Anxieties of the Modern World: Assessing the Risk Society Thesis

By Nathanael Chouraqui
2016, Vol. 8 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |

"Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it."

This quote by the early 20th century Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran captures both the core idea and some of the implicit issues posed by what was later to be called the “risk society thesis” and was to have a massive impact on contemporary sociology.

The core idea of this theory, which was first formulated by the sociologist Ulrich Beck in 1986, is that postmodern societies are oriented towards the idea of risk, defined as “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself” (Beck, 1992) and that risk management techniques pervade most spheres of today’s social and political activities. The idea of controlling the future is, therefore, inherent in the concept of risk. As a result of this necessarily vain attempt to control the uncontrollable, it is argued that anxiety about the future became the defining sentiment of our age.

This leads to one of the fundamental issues of the thesis. The importance given to anxiety shows that what is at the center of the risk society thesis is our relationship with the world. When former President Clinton says that “when confronting the world, we face a war of endless risks,” the fact he frames the sentence in terms of us facing the world is not incidental. The underlying question raised here is whether the risk society theory has primarily to do with us or with the state of the world as an objective given. Does it describe a factual change in the nature of threats or merely a change in our perception of them?

More broadly speaking, this latter question carries the problems and the applicability of Beck’s claims to concrete issues of security and, more deeply, the nature of those claims. Given this ambiguity, I pay particular attention to assessing the risk society thesis on the ground it is trying to defend. I aim to identify the actual nature of what Beck tried to say, and assess it accordingly. I believe it is only by answering this fundamental question that one can truly measure, on solid ground, the contribution of the argument discussed here and the subsequent claims made on war and security.

My main argument is that the risk society thesis does not constitute a social science theory – and should therefore not be assessed or used in that way – but rather a speculative attempt to capture today’s zeitgeist and that attempt would benefit from being contrasted with other philosophical attempts of the same kind.

First, trying to evaluate it against social science criteria, it is found that, due to epistemological ambiguities and empirical invalidations, such an approach does not constitute an adequate assessment ground for the risk society thesis. Second, I show that it is better seen as a commentary on the character of our times and should be cautiously handled as such. Third, taking the risk society as the philosophical-historical work it is, I discuss it in the light of another speculative work: Alain Badiou on the “projectless” societies (2005). I argue that Christopher Coker’s analysis of this notion (2009) should be fully re-integrated into the risk society argument, thus allowing for an enhanced explanatory of the thesis on .

Hence, in this evaluation, parts I and II are devoted to identifying the nature of the thesis and devising its appropriate assessment tool, and part III proposes an application of it.

I. The Risk Society Thesis as Sociological Theory

Assessing a thesis as a social science theory means identifying a way of validating it according to its own epistemological, ontological and methodological claims. In other words, one should assess a theory on the ground it is seeking to address, with the appropriate tools. If an author seeks to have his work assessed according to Lakatos’s scientific model, testing it against Popper’s refutability principles (1962) would be nonsensical. Similarly, judging a constructivist piece (i.e. epistemologically reflectivist) using realist criteria (i.e. positivists ones) would necessarily result in a flawed analysis. Arguably, the problem with Beck’s risk society thesis is that it seems to draw on both constructivism and . This makes the assessment uneasy and fundamentally uncertain.

Indeed, as outlined in the introduction, the nature of risk in Beck’s terminology is ambivalent. Is it a thesis about objective risks and our reactions to it, or rather about us, our obsession with uncertainties, the minimisation of what we call risks? This theoretical ambiguity has been one of the main threads of criticism faced by the risk society thesis, and has been pointed out by many sociologists (Rabsborg, 2012 ‘(World) risk society’ or ‘new rationalities of risk’? A critical discussion of Ulrich Beck’s theory of reflexive modernity; or Leiss (1992), according to whom “the reader is never quite sure whether for Beck it is the nature of risk or of society which has undergone the change”), including some of his most enthusiastic colleagues (like Mythen, 2007). Actually, Beck has publicly refused to subscribe to either an objectivist or a relativist position, (Beck, 2000; Lupton, 1999, as cited in Mythen 2007). But, as Mythen puts it, “such a mix and match approach does lead to ambiguities and inconsistencies in the thesis” (Alexander and Smith, 1996; Mythen, 2004).

Therefore, since the author does not make clear the assessment tool (i.e. epistemological ambiguity), and since he seems to be indistinctively talking about both society and the “real” world1, (i.e. ontological ambiguity), investigating both aspects seems to be the only valid option. By default, it will be carried through the most intuitive (and arguably naïve, I am aware of that but given the meta-theoretical indetermination, it is, at this point of my reasoning, the only option) process of validation: confrontation with the empirics.

