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Living In The Risk Society

Journalism Studies
ISSN: 1461-670X (Print) 1469-9699 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjos20
Jeffrey Wimmer & Thorsten Quandt
To cite this article: Jeffrey Wimmer & Thorsten Quandt (2006) LIVING IN THE RISK SOCIETY,
Journalism Studies, 7:2, 336-347, DOI: 10.1080/14616700600645461
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/14616700600645461
Published online: 17 Feb 2007.
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An interview with Ulrich Beck
Jeffrey Wimmer and Thorsten Quandt
Terrorism, unemployment and environmental catastrophes dominate the news agenda around
the world. In contrast to this public debate, most post-industrial societies are experiencing
economic growth, a considerable level of welfare and security, and a long-lasting period of peace
in their home territories. So why is the discussion in these societies revolving around risks and
danger? The German sociologist Ulrich Beck attributes this to a far-reaching change which he calls
‘‘reflexive modernization,’’ where unintended and unforeseen side-effects of modern life backfire
on modernity, questioning the very basis of its definition. In an exclusive interview, Ulrich Beck
talks about how this affects the way we live and perceive reality */and he discusses the central
role of journalism and media in the process of reflexive modernization.
Ulrich Beck : Biographical Information
‘‘Risk society,’’ ‘‘reflexive modernization,’’ and the ‘‘elevator effect’’ */these are some
of the key concepts coined by German sociologist Ulrich Beck. Beck is arguably one of the
most influential contemporary sociologists, and his work on second modernity circulates
not only in the scholarly community, but also in political circles and among intellectuals
around the world.
Beck started his career in Munich, where he received his Doctor of Sociology (1972)
and worked as a sociologist for several years (1972 /9), until he became Professor of
Sociology in Münster, Germany (1979 /81). The next step in his career led him to Bamberg,
where he wrote and published The Risk Society: towards a new modernity (originally
published in 1986; English translation in 1992). The notion of man-made risks in modern
society was of central importance in the public debate of the mid-1980s, because of
various ecological catastrophes such as the Chernobyl disaster. Beck approached these
issues as examples of what he called a global transformation towards societies dominated
by the concept of risk. The Risk Society quickly became a bestselling scholarly book. In
1992, Beck moved back to Munich. Since then, he has been Professor of Sociology at the
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, and also teaches at the London School of
Economics and Political Science (from 1997 onwards).
Beck is a prolific writer who particularly addresses the most pressing societal topics
of his time in an accessible way. He has written a series of well-known books, including the
previously mentioned The Risk Society (1992) and Reflexive Modernization (1994, with
Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash). His latest publications focus on individualization (2002,
with Beck-Gernsheim), globalization (e.g. Beck, 1999, 2000, 2005a) and what he calls
‘‘cosmopolitan societies’’ (e.g. Beck, 2002, 2006). The books have been translated into
more than 20 languages so far. Along with friend and fellow influential sociologist
Anthony Giddens, Beck analyzes and criticizes current developments in (Western) societies
Journalism Studies, Vol. 7, No 2, 2006
ISSN 1461-670X print/1469-9699 online/06/020336-12
– 2006 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/14616700600645461
head on */not only in scientific writings, but also as a public intellectual through politically
motivated sociological essays published in European newspapers.
In a Nutshell: Reflexive Modernization and Risk Society
In his sociological works, Ulrich Beck describes a paradigmatic shift from modernity
to a ‘‘second modernity.’’ He argues that man-made, yet unwanted side-effects of
modernity challenge the very basis of its definition, producing growing societal
uncertainties and thus leading to a new age where people must come to terms with
the consequences of their actions. This ongoing process is called ‘‘reflexive modernization.’’ Reflexive does not mean ‘‘reflected’’ or ‘‘conscious’’ in this context: on the contrary, it
refers to a ‘‘boomerang’’ effect, where mostly unplanned results of (production) processes
in modern societies backfire on these societies and force them to change */certainly not a
consciously planned chain of events.
