Ulrich Beck

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Beck's Sociology of Risk: A Critical Assessment
Anthony Elliott
Sociology 2002; 36; 293
DOI: 10.1177/0038038502036002004
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Downloaded from http://soc.sagepub.com by Madhu Menon on September 24, 2007 © 2002 BSA Publications Ltd.. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

022761 Elliott

13/5/2002

9:49 am

Page 293

Risk Society

Sociology
Copyright © 2002
BSA Publications Ltd®
Volume 36(2): 293–315
[0038-0385(200205)36:2;293–315;022761]
SAGE Publications
London,Thousand Oaks,
New Delhi

Beck’s Sociology of Risk: A Critical
Assessment
s

Anthony Elliott
University of the West of England

AB ST RAC T

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck has elaborated a highly original formulation of the theory of risk and reflexive modernization, a formulation that has had a significant impact upon recent sociological theorizing and research.This article examines Beck’s sociology of risk in the context of his broader social theory of reflexivity, advanced modernization and individualization. The article argues that Beck’s work is constrained by several sociological weaknesses: namely, a dependence upon objectivistic and instrumental models of the social construction of risk and uncertainty in social relations, and a failure to adequately define the relations between institutional dynamism on the one hand and self-referentiality and critical reflection on the other. As a contribution to the reformulation and further development of Beck’s approach to sociological theory, the article seeks to suggest other ways in which the link between risk and reflexivity might be pursued.These include a focus upon (1) the intermixing of reflexivity and reflection in social relations; (2) contemporary ideologies of domination and power; and (3) a dialectical notion of modernity and postmodernization.

K E Y WORDS

domination / modernity / postmodernity / reflexivity / risk / social theory

A

s competent reflective agents, we are aware of the many ways in which a generalized ‘climate of risk’ presses in on our daily activities. In our dayto-day lives, we are sensitive to the cluster of risks that affect our relations with the self, with others, and with the broader culture. We are specialists in carving out ways of coping and managing risk, whether this be through active engagement, resigned acceptance or confused denial. From dietary concerns to

293
Downloaded from http://soc.sagepub.com by Madhu Menon on September 24, 2007 © 2002 BSA Publications Ltd.. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

022761 Elliott

294

13/5/2002

Sociology

9:49 am

Volume 36

s

Page 294

Number 2

s

May 2002

prospective stock market gains and losses to polluted air, the contemporary risk climate is one of proliferation, multiplication, specialism, counterfactual guesswork, and, above all, anxiety. Adequate consideration and calculation of risktaking, risk-management and risk-detection can never be fully complete, however, since there are always unforeseen and unintended aspects of risk environments. This is especially true at the level of global hazards, where the array of industrial, technological, chemical and nuclear dangers that confront us grows, and at an alarming...
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