I shall start with the assessment of the realist side of the argument (i.e. the nature of world have changed) and then turn to the constructivist one. First,by simply reading Beck’s publications on the risk society and the world risk society (1992, 1997, 2002 etc.) one can easily notice the author markedly lightness on empirics. Beck indeed prefers declarative sentences (Leiss, 1992) to demonstrations based on thorough historical evidence (Mythen, 2007). More importantly, subsequent empirical studies have demonstrated a very partial applicability of the thesis to the facts. Thus, although discussion around the risk society has been mostly theoretical, some scholars have conducted empirical research on it, especially on the world risk society thesis. In this global version of the risk society, Beck maintains that risks being now global, they tend to call for global solutions, allowing for the emergence of a world risk community.

Simultaneously, would imply a reduction in the size of the welfare state, which would increase risks. Such arguments are based on a certain view of globalization according to which states surreptitiously surrender parts of their sovereignty, through political and economic processes that ensnare them into complex regimes and transnational regulatory structures (Beck 1997). In a powerful article (“Risk, Globalisation and the State: A Critical Appraisal of Ulrich Beck and the World Risk Society Thesis,” 2007) Jarvis carefully reviews the implications of this thesis and fact-check them. For instance, Beck suggests that the state is now passing on to its citizens increasing burdens, offloading its welfare obligations as the tax base dwindles due to forced competition to reduce taxes and increase its attractiveness to highly mobile capital. If that is true we should be able to track these changes and observe absolute reductions in government revenues and smaller government. An examination of disparate empirical sources, however, reveals little to support the risk society thesis.

Even across a wide selection of developed states, there is few evidence of declining government tax receipts. Nor is there evidence of decreasing government spending. In fact, spending has increased in real terms as a percentage of GDP since 1960. Likewise, if one looks at the world’s capitalisation of stock markets, data suggest the internationalisation of these economies, but does not suggest capital flight or capital scarcity and thus necessarily increased risk and vulnerability for industrial society as Beck insists. The process of financial liberalisation and capital mobility has thus been considerably more nuanced than Beck appreciates (Wade, 2004; Wai-chung Yeung, 2000). As for the states’ policy autonomy being “strait-jacketed” by globalizing forces demanding conversion to economically neo-liberal policy agendas, Linda Weiss (as cited in Jarvis, 2007) examined policy autonomy of Taiwan, South Korea, Sweden, and Germany, discovered greater margins of manoeuvre for state discretion than might be expected by mainstream globalisation theorists like Beck. Hence, due to crude postulations, the risk society thesis “fails many empirical tests” (Jarvis). What is problematic is that.

As we have seen, however, there is little empirical evidence to support Beck’s suggestion that the state is in systematic retreat, that its fiscal base has been eroded, or its expenditure abilities reduced. I am aware the risk society thesis can be assessed on many other grounds but Beck’s use of globalisation as one of the principal determinants of risk under modernity makes his characterisation of globalisation central to validating the risk society thesis. This analysis, therefore, hits a blow in the realist-fashioned sides of Beck’s claims.

If the risk society thesis fails to closely fit the facts in the way a realist social science theory would have been expected to do, maybe is it because the thesis is better understood as a constructivist social science theory? Perhaps what Beck says concerns much more how we perceive and construct the rather than some objective reality out there. We live in a risk society because risk has been historically constructed to be the prevalent determinant of our lives. I will argue that even this approach can’t be fully said to suit the risk society thesis, risk and anxiety as constructs are not present everywhere, don’t mean the same thing for everyone, and are sometimes not even conscious. Let us start with the pervasiveness of the concept risk. Though he acknowledges risk society is primarily applicable to the West, Beck’s perspective dictates that perceptions of risk are homogeneous within the West, and to a certain extent, has now expanded worldwide (Mythen, 2007), i.e. the risk society is similarly present in everybody’s minds.

However, as highlighted by many scholars, cultural attitudes towards risk cannot be generalized and will be diverse rather than universal. As empirical research demonstrates, perceptions of risk are proselytized through established networks of families, friends and work colleagues (Tulloch and Lupton, 2003). Different risks mean different things to different people. The development of risk attitudes and values will be informed by a range of social factors including class, gender, age, ethnicity and location (Hutton, 2004; Mitchell et al., 2004). A similar point can be made about the concept of anxiety. In Anxiety in a Risk Society, lain Wilkinson (2001) casts doubt on the contention that society is more anxious because it is more risk conscious. He explains that, since risk is socially and culturally constructed, the meaning of the risk will vary based on perceptions and social location. Indeed, risk consciousness may lead to less anxiety, in that it allows us to focus clearly on our fears. He concludes the way in which we truly experience our anxiety is simply speculative. Another pillar of the risk society argument and the subsequent theories of “reflexive modernity” developed by Beck is that, in essence, the scale and extent of manufactured threats, through mass media reporting, force citizens to consider risk in political terms.

Beyond the fact that researchers in media studies have very much criticized Beck’s views on mass media for being “uneven, underdeveloped, and contradictory” (Cottle, 2013), one remark can be made on the latter point. Recent findings in cognitive science and neurology have shown that global threats (such as global warming, to which Beck refers very often) tend to be ignored and produce apathy instead of action. This has to do with our brain being hard wired to ignore long- term threats , threats that are not attributable to a human person, and, most importantly, uncertain threats (Daniel Kahneman, 2011). One can then hardly understand how, in such settings, threat consciousness can actually trigger political mobilisation.

