- According to the second thesis, “the risks attendant on modernisation burst asunder the class schema.” This is an very interesting argument advanced by Beck wherein he contends that though the risks display a ‘boomerang effect’ as even the powerful people are not untouched by the risks. If we are to see this in the light of Covid-19, it could be said that Covid doesn’t discriminate between powerful and powerless people. Moreover, Beck says that risks ‘might be equally applicable to everyone but simultaneously, the way people deal with them could be different.’ What he implies by this phrase is that people from upper strata of society certainly have better ways to guard them from such risks. For instance, it has now been widely discussed how the COVID-19 has fortified ‘social inequalities.’ Similarly, he says “wealth accumulates at the top, risks at the bottom.” (Beck, 1992 p. 35)It means that the poor people are more vulnerable and more exposed to risks because they are not in the position to maintain proper hygiene standards. People living in Ghettos, e.g. can’t really maintain Social distancing. And hence Beck says that the phrase, “I am hungry” from Marx’s Class Society has now been replaced by “I am afraid” in the Risk Society, constituting a ‘community of anxiety.’ (Beck, 1990)
- The third thesis is as follows: “the marketability of risks.” Beck poses a serious problem here, he says that the risks in late modern times have been dealt differently by different people; for certain people have marketed these risks. They have changed the risks into potential outcomes of business revenue for profit maximisation. For instance, in the name of COVID-19 many useless products have been sold in the market and people are bound to buy those.
Some websites such as Nykaa have even created a separate section for COVID related products. What concerns Beck is that these companies are not able to tackle this disease but rather they are interested in glorifying the products and selling them in the market.
The fourth thesis suggests that “ consciousness determines being, knowledge of risks, the state of being affected by risks.” Here, Beck is seemingly very critical of modern scientific rationality which claims to have a monopolistic authority on truth. To him, Science was supposed to be the guiding light for this modern era and was supposed to mitigate the risks. Conversely, science itself doesn’t have concrete answers and thus has posed certain risks. In the present scenario, there are people who have not shown their trust in vaccines. Anti-scientism is also much talked about, where people are coming to realise the limitations of science. With the outbreak of the Omicron variant, scientists are now thinking of giving booster doses for medical professionals at least. However, there is constant struggle between the anti-vacciners and the people who are supporting it. Whether the booster dose is needed or not is out of the purview of modern technocrats. Still, people have to rely on their consciousness. There is also a growing scepticism against the WHO itself. People from all walks of life are now divided into two groups; on the one hand there are those people who are being labelled as superstitious on account of their distinct stand, on the other hand those people who are taking science as the definitive knowledge system. Moreover, despite knowing the limitations of science, we are deliberately taking risks as if we are left with no better alternative.
- The fifth thesis states, “a society of risk creates the political potential for a dirigiste society.” With the growing concerns of COVID-19 people have now been scrutinising the state for its arbitrary decisions. In the name of COVID-19, basic freedom of people has been curtailed. The criticism against the state governments whether in India or abroad is constantly on rising. In this sort of scenario, the state might become undemocratic. For example, whether the lockdown is imposed or not is left to the state governments of the country but what they have done so far is normalising danger by imposing lockdown without much consultation and disregarding the social and economic conditions of people. According to Beck this situation is indeed very alarming and should be looked into.
To recapitulate the whole argument I pen down saying that Ulrick Beck has addressed the issue of growing uncertainties in the postmodern era. Additionally, he says that in the late Industrial era the modernity has now become conscious of its own mistakes (which is praiseworthy as per Beck) as it has just not proved a boon but also a bane. Moreover, the modern risks are caused by the ‘radicalisation of modernity’ and they are more terrifying because “risks are not real, they are becoming real” and possess such features as: omnipresence, incalculableness and non-compensability. (Beck, 2006)
Moreover, on the dark side of the moon, his theory has gained much criticism as well. It is criticised on the grounds that he ‘totalizes’ risk, treating risk as if it is the ‘centre’ of contemporary social and material life, thus neglecting other important factors. (Dean, 1999, p. 181–2; Rasborg, 2012, p. 10) Also, as Dirk Matten notes, “Beck’s ideas are more of a provocative and conceptual nature rather than a minute empirical proof of certain social changes.”
Notwithstanding a few shortcomings, Beck appears to get the nerves of the growing issues in today’s society and has certainly been instrumental in uncovering the limitations of science. To him, the modern risks could be treated as an alarming wake-up call for the whole of humanity. Besides, he paved the way for other social researchers to retrospect and consider other possibilities to make this world a better place to live in.
- Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (Published in association with Theory, Culture & Society) (1st ed.). SAGE Publications Ltd.
- Giddens, A., & Pierson, C. (1998). Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity. Polity.
- Constantinou, C. S. (2020). “People Have to Comply with the Measures”: Covid-19 in “Risk Society.” Journal of Applied Social Science, 15(1), 3–11. https://doi.org/10.1177/1936724420980374
- Beck, U. (1990). On the Way toward an Industrial Society of Risk? International Journal of Political Economy, 20(1), 51–69. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27861843
- Beck, U. (2006). Living in the world Risk society. Economy and Society, 35(3), 329–345. https://doi.org/10.1080/03085140600844902
- Curran D. (2016) Risk Society and Systematic Social Theory. In: Risk, Power, and Inequality in the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137495570_3