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

By kamilabs18 Feb 15, 2011 2336 Words
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 individuals to be more ‘encouraged to make life-style choices and life-planning decisions.’(cited in Kemshall 2002:43. For example, education become increasing important is shaping our future as we know that by having high qualification there is more opportunity to have better- paid job. The increasing of consumerism in our societies made people to pay more attention to money as it provided higher standards of living. The fact that there are more uncertainties in employment and even higher educated people struggle to find jobs, it is necessary for people to move out and thus, geographical mobility allows individuals to move form jobs to jobs on global scale. Therefore, people experience this as individuals rather than members of class. Nettleton and Burrows also argue that those uncertainties in employment which create fear of losing a job and consequences of living in bad conditions, led people to be more aware of the future and secure themselves in the fulfilment of their basic needs by investing money, creating saving accounts and paying private insurances. However is it true that all classes are able to afford it?

Nevertheless, people experience the environmental risk to the same extent but it doesn’t mean that the notion of class is less unimportant in the risk society thesis. Beck wrongly assumes that there is the decline of class, because class differences still continue to affect life expectancy and people experiences unemployment in different ways. For example, it is obvious that people who have higher status within society can afford better life and even of they are about to lose a job, their better qualification give them an opportunity to find a job much more quicker than lower status person. It can also be argued that the development of the technology has a result in declining of manufacturing industry which was the basis of working class identities and it has left them struggling to find new job in the face of high unemployment. Moreover, working class people are more at disadvantage because as a result of cultural and material deprivation, they do not have an opportunity to do better at education and thus gain better qualification and pursuit themselves in the job career perspectives. Colin Gill (1985) argues that technological and scientific change and deindustrialization ‘threatens to reduce in the workforce in numerous occupations’ such as warehouse workers, postal staff or mineworkers. Karl Marx (1978) also argues that working class are more likely to be unemployment as a result of capitalists system. Sociologists argue that the risk of unemployment and the effect of unemployment affect both society and personal feelings. Sinfield (1981) argues that unemployment ‘devalues or debates the standard or quality of life in society’. (gouted in Haralambos 2004: 670). He (1981) argues that high unemployment reduced the chance of equality of opportunity being achieved and people feel less secure and may have their standards of living threatened. The other social effects relate to lack of sense of identity of people who lose their jobs, sense of obligatory activates that works provides, lack of a sense of purpose and freedom and control outside work creates the possibility of engaging time leisure activities that are costly. On the other hand, the personal effects of unemployment affect health and financial income. Some argues people’s health is more affected by unemployment because the statistics show that unemployment men have higher death rates compared to employment ones. People also experience greater risk of depression and stress, which has a result in many health problems such as high blood pressure, heart attacks or cancer caused by smoking. Loss of financial income means that people live in bad conditions. Council’s houses are often small and located in marginalized districts. People are more likely to be at risk of poverty which affects both material and cultural deprivation. For example, recent Government figures show that children form low income families are more likely to eat less fruits than their counterparts. Overall, unemployment restricts people’s possibilities to secure the basic needs such as food, good housing or health treatments. However the successful use of National Health Service over the last 50 years, adapt the needs of health care to demographic changes. NHS provide people with free access to health care, but people with better income status are able to afford private medical insurance and use the private sectors which provide more effective health services. As Clark et al points out, ‘this has been paralleled by a ‘result culture….Consumer choice and right have also contributed to public expectations, in the terms not only of access of treatment, but also of its timeliness and excellence.’ (quoted in Kemshall 2002:55).