As a result of this process, society in the ‘‘second modernity’’ is no longer concerned
with the distribution of power and wealth, but instead with the way it handles risks. This
influences the definition of societal groups as well: as Beck described in The Risk Society ,
problems like ecological risks are not distributed according to wealth, social milieus and
strata */they affect society as a whole. However, the ability to avert risk is highly
dependent on knowledge and information */here, mass media and journalism come into
play by making these risks visible.
The process of reflexive modernization challenges society and the individual alike.
According to Beck, it changes the way we work, the concept of the nation state, as well as
the economic basis of society. Overall, Beck sketches out second modernity as a non-linear,
anti-determinist time with competing, sometimes seemingly paradoxical developments
going on simultaneously. However, he also identifies political and social options in this
process of dissolving norms and changing power structures. So Beck’s theoretical work
might be critical, but it is never pessimistic: he understands sociology as a science with
political potential */in opposition to many other contemporary sociologists.
Journalism Studies (JS) : Professor Beck, in 2005, we have witnessed burning cars in the
French ‘‘banlieues’’ 1 */television pictures, showing violent riots in Paris and other towns in the
country. The riots in the suburbs certainly had some of the features of a rebellion. Is this a sign
of what you hinted at since many years: the noticeable side-effects of a structural change
towards a second modernity?
Beck: Yes, I believe this is one aspect of these events. First of all: we have a tendency
to interpret the events with concepts that are not completely appropriate any more. From
the public debate, especially in other countries like Germany, one could get the impression
that these were immigrants’ riots. However, the young protesters were second- or thirdgeneration descendants of immigrants, and paradoxically, their protests were rooted in
the fact that they were fully assimilated into the French society, and they took the
republican idea of ‘‘equality’’ as a reference point for their self-understanding. On this
basis, they felt that their exclusion from the job market and from society was a permanent
scandal. So it was not a status as immigrant, but on the contrary, the internalization of a
typically French identity together with the synchronous discrimination that contributed to
these riots. There is a second point to this, however, which more closely relates to my
theoretical ideas: the exclusion of these young people had a different quality, which stems
from the development of the job market, and you can observe similar developments all
over Europe and in many other post-industrial countries around the world. There is an
ongoing process in the job market, where unskilled or low-qualified jobs are outsourced or
replaced by machines, so that the low-income groups in society do not have any
opportunities for getting a job. Thus, they do not experience integration into society and
identity building through work anymore, and they fall into a category of people that are
left over and irrelevant. They form a group of people where the old differentiation
between work and capital, rooted in industrialized modernity and its class society, does
not have the same meaning anymore. These people exist outside the job market, and
society does not need them anymore: the economy can prosper without them, the
governments can be elected without them. These new groups of marginalized people are
excluded from the rule and power system of the first modernity. This leads to a huge
potential for conflict, challenging the very basis of modernity itself. So one part of the
events can be explained by the processes described in the concept of reflexive
modernization: we do not experience a linear modernization, but a reflexive one, where
a successful working society already carries the seeds of its own dissolution, of its own
change through unwanted side-effects. And this reading of the events is not limited to
France or Europe, but it can be applied to other parts of the post-industrialized world as
JS: It is interesting to see how journalism covered these events. Especially in foreign
media, you did see the usual protagonists, like Sarkozy, the French Minister of the Interior,
who said: ‘‘These are just criminals and nothing else.’’ Most foreign media did not cover the
complexity and the background of the situation, labeling the events simply as ‘‘immigrant
riots.’’ Could this be explained by the inability to see beyond the constructions of modernity? In
other words: are mainstream mass media still thinking in old categories, not realizing the
changes towards a second modernity?
