Risk Society Essay

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The risk s ociety is a concept describing the emergence of a social order organized increasingly around the politics of risk; it originated in the work of German sociologist and public intellectual Ulrich Beck during the late 1980s. This transformation is reflected in a widening of the public sphere, and of conventional realms of policy and politics, to include a range of environmental, scientific, and technological issues once considered beyond the scope of democratic politics.

The risk society has its basis in a general critique of Enlightenment ideals of science, technology, and expertise, and their application as normative models in social and environmental governance. It is argued that “scientism,” seen in Beck’s 1992 book Risk Society as a quasi-religious cultural form which conflates the meaning of human and technological progress, has served to justify all manner of environmental health risks in the name of economic value, growth, and efficiency.

Technocratic forms of expertise, in this sense, have legitimated the re-creation of the world as an uncontrolled experiment, one wherein the ecological consequences of widespread social changes-from industrial transformations to new medical technologies to nuclear reactors-tend to be knowable only after they have been incorporated into the social landscape. Or, as Beck describes the role of expertise in the “industrial sub-politics” of technology policy, “decisions only reach the desks of politicians and the public sphere after being taken.” Reworking and extending philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere, Beck envisions in the risk society a world wherein such technocracies are being broken down and reconfigured across a range of social sites. Transformations in the ways that governments and civil societies deal with the risks that they produce are occurring through oppositional movements and through rifts and cleavages within the scientific and engineering communities.

The premise of the risk society, then, is that the production of new environmental and technological hazards in recent decades, though commonly rationalized as the unexpected or unavoidable byproducts of industrial society, has engendered, at least in embryonic form, a political response-what Beck calls a second or reflexive modernity-which challenges many of the core propositions of the first (or industrial) modernity.

Disastrous global warming scenarios, ionizing radiation, and new uses of genetic technologies thus exemplify the kinds of unconfined experiments with the human environment which characterize the risk society, a world in which “the very idea of controllability, certainty, or security-which is so fundamental in the first modernity-collapses.” And yet despite its somewhat grim emphasis on risk and hazards, the model is remarkable for its optimism: With the inevitability of risk-sharing as a basis for community, there is the possibility (albeit one based on necessity) for opening new social sites for direct democratic politics in areas that have historically been closed to public participation, such as in law, environment and resource policy, medicine and health, and in the politics of science and technology. There are indeed many limited examples of such political achievements in risk politics and the sub-politics of risk definition, including historical and ongoing struggles over workplace health rights and regulations, new forms of public accountability in scientific and medical research, and in the successes of varied Green and environmental justice movements.

Beyond the immediate aims of those engaged in particular issue-oriented struggles, and even where those struggles may appear merely as the defense of de facto rights, these risk conflicts, when viewed with lenses ground in Beck’s utopian theory, have at times served as “leveling effects” that have mobilized activists, legitimated new rights demands, and impelled the creations of new political subjects. He writes:

To be sure, risk cannot be banned from modern life, but we can and indeed should achieve new institutional arrangements that can better cope with the risks we are presently facing; not with the idea that we might be able to regain full control, but much more with the idea in mind that we have to find ways to deal democratically with the ambivalences of modern life and decide democratically which risks we want to take.

First published in German in 1988 in the wake of the unprecedented 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which scattered radiation from Ukraine in the (former) Soviet Union across international boundaries in northern and western Europe and North America, the Risk Society also gained currency alongside the rise of the German Green Party during the 1990s. Beck continued to develop his risk society concept in a series of essays written throughout the decade, later collected in the 1999 World Risk Society volume, in which the global and transnational dimensions of risk production are emphasized. Beck also develops in the latter work a more nuanced critique of science, and the role of scientific uncertainty, in risk politics. It is still the scientific-technical products and by-products of industrial and military political economies that have figured so prominently in the generation of environmental and public health hazards.

What is more, this realm of risk production has historically been regulated, Beck argues, by a “technocracy of hazards” through which “the engineering sciences continue to administer the privilege handed down to them … the right to determine according to their own internal standards the global social question of the most intensely political nature: How safe is safe enough?” And yet this “received monopoly of interpretation,” i.e., the use of internal, self-validated standards, has at times been successfully challenged, including challenges originating among other scientists and sciences. For Beck, “new knowledge can turn normality into hazards overnight. It is the successes of science which sow the doubts as to its risk predictions.”

As a critique of technocracy, the risk society can thus be read constructively, neither antiscience nor antitechnology per se. In a world in which global warming and other environmental crises occur cheek by jowl with ongoing globalization, industrialization, and urbanization, building survivable futures, Beck argues, will depend not only on the scientific work of monitoring and evaluating all manner of risks, but also on an active role for some scientists and engineers in explaining and debating scientific-technical issues for (and among) a wider audience of stakeholders, politicians, and public participants. Science is at once a cause of environmental and health hazards, a necessary medium of their definition, and a potential (though not exclusive) source of their amelioration.

Developed chiefly to explain the German and European context, the risk society theory has been criticized for its Euro-centrism, whereas the emergence of what might be called post-materialist environmental values may be further from occurring in the world’s poorer countries, where healthy environments are still more likely to be rendered as luxuries beyond the grasp of those engaged in dayto-day survival, or as resources for elite state and corporate actors to exploit. Indeed, the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana, strongly indicate that raceand class-based models of social vulnerability to environmental hazards remain central to risk politics, even in the world’s richest country.

Still, the risk society remains an important theoretical intervention aimed at identifying new political dynamics and frameworks for rights demands which go beyond the norms of place-specific, NIMBY activism. How is it possible, Beck asks, to achieve a shift in the burden of proof over what counts as “safe enough,” and under what conditions? By lodging a critique against Enlightenment ideals of a singular science as the only legitimate, modern form of expertise, Beck’s model also raises critical questions, resonating with the notion of the “precautionary principle,” about what kinds of knowledge, and what values, should inform our decision making in the politics of environmental transformation, including those environmental problems for which absolute consensus may be difficult or impossible to achieve.


  1. Adam, U. Beck, and J. Van Loon, eds., The Risk Society and Beyond (SAGE, 2000);
  2. Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. M. Ritter (SAGE, 1992);
  3. Beck, Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk, trans. A. Weisz (Polity, 1995);
  4. Beck, World Risk Society (Polity, 1999);
  5. Lash and B. Wynne, “Introduction,” in U. Beck, Risk Society (SAGE, 1992).

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