I have attempted to assess the risk society thesis as a social science theory. Given its meta-theoretical ambiguities (epistemological –what kind of knowledge – and ontological– on the nature of risk), I have divided it following the lines of common social science debate (realism/positivism v. constructivism/reflectivism) and evaluated both parts separately. I have come to the conclusion that both sets of claims contain serious issues in terms of their capacity to effectively relate to the facts. From that conclusion, the most obvious consequence is that one should at least refrain from blindly applying the risk society thesis to security or military policy issues. But what does it mean for the risk society thesis itself? Should we simply brand it non-scientific enough and discard it? Tellingly, not a single of the critical scholars cited above seriously consider this option. All of them oppose it; they do propose various ways to reconceptualise it or fix its flaws, but unanimously recognise the powerfulness and necessary nature of the thesis.

II. Risk Society Thesis as Zeitgeist

It seems we are left with a conceptual inconsistency: the risk society thesis does not comply with the usual criteria of social science and yet appears to be considered valuable by its own social scientist detractors. I now argue that the reason for this is that we have so far been getting the nature of the risk society wrong. For the mere reason, the author is a sociologist, we mechanically defined his work as a purely analytical social scientific theory, whereas, as I will try to show here, it is probably better defined as a speculative attempt to unravel today’s “zeitgeist” and should be handled as such.

If one examines what often comes up in the critical literature surrounding the risk society thesis and its variants, one can possibly identify two recurring lines of critique. On the one hand, the thesis is attacked for having a tendency to “overstretch” (Cottle, 2013), “exaggerate,” (Jarvis, 2007), “extrapolate,” “overstate”( Mythen 2005, Scott 2000) or “universalize” (Mythen, 2007) things . The thesis is too general, critiques say, too structural, too bold. To put it simply, too concerned with the big pattern. On the other hand, what feature a lot in the reviews are formulations expressing that element of the thesis “sound true,” “rings true” (Aradau, 2010) or “resonates” (Jarvis, 2007), often to acknowledge that Beck somehow adequately captured a dominant feeling in our societies. Even the otherwise empiricist scholar Jarvis recognized the risk society argument successfully identified“the essence of our collective angst about the limits of science, progress and rationality” while Scott, although very critical of Beck’s work made a similar point.

So, how should we characterize a thesis which has much that “rings true” to many contemporaries which is widely perceived as saying something about our age, but which is deemed too abstract, too structural to meet the empirics in a scientifically acceptable manner? Quoting Kenneth Waltz here may be enlightening: “Structures never tell us all that we want to know. Instead, they tell us a small number of big and important things” (Waltz, 1986). This idea is key here. To an extent, “big and important things” can’t be fully “scientific.” They deal with overarching patterns at the structural level and are therefore not necessarily testable on a lower level of enquiry. Identifying a big pattern necessarily means simplifying the world, and therefore, expose the theoryto empirical inconsistencies. As Waltz puts it, these types of theories are “radical simplifications of the world, and they are useful only because as such” (Waltz, 1990).

The world being too complex and unintelligible to derive simple structures from it with certitude; we are somehow condemned to make bets that cannot be falsified. And it is exactly the character to be ascribed to Beck’s works. As many authors of of history before him, he is attempting to capture the “defining feature of our era,” that is identifying what Hegel call der Geist seiner Zeist, the spirit of the time (Hegel, 1822), more commonly referred to as zeitgeist. Providing it exists, defining the zeitgeist is almost by definition beyond the scope of science, as no scientific method can possibly have appropriate tools to measure such a general thing as the spirit of the age. There necessarily has to be an element of philosophical speculation which amounts more to interpretation, or commentary (it is the term used by Jarvis about Beck’s work; Jarvis, 2007) onthe nature of the epoch, than to science2-3. What makes the “validity” of such theories is their capacity to be useful (Waltz, 1979) in making sense of the world, in helping to elucidate it, or, at least adding a lens to the debate or provoke a rethinking of its terms(Aron, 1967).

Thus redefined, one can better understand why the empirical studies led on the risk society thesis reached unsatisfactory conclusions. What was expected by the empirical testers was discrepant with what Beck really tried to do, i.e. devising a speculative theory on today’s zeitgeist that, but doesn’t aim at explaining everything. The assessment tool was unadapted to the assessed claim. As Jarvis puts it “To be fair to Beck, however, is this the correct way to read him? As Dirk Matten notes, “Beck’s ideas are more of a provocative and conceptual nature rather than a minute empirical proof of certain social change.” The risk society thesis is hence best seen as a coherent set of concepts, of philosophical and political awareness signals (e.g. the uncontrollable nature of new manufactured risks,the attention paid to side effects in our societies etc.) that form an original lens through which to see the world -at least the part of it its premises allow to see. It should also be assessed as such and only as such. The right assessment tool is no longer a scientific empirical validation but a speculative discussion revolving around the following question: does the thesis adequately explains what it wants to explain?

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