Ulrech Beck (1944–2015) was a German sociologist who was internationally known for his writings on technology, globalization, modernity, and climate change. He gained notoriety for his belief that advances in technology would create additional global security risks, and he came up with terms, now widely used, such as risk society and second modernity. This entry focuses primarily on Beck’s work regarding globalization. The entry first explains globalization and then reviews Beck’s stances on globalization and the intertwined issues of modernity and cosmopolitanism. The entry concludes with a look at some of the criticisms of Beck and, in particular, his thesis on the global risk society.
Many global societies have undergone considerable transformation over the course of their histories and adopted a number of different characteristics. As an example, between the 14th and 17th centuries throughout much of Europe, a period referred to as the Enlightenment—social movements that included a revival of Ancient Greek and Roman ideas as well as the adoption of a humanistic framework for understanding human behavior—replaced many of the traditions practiced during the Middle Ages. A short time later during the Industrial Revolution, global societies again underwent significant change with the introduction of the newly developed manufacturing processes, fundamentally altering the social, political, cultural, and economic conditions of people across the globe. Following World War II and coupled with the severe preoccupation with the events that precipitated it, further technological advancements contributed to yet another movement that affected citizens throughout the world. Widespread concern over a potential third World War and the proliferation of new technologies such as nuclear power plants, aircraft, cellular telephones, and the Internet facilitated worldwide communication and transportation, transcending national borders and creating a more globalized citizenry. These latest features of the world society have been subsumed under the broader label of “globalization,” which Nayef Al-Rodhan has characterized as a process involving global economic integration, the transfer of policies and knowledge across national borders, cultural stability, and the reproduction of social relationships and discourses of power. Globalization further involves attenuation of national boundaries, increased interdependence between nations and the individuals residing within them, shared problems and problem-solving approaches among nation-state representatives, and the creation of more hybrid, rather than individualized and national, identities.
Cosmopolitanism denotes a process whereby human consciousness is transformed to reflect acknowledgment of the interwoven and interconnected nature of contemporary humanity and how these newfound connections produce a state in which all human beings are equally exposed to some of the aforementioned modern-day dangers. Gerard Delanty distinguished between four approaches to the study of cosmopolitanism: (1) a political philosophy concerned with normative principles of issues related to world citizenship, global governance, and concepts such as global rights, global democracy, and global justice; (2) liberal multiculturalism, where the emphasis is on plurality, diversity, and the embracing of difference; (3) transnational cosmopolitanism, where the emphasis is on changes to global culture and how lifestyles, identities, and modes of communication are ever mutable; and (4) a methodological approach to the social sciences that attempts to resolve problems inherently resultant from globalization. Although each frame of reference approaches any investigation of cosmopolitanism from different vantage points, according to Beck, they all share the common denominator that every human being, regardless of race, class, socioeconomic status, gender, or other distinguishing attribute, is equally exposed to and threatened by modern-day dangers and that this realization is creating a more unified global society.
For Beck, advances in technology observed under globalization have presented vast benefits to humanity, but they have also, albeit unintentionally in some respects, presented the potential for worldwide destruction. Through cosmopolitanism, human beings have become increasingly cognizant of this, and for this reason Beck describes the second modernity era in which we are currently living as a period of reflexivity and perceived risk. Ultimately, his risk society thesis describes a current state of human affairs in which the threats from globalized dangers have forced human beings to work together to devise global resolutions to global problems. Once again, the consequences of pollution, terrorism, transnational crime, and the production of weapons of mass destruction are not localized issues that affect only a small subset of humanity but, instead, large-scale problems afflicting the entire globe. This realization, achieved through a reassessment of the human condition and perceptions of the risk associated with these dangers, requires all people to develop a more cosmopolitan frame of mind. By recognizing that we can all become potential victims of the numerous dangers that surround us, we can appreciate and accept our differences and work cohesively for the mass benefit of humanity. Under this mode of thinking, furthermore, identity is reshaped so that we no longer identify ourselves merely as citizens of a nation but, rather, as citizens of the globe. Beck even went so far as to say that nation-states such as Italy, Germany, and Spain have disintegrated and that individuals from these geographical locations, as of recently, view themselves more as global residents than as residents of these countries.
While on the one hand much of Beck’s work on the topics of globalization, cosmopolitanism, and the global risk society has received mostly positive reviews, several of his assumptions have also come under considerable scrutiny. Geraldine Donoghue, for instance, argues that aggregate assessments of human cognition and behavior fail to consider the contextual factors responsible for influencing each of these outcomes. Not every individual across the globe perceives risk from natural disasters, terrorism, and the production of weapons of mass destruction in a similar fashion. Depending on particular sociodemographic variables such as income, race, gender, or even residential location, among other considerations, human behaviors and judgments may take on completely different characteristics. Furthermore, since not every human is equally affected by the dangers and their associated risks, perceptions of risks and other related outcomes will not be consistent across different categories of people. Donoghue further claimed that a global risk society and macrolevel perceptions of risk will not necessarily transition into globalized, democratic decision making. Even if much of the world population were to adopt a frame of mind consistent with Beck’s descriptions, it is still unknown whether national-oriented politics will be replaced by more globalized political decision making and, furthermore, whether human beings will put aside their differences for the betterment of humanity.
These limitations notwithstanding, the ideas and work of Beck have illuminated certain characteristics of contemporary human beings that may have otherwise gone unnoticed were it not for his efforts. Humanity has undergone numerous changes over the course of history, and we are presently experiencing another fundamental alteration to the nature and structure of human relations. Whether Beck was correct or not in his assertions that world affairs are becoming more globalized, dangers and risks are ever increasing, and identities are transcending national barriers, he opened an avenue toward the possibility of a wealth of research that can be undertaken to test his central hypotheses.
Frank V. Ferdik
See also Cosmopolitanism ; Globalization ; Risk Society Thesis
Al-Rodhan, R. Nayef. Definitions of Globalization: A Comprehensive Overview and a Proposed Definition. Geneva, Switzerland: Geneva Centre for Security Policy, 2006.
Beck, Ulrech. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London, England: Sage, 1992.
Delanty, Gerard. Citizenship in a Global Age. Buckingham, England: Open University Press, 2000.
Donoghue, Geraldine. “Global Risks and Ulrech Beck’s Cosmopolitan Politics.” Social Alternatives, v.30 (2011).