Debating the Legacy of Ulrich Beck

Ulrich Beck
Ulrich Beck

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum – speak only good things of the dead – is a sound principle in many contexts. It recognizes that most deaths leave a circle of grief and loss among family, friends and colleagues. These are moral sentiments worthy of respect and we should not trespass lightly upon them. At the same time, as social scientists, we should also be capable of distinguishing an individual’s intellectual legacy from their qualities as a person. The latter may be fully honoured while the former are appraised with a more disinterested perspective. In considering the obituaries and tributes that are emerging, then, we might ask how far Ulrich Beck’s body of published work represents a model that other sociologists should seek to follow.

One of my mentors, PM Strong, once remarked on sociology’s preference for being ‘right-on,’ adopting particular normative stances, rather than ‘right’, in the sense of reaching empirically justifiable conclusions. While he was writing specifically about British sociology, this comment is more widely applicable, not least to much of Beck’s work.

Risk Society represents a genre which argues that, at some unspecified but recent point, capitalist societies, which could still be analysed largely in the terms set by the 19th-century founders of sociology, began to change in some rather fundamental way. This can be unpacked into a series of underlying or implied claims: first, that we live in a condition called ‘advanced modernity’ or, elsewhere in the text, ’late modernity’ which is somehow different from ‘modernity’ tout court, which is in turn different from whatever went before; second, that distribution in ‘a society of scarcity’ – whose relationship to ‘modernity.’ let alone ‘advanced modernity,’ is unspecified – poses problems and conflicts; third, that these problems and conflicts overlap with – but are not identical to – the problems and conflicts associated with techno-scientifically produced risks; fourth, that techno-scientific risks are in some sense different from other, as yet adjectivally unspecified, risks.

However, as soon as we begin to pick away at the evidence for these claims, they start to wobble. The argument, for example, makes assertions about social change and conditions across time and space that are inconsistent with findings from history and social anthropology. Its depiction of the novelty of contemporary risks and their relationship to the distribution of wealth simply does not stand up.

I have discussed this in more detail elsewhere but one example might be the response to epidemic disease in 19th century cities. The theoretical basis for this was miasmatic theory, which proposed that disease was caused by the diffusion of bad odours from human and animal waste, overcrowded burial grounds, and rotting organic materials. Everyone was exposed to these effluvia, just as much as to radiation, pesticides or other invisible agents discussed in Risk Society. The rich recognized their own interests in taking collective measures to remove the sources of miasmas, even though more benefit actually accrued to the poor. Cities were cleaned up in ways that also happened to successfully check the spread of harmful bacteria, even before there was a correct theoretical basis for the same actions.

Today, however, the rich can buy insulation from these problems through gated communities, bottled water and aggressive health care. Why would we not suppose that the same would be true of the risks described in Risk Society? Perhaps it is less that we live in a risk society than that we live in a society at a particular point of a process of accommodation to some risks. We merely have yet to manage and stabilize them in the same way that societies have always done, even if through the use of different technologies. Meteorology may be more sophisticated than praying to weather gods, but is its role in society fundamentally different?

Similarly, when Risk Society discusses the individualization of the modern family, it recycles a very partial basis for generalization from classic 19th century sociology, which contrasts the impoverished life of the nuclear family, assumed to be linked to the rise of capitalism, with the Arcadian extended families of pre-industrial societies. As far as England is concerned, we now have 50 years of research in historical demography showing that this story is wrong: the English seem to have been living in nuclear families since at least the 13th century. The picture is different for parts of Mainland Europe, and some of the Celtic areas of the British Isles, but this merely underlines Risk Society’s lack of concern for specifics that might require its arguments to be qualified. The discussion of medicine similarly lacks reference to the well-documented debates about the causes of mortality improvements since the middle of the 19th century. Risk Society places medical research at the heart of mortality decline in a way that would be unrecognizable to any social historian.

This blog is not an argument against theory, or even against speculation. Both of these have their uses in the social sciences as much as in the natural sciences. However, it is an argument against the failure to test and evaluate theory by reference to systematically generated evidence, and to develop and revise theory in the light of that evidence. Risk Society, and much of Beck’s subsequent work, have been treated as statements of general truths rather than as partial and limited products of a particular time, place and intellectual environment. They have told readers what they wanted to hear about contemporary societies: ‘right on’ rather than ‘right.’ Their appeal suggests that many sociologists have yet to sign on for the programme set out by Francis Bacon 400 years ago, when he recognized that science and learning would not advance while they remained obsessed with high levels of abstraction and generalization:

‘The understanding must not . . . be allowed to jump and fly from particulars to remote axioms and of almost the highest generality (such as the first principles as they are called of arts and things), and taking stand upon them as truths that cannot be shaken, proceed to prove and frame the middle axioms by reference to them; which has been the practice hitherto . . . we hope well of the sciences, when in a just scale of ascent, and by successive steps not interrupted or broken, we rise from particulars to lesser axioms; and then to middle axioms, one above the other; and last of all to the most general. For the lower axioms differ but slightly from bare experience, while the highest and most general (which we now have) are notional and abstract and without solidity. But the middle are the true and living axioms, on which depend the fortunes and affairs of men . . .’

This, in essence, was the programme that Glaser and Strauss proposed for sociology in formalizing the methodology of the Chicago School. Howard Becker, the leading survivor of that generation, reasserts it against the comparable legacy of Pierre Bourdieu in a recent interview.

Let us indeed mourn the Ulrich Beck whose capacity for friendship and collegiality are amply documented in the tributes that have been paid to his memory. Reading these, I am sure that he was a man I would have liked to meet. Let us not, however, make the mistake of assuming that his intellectual legacy is of the same stature.

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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