Journal of Consumer Culture (2001) 'Interview with Ulrich Beck', in Journal of Consumer Culture, Vol 1, 2: 261 - 77.
[I have not reproduced the interview format but have reconstructed it as a set of statements by Beck. In practice, some are agreements with the views of the interviewers. One occasion where there was a little argument with the interviewers is indicated]
Postmodernist theory is simply critical, although many of its criticisms have been useful. The notion of reflexive modernisation suggests that modernity itself is being transformed not transcended, with 'A new kind of capitalism, a new kind of labour, a new kind of everyday life, and a new kind of state' (262). Sociology needs to investigate this process of 'meta-change', via 'empirical investigation and hard conceptual work' (262). European social theory has a particular responsibility since it was responsible for modern society. Postmodernism has abandoned 'critique, politics and political theory' (262). It is not enough to deconstruct.
Instead of seeing an end to modernity, we should be investigating new beginnings. We need new concepts to do this, instead of 'zombie categories', based on the old conditions and unable to explain contemporary society (262), as in the programme going on in Beck's Institute in Munich. 'First modernity' was too centred on the nation state, but 'second modernity' needs to discover new co-ordinates, to investigate flows rather than structures. The old terms such as 'class, social inequality, households and... technology, science and risk, firms, states' need to be rethought (263). [A bit of side-stepping going on here -- the philsophical wing of postmodernism argues that the very methods of sociology are flawed and can be dangerous and oppressive. Beck still thinks we can have business as usual but with new concepts]
As an example, the notion of a household has changed radically as people are more mobile, and tend to divorce and remarry more frequently. As a result, 'Individuals must choose who is to be regarded as their main father, their main mother and who is their grandmother and grandfather' (263). The old unity between geographic, social, and economic definitions are falling apart and may now contradict each other. The same rethinking affects the notion of 'a couple' (264). Single households are increasing and now comprise more than 50 per cent of all households in London and Munich: this term itself includes a variety of circumstances, and includes widows, single persons, and those who may remarry. As a result of this, much official sociological analysis is now mistaken since it presupposes 'normal households, normal families' (264). Modern families reflect the social changes: including those in labour-market, the employment system or even law. individuals must now seek 'biographical solutions to systemic contradictions' (264), involving individualisation and choice.
Consumption itself needs to be rethought, moving away from the critique associated with the Frankfurt School. Consumption has a positive function, following Simmel, who saw money and commerce as the new source of social unity, offering a new 'dreamworld with material objects' (265), and so it is consumption that expresses identity and social solidarity, and on a cosmopolitan basis. Studies of consumerism may help break away from the old idea of societies as nation states, since there are now 'globalised cycles of production and consumption', and a 'banal cosmopolitanism' (265).
Post-modernists were right to stress the changes in boundaries between social spheres. Boundaries have become multiple and more subject to choice [rather than implosion?]. For theorists of second modernity, however, what is of interest is how boundaries are actually decided 'on a practical basis' (266), given that there are no privileged criteria: boundaries become optional, 'fictive but which are handled as if they were true under the circumstances at hand' ( 266). Unlike in the Haraway utopia of no boundaries at all, 'institutions...have to construct and legitimate borders' (166) [Haven't I been saying this all along-- eg in Harris 1996? This is what any sociologist would tell any of the free-floating philosophers!].
Meta-change involves a proliferation of 'unintended side-effects' (267), especially those where effects have been broader than intended, where boundaries have been radically dissolved. Global capitalism is the dynamic force: it has 'revolutionized its own social foundation' (267). This is what is meant by 'reflexivity' -- NOT that people are more conscious of social factors. If anything, people are conscious that 'mastery is impossible' (267) -- disenchantment and the undermining of institutions ensue. This is not a break with modernity, though, since there are a number of continuities and discontinuities [well -- can this be settled? does anyone other than a professional academic really care? is Beck motivated by the standard professional interests in maintaining a research programme?]. However, the goal is not to produce some new classification or periodisation of history -- rather the point is 'methodological and pragmatic... [and Beck hopes that]... this approach will bear empirical fruit' (268) [which is the old interest in an ongoing research programme again?].
