Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Risk Society

Title: Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage Publications, trans. Mark Ritter, 1992; orig. published in German in 1986)

Ulrich Beck, German sociologist, who holds positions at the University of Munich and the London School of Economics. His works revolve around globalization, ecology, individualization, and the changing nature of work. Among his other recent books are The Normal Chaos of Love (1995, written with his wife!); Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk (1995); The Reinvention of Politics: Rethinking Modernity in the Global Social Order (1996); Power in the Global Age (2005); and Cosmopolitan Vision (2006).

Review: Beck's "Risk Society" is a post-industrial order in which the logic of wealth will give way to the logic of risk: in other words, he who has the most toys does not win; rather, he who can best evade the dangerous consequences of everybody's toys is the winner. The unfortunate part is that complete evasion may be impossible, meaning that everybody is at risk from everybody else's modernizations. Modernity, Beck argues, has perpetrated supposedly unforeseen "side effects": many of his examples are ecological, such as radioactivity, pollution, environmental illness, etc. In these cases, the logic of progress, which called for technological advancement without thinking of the price, has created regression and danger of unforeseen types. Traditional structures of knowledge - government; science, as currently practiced - are insufficient to contain these dangers.

Beck calls for an increase in what he calls "reflexive modernization" - a phase of modernity in which science and technology will become constantly self-critical and self-regulating. He calls the state of mind which has allowed science and technology to operate without checks an example of "counter-modernity" - those who believe in sci/tech in a religious way are undermining the principles of open reflection and assessment upon which modernity should be founded.

Additionally, Beck analyzes the style of individualization which he sees coming about in a post-industrial society. Work, he argues, now requires people to be flexible and single. It also extends these requirements to both genders. Industrial society required that women remain in the household, so that men could work, but this was in and of itself anti-modern. Now that women have learned to demand equal personhood and prerogative, nobody knows how to handle the resulting conflicts within marriages. This riff on individualism seems a bit disconnected from the information on risk.

Julianne Moore as a San Fernando Valley housewife afflicted by environmental illness in the totally terrifying "Safe" (1995).

As for potential holes that could be poked, were one to be in a poking mood, many of Beck's conclusions, especially in the section on gender relationships and in his thinking on work, seem to apply mainly or mostly to European/American/Western society - and society of a certain economic class, at that. Beck would argue that the new politics of risk means that class will no longer matter, because risk will be spread over all human bodies. But his argument already kind of eats itself, because, as he writes, those with more money and education will do better at managing risks - will know what kinds of food not to eat, will be able to buy bottled water, live further away from chemical threats, etc. I can buy the idea that the threat will spread over a wider range of social class, but not that it will threaten all equally.

As for his thesis about individualization and how it is affecting gender relationships, I would argue that there are many, many societies in which women have not been able to perceive individualization as their due. This is still a Western phenomenon, and an affluent one, at that. Thus, the seismic changes Beck points to seem only to be seismic for certain sectors. Is he assuming that as goes Germany and the United States, so goes the world?

Photograph of four-year-old with lymph system severely affected by fallout from Chernobyl. Taken by Paul Fusco.

Other books I've read which use this theory: None I've read so far; I know some upcoming ones will, though.

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