Beck, U (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage
This is a complex dense and very hard to read book, and I had no intention whatsoever of doing anything more than grabbing an extremely quick overview. There are far too many sentences and phrases in italics, extremely formal layout with various theses supported by numbered lists, and rather turgid prose. I also think that considerable background knowledge is required, especially of social theory, and some particular heroes such as Habermas and Offe. I tended to find all sorts of links with the stuff I like -- like Critical Theory -- as well inevitably). There are some excellent published commentaries these days of course.
The main point is by now very familiar. Risks are increasing in modern society, especially since science and industry are out of control, threatening all of us with ecological catastrophe and other biohazards. These risks are not grasped cognitively nor stabilised by the usual mechanisms [see below], which include the normal limitations to growth or knowledge, and the usual social and political constraints. The risks are really increasing in magnitude, and have become more visible, and they have spread to include the middle classes as well [excellent news in my view -- they won't be so reckless using the offspring of the working classes to solve the problems]. There are important new social divisions in risk society, which increasingly tend to replace the old ones of social class and gender, and turn on knowledge of risk and the ability to safeguard oneself from it. Beck thinks that the current ability for the rich to withdraw into safe enclaves will not sustain them against the really big risks.
The key to all this is a new feature of modernity -- the growth of reflexivity. Reflexivity involves the ability to offer radical critique of what is traditionally seen as the natural limits to growth and also to scientific knowledge. Scientific and technical knowledge has grown considerably, but it has also been increasingly subjected to political and moral critique, and a considerable philosophical attack on the very basis of scientific knowledge. As a result, science increasingly pushes back what was seen as 'fate', but increasingly finds itself in a state of crisis and rising public scepticism. Scientists themselves are no longer seen as the best people to judge the limits of what they should do and are unable to resist being politicised [pressed into the service of capitalism largely, but also deployed by protest groups too]. [Indeed, I think this alleged philosophical or epistemological crisis has not led to widespread scepticism and reflexivity, but rather has given the important co-ordinating and steering role to politicians or industrialists. It reminds me an earlier parallel point Marcuse wants to make about German existentialism and the way its apparently radical philosophical challenge was rapidly recuperated by fascism].
Science is being forced to reveal the value judgments that were concealed before as procedural (such as the decision to render some consequences as 'side-effects'). [This looks rather like Adorno's critique of positivism as involved in making the real world fit the parameters of laboratory experiment by ignoring large bits of it, or Habermas's critique of scientism which has decided to privilege particular kinds of arguments and inference and simply ignore all the other equally important kinds]. We now see that science operates with serious and undiscussed conventions and limits -- indeed, this is why scientific perspectives have failed adequately to discuss risk, and why they are now seen as part of the problem. Why should side-effects be tolerated? Why don't scientists eliminate them? Why should political and ethical issues be detached from science and shunted into someone else's area?
There are now widespread public criticisms of the usual social restraints as well [and here Beck looks as if he is rephrasing Durkheim's classic warnings about excessive individualism]. Reflexivity has managed to eat away at the very basis of restraint and social authority, leading to a widespread disembeddedness. [Giddens has argued that there will simply be new forms of re-embeddedness in the form of experts, as when organic solidarity replaces mechanical, but Beck seems less sure?]. In a way, this is the same crisis that has affected even the cognitively confident and substantially embedded institutions of natural sciences.
Politics too has broken out of the usual social constraints and conventions that imposed some agreement on the limits and offered some basis of fundamental consent: everyone once agreed that the role of the politician was to regulate the economy, for example. Now, politics is seen as implicated in just about everything, and there is a general scepticism about 'political motives' [a kind of popular hermeneutics of suspicion]. This enables Beck to say that Habermas's theory of crisis has now been made redundant [and there is an implication that systems no longer dominate lifeworlds, but rather the reverse. I think this simply overestimates the impact of sceptical or reflexive culture -- the deployment of power doesn't seem very much affected by cultural scepticism!].
