What is Risk Society?
The German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, theorized the risk of modernity through his book entitled, “Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity” (Jarvis, p. 24). This was written 18 years ago, and it still holds a profound influence on thinkers, industrialist, and the academic community. Specifically, the risk which Beck delved on is the risk of globalization. He argued that as civilization moves towards greater globalization, the risk is inherent (p. 24). Risk in the modern world is basically brought by technological changes (p. 25).
Rapid changes in technology bring new types of risks, and people need to continuously adapt or adjust to these changes (Cantelli, Kodate, & Krieger, p. 1). Beck argued that the risk society is not limited to natural risks such as risks of the environment and health-related risks. It involves a whole new set of interlinked social changes, such as global migration, ever-changing patterns of employment, higher job insecurity, loss of traditional values and local culture, loss of traditional family customs, and individualized personal relations (p. 1).
A striking characteristic of the risk society is that these changes are not confined to one geographic location (Caplan, 27). Due to globalization, risks are intertwined and goes beyond social classes. Risks and consequences are now global in nature, so to speak. A major example is the 9/11 tragedy. It entailed the loss of lives, not just of the Americans but of all the nationalities of the world (since they were based in a global center that is New York). The World Trade Center was a melting pot, and the loss of lives was grieved upon by almost all nations of the world. It created a sense of global citizenship, and at the same time, this tragedy created a sense of insecurity on a global scale.
Another major feature of this theory of modernity is the focus on the individual and not the whole society. Changes happen individually (p. 28). People, on their own, undergo a process of becoming themselves. They are freed of any structural constraints, and they are able to instinctively create their own selves and the environment where they live (p. 28). People usually go on their own; they can work at home or choose to work in offices. In such practices, individuals learn to be more decisive, without being conservative or traditional. For instance, a newly graduated individual can decide to work in his own country, or he/she may choose to work abroad and be independent. The decision making, more or less, is automatic. He/she is not hindered by family ties, geography, among others.
Beck reiterated that the new modernity is very different with the old modernity that the industrial world has talked about. This new modernity lets individuals assume his individuality and decide on his/her own, without any reference to his class or social status (p. 28). However, if he/she has a faulty perspective of the new world he/she lives in, then, there is a great risk. This modernity is far from the industrialization kind of modernity.
In this risk society, changes are not brought about by industrialism (p. 26). Individuals initiate their own social and institutional ties. He/she is not bound by the type of work he does or the place where he/she lives (even the time element) (p. 26). Individuals maintain their connections and it provides them with their own support systems (p. 26). Hence, the sociologist emphasized that risk society is a major break-away from the industrial society, where changes seemed to be uniform according to the industrialization process or the economic level a certain society is in.
As already mentioned, a striking feature of the risk society is that it is not limited by time and space. Hence, the risks are not confined to one place or to a certain time. For instance, a volcanic eruption in Indonesia could mean a pollution problem in other parts of Asia (at some point in time). This could also mean that an airplane crash in London could affect the other parts of the world. The distinction of the affected individuals or groups is not also defined by class (p. 22).
Criticism of the Risk Society Theory
According to Cantelli, Kodate, and Krieger (p. 1), more than twenty years have gone, and it is but timely to criticize the theory of the risk society. A major contention is the feature which stresses the individualization and the transformation process of an individual in a global world. Another criticism is the deep association of the risk of natural disasters and accidents. This is indeed a global issue. As the authors pointed out, even industrialized nations are beset by the concerns of major flooding, hurricanes, among others (p. 1). Modern societies are also alarmed with industrial accidents such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Sandoz, and Bhopal, among others (p. 1).
Culver, et. al. also criticized the mutual consideration of climate change as a risk element. The authors believe that climate change, as a whole, does not equally threaten individuals or nations (p. 9). They reason that wealthy people or rich nations always have a major line of defense when climate change transpires. They cite that rich European nations like Bavaria and Germany will implement effective measures to curb the risks and dangers linked with climate change. In fact, they argue that these nations have already conceived how they will technically prepare for reduced waterfall, food shortages, snowmelt, among others. This is not the actual case for poor and developing countries. They would be hardly hit by the impacts of climate change.
