Risk society

Risk society

"Risk society" is a term used to describe a society that is organized in response to risk. According to sociologist Anthony Giddens, it is "a society increasingly preoccupied with the future (and also with safety), which generates the notion of risk" (Giddens 1999: 3) Risk can be defined in the risk society as a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself (Beck 1992: 21).

While humans have always been subjected to a level of risk, modern society is exposed to a particular type of risk that is the result of the modernization process itself, altering social organization. There are risks such as natural disasters that have always had negative effects on human populations, but these are seen to be produced by non-human forces. Modern risks, on the other hand, are the product of human activity. These two different types of risk can be referred to as external risks and manufactured risks (Giddens, 1999). A risk society is predominantly concerned with manufactured risks. The marked difference between the two is that there is a significant level of human agency operating in the production and mitigation of manufactured risks.

Because manufactured risks are the product of human activity, there is the potential to assess the level of risk that is being produced, or that is about to be produced. As a result, risks have transformed the modernization process itself. With the introduction of human caused disasters such as Chernobyl and the Love Canal Crisis, public faith in the modern project has declined (a claim that has not been independently verified within all population groupsFact|date=July 2008) leaving a variable trust in industry, government and experts (Giddens 1990). The increased critique of modern industrial practices has resulted in a state of reflexive modernization. Concepts that demonstrate reflexive modernization are sustainability and the precautionary principle that focus on preventative measures to decrease levels of risk.

Social relations have changed with the introduction of manufactured risks and reflexive modernization. Risks, much like wealth, are distributed unevenly in a population and will influence quality of life. People will occupy social risk positions that are achieved through aversion, which differs from wealth positions that are gained through accumulation. 'In some of their dimensions these follow the inequalities of class and strata positions, but they bring a fundamentally different distribution logic into play' (Beck 1992: 23). Beck contends that widespread risks contain a 'boomerang effect' in that individuals producing risks will also be exposed to them. This observation suggests that wealthy individuals whose capital is largely responsible for creating pollution will also have to suffer when, for example, the contaminants seep into the water supply. This argument may seem oversimplified, as wealthy people may have the ability to mitigate risk more easily by, for example, buying bottled water. However, the argument is that the distribution of the risk originates from knowledge as opposed to wealth. While the wealthy person may have access to resources that enable him or her to avert risk, it would not even be an option were the person unaware that the risk even existed, and therefore risk position is fundamentally dependent on knowledge and access to information, which may or may not correlate to economic status, but often does.


* Ericson, R.V. & K. Haggerty. 1997. "Policing the Risk Society." Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
* Anthony Giddens (1990) "Consequences of Modernity". Cambridge: Polity Press
* Anthony Giddens (1999) “Risk and Responsibility” "Modern Law Review" 62(1): 1-10.
* Beck, Ulrich (1992) "Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity". New Delhi: Sage. (Translated from the German "Risikogesellschaft" [http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risikogesellschaft] published in 1986

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