The Author of Risk Society: Ulrich Beck, 1944-2015

Ulrich Beck
Ulrich Beck
Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist and public intellectual who posited that manufactured risk was a primary product of modernity died of a heart attack on New Year’s Day at age 70.

Beck’s book Risikogesellschaft (translated into English as Risk Society) arrived just before the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear plant was irradiating a swath of Ukraine, adding an air of prescience to what became a very persuasive argument in both academe and public discourse.

“This was one of the rare books,” wrote Craig Calhoun, the London School of Economics professor director, in a tribute to Beck, “with a vision original enough to change how many colleagues and students would see the world and their own work. Beck suggested that the basic orientation of modern society, the driving need behind its organisation had shifted away from material production toward coping with risks. He meant risks at every level from personal life chances to global catastrophes.”

As Beck’s muscular prose signaled in the first words of the first chapter of his classic book:

In advanced modernity the social production of wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risk. Accordingly, the problems and conflicts relating to distribution in a society overlap with the problems and conflicts that arise from the production, definition and distribution of techno-scientifically produced risks.

Mary Kaldor and Sabine Selchow neatly updated the idea in an obituary that appeared in The Guardian, “Global risks are not simply problems that threaten the planet, but possible consequences of ‘industrial, techno-economic decisions’ that must be understood as potentially untameable; examples include climate change, financial upheaval and the terror attacks of 9/11.”

But as what Kaldor and Selchow describe as a Querdenker, or lateral thinker, Beck and his theoretical approach weren’t for everyone then or now, as he embraced not embracing “empirical social research.” Instead, he wrote, his book “pursues a different ambition: to move against the future which is just beginning to take shape into view against the still predominant past.”

Still, as Social Science Space’s own Robert Dingwall asks skeptically, was Beck’s future all that different from any individual future in the past? “Meteorology may be more sophisticated than praying to weather gods, but is its role in society fundamentally different?”

Beck was born in German Pomerania (now part of Poland) in May 1944, a year before the final collapse of the Nazi regime. He and his family fled the advancing Soviet forces and resettled in Hannover, where Britain was the occupying force. In 1961 he spent a year as an exchange student in Springfield, Minnesota(and earned an American high school diploma).

In 1966, the young Beck started studying sociology, psychology, philosophy and political science on a scholarship from the German National Academic Foundation at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he received a doctorate in 1972 and worked until 1979. He served as a professor at the University of Münster until 1981 and then at Bamberg until 1992. From then until his death last week Beck worked at Munich University’s Institute for Sociology; since 1997 at the London School of Economics, where he was the British Journal of Sociology professor; and since 2011 at the Fondation Maison de Sciences de l’Homme in Paris.

He was also founding director of two major interdisciplinary research projects financed by the German Research Foundation, or DFG: the National Research Center ‘Uses of Social Science’ project from 1981 and the Collaborative Research Center’s ‘Reflexive Modernization’ from 1999 to 2009. Last year the International Sociological Association presented him an inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award for the Most Distinguished Contributions to Futures Research.

At the time of his death, Beck was working on a sociological framework to analyze the ambivalences and dynamics of “cosmopolitan societies,” according to his website.

Many of Beck’s academic interests, concepts he identified as “institutionalized individualization,” “reflexive modernization,” “cosmopolitanism,” “cosmopolitization”’ and the “emergence of cosmopolitan risk communities,” as well as the “risk society,” lent themselves to his emerging role as a public intellectual. He was a noted voice for European integration; “For Ulrich Beck,” Paris’ Le Monde eulogized, “the construction of Europe was important as a stage toward the kind of tempered globalization he advocated.” Beck’s most recent books were 2013’s German Europe and the upcoming The Metamorphosis of the World.

He also wrote two books examining relationships in an age of globalization with his wife, Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, also a sociologist, philosopher and psychologist. “Elisabeth’s extraordinary sense for language has helped me to articulate my ideas in a way that reaches both scholars and a broader public,” Beck told the Times Higher Education’s Karen Shook when their latest book, Distant Love, came out in 2013. “And with Elisabeth I am actually ‘forced’ to live the ‘cosmopolitan’ reality that I am writing about.”

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Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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