In the last two posts, we have circled around Beck’s theory about risk society, but we have not paid attention to the good deal of criticism it has received throughout the time.
Robert Dingwall has argued that “Risk Society” was influenced more by German cultural and intellectual traditions than by a careful analysis of risks over time and across societal contexts. In his view, risk society theory cannot be generally applicable because it is rooted in one scholar’s delimited perspective, derived from one society’s historical experience.
Deborah Lupton has pointed out, among other things, that Beck’s writings reveal an ontological confusion about risk, in that he sometimes adopts a realist approach to risk while at other times he comes across as a social constructionist. Sociological theorist Jeffrey Alexander has strongly criticized Beck, Giddens, and Lash for their claims regarding reflexive modernization.
Anthony Elliot has faulted Beck along various lines, for example for ignoring important dimensions of how risk is perceived, but more important, for assuming that risk is a central feature of contemporary social life and that it is increasing — a position Elliot calls “excessivist.”
Most relevant for this discussion, we need to highlight one criticisms of the risk society.
The first is circling about weather, as Beck claims, the risks societies face today are so large that they are qualitatively different from those that existed in the pre-modern and modern eras. Just like Elliot, Bryan Turner challenges this assumption, and asking instead:
“[W]ere the epidemics of syphilis and bubonic plague in earlier periods any different from the modern environmental illnesses to which Beck draws our attention? That is, do Beck’s criteria of risk, such as their impersonal and unobservable nature, really stand up to historical scrutiny?
The devastating plagues of earlier centuries were certainly global, democratic, and general . . . [and] with the spread of capitalist colonialism, it is clearly the case that in previous centuries many aboriginal peoples such as those of North America and Australia were engulfed by environmental, medical and political catastrophes that wiped out entire populations. “
The black death killed an estimated 30 percent of the population of Europe. In the 20th century, the waves of influenza that spread worldwide in 1918 and 1919 killed between 50 and 100 million people, or up to 6 percent of the world’s population at the time. The last century also saw the emergence of the scourge of AIDS. In 2008, an estimated 33 million people worldwide were infected with HIV, and 67 percent of those cases were concentrated in Africa, where numbers were expected to rise. And by this time the COVID-pandemic killed almost 4 million people.
Clearly the potential for catastrophe on a worldwide scale existed both prior to and independent of the technologies of late modern society. Beck did not just underestimate non-technological risks like epidemics. He also appears to have been so preoccupied with the perils associated with the technologies he viewed as risky that he overlooked two of the world’s most significant human-induced threats, climate change and financial risk, as well as risks associated with terrorism.
Tierney, K. (2015): “The social roots of risk: How vulnerable are we?”, find the link here