approach, UIrich Becks risk society thesis.

Risk society is the manner in which modern society organizes in response to risk

Sociology Essays - Risk Society Theory

If the risk society thesis fails to closely fit the facts in the way a realist social science theory would have been expected to do, maybe is it because the thesis is better understood as a constructivist social science theory? Perhaps what Beck says concerns much more how we perceive and construct the rather than some objective reality out there. We live in a risk society because risk has been historically constructed to be the prevalent determinant of our lives. I will argue that even this approach can’t be fully said to suit the risk society thesis, risk and anxiety as constructs are not present everywhere, don’t mean the same thing for everyone, and are sometimes not even conscious. Let us start with the pervasiveness of the concept risk. Though he acknowledges risk society is primarily applicable to the West, Beck’s perspective dictates that perceptions of risk are homogeneous within the West, and to a certain extent, has now expanded worldwide (Mythen, 2007), i.e. the risk society is similarly present in everybody’s minds.

CHOURAQUI, N. 2016. Anxieties of the Modern World: Assessing the Risk Society Thesis. Inquiries Journal [Online], 8. Available:

Reappraising the Risk Society Thesis - Current Sociology

Now that I have clarified what the appropriate assessment framework for the risk society thesis is, I will propose an application of it. As Beck’s work is a speculative one, and as it seeks to unravel the spirit of the era, I will choose to confront it with another speculative piece, also concerned with the zeitgeist: Badiou’s Le Siècle (The Century, originally published in 2005).

CHOURAQUI, N. 2016. Anxieties of the Modern World: Assessing the Risk Society Thesis. Inquiries Journal [Online], 8. Available:

Scholars have called for further critical reflection on and hence advancement of popular theories of risk. Classic texts such as Beck’s risk society thesis have been criticised for their Eurocentricity, making them difficult to use in non-Western contexts. This limitation is especially problematic given that so many risks and natural hazards occur in precisely the Southern, developing regions of the world which Beck’s work largely neglects. In this article, I draw on data from a year of anthropological fieldwork (2010–2011) plus shorter follow up visits to the research area in 2014 and 2015. I use these data to examine the relationship between Jakartan slum dwellers’ experiences and perceptions of severe, recurrent flood risk and the central arguments of Beck’s thesis. I argue that while some elements of Beck’s theoretical framework provide insights into a non-Western, highly risk-prone context, other aspects of his thesis are less helpful and need to be reworked using alternative theories of risk.

CHOURAQUI, N. 2016. Anxieties of the Modern World: Assessing the Risk Society Thesis. Inquiries Journal [Online], 8. Available:


This quote by the early 20th century Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran captures both the core idea and some of the implicit issues posed by what was later to be called the “risk society thesis” and was to have a massive impact on contemporary sociology.More broadly speaking, this latter question carries the problems and the applicability of Beck’s claims to concrete issues of security and, more deeply, the nature of those claims. Given this ambiguity, I pay particular attention to assessing the risk society thesis on the ground it is trying to defend. I aim to identify the actual nature of what Beck tried to say, and assess it accordingly. I believe it is only by answering this fundamental question that one can truly measure, on solid ground, the contribution of the argument discussed here and the subsequent claims made on war and security.This leads to one of the fundamental issues of the thesis. The importance given to anxiety shows that what is at the center of the risk society thesis is our relationship with the world. When former President Clinton says that “when confronting the world, we face a war of endless risks,” the fact he frames the sentence in terms of us facing the world is not incidental. The underlying question raised here is whether the risk society theory has primarily to do with us or with the state of the world as an objective given. Does it describe a factual change in the nature of threats or merely a change in our perception of them?First, trying to evaluate it against social science criteria, it is found that, due to epistemological ambiguities and empirical invalidations, such an approach does not constitute an adequate assessment ground for the risk society thesis. Second, I show that it is better seen as a commentary on the character of our times and should be cautiously handled as such. Third, taking the risk society as the philosophical-historical work it is, I discuss it in the light of another speculative work: Alain Badiou on the “projectless” societies (2005). I argue that Christopher Coker’s analysis of this notion (2009) should be fully re-integrated into the risk society argument, thus allowing for an enhanced explanatory of the thesis on .My main argument is that the risk society thesis does not constitute a social science theory – and should therefore not be assessed or used in that way – but rather a speculative attempt to capture today’s zeitgeist and that attempt would benefit from being contrasted with other philosophical attempts of the same kind.I shall start with the assessment of the realist side of the argument (i.e. the nature of world have changed) and then turn to the constructivist one. First,by simply reading Beck’s publications on the risk society and the world risk society (1992, 1997, 2002 etc.) one can easily notice the author markedly lightness on empirics. Beck indeed prefers declarative sentences (Leiss, 1992) to demonstrations based on thorough historical evidence (Mythen, 2007). More importantly, subsequent empirical studies have demonstrated a very partial applicability of the thesis to the facts. Thus, although discussion around the risk society has been mostly theoretical, some scholars have conducted empirical research on it, especially on the world risk society thesis. In this global version of the risk society, Beck maintains that risks being now global, they tend to call for global solutions, allowing for the emergence of a world risk community.Assessing a thesis as a social science theory means identifying a way of validating it according to its own epistemological, ontological and methodological claims. In other words, one should assess a theory on the ground it is seeking to address, with the appropriate tools. If an author seeks to have his work assessed according to Lakatos’s scientific model, testing it against Popper’s refutability principles (1962) would be nonsensical. Similarly, judging a constructivist piece (i.e. epistemologically reflectivist) using realist criteria (i.e. positivists ones) would necessarily result in a flawed analysis. Arguably, the problem with Beck’s risk society thesis is that it seems to draw on both constructivism and . This makes the assessment uneasy and fundamentally uncertain.As we have seen, however, there is little empirical evidence to support Beck’s suggestion that the state is in systematic retreat, that its fiscal base has been eroded, or its expenditure abilities reduced. I am aware the risk society thesis can be assessed on many other grounds but Beck’s use of globalisation as one of the principal determinants of risk under modernity makes his characterisation of globalisation central to validating the risk society thesis. This analysis, therefore, hits a blow in the realist-fashioned sides of Beck’s claims.