R.I.P. Ulrich Beck [cross-posted from SocNet]

by johnmccreery

Beck has long been one of my favorite sociologists. His description of the Risk Society as one in which invisible risks replace visible wealth as the dominant form of social inequality and only experts can claim to identify and know how to address those risks resonates strongly with the world of Chinese popular religion that was the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation.

One interesting possible application rests on the observation that all forms of consulting are magic. People with problems attribute them to invisible causes. They turn for help to those who claim special powers to diagnose and prescribe, and random chance alone will lead to identification of some who claim such powers as having “It,” that special something that produces desired results. Negative evidence will disappear in a context where most who claim special powers are known to be frauds. The primary question for those looking for “It” to solve their problems is how to find the golden needle in a huge and constantly growing haystack. They turn to to their social networks for recommendations by trusted others, whose trust may, however, be grounded in nothing more than having found someone whose recommendations lie in the apparent success tail of a normal curve. . . .

P.S. I would be delighted if some computational sociologist with greater math skills than my own could build a model around these assumptions.

But, yes. I mourn the death of Ulrich Beck.


2 Comments to “R.I.P. Ulrich Beck [cross-posted from SocNet]”

  1. Thanks for this. I was just thinking about the sociology of risk the other day. It seems to me that there’s a ‘status bloodbath’, in Geertz’ memorable phrase, involved in risk assessment and interception. Status accrues the more unlikely the threat, and the more elaborate the countermeasures. But then this seems like a subset of the field marked out by the axes crude/robust vs. sensitive/delicate, as illustrated of old by princesses with glass slippers and exquisite response to peas under the mattress.

    So this would seem to be another area where the relative prosperity and democratization of modern life has extended the strategies of nobility into the general population. Would that be consistent with Beck’s ‘risk society’?

  2. Please take what I say with a grain of salt. It has been nearly two decades since I read Risk Society. That said, it seems to me that Beck’s analysis points in other directions. Extending the strategies of nobility into the general population has, by making them common instead of rare, reduced their value. So much so that the pomp and circumstance and gorgeous public displays of wealth that marked high status have retreated to gated zones where the elite show off to each other in ways of which most ordinary people are largely unaware.

    A few examples enter public consciousness; one thinks of coronations and royal weddings, celebrity mansions and CEO yachts, for example. But I find myself thinking of airports, where all of the passengers waiting for their flights seem to wear the same range of casual or business attire, and all are free to shop in the Duty Free stores; but the real mark of elite status is access to the lounges, discretely isolated from the gates at which the masses wait to board.

    To Beck, however, the important thing was the way in which elite status provides protection from risks to which the masses remain exposed, economic fluctuations, climate change, chemical and biological pollution, and disease, all of which are attributed to invisible causes that only experts understand. As an active member of the Green movement, he was particularly concerned that government and corporate experts were ignoring the local knowledge of farmers who could see directly the effects of contamination in their own fields because that knowledge is not “scientifically valid.”

    One can go a bit further and observe that wealth management, legal protections, advanced medical treatments like those that keep Dick Cheney’s ticker ticking, organic food artfully prepared in fine restaurants instead of pink slime in fast food burgers —these are the sorts of things that, mostly out of sight instead of proudly displayed, increasingly constitute inequality today.

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