Risk Society

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The concept of risk, long associated with the language of maritime trade and insurance, has become a key term for characterizing contemporary Western societies. Important early contributions to the development of this analysis were the work of Patrick Lagadec (1981), who coined the term risk civilization, and that of Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky (1982). However, Ulrich Beck's Risk Society (1992), originally published in German in 1986, was the decisive contribution to a new theory of society. Beck's conceptualization has inspired research that focuses on the implications of science and technology for the social and natural environment and on the increasing use of risk analysis in discussions of public policies related to science and technology, and which involve ethical questions.

Reflexive Modernity

Beck's theory represents a continuation of the German tradition of an ethical questioning of modernity, including science and technology, that runs from Max Weber (1864–1929) through Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929). In contrast to postmodern theories that present late twentieth-century social transformations as going beyond modernism, Beck argues that modernity is going through an unintended and unseen phase that is forcing it to confront the premises and limits of its own model. Modernization has become, in his words, "reflexive." The concept of reflexive modernization, which was introduced by Beck and developed in a subsequent work with Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash (Beck, Giddens, and Lash 1994), propounds a "radicalization" of modernity in which the dynamics of individualization, globalization, gender revolution, underemployment, and global risks undermine the foundations of classical industrial modernity and make old concepts obsolete. The internal dynamism of modernity brings it up against the previously unknown possibility of global self-destruction as a result of the risks generated by certain technologies.

Beck thus depicts the risk society as coextensive with reflexive modernity. In the same way that "simple modernity" produced goods and services that presented challenges involving just distribution, reflexive modernity is producing risks that must be distributed justly.

An Expanded Concept of Risk

Many theoretical works in other disciplines had previously analyzed the risk concept, although more narrowly: economics, behavioral theory (in particular decision making and game theory), anthropology, and technology assessment.

In economics, where the concept has always been fundamental, prevailing interpretations make a clear distinction between risk and uncertainty. Whereas risk can be assessed and calculated in terms of its numerical probabilities, uncertainty cannot be treated in that manner. Introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century by Frank Knight (1885–1972) and John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), this distinction made possible the recognition of the ontologically contingent nature of economic behavior and its aggregate outcomes. An economic agent cannot avoid wide margins of uncertainty or eliminate it by means of the application of more information or scientific knowledge.

The anthropological work of Douglas and Wildavsky (1982) diverges from this classical approach in emphasizing the subjective aspect of risk and the ways in which risk is assessed and perceived by individuals. Their work helped significantly to shift attention away from a probabilistic approach to the cultural framework of risk perception. Variations in the understandings and perceptions of risk in different societies demonstrate the cultural relativism involved in judgments of risk.

Beck's main contribution was to build risk systematically into a theory of modern society and its dilemmas. Risk is seen as a defining feature of society itself, forming the dark side of industrial successes, technical and scientific progress, and economic growth. It has stimulated changes in social relations, family structure, political and cultural organization, and even the self.

Unlike the threats of early industrialization, the risks of "late modernity" (nuclear, chemical, genetic, ecological, etc.) are generated by techno-economic decisions and considerations of utility. The novel aspect of contemporary risk society is that people's decisions as a civilization lead to problems and dangers that radically contradict the established language of control and conventional techniques of calculation. Current risks are not socially, spatially, or temporally demarcated; there are no clear-cut solutions; and it is difficult to trace responsibility or assess compensation for those who are affected. In addition, human perception fails to notice many of the risks: they become visible only through scientific interpretation (as in the case of stratospheric ozone depletion), which in turn increases dependence on experts.

Beck focuses above all on environmental and health risks, especially genetic technology. He later extended the concept of risk to global financial crises and transnational terrorist networks (Beck 2002). Bringing together such disparate phenomena enables him to identify relevant trends in modern societies but has the drawback of implying a less fragmented world than that which Beck perceives.

Niklas Luhmann (1993 [1991]) has enriched "risk society" analysis with his theory of autopoietic systems. Here risk is a specific form of dealing with the future that has to be decided in the context of probability and improbability. The uncertain and unforeseeable nature of the future arises not only from complexity and people's cognitive limitations but also from the decision-making process itself. There is a long hiatus between when a decision is made and when its consequences are felt, with random factors affecting them. To talk of risks is to see future losses as the consequence of a decision that has been made. For Luhmann this is where "risk" differs from "danger," with danger being attributable to external causes and corresponding to those "affected" by decisions. Although the distinction is slight because "one person's risk is another person's danger," it points to the key issue of acceptance of risk decisions.

Developments and Implications

Beck's message on the relationship between science, technology, politics, and ethics in late modernity is that our language does not inform future generations of the dangers people create when they use certain technologies. As it develops technologically, society encounters the difference between two worlds: the language of quantifiable risk, in which people think and act, and that of nonquantifiable insecurity, which people also are creating. As risks become more complex and the need for precise calculations increases, there is growing doubt about the ability of science to control and foresee those risks. This situation has shaken the belief that technological and social progress go together and has forced science to acknowledge both its collateral effects and its inherent epistemological limitations. The concept of "world risk society" (Beck 1999) draws attention precisely to the limited controllability of globalized and artificially produced risks.

