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  • Risk and the New Modernity
  • Simon Carter
Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage, 1992.

At 0123 hours (Soviet European Time) on Saturday 26 of April 1986, reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear power complex exploded, rupturing the reaction vessel and causing major structural damage to the plant buildings. The subsequent release of radioactive material caused acute radiation sickness in 200 individuals, 28 of whom subsequently died (Spivak 1992). The immediate effects of the catastrophe were therefore comparable to a minor air disaster, yet the possible long-term consequences went far beyond those suggested by such a comparison. A plume of radio-nuclides (i.e. strontium-90, iodine-131, and caesium-137) spread westwards over Europe presenting a danger that was invisible and therefore beyond direct human powers of perception. As a result, those living within “fallout” zones became aware that they might be suffering irreversible damage but, at the same time, they were dependent on the knowledge of “experts” to find out—a knowledge that was mediated through institutions, argument and causal interpretations and was therefore “open to a social process of definition” (Beck 88).

The Chernobyl tragedy is just one, albeit particularly dramatic, example taken from a long list of other “invisible risks” in which the danger posed is socially disputable. For example, from within the nuclear economy we could add the names Windscale (now renamed Sellafield), Kyshtym, Three Mile Island and Oak Ridge and, moving outside this domain, we could point to concerns over food additives, pesticides, ozone depletion, air and water pollution, and AIDS. The project that Ulrich Beck has set himself is to ask what a society may look like in which disputes about these “new risks” are increasingly pushed to the fore?

Beck’s thesis is, however, more than just another sociological or anthropological examination of the breaks and shifts in the meaning attached to risk, within or between cultures (for an account of this type see Douglas and Wildavsky). The full title of Beck’s newly translated book is Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (originally published in German as Risikogesellshaft: Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne, 1986) and the title resonates with the central theme of his work—that we are in a period of transition not towards postmodernity but towards a second modernity in which the logic of industrial production and distribution (i.e. wealth) is becoming increasingly tied to the logic of “the social production of risk.” As he says:

Just as modernisation dissolved the structure of feudal society in the nineteenth century and produced the industrial society, modernisation today is dissolving industrial society and another modernity is coming into being.


In the first modernity, or industrial society, concerns focused on the distribution of wealth but, according to Beck, as material inadequacy was reduced, or at least isolated, we moved to a more complex modernity, or risk society, where consideration has to be given to the distribution of risks—a move from class position to risk position, from underproduction of goods to overproduction of harm. These are qualitatively different conditions. In the former, one is dealing with “desirable items in scarcity” but in the latter, where it is a question of the risks produced by modernisation, one has an undesirable abundance. “The positive logic of acquisition contrasts with a negative logic of disposition, avoidance, denial, and reinterpretation” (26).

Of course it could be argued that industrial society has always been engaged in a contest with risk and danger. Yet these risks were construed as external to the project of modernity. Thus a distinction was drawn between civilisation (safe) and nature (dangerous). Scientific rationality sought to put into discourse those dangerous spaces and therefore make them predictable—in short to “tame” chance (see Hacking). Beck’s point is that the externalisation of risk is no longer possible because it is increasingly apparent that many hazards are a by-product of the same techno-scientific rationality that initially promised progress, development, and safety. Today’s risks are yesterday’s rational settlements (and here we could cite all forms of pollution, including nuclear fallout).

Within the risk society, though, risk is distributed according to a dual process...

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