What Are the Key Ideas Behind the Risk Thesis? How Do They Relate to Social Policy and the Welfare State?

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What are the key ideas behind the risk thesis? How do they relate to social policy and the welfare state?

Undoubtedly, insecurity, fear and risk have come to dominate more mundane aspects of our everyday life. Social policy theorists, such as Paul Johnson defines social risk as ‘The probability weighted uncertainty that derives from the changing and dynamic world in which people lives.’(quoted in Alcock et al. 2008:21). In the following essay the concept of ‘risk society’ will be explored even further in order to examine the key ideas of the risk thesis and how those relate to social policy and the welfare state. After some light has been shed on historical notions of risk, the focus of the essay will move to a contemporary society. Here it can be clearly seen to what extent risks have evolved in relation to the times we live in and this will be especially explored in the terms of individualization, unemployment, health, terrorism and environmental concerns.

Risks theorists have outlined three main discourses in European thought upon risk. According to Giddens (1999), all previous cultures were characterized by Pre-Renaissance thoughts. It can be argued that risks were seen as the products of fate, destiny and will of the gods. However, nowadays the idea of risk is strongly linked to modernity, defined by authors such as Beck and Giddens as ‘the process and institutions of industrialization. (quoted in Kemshall 2002:4). As a result of modernization, there are not only ‘external risks’, coming from the impact of nature upon us, but also ‘manufactures risks’ which are products of human activity, for instance environmental risks or even social ones because our personal futures are increasingly open and therefore, it is possible for individuals to assess the calculability of risk taken. On the other hand, it can be suggested that post- modernity has challenge the ‘myth of calculability’, because as Giddens states: ‘post- modernity offers little help as to which options should be selected. (quoted in Kemshall 2002: 5).

Sociologists such as Beck and Giddens clearly examine the fact that the movement form pre-modern societies to modernity and late modernity have lead to greater uncertainties in our contemporary society such as poverty, unemployment and ecological disasters. Undoubtedly we live in a ‘risk society’. Beck (1992) argues that the successful development of technology helps us to produce enough to meet people’s essential needs, however it creates a ‘boomerang affect’ because as Beck points out technology and science create more problems than simply solving them. It can be argued that those who benefits form production and consumption suffer its consequences. To support his theory, Beck provides us with many emperical evidences which illustrate the problem of risk society. It is true that thanks to development in agriculture, the rich countries no longer have problems with shortage food, but the plentiful supply of processed food has created consequences of health problems such as obesity. Similarly, atomic energy helps to produce energy supplies but it creates serious health risk because of nuclear waste and accidents such as those more recently (oil spill in America) and those in the past (Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster). Particularly, Beck outlines the fact that those disasters are global concerns, rather than local and affect all people, regardless of age or class, because you cannot protect yourself against them by having a high income. In the term of unemployment, Beck also argues that it affects all classes. For example the financial crisis of United Kingdom in 2007-2010 affected not only working class but also middle class people. Therefore social inequality is individualized because people experience risk as individuals rather than a members of a particular class. Drawing upon ideas of Beck and Giddens, Nettleton and Burrows (1998) argues that increased risks in our contemporary societies made...
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