After this very brief summary, let us consider some implications:
(1) Parker et al want to suggest that this notion of risk society underpins the process that they called the 'normalization' of drug-taking. Presumably, the argument is that parental and social authority have been eroded by reflexivity and scepticism, leaving adolescents no choice but to calculate risks and pleasures on their own -- hence the emphasis on the importance of providing adolescents with knowledge and emphasizing harm reduction policies.
(2) Beck himself has developed a number of implications for issues such as family, gender and work. Here, in a nutshell, people become much more experimental in their lifestyles as tradition corrodes. The implications for work are horribly familiar -- there will be no careers or continuities, an increasing restless pressure towards innovation, including mechanisation and computerisation.
(3) Education and the media are major sources of increased reflexivity and the spread of politicisation and scepticism, and Beck explains some of the effects in terms that look rather similar to Baudrillard: there is an increase in social differentiation, reaching the levels of hyper-differentiation, then a slide back into dedifferentiation, considered this time as a kind of general scepticism and anomie. Given the date of this piece, it is not surprising to find no discussion of the Net or Web.
[What is not mentioned, but might be, is the argument about the end of the University found in Lyotard and Baudrillard -- the spread of scepticism erodes the authority of university knowledge, and there is a large segment of the population who have gained a lot of university knowledge, but do not work in universities themselves, suggesting redundancy [more excellent news]. Universities have already developed an advanced form of differentiation of their core business, in the form of modular degrees, weakly framed new academic disciplines and 'vocational' courses. They have become increasingly arbitrary themselves, relying on their institutional power to preserve their authority -- the assessment scheme is the best example, but study skills can also be seen as a disciplinary apparatus. There is also the (increasingly incredible?) promise that only recognised certificates will lead to economic success. At the same time, any residual notion of academic freedom, genuine openness or universalism -- still seen as a way to preserve the boundary around the university as opposed to the publishing company or degree mill and occasionally needed -- seems to offer support for the development of corrosive relativism.]
(4) Back on the more general cultural level, there are increasing attempts to scientise and commercialise politics and knowledge, and whole industries emerge to attempt to manage risk or gloss it over.
(5) There is an interesting discussion of the mechanism of risk denial, which include tactics such as insisting that causes are terribly complex in real life, which makes it impossible to pin down one particular cause for pollution or cancer -- this compares with the highly limited notion of cause found in most conventional scientific work. Another tactic consists of trying to define what counts as 'acceptable levels' of pollution or other risks [there is a version of the ecological fallacy in here, in that risks for the whole population might be low, but that that average low risk might well conceal clusters of exceptionally high risk]. These can best be understood, possibly, in terms of Weber's notions of limited rationality nesting within bigger arguments of irrationality.
(6) There is almost a dialectic of Enlightenment in this analysis, with a possible third stage. Science first liberates us from myth, then turns into a positivistic form of oppression of its own -- and Beck wants to suggest that the reflexivity that drove this process then accelerates away from control leading to a kind of sceptical reflexive relativism. I suppose I might want to add a 4th stage, involving the re-imposition of power, this time in the form of seemingly arbitrary (but conventionally motivated) limits to this reflexivity. This still risks (sic) legitimation crisis.
(7) There is general support throughout for a New Social Movement type politics, forms of dedifferentiation or cooperation, forms of 'concrete sub politics' [locally limited forms, such as single issue protests?]. There is also a general pessimism, however --'the age of excuses is over' (234) [meaning that nobody can simply naively undertake politics anymore and expect a quick solution as soon as the bad guys have left the field?]. Freedom and reflexivity can become pathological unless restrained. Beck suggests that we need some strong institutional guarantees to permit the kind of criticism that will prevent arbitrary impositions of power or the kind of sophist justifications of irresponsibility mentioned above. Specifically, strong courts and the media are needed [not much of a hope then? Compare this with Durkheim's insistence on strong moral education in a national school system, in reformed relations at work, and in the restoration of civil society]. There is even some belief in a kind of Popperian progress through criticism [which assumes that there is a dispassionate community of scientists or an interested public who will be prepared to arbitrate]. There is a need to renew a critical public, launching adequate political controls on risk making enterprises in the interests of the social [but do fine words actually butter parsnips?] .
back to list