Work began as negatively valued, and then became a main aspect of identity in modern society. Work may now be of less importance, especially as the boundaries 'between work and life, work and leisure, work and art' are weaker (268). The very term is being used increasingly to cover an number of activities, even sport and love, or parenting. This can be 'inflationary', although it does indicate that borders are becoming more fluid (268).
Risk society is closely connected to the notion of consumption -- new anxieties produce new consumption patterns, and sometimes less consumption overall. Consumers are also becoming politicised. Risk society features increased uncertainties, especially the perception that science and technology increase rather than reduce uncertainty. The production of goods is likely to also produce unexpected consequences which can be risky, and the public is not just informed by science alone. Instead, defining and acknowledging risk is a matter of power.
Consumers are increasingly forced to bear the risks themselves, to choose whether to consume potentially risky objects, such as beef. Consumers are therefore ready to see risk, and this can lead to market instability, which can lead to crisis. Any attempt to suppress likely risks leads to distrust, and consumers can get revenge by wrecking international companies in consumer markets. As a result, 'it's a "lottery of misfortune". It's like Russian roulette' (270). Consuming prescription drugs is one example, now that we know that they can also produce side-effects. People no longer simply expect progress and security, and mistrust experts. Experts themselves disagree -- insurance companies will not insure against some risks, even though other corporations try to deny there is a risk.
Risk society warns people about not doing things, but does not tell them what to do instead. 'Nobody knows how to legitimate any course of action' (271) [which leads to fascism and deep irrationality, such as the return of religion or magic, for Habermas]. At the same time, the public and consumers open more and more 'black boxes' of production and technology. Increasing risk overthrows the stability of social sub-systems, and forces sub-systems and people into dialogue and negotiation. The situation could be called 'quasi revolutionary' (271) [or the dangerous release of irrationality].
Risk society now operates on a global level. Global awareness has become crucial in understanding consequences, and giving them meaning. [Dewey is cited here, rather oddly, on the emergence of a political public -- which would serve to enlighten citizens, and demand public explanations of experts]. Conferences on the environment can be understood in this way, and may be acting as a global public. However, there is no set of global institutions. As a result, global risk can escalate and cause global turbulence -- possibilities become as significant as actualities, and these virtual risks have an economic effect. National diversity is not controlled by global systems, as the case of the EU and its attempt to regulate the consumption of British beef indicates.
This is a serious problem for those advocating neo-liberalism and market solutions, since uncertainties cannot be managed. International corporations are also subject to action by 'coalitions of international law firms and consumer NGOs' (273). Transnational corporations, financial and cultural flows are acting on nation states, globalising them 'from within' (274), as when you can now buy a range of international goods in the supermarket. The same internationalising trends increasingly affect education, marriage, work and living. McDonaldization is too limited a concept, unless it is extended to 'let's say, multicultural product design as well' (274). [The interviewers counter by saying that multicultural production can also be rationalized and McDonaldized -- Mexican food at Taco Bell].
Cosmopolitanism is still rooted in the local, and is not the same as globalism. It involves 'the recognition of the "otherness of the other"' (275). It is acknowledging diversity, but also fitting into the national. It does not just affect global players but acts 'from below as well... migrants' (205). Borders are necessary, but cosmopolitanism chooses to make them inclusive. The equation of the nation state with ethnic homogeneity is really recent and short lived anyway. Producers might consider consumers as others to be involved, as one solution to the search for creativity.
Individualisation and the self
This is not the same as the ideology of individualism, nor does it support 'market egoism' (276), and is not the same as emancipation as in Habermas [?]. It involves a new relationship between social institutions and individuals, a common theme in much social theory -- for example in Elias on the development of courtly culture, or Weber on Protestantism. Modernity has emancipated people from all forms of social ties, and has led to a new form of solidarity [pretty much as in Durkheim -- but second modernity has not developed classic forms of social solidarity].
However, second modernity is 'an age of flows... dis-embedding without re-embedding' (276). Individuals are now 'the basic unit of social reproduction' (276). Excessive individualism is not 'routinized' any more [brought back under social restraint], but takes a new radical form. Institutions now emphasize individualisation, 'enforcing individualism and biographies full of risk and precarious freedom' (277). It is no longer merely a subjective process, to be compared to the reality of social structure -- it 'is the paradoxical social structure itself' (277). The normal processes and narratives of sociability have been displaced in favour of the new narrative of cosmopolitanism.
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