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17.6.05

Not A Risk Society

Perhaps the most cited theory in the literature on environmental risks is Ulrich Beck's concept of the "Risk Society." Typically it's referred to only in the introduction, as a way of saying "my work on risk is important, because this guy claims we live in a 'Risk Society'." The literature actually grappling with Beck's theory is surprisingly small given how widely cited his book is. But it's not so surprising when you consider that his theory is a pretty bad one.

The starting point of Beck's theory is that the 20th century saw a shift (at least within the first world) from a preoccupation with the distribution of goods (i.e. traditional class conflict) to a preoccupation with the distribution of risks. Perhaps the situation is different in Germany, but in the US (where most of the Beck-citers I've read live) this claim is largely false. Let's take a look at the major issues that animate public debate today:

  • Abortion: Abortion is not a question of managing risk. It comes down to whether the fetus has rights, and whether the mother's rights trump them.

  • Same Sex Marriage: Again, this is a moral issue, not a risk management one. Some people will frame the anti-marriage case as a matter of risks to family structure and child welfare. But aside from a few intellectuals, this is not the driving concern -- rather, it's that same sex couples are a direct (and certain) affront to traditional gender norms.

  • Terrorism: Terrorism is, at first glance, a key part of any Beck-defender's argument. It gives little solace to most Beck-citers (whose expertise is in environmental and technological risks), but it's at least a risk. Yet I would argue that the risk element in the terrorism question has faded as time passes. Terrorism is no longer primarily conceived of as a threat that could strike anyone anywhere. It's an enemy to be punished, rooted out and destroyed.

  • Iraq: The war began as a risk issue, because in the immediate aftermath of September 11 that framing was powerful. But Saddam as a threat to American security has hardly made an appearance in the last year or two, ever since it became clear that his WMD arsenal -- and hence his risk -- was nonexistent. On the right, the issue is now one of freedom versus oppression. On the left, the real question is lies versus honesty and ideology versus empiricism.

  • Social Security: The social security debate is, again, superficially about risk -- do you want to trust your retirement to a volatile stock market or a government spiralling toward bankruptcy? But again, I think the basic motivational factors are not really about risk. From the right, it's about the distribution of power -- should the government take care of things, or should individuals have "ownership" of their fate? From the left, it's a question of economic distribution, as government-provided Social Security is a keystone of the New Deal welfarist vision while privatization is emblematic of class inequality. The parameters of the health care debate are very similar.
  • Michael Jackson: Now here, finally is a risk question -- and on the most important issue of our time, to judge from the amount of media coverage it has gotten. The crucial issue, it seems, is the wisdom of the risk calculation in letting your child spend the night with a creepy old man.


Certainly there are risk elements in some of these debates -- for example, the risks posed by back-alley abortions. But they're hardly the defining characteristics. And certainly there are many risk management decisions we face, and which deserve research (indeed, they may deserve it more exactly because they are not as salient in the public agenda as they should be). Beck and his followers saw the rise of the anti-nuclear movement, and let their hopes trick them into thinking that it would be the paradigm case of social conflict in the new era. But that has turned out not to be the case.

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