In this regard, one of the major criticisms of the risk society is its concentration on the individual. However, in terms of these hazards, the risk is collectively manifested and experienced. Hence, my own position is that Beck has a small grasp of the politics of this individualization versus the collective approaches as intertwined in the process of globalization. No man is an island, so they say. Hence, even in the process of forming his new social values and new lifestyles, men generally conceive and value of the same things. They fear the same things; they can let go of the following things, etc. In a greater sense, the contemporary society is still a group of people with inherent aspirations and beliefs.
The thing about globalization is that it “homogenizes” these values (Magdoff, p. 3). People now aspire of the same material comforts, technological devices, and experiences like traveling to Europe, etc. This leads us to conclude that the most modernized society becomes, the more it manifests capitalism and other politically and economically linked concepts. Global capitalism is greater than the individual’s reflexive or adaptive processes and activities. While Beck and other sociologists may think that individuals of the modern world actually enjoy more freedom to act on their own, they miss the point that they are in the greater realms of globalization.
Global capitalism, for example, affects the global environment and this risk is shared by the world. Yet, the impacts and effects of this phenomenon do not rest on the individuals and the modern society. It is still in the hands of the capitalists (p. 4). They will be the main actors to decide and act on these environmental issues and problems. Hence, the popular notions of “corporate social responsibility” have swept the western world lately. The ethics of mitigating this risk lie with the commercial entities of the globalized world and not on the people, even while they now consider themselves as global citizens.
Certainly, the modern world is beset by ecological imbalances. This cannot be compromised, and this is not unified under capitalism (Magnoff, p. 5). Capitalists are greedy and hence, they do not accept harmony at the expense of equal sharing of resources. If thrown back to the issue of climate change or natural hazards, it is quite true that a rich nation will have a sophisticated and stable approach to risk mitigation while poor nations will be left on the sidelines.
The truth is, capitalism will not be deterred by environmental insecurities. While capitalists implement ecological stewardship, this will not lessen their greed (p. 5). This is perpetuated by the global process wherein surplus goods are channeled to other global markets. In this modern economic set-up, businesses should continually expand its markets to increase its income further. Otherwise, these establishments will die.
Beck underestimated that social changes like global migration and the changing patterns of employment, among others, are actually by-products of the ever-increasing workings of global capitalism. People are hired in any parts of the world because highly skilled workers are required by the global economy. Again, the values such as economic stability and wealth accumulation remain the same. It has been the goal since industrialization.
Thus, economic motivation is still the heart of the matter, on both the individual and social levels. It is the driving force of the global capitalist system where all of its parts are maintained by the automatic, uneven, radical production of goods and services (Williams, p. 23). Commodification is the center of these economic activities (p. 23). It divides the lie between attaining income and wealth and in preserving the environment.
Cantelli, F., Kodate, N., & Krieger, K. Questioning World Risk Society: Three Challenges for Research on the Governance of Uncertainty. Global Policy Journal. Accessed on 04 October 2016 <http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/articles/health-and-social-policy/questioning-world-risk-society-three-challenges-research-governance>.
Caplan, P. “Introduction: Risk Revisited” in Caplan, Pat (ed) “Risk Revisited.” Pluto Press: London. 2000.
Culver, et. al. Revisiting Risk Society: A Conversation with Ulrich Beck. RCC Perspectives, Issues 6, 2011, p. 1-31.
Jarvis, D. Risk, Globalisation and the State: A Critical Appraisal of Ulrich Beck and the World Risk Society Thesis. Global Society, 21 (1), January, 2007, p. 23-46
Magdoff, F. Harmony and Ecological Civilization: Beyond the Capitalist Alienation of Nature. Monthly Review Online. Accessed on 04 October 2016 < http://monthlyreview.org/2012/06/01/harmony-and-ecological-civilization.Williams, C. Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. New York: Haymarket Books. 2012.
Williams, C. Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. New York: Haymarket Books. 2012.