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A term brought into the centre of social theory with the publication in 1986 of German sociologist Ulrich Beck's Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Beck distinguishes between pre-industrial notions of fate, associated with the plagues, famines, and natural disasters that were felt to be beyond human control, and the ideas of risk assessment that developed along with modernity. Risk assessment based on calculable decisions involved legal definitions and both private and socialized forms of insurance against the manufactured dangers and hazards of industrial society. The welfare state, with its insurance against the risks of unemployment, ill health, and old age, was a clear example of a collective hedging of risks.

The Risk Society, however, is concerned with a further stage, dating roughly from the Second World War, in which industrial society is confronted with uninsurable risks. The dangers of the nuclear and chemical age, the corruption of food chains, the effects of global warming, the pollution of the seas, and the possibility of global financial collapse are but the most salient of these risks. Such risks are typically global rather than national in character, and fail to respect traditional boundaries between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. The foundations of Enlightenment-inspired modernity are called into question as trust in the major institutions of society is undermined by their seeming inability to mitigate the experience of the large-scale hazards which they themselves have produced. Both Beck and Anthony Giddens emphasize the connection of risk to the process of reflexive modernization in which social agents are forced to confront the systematically produced unintended social and environmental consequences and side-effects of industrialism. Attempts at management often lead, once again, to perverse consequences. Beck notes the development of a new ‘subpolitics’ that extends the reach of reflexive questioning so that the dominance of technical reason itself is called into question, leading to a challenge from a more broadly envisioned morality and politics to the hegemony of the narrow rationality and judgement of scientific experts. See also reflexive modernization.

Subjects: Sociology.


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