B: Yes, that is how I see it. The interpretation of events still uses essentialist
definitions of ‘‘foreigners’’ and ‘‘immigrants,’’ whereas other perspectives like ‘‘globalization,’’ ‘‘generation conflicts’’ and ‘‘job market’’ that refer to different horizons were nearly
non-existent in the public perception of the events. One has to note, however, that the
media’s interpretations vary according to the self-definition of the respective nations,
too */this becomes obvious when you compare homogeneous societies like Germany
with countries like Great Britain that have a more pronounced immigration history. So, in
Germany, the events were interpreted largely on the basis of the society’s self-definition,
which is still rooted in the concept of integration and a national ‘‘container society.’’
In this context, it might be interesting to have a look at the self-reflection of the
media as well. Some time ago, I had a public discussion with German television journalists
and experts where I explained my theories. After a while, when they realized what my
ideas were about, they asked me what I would advise them to do, whether they should
open their coverage for the new situation that I describe in the concept of reflexive
modernization. Well, actually I started to criticize the TV representation of society. For
example, the children in Augsburg’s2 primary schools speak 100 different languages. So
we have a lingering pluralization and cosmopolitization of society, and its extent is not
visible in public media. I gave the journalists a few examples of how the mass media
specified a certain modernist understanding of society, where the realities that I described
here did not exist at all. Well, my criticism was met with some resistance on the part of the
journalists, as you can imagine. They answered: ‘‘Niklas Luhmann3 told us that we are just
confronted with our own interpretations in journalism. We are producing journalism’s own
reality according to the rules that are defined in journalism itself. According to systems
theory, journalism does not depend on an ‘outside’ reality definition, as you describe it. To
us, Luhmann’s approach seems to be a realistic description of journalism, so what is your
problem?’’ This is a fatal situation, when you realize that complete reality zones are
excluded from the self-reflection of the media */and this is not even acknowledged as a
problem, because one is referring to definitions and theories that allow for quite an
arbitrary interpretation.
JS: Do you feel that journalists try to avoid such references to external reality
constructions, since they believe that these are not value free and objective? Do you think that
they understand themselves as being more professional this way?
B: This is an aspect of professionalization, at least to a certain extent. We have a
similar phenomenon in sociology: a misguided principle of neutrality. In my opinion,
neutrality does not mean that you have to choose boring and meaningless topics, but it
implies the use of a certain language and perspective */also for interesting and important
and critical topics. However, there is more to it: there is a general trend, especially visible in
homogeneous societies, where society tries to lock itself against the reflexive process in
order to protect itself against the changes. Which is paradox, since the changes stem from
the inner pluralism of society and the inner cosmopolitization. It is very difficult to realize
this and to name the phenomenon, especially from the inside of society.
JS: However, there are some movements that try to break with the modernist
understanding and perception of society */also visible in new and innovative ways of
journalism. In the United States, there has been a trend towards ‘‘civic journalism,’’ where the
journalists chose topics that are closer to the everyday life of the citizens, closer to the
communities and their problems, closer to their perception of reality. Then we have weblogs
and Internet publications that offer alternative viewpoints. Isn’t this some kind of countermovement, a ‘‘bottom up’’ refusal of the dominant structures that always offer the same
patterns of reporting and the same images of society?
B: I completely agree with you */we have similar tendencies here in Europe as well,
it is not limited to the United States. The attempts to break out can be found at all levels,
especially in the realm of civil society. For a long time the focus of sociology and political
science has been on the state as the central actor. In the last years, we have seen an
opening for a number of other actors that have to be taken into account in order to get
the full picture of the political negotiation situation */on the local, the national and most
obviously on the transnational level. This includes actors of the civil society who have a
potential to intervene in conflict situations, for example conflicts with transnational
companies. These new groups have a considerable amount of power, especially when they
form coalitions. I sometimes have the impression that in global conflicts, social movements
might be the best public actors, better than the governments, since they ask questions
that go beyond the level of the nation state.
JS: There are two interesting findings from communication studies that are connected
to this discussion. First of all, we can observe new groups that are challenging journalism
from the inside and the outside: for example, there are journalistic weblogs that offer
journalists a place to publish without the restrictions of a corporate environment and editorial
limitations. There are also community-based projects or weblogs, as we mentioned before.
