The term “Risk Society” is a neologism coined by German sociologist Ulrich Beck, in his book Risk Society: Toward a New Modernity, first published in German in 1986 and translated into English in 1992. There is a long-standing tradition in intellectual thought of choosing society labels—e.g., Acquisitive Society, Open Society, Affluent Society, Civic Society, Post-Industrial Society, and so on—to capture the dominant theme or spirit of an age, or what Germans call its zeitgeist. Beck’s “Risk Society” is just such a label; its intent is to underscore his position that society, in this era of advanced modernity, is dominated by the ubiquity of risks, not only as the dominant consciousness of the age but also as the challenge that threatens to overwhelm societies.
But “Risk Society” is also a theoretical frame, a master frame in the Continental Tradition (particularly the “Critical Theory” tradition) that seeks, in addition to naming the contemporary age, to provide a diagnosis of its dynamics, to underscore its uniqueness from its predecessors, and to focus analytical attention on it. The frame comprises three inter-related components: risk, individualization, and reflexive modernization. Beck sees a dynamic that is driven by an increase in risks and in the ability of science to detect increasingly minute risks, leading to a fundamental re-ordering of social positions in society, and to a transformation in the cultural meanings of risk.
Separating the present era from its past are new species of risk that, unlike in the past, are no longer circumscribed spatially or temporarily. Beck argues that the risks of nuclear radiation, many modern technologies, the greater mobility of diseases, global warming, invasive species and many other challenges expose virtually all people around the globe to common risks. World society, then, is now World Risk Society, to cite the title of one of Beck’s many follow-on books on the topic.
The social order in the early days of modernization was centered on economics, especially the distribution of economic output, i.e., who got what. That distribution was directly tied to social class, with those at the top getting more and those at the bottom getting less. In Beck’s view, this order of things has been turned on its head in the contemporary era. Beck argues that, in the “Risk Society,” the concern is no longer with the distribution of “goods” but with the distribution of “bads”—namely, the realization of untoward risks. Because many risks (e.g., nuclear fallout) do not respect class boundaries, everyone is, therefore, equally at risk. This dissolving of social class means that social actors are “individualized,” thrown on their own without the collective identity of social class.
In the “Risk Society,” science, the principal institution for identifying and analyzing risks, is drawn into an untenable, Janus-like position. By engaging in its traditional role of generating new discoveries and new technologies, science inevitably creates and adds to existing risks. At the same time, science is the principal institution for detecting and analyzing risks, especially those that are subtle. This misalignment of science’s roles is recognized by the, now, “individualized,” free-floating social actor who undertakes actions, such as in a social movement, to continuously pressure and reinvent scientific and social institutions.
Both in terms of his arguments about the social distribution of risks and his claims about the role of science, Beck's views differ substantially from those of many other social scientists who have grappled with risk issues. Perhaps the best-known proponent of the alternative viewpoint may be James Short. In his presidential address to the American Sociological Association, he focused on what he called “risks to the social fabric,” seeing the most important and socially salient of present-day risks as being precisely those that did not put everyone in society equally at risk. Other social scientists who have found Short's perspective to be more fruitful than Beck's include Kai Erikson and a number of the authors in the cross-Atlantic dialogue on risk issues edited by Cohen, as well as authors who focus on environmental justice ***WE NEED AN ARTICLE OR TWO ON THIS TOPIC!*** Most of these authors have focused on, and documented, risks that could scarcely be said to circle the globe, as did the fallout from Chernobyl, but that threaten “the social fabric” precisely because they affect certain people and places far more than others.
As noted by Freudenburg, part of the reason traces back to a more differentiated view of science. Many of the authors working in Short's tradition see science and technology as being generally helpful, but with exceptions that are deeply troubling. The reasons have to do with the fact that social scientists working in Short's tradition trace their intellectual roots back to earlier traditions of European social thought, associated with Emile Durkheim and (especially) Max Weber, perhaps the best known theorist of rationality in the modern era. What made the world a “rational” one, in Weber’s view, was not that the denizen of modernity could be expected to know more about the world around us, but very nearly the opposite:
Unless he is a physicist, one who rides on the streetcar has no idea how the car happened to get into motion. And he does not need to know. He is satisfied that he may ‘count’ on the behavior of the streetcar... but he knows nothing about what it takes to produce such a car so that it can move. The savage knows incomparably more about his tools. (Weber  1946:138–139)
As Freudenburg added, specialization has increased so much since the invention of the streetcar that perhaps the most salient risks of contemporary life are those associated with what he has called “recreancy,” or institutional failure—“the failure of institutional actors to carry out their responsibilities with the degree of vigor necessary to merit the societal trust they enjoy.” Citizens of an increasingly interdependent world, accordingly, need to be able to ‘count’ on not just the physical machinery they use, but also whole armies of specialists, most of whom they will never meet and who are expected to have forms of expertise that ordinary citizens may not be competent to judge, let alone have the ability to control.
The idea of “reflexive modernization,” on the other hand, is not just central to Beck’s “Risk Society,” but is also a keystone to the thinking of a number of other European thinkers—Anthony Giddens, Scott Lash, Barbara Adam—who wish to also distinguish the contemporary age from its predecessors.
Beck followed up Risk Society with a large and growing number of books and many articles in professional journals resulting in a body of literature devoted to explications and elaborations of his master frame, rather than fundamental changes or challenges to it. While risk is the grist for a wide variety of disciplines—psychology, economics, geography, engineering, public health—in theorist Beck's mill, that grist is molded into virtually the most comprehensive framing of risk available.
- Beck, Ulrich, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Sage Publications Ltd (September 3, 1992) ISBN: 0803983468
- Cohen, Maurie J., ed., Risk in the Modern Age: Social Theory, Science, and Environmental Decision-Making. London: MacMillan, 2000. ISBN: 0312222165
- Erikson, Kai T., Everything in Its Path: The Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976
- Erikson, Kai T., A New Species of Trouble: Explorations in Disaster, Trauma, and Community. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. ISBN: 0393035948
- Freudenburg, William R., "Risk and Recreancy: Weber, the Division of Labor, and the Rationality of Risk Perceptions." Social Forces 71 (#4, June 1993): 909–32.
- Short, James F., The Social Fabric at Risk: Toward the Social Transformation of Risk Analysis, American Sociological Review 49 (December 1984): 711–725.
- Weber, Max, "Science as a Vocation." Pp. 129–56 in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, tr. and ed., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford ( 1946).