Brief book review – Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity

Ulrich Beck, 1992, Sage Publications, 260 pages.

It is impossible to fully understand the debates surrounding risk-based regulation without reading Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. In it, Professor Ulrich Beck (1944-2015; University of Munich) explores what he has termed the ‘risk society’. The book was originally published in German in 1986, right in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It is considered one of the most important works that explore the shift in modernity from industrialisation to the state of global affairs we are finding ourselves in since the 1990s (or ‘reflexive modernity’—but I will not touch on that here).

In a nutshell, the risk society Beck describes is a combination of a situation where we can no longer take traditional certainties for granted, and where we are subject to the risks humanity has created through industrialisation in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today’s existential risks, Beck argues, are considerably different from those of the past. Risks have become global, outlast generations and affect future ones, and are transboundary. They escape the perceptive senses of laypeople, and only specialised sciences can capture them. But most importantly, risks such as climate change and depleting food stocks affect all, irrespective of wealth and class, and risks have a boomerang effect, meaning that the outsourcing of risks to others or other geographies is no longer a safeguard against these risks.

Thus, where risks used to be understood as external and placed upon us (fate, divine intervention, the forces of nature, etc.), now they are understood to be part of our actions and are therefore assumed to be manageable. This has resulted in a call on governments and others to prevent society from risks. That puts the government in a different position than before: Where it used to regulate and govern to increase utility in response to calls of (societal and individual) need, it now must regulate and govern to increase safety in response to calls of (societal and individual) anxiety. The key problem is, however, that our current political (including regulatory) institutions have not developed to deal with this fundamentally different role (not providing something good, but preventing the worst from happening).

In his book, Ulrich Beck does not give the answers to how to regulate these new (or at the very least, differently understood and experienced) risks. In one of his many replies to this book he does, nevertheless, sketch some outlines.[1] Core questions to answer when thinking of a risk-based regulatory regime are according to Beck:

  • Who is to determine the harmfulness and risks of products and services?
  • What kind of knowledge (scientific, expert, laypeople, etc.) is involved in doing so?
  • To whom does this ‘proof’ have to be submitted?
  • What counts as sufficient ‘proof’?
  • If there are dangers, who is to decide on appropriate forms of regulation and control?
  • If there are damages, who is to decide on compensation for the afflicted?

Well over three decades since the book was published, it is still actively debated in the risk-based regulation literature. It is sometimes pointed out that Beck may have been a little too negative in his extrapolations of what the future would bring and that other viewpoints (such as governmentality and individualization) are equally important to understand the growth and role of risk-based regulation over time. That said, it provides an excellent lens through which to study some of the most pressing issues of our time that arguably are even more pressing today than when Beck wrote about them.

[1] Beck, U. (1998). Politics of Risk Society. In J. Franklin (Ed.), The Politics of Risk Society (pp. 9-22). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Disclaimer In these brief book reviews, I discuss classic and contemporary books that make up the canon of regulatory scholarship. I focus on their central guiding idea or core notions and aim to keep the reviews to around 500 words. Unfortunately, this implies I must sacrifice a considerable amount of detail from the books reviewed.


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