The second observation comes from PR research: the Internet gives consumers, experts,
environmental groups and critics of companies a public space to publish information
worldwide, and this public criticism can become a real problem for the companies.
B: Exactly! I asked myself the question ‘‘What is the companies’ key to power?,’’ and I
found a surprisingly simple answer which fits this context very well. The power of
transnational companies is the flexibility to say ‘‘no’’! The can say ‘‘no’’ to certain places
and circumstances */they have to invest, but they do not have to invest in a certain
country under certain conditions. This ability to say ‘‘no’’ is very difficult to control, and it
gives them far-reaching opportunities in a globalized world. The nation states are relatively
helpless in this context. However, there is a counterforce to the transnational conglomerates: organized consumers have a parallel ability. They can also say ‘‘no’’ to a specific
product or company. They can redefine the buying act as an election act. This cannot be
controlled, which means that the companies are at the mercy of the consumers. You
cannot sack consumers, you cannot say: ‘‘You are not doing what we expect from you, so
we move our factories to another country.’’ So social movements that are directly or
indirectly involved in organizing the act of saying ‘‘no’’ have a huge political power over
transnational industries. The companies react to this potential of power, and this leads to
interesting processes of power in the global arena, which are not adequately represented
when looking at these processes from the perspective of the nation state. On the other
hand, one has to ask how national politics can redefine their scope of action in such a
context. Politicians and governments do not have to choose the side of the capital
automatically */they could also join forces with the power of the consumers, and by doing
this, regaining some power in the game with the transnational companies. So the situation
is much more complex, but in the traditional public debate, these aspects remain invisible
most of the time. However, I am sure that there is an audience for such a viewpoint.
Actually, I believe that people would be electrified by this perspective, if the media would
show them that ‘‘you are not helpless, you have certain possibilities of action, you just
have to organize them in a different way.’’ This would also serve an instructive function,
and it certainly would cause some interest.
JS: You sketched the power constellations in a global context, and you described how
the media could cover these constellations */but isn’t it necessary to expand the perspective
by acknowledging that the media are actors in these constellations, and that they themselves
B: Certainly. Usually this is not mentioned in the recent sociological debate, but
there is always a tacit assumption in this debate that the mass media are a prerequisite of
globalization. A meaningful discussion of globalization is not possible without the
precondition of mass media */you cannot conceptualize the globalized world without
them. There are some people, like Wallerstein, who claim that there has been a globalized
system since the 16th century. Others see an emergence of large-scale networks in the
early 20th century, starting with international trade. But one always has to ask: what is so
new about the globalization we are talking about today? And there is one decisive answer:
the new media offer new options */and new dependencies. However, there are just a few
sociologists that focus on the specific meaning of the mass media in this context. Certainly,
there is some work on the economic structures of media, but the perspective of media as
actors in the second modernity is underdeveloped. I have to admit that this focus is
underdeveloped in my own analysis and the concept of the risk society as well. Actually, I
am still waiting for somebody to pick up the ball here. There are some important questions
here: where lies the independence of media, where is their power? I suspect that their
space for action is much larger than one would expect. They have the ability to fascinate
their audience, and by doing so, they can widen their economic possibilities. We know
from several catastrophes that this is not just a peripheral aspect: by waking people up,
moving them and opening up their perspectives, even across borders, they also fulfil their
generic interests. This was obvious during the Brent Spar conflict between Greenpeace
and Shell in 1995. It was like an open, real-life thriller, where people could influence the
events by choosing or avoiding a certain gas station. It was like a wrestling match between
the two protagonists, and by offering this type of fascination, the media exercise their
power and their market interest. I am quite sure that whoever realizes this public interest
as a market interest will be successful.
JS: Do the media just reflect these interests by covering events? Some environmental
risks */like the radioactive fallout after Chernobyl */cannot be directly and immediately
observed, so the feeling of threat is based on media coverage. So isn’t the feeling of risk largely
a construction of mass media?
