Risk Society: Simplified

For Beck, the types of risk that existed in the past in countries like Britain and America and the types of risk in contemporary societies are qualitatively different. New types of risk have three main qualities:

Ulrich Beck

1. They are largely invisible and undetectable without science: climate change is an example here.

2. They are universal: these risks are everywhere and affect everyone, regardless of class, wealth, etc. Examples here include climate change or man-made background levels of radioactivity.

3. They are irreversible. We don’t, for example, know what the long-term environmental or health risks of various forms of genetic modifications (GM) – from crops to insects to foetuses – might be. If they prove to be dangerous, they cannot be recalled. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

Key Question “Why now?”

The answer involves understanding two related historical processes:

1. The Modernisation of Society

In Britain the modernisation of society began around the mid-16th century and involved a series of huge political, economic and cultural challenges and changes. Such as:

  • feudalism by capitalism
  • agriculture by industrialisation
  • rural communities by urban developments
  • religion by science.
  • And just as pre-modern societies were gradually replaced by modern ones, some have argued something similar is happening now. Modernity itself is in the process of being replaced.

    Key Question “Is modernity now being replaced by postmodernity?”

    For Beck, what he calls 1st modernity – the mid-16th to the mid-20th centuries – is being replaced by 2nd modernity.

    And to understand why this should be the case, we should stop thinking about social development in linear terms: the idea that progress is like a straight line from the past to the present, where “things always get better”.

    Modernisation, for Beck, is reflexive: it twists, turns and bends back upon itself as we question both the past and, more-importantly, the present. This is illustrated by a distinction he makes between Goods and Bads.

    Goods can be a range of things, from the tangible, such as cars and computers, to the less tangible, such as a belief in progress or education, whose existence enhances our lives. They are, if you like, the upside of modernisation.

    And until fairly recently very few people thought about or really noticed that these Goods might have a downside. That they might produce Bads that definitely don’t enhance our lives.  For example, while the invention of the motor car or the aeroplane made cheap travel accessible to almost everyone, it’s only recently that we’ve come to understand there’s a price to pay in terms of increasing levels of pollution and climate change.

    The Goods and the Bads of modernity are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. This is why we need to think about 2nd modernity (what writers like Giddens or Bauman have called “late modernity”) rather than postmodernity.

    In 21st century Britain and America, for example, the institutions (such as the Nation State) and practices (such as the development of bureaucratic forms of control) have not disappeared. While they have been challenged and changed they have also resisted and adapted to these challenges.

    2. The Modernisation of Self

    Just as societies modernise, so do individuals:

    Pre-modern life was governed by traditional rules that specified everything from your allotted status in life, such as peasant or noble, to who you worked for and who you could marry.

    Individual life stories were largely-determined by accidents: being born into the nobility meant leading one kind of life, while being born into the peasantry meant living another, very different, kind.

    Similarly, being born male or female or black or white, was a social status that would, by-and-large, determine your chances in life.

    Modernisation swept most of this tradition away, leaving individuals to increasingly “create their own biography”. To make, in other words, their way through life in whatever way they chose or were able.

    Once again, while we tend to see this as a linear process – sweeping away the “Bad Olde Days” – it is also reflexive: the modernisation of Self, for example, also involves Goods and associated Bads:

    In the past, for example, traditional gender identities involved little more than being masculine or feminine.

    In contemporary societies, however, we’re presented with an ever-growing list of gender possibilities from which to pick-and-choose, to assemble and reassemble in a variety of new, different and interesting ways.

    And while the upside or “Good” of this biographical construction is the freedom to “be yourself” – whatever that may actually mean – the downside can be chronic uncertainty, confusion and unhappiness over our identity choices:

  • What if we “get it wrong”?
  • And are the potential rewards worth the risks?
  • While life in 2nd modernity has broken-free from the old binding ties of traditional ways of “being and doing”, the price we must pay for this freedom to continually invent and reinvent ourselves biographically is the risk that it will all go terribly wrong…

    Key Question: “Where does Risk Society come into the equation?”

    Taken separately, these two ideas show how the types of risk we identified at the start develop. The modernisation of:

  • society introduces social forms of risk.
  • self introduces individual forms of risk.
  • Although we can theorise the two strands of modernisation separately, in the real world they are reflexively interconnected: the one impacts on the other.

    More-particularly, Beck argues that 2nd modernity is increasingly characterised by “the institutionalisation of individualism”, the idea that all social institutions – familial, political, religious, legal, economic and so forth – are “framed by and focused on the individual” rather than the collective (as was the case in the past – think abut the development of the Welfare State in immediate post-war Britain, for example).

    A classic recent (2022) British example is the government’s decision to pass responsibility for protecting people from Covid-19 to “the individual” rather than the government by removing the various legal restrictions – who you could meet, where you could go – imposed at different points in the pandemic.

    More generally, the institutions that developed in modernity (the mass media, education, democracy…) imposed and managed a collective sense of social organisation; they operated, as it were, to encourage a collective sense of social responsibility and solidarity.

    As they’ve evolved, however, these institutions no-longer perform the general social functions they once did because they are increasingly focused on the rights and freedoms of individuals, rather than society as a whole.

    And out of these changes, Risk Society develops in two ways:

    Firstly, the risks and failures of government are shifted onto the individual. Problems with long-term, structural forms of unemployment, for example, are recodified as individual problems and risks. Similarly, the largely-unregulated development of the “gig economy” is explained in terms of individual desires and opportunities (to “be your own boss” or “build your own business”).

    Secondly, people increasingly come to lose faith in governments to solve collective social problems – not simply because governments lack the power to effect necessary changes (the ability to mitigate Internet risks, reduce or eliminate the risks around climate change, limit the risk of terrorism and so forth) but also because they increasingly lack the inclination: government departments in Britain, for example, focusing on the “individual needs” of businesses and corporations rather than the people they were elected to nominally represent.


    Risk Society describes a situation that is the culmination of two long-term social processes – the modernisation of self and society – into a 2nd type of modernity characterised by the institutionalisation of individualism.


    Beck, Ulrich (1992) “Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity” Sage

    Beck, Ulrich (2014) “Risk Society: Interview with Dr, Steven Taylor”: ShortCutstv

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