In these circumstances human responsibility for technological advancement is an ethical issue that is both relevant and complex. For Beck the processes and techniques of risk management block out responsibility. Modern society operates as a "laboratory" in which no one in particular must answer for the negative effects of technological experimentation. The institutions of modern society recognize the existence of risk but permit an "organized irresponsibility" (Beck 1995 [1988]). Pollution, along with its increasingly global impact in the form of climate change, graphically illustrates this paradox. The greater the environmental degradation is, the more laws and environmental regulations there are, but at the same time no institution seems to be specifically responsible.

Technologically induced risks lead to calls for the demonopolization of scientific expertise, its subjection to social scrutiny, and extension of democratic accountability to science, technology, economics, and government. For this to be achieved politics must "(re)-invent" itself and focus on issues previously regarded as apolitical. What once was the exclusive province of science has become the subject of intense political debate, as in the case of biotechnology. In this context individual citizens, movements, and interest groups participate and influence political decisions in the field that Beck describes as "sub-politics," which is located beyond the formal representative institutions of the political system.

Because the concept of risk is probabilistic in nature, it tends to deny inherent uncertainties and place greater emphasis on scientific control over randomness, contingencies, and chance. In the vast literature on risk there are authors who argue, however, that the language of uncertainty would be more appropriate for a better understanding of the current world, full of indeterminacies and contingencies, whether inherent in the world or epistemic. Underlying this argument would be lack of knowledge of the statistical probability of many of the possible outcomes, public distrust of the estimates produced by experts, potential margins of error, and the random unpredictability of nature and human behavior (Martins 1998). This approach has affinities with the work of authors who underline the ontological nature of uncertainty that is inherent in the natural and social worlds and focus on "ignorance," "catastrophes," and "accidents" (see, for example, Perrow 1984). It differs from the work of those who stress above all the social perception of risks (such as Douglas and Wildavsky 1982).

Beck often is said to alternate between the realist and the constructivist approaches and to absorb uncertainty into the general category of risk. However, he cannot be said to limit risk to the perceptual aspect or to avoid a strong emphasis on uncertainty. There are several studies of practical situations in which risk is not limited to perceptions, such as the subpolitics of medicine. At the same time, in light of the emphasis Beck places on deregulation, uncertainty, and contingency, his "risk society" cannot properly be understood according to the probability model. In introducing the notions of "unintended consequences and unawareness" into his theory of reflexive modernity instead of emphasizing the "knowledge," as Giddens and Lash do, Beck recognizes that there are areas of unknowability, contingency, and ignorance. For this reason his theoretical approach lends itself to multiple interpretations that lie between the concepts of risk and uncertainty.

These issues are relevant because a decision based on risk or uncertainty is not neutral in its political consequences. Risk is associated with prevention, whereas uncertainty is associated with precaution (Godard et al. 2002). Risk may lead to a process of risk-mitigating negotiation and agreement, whereas uncertainty may lead to risk-avoiding prudence. The possibility of rejecting certain techno-economic decisions and actions has provoked a lively ongoing debate about the advisability of the "precautionary principle" at a time of rapid technological change.


SEE ALSO Risk and Emotion;Risk Assessment; Risk-Cost-Benefit Analysis.


Beck, Ulrich. (1992 [1986]). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter. London: Sage.

Beck, Ulrich. (1995 [1988]). Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk, trans. Amos Weisz. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Beck, Ulrich. (1999). World Risk Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Beck, Ulrich. (2002). "The Terrorist Threat: World Risk Society Revisited." Theory, Culture & Society 19(4): 39–55.

Beck, Ulrich; Anthony Giddens; and Scott Lash. (1994). Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Douglas, Mary, and Aaron Wildavsky. (1982). Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley and London: University of California Press.

Godard, Olivier; Claude Henry; Patrick Lagadec; and Erwann Michel-Kerjan. (2002). Traité des Nouveaux Risques: Précaution, Crise, Assurance. Paris: Gallimard.

Keynes, John Maynard. (1921). A Treatise of Probability. London: Macmillan.

Knight, Frank H. (1921). Risk, Uncertainty and Profit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Lagadec, Patrick. (1981). La Civilisation du Risque: Catastrophes Technologiques et Responsabilité Sociale. Paris: Seuil.

Luhmann, Niklas. (1993 [1991]). Risk: A Sociological Theory, trans. Rhodes Barrett. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Martins, Hermínio. (1998). "Risco, Incerteza e Escatologia: Reflexo˜es sobre o Experimentum Mundi Tecnológico em Curso" [Risk, uncertainty and eschatology: Reflections on the ongoing experimentum mundi]. Episteme 2: 41–75.

Perrow, Charles. (1984). Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. New York: Basic Books.