"To what extent do we live in a risk society?"

Authors Avatar

Hand in date: 8/12/04

"To what extent do we live in a risk society?"

A simple answer to such a question would be to assert that we live in a nuclear age and therefore society is more risky today than in any other stage of human developmental history. However, this explanation reveals very little about ones moment in history, the routines that guide our lives or our sense of vulnerability in being part of a world system. It shall be argued that in many respects we live in a risk age and risk has played a crucial role in shaping and changing our responses to how we perceive the world around us and interact with one another. In this sense, the objective here is to explore the contours of how society is said to be now in a transitional phase of reflecting back on itself. That is to say, that we are fully aware that our actions in the name of progression have inevitably come back to haunt us, and that risk consciousness in effect has lead to a mindset in which we now construct reality in accordance to our perceptions of risk. Pursuing the concept of risk in this way will allow for the sources of our anxieties of risk to be revealed, which in turn will be the foundation for assessing the extent that contemporary society can be said to be transforming, broadly speaking, into one that is organised in a significant way around risk related issues.

Risk is by no means a new observable sociological actuality. Sociologists recognise that in every era, whether it be pre-modem or modern, societies have acknowledged and faced hazards and dangers of some sort or another. Risk assessment can thus be said to be historically specific and reliant, in the sense that within particular historical periods social understandings of risk relate to the circumstances of available knowledge of a given cultural environment i.e. its acquired mastery of nature and acknowledgment of its societal standing in the cosmos. For instance, Lupton (1999) notes that in medieval times risks were simply thought of in terms of fate and fortune, with technological advances new risks have surfaced, to the present day, many categories of risks can be discerned i.e. environmental risks, economic risks, lifestyle risks, criminal risks etc. Thus, humanity has developed tactics, systems of beliefs and strategies to define, combat, prevent and contain risks. However, it is argued that the nature of risk has changed in contemporary western societies. This is not to say that modernism has produced a culture of certainty;

 “On the contrary, feelings of insecurity are common, just as they were in pre-modern times, but we now harbour somewhat different fears, different targets and causes for our anxiety”

Those exponents of such a view, identify this phase of human development as a common characteristic of what they have termed 'second modernity', `late modernity' or the 'post modern age'.

Strydom (2002): notes that academics have evoked a new language of risk as they seek to define its meanings, strategies of control, and the conditions under which it is communicated in late modernity. This is an era, he suggests, that has been described as `the age of the environment' (von Weizsacker), 'civilisation of the gene' (Moscovici), 'biotech century' (Rifkin), 'runaway world' (Giddens) and above all 'risk society' (Beck). The diversity of terms that have been coined to describe this allegedly new social order is an indication of the numerous ideas put forth in attempts to understand and interpret contemporary social change. In Strydom view this current level of knowledge could easily be referred to as `the metamorphosis of danger'. For it is widely recognised that risk, environment, and society go hand-in-hand with a new culture of global expansion and our perception and communication of risk. In other words, we are now fully aware that civilisation as we know it is a lived experience of 'self-endangerment', 'self-injury' and also has the potential for 'self-destruction'. Seeking an explanation as to why this is so, involves establishing the reasons behind why our societies are more anxious about risks than ever before. This has lead to an emergence of a wide-ranging analysis associated with risk discourses. Occupying a central position has been debates on the cultural character of modernity, which in the broadest sense has lead to a critique of the fallings attributed to risk assessment and management on the part of modem institutions.

Join now!

Ulrich Beck (1992) authored the term 'risk society' and suggests that 'risk' may be defined as;

 “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself”.

In his view, the societal project of modernisation as we have come to understand it (over the past one hundred and fifty years or so), is no longer viable. His argument is that the logic of classical industrial society was that wealth production outweighs the logic of risk production, but in risk society there is a reversal of this relationship. He accredits such processes to modernists and ...

This is a preview of the whole essay