Ulrich Beck has been one of the most influential and active sociologists of his time. With a career spanning over two decades, Beck brought about a paradigm shift in the conceptualisation of modern social theories with his prominent works such as ‘risk society’, theories of individualisation, cosmopolitanism and his more recent work in ‘zombie categories’, to name a few. His most substantial contribution to date has been the understanding he brought about in the concept of ‘second modernity’, which he viewed as a crucial requirement that sociologists need to meet in order to depict the societies that they studied with as little distortion from ‘reality’ as possible.
Early life and education:
Ulrich Becker was born in Slupsk in the Pomeranian province of Poland in the year 1944 to a nurse and a naval officer in the German armed forces. He like many others at the time, had to face the hardships of residing in a war-torn country, from losing his father in the Second World War to the displacement of his family in the post-War period.
Beck spent his childhood at Hanover and later on, he moved to Freiburg to study law. However, a strong influence from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, which fostered his desire to understand the ‘nature of reality’, made him break ties with his law studies in the year 1967. He followed his new found passion to study philosophy at the University of Munich. But even in philosophy, Beck was met with slight disappointment owing to the very blinkered approach it had towards its own concepts.
Finally, Beck moved towards sociology and had a much long-lasting relationship with it. Under the tutelage of Karl Martin Bolte, who was his professor of sociology at the time and also a big influence on his career, Beck completed his dissertation in 1972. Following his dissertation, he was employed to work on Bolte’s research project titled ‘Theoretische Grundlagen sozialwissenschaftlicher Berufs- und Arbeitskräfteforschung’, which roughly translates to ‘Theoretical framework for labour market and workforce research in the social sciences’.
He married Elisabeth Gernsheim, a prominent, internationally renowned sociologist in 1975, whom he met during his student years in Munich. In 1979, they were both hired at the University of Munster and in the following year, Beck was appointed as co-editor for the Soziale Welt, which he edited till the end of his life. In the year 1992, he was offered a professorship in sociology at his alma mater, the University of Munich, prior to which he was a professor at the University of Bamberg. It was Beck’s work in Munich however, that upholstered his career, especially through his leadership in the research project on ‘reflexive modernization’ which was in progress up till 2009.
Beck had also been in association with the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and developed there a close friendship with his colleague, Anthony Giddens. With a span of over 40 books and more than 250 research papers, Beck remained one of the most active social scientists till his death in January 2015.
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Ulrich Beck: Major contributions
Beck is most remembered for his conception of ‘risk society’. The idea of ‘risk society’ essentially was concerned with the understanding that, through expansive modernization and globalization, owing to advancements in science and technology, societies would be unable to ‘control the side-effects of the success of their own modernity’ (Woodman, Threadgold & Possamai-Inesedy, 2015).
Consequently, industrial societies or ‘modern societies’, such as the ones found today all over the globe, are all turning into ‘risk societies’ According to Beck (1986), one of the main areas where this idea can be witnessed is in the manner of wealth distribution. He believed that the distribution of wealth eventually led to the distribution of risks, that is to say, in order to meet the goals of production of modern society, certain risks which are unavoidable and often unprecedented are always imminent.
It was the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown that inspired Beck’s work on ‘risk society’. In his book ‘Risk society: Towards a new modernity’, Beck (1986) mentioned how new technologies such as nuclear energy are representative of ‘emancipatory wealth- distributing societies that turn into risk- distributing societies.’ However, instead of blaming scientific progress for disasters like Chernobyl, Beck strongly maintained that only scientific advancement can help the world measure and work towards the prevention of societal risks.
Imagining a ‘second modernity’:
The core of Ulrich Beck’s life’s work was located in his theorisation of a ‘second modernity’. Beck established the idea that in order for sociologists to effectively study their own societies, it needs to be acknowledged that societies are transitioning into a new kind of modernity. He raised the important question that are the same ideas of modernity applicable to current societies, such as ideas of the Enlightenment Era, or have they been outdated?
This idea is not necessarily pointing towards the emergence of ‘post-modernity’, rather to the idea that ‘modernity’ in itself is undergoing unrecognisable changes. In order to explain his point of view, he gave an example of a typically modernist assumption of the apparent inflexibility of nation-states, claiming that the emergence of phenomena like asylum-seeking and globalised trading system has deemed said inflexibility redundant.
Beck also identified 5 challenges that marked the transition of the classical or ‘first modernity’ into second modernity, namely:
- Multidimensional globalization
- Radicalized/intensified individualization
- Global environmental crisis
- Gender revolution
- The third industrial revolution
In essence, Beck maintained that while the above-mentioned challenges of the second modernity, may have partly diminished the inaccessibility of modernist societies, (for example, the complete debarment of women and marginalised communities into the labour market as opposed to their more revitalised inclusion in the same spaces), it has brought about new kinds of obstacles like environmental threats, global insecurities, etc.
Other significant contributions:
In relation to the ‘risk society’ and ‘second modernity’, Beck also contributed to a revolutionised understanding of modern, globalised societies via ideas like ‘individualisation’, ‘cosmopolitanism’, ‘democratisation of science’ and perhaps the most controversial of all; ‘zombie categories’.
In a gist, all the concepts that Beck theorised in his lifetime, pointed towards the need to dismantle the pre-existing notions of what constitutes a modern society. For example, in the case of ‘zombie categories’, he tried to iterate that sociologists need to abandon the concepts in sociology, which actually don’t exist in reality. Concepts of class, the nation-state, and nuclear family, he completely dismissed as ideas that have died out or turned into ‘zombie categories.’ It remains his most agitational contribution to the field of contemporary sociology.
Thus, Ulrich Beck has left a vibrant and thought-provoking, often inflammatory legacy for the field of social sciences.
Noted literary works of Ulrich Beck:
Works in English: Books and journal articles
- 1987. ‘The Anthropological Shock: Chernobyl and the Contours of the Risk Society’,
Berkeley Journal of Sociology, vol. 32, pp. 153–165.
- 1992. ‘The Side Effects of Modernity & Modernity and Self-Identity’, Theory,
Culture and Society: Explorations in Critical Social Science, vol. 9, no. 2, pp.
- 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage Publications
- 1994. Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern
Social Order. Oxford: Polity Press. With A. Giddens and S. Lash.
- 1999. World Risk Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- 2006. The Cosmopolitan Vision. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Works in German:
- 1986. Risikogesellschaft: Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne. Frankfurt am Main:
- 1994. Riskante Freiheiten: Individualisierung in modernen Gesellschaften. Frankfurt
am Main: Suhrkamp. Ed. by Beck with E. Beck-Gernsheim.
- 2004. Das kosmopolitische Europa: Gesellschaft und Politik in der zweiten Moderne.
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. With Edgar Grande.
- Beck, Ulrich (2012) Das deutsche Europa, Berlin.
1) Beck, U. (1986) Risk Society: Towards a new modernity (M. Ritter, Trans.). London, Sage Publications
2) Sørensen, M., & Christiansen, A. (2013). Ulrich Beck: An introduction to the theory of second modernity and the risk society (1st ed.). Oxson: Routledge.
3) Woodman, D., Threadgold, S., & Possamai-Inesedy, A. (2015). Prophet of a new modernity: Ulrich Beck’s legacy for sociology. Journal of Sociology, 51(4), 1117-1131. doi: 10.1177/1440783315621166