Thos all evidences prove the fact that Beck’s theory based on the idea of decline of class in the contemporary society, is invalid. As we see people experience the risk in different ways as some of them are affected most than others. Particularly, lower income people are at greater risk of poverty due to unemployment. Now the purpose of the essay needs to move one to the idea of social policy as social risk management. Looking at the historical notion of social policy as risk management the 18th and 19th century Britain have introduced many policies to cope with risk, for example, the introduction of compulsory elementary schools for children of all classes in 1880, self-help organizations (saving banks) and Charity Organization Society or the Poor Law. Jordan (1998) argues that the new politics of welfare: ‘Third Way’, ‘emphasizes equality of opportunity rather than outcome and rights to education and training rather than benefits…. It provides for ‘genuine’ needs to be met, with far stricter testing for the authenticity if the claims from unemployment and disability.’ (quoted in Kemshall 2002:32) According to Jordan (1998), this new politics of welfare state is increasingly associated with ‘New Labour ‘and Blair. The new programme of Third Way is based on key factors such as social justice, social responsibility and obligations, the labour market as a mechanism for achieving social justice and based on reward for merit and an emphasis upon meritocracy. Thus, as Kemshall (2002 :37) argues ‘social policy reform and programmes are now pursued through the labour market and the social engineering of ‘opportunities’ to contribute [through] education and workplace. Social investment in human capital is viewed as more economically productive and efficient that retrospective alleviation of individuals need through a state benefits system.’ The Labour government introduced a number of new designed policies which are based on the idea of encouraging unemployment back into works. It was done through the introduction of New Deal scheme which was based ‘Gateway’ advice, where young unemployment people have been offered four options (for example, full time education or employment in voluntary sectors). If people refused them, they lost the right to benefits. The introduction of minimum wage and Job Seeker Allowance was also to encourage people to back to work. As Kemshall (2002: 37) states ‘a social policy of ‘Third Way’ actively [promoted] risk taking and a positive attitude to risk has gained currency, and is advocated as the most effective response to the dilemmas of ‘risk society’. However Keefe and Hordley (2002) pointed out that ‘whether Labour policies will succeed in continuing to keep unemployment low remain to be seen. Levels of unemployment were beginning to creep up again by 2003. (quoted in Haralambos 2004:669). Similarly Giddnes argues that the welfare state is ill equipped to meet the risks set by economic globalization and a needs centred welfare state is based upon the pooling risk, rather than the pooling of resources. According to Giddens there is still much focus on benefits and the dependency of ‘need culture’ is seen as a barrier to economic flexibility.

The purpose of the essay was to identify the key idea of the risk thesis and how those relate to social policy. Considering both historical and contemporary perspectives on ‘risk society’ we can clearly see the patter of changes of the notion of risk over the time. The work of the sociologists such as Beck and Giddens helps us to understand the difference between ‘external’ and ‘manufactures’ risk as well as they outline the argument that risk is more associated with modernity and late modernity. The essay is based of the idea of risk which is due to individualization and unemployment. Undoubtedly, our contemporary societies are less stable so the fear of unemployment dominates our lives as it affects our standards of living. However risk society thesis are criticised on several ground, such as those of Beck as his theory fails to recognize the fact that people are differently exposed to modernization risk. Beck fails to recognize the relationships between risk distribution, conflict and inequality, by wrongly assuming that individuals as equally concerned by risk. As Taylor Gooby states ‘Membership of the working class is associated with a much higher risk of fall in living standards and also ‘The risk society is class ideology masquerading as social theory: It serves the interests of those already privileged in a more flexible society by obscuring the needs and aspirations of the more vulnerable who already bear most of the burdens of social change’. (Taylor-Gooby, 1999). Form my point of view; the concept of risk is relevant to social policy, because policies are regarded as risk management. It can be clearly seen in the historical outline and new politics of ‘Third Way’ programme as it demonstrated us how social policies try to tackle the unemployment. However the description of contemporary society by Beck and Giddens left us to critically question some certain aspect and the theory should reflect the ‘idealistic’ rather than ‘materialistic’ nature of the concept of risk.

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Bibliography:

Alcock, P et al.(2008), ‘The Student’s Companion to Social Policy’, 2nd, Oxford: Blackwell. Kemshall, H. (2002), ‘Risk, Social Policy and Welfare’, Open University Press: Buckingham. Beck, U. (1992) ‘Risk Society’ , London : Sage.

Haralambos, M, Holborn, M and Heald R. (2004), ‘Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology: Themes and Perspectives’ Collins Education. Denney, D ed. (2008) ‘Special Issue: Living in Dangerous Times – Fear, Insecurity, Risk and Social Policy’, Social Policy and Administration, 42,6,557 – 713 (e-journals).

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