B: These are difficult questions, because they imply other questions: what are
‘‘genuine’’ risks, what defines a risk? First of all: risks are not catastrophes, not the ‘‘case of
damage.’’ They are the believed expectation of catastrophes. The ‘‘case of damage’’ is
confined by space, time and social limitations. The expectation of a catastrophe, on the
other hand, can be generalized and fabricated as a global phenomenon. However, this
cannot be done by will! As sociologists, we find it fascinating to observe whether it works
or not. Let us take the environment and the climate change as an example: it took decades
until it was an accepted topic, and the acceptance probably emerged from the Rio
conference in 1992. One has to note that the process of environmental destruction is
completely independent from this */political and public perceptions are autonomous, and
the acceptance is a social construction, which means that something is successfully
pushed through into public conscience as being ‘‘real.’’ Another example would be the risk
of terror. Its ‘‘career’’ was very different from the environmental risk: it was there, in an
instant, without a long process of building public acceptance. This is certainly due to the
pictures that we have seen everywhere, the pictures of 9/11. Obviously, these acts of terror
were planned by the perpetrators as a media event, as a live experience. I am quite sure
that these pictures and the media coverage were of a central importance for the
acceptance of terror as an important risk. Nowadays, we think of terror as a central political
topic */even in parts of the world that were never directly affected by acts of terror. This is
what I describe in The Risk Society */the expectation of catastrophes. Certainly, you cannot
reduce the emergence of such expectations to mere media influence */but the media play
a key role here.
JS: In your analysis of sociological concepts, you expect a shift from modernity to a
‘‘second modernity,’’ and you call for a cosmopolitan perspective that takes these changes
into account. Have you been surprised by the reaction of the Western world and especially the
United States after 9/11? The actions taken to counter the terrorist threat were certainly deeply
rooted in a modernist understanding of society, based on the notion of the nation state: the
debate revolved around a threat to the nation, national security, national duty, and there was
even the attribution of terror to whole nations like Afghanistan and Iraq.
B: Yes, in a way, the current events seem to contradict the concept of second
modernity. It is an interesting phenomenon that the globalized risk situation does not
automatically lead to a cosmopolitan interest in new instruments, institutions and answers
on a global level. Actually, one can observe the reactivation of old strategies. Under the
condition of terror, Hobbes’ understanding of the nation state as a guarantor of security
seems to be relevant again. On the other hand, this is the reflex of a phantom state: again
and again, we experience that the nation states permanently fail to solve these problems
on their own. This is obvious for ecological risks, and it is equally evident for the terrorism
threat. Trying to solve these transnational problems on a national level by locking the
national territory is like raising a garden fence to avoid the smog in town */you simply
cannot escape it by doing so. If you look at these developments from a historical
perspective, you find two names in sociology that represent this type of national
intervention and control: Max Weber and Michel Foucault. And you are right in saying that
the current events */which seem to be based on such a modernist perspective */seem to
contradict my theories. However, it is proven every single day that these national solutions
and the nation-based logic do not work anymore. They cannot keep their promise of
efficiency in this process of societal change, so the old solutions are counterproductive,
the problems get even worse.
JS: Isn’t it ironic that the Bush administration apparently understands the principles you
describe in the risk society, but uses them for a particular political purpose? Clearly, the feeling
of permanent threat through terror helps them to unite the American people, eases the
enforcement of political decisions and keeps the level of criticism, even from journalism, at a
low level. It seems as if the principle ‘‘rally ’round the flag’’ is constantly reiterated through
terror alarms.
B: That is true, and I completely agree here. I can remember a conference on risk
society some years ago, before 9/11. The participants were mostly Europeans and
Americans. And the Americans felt that we Europeans exaggerated the topic of risk, that
we were quite hysterical, while the Europeans thought that the Americans were somewhat
naive. This changed instantly after the terror acts in New York: the Americans became
radical converts! The world was reconstructed and interpreted under the condition of the
terror risk. And I have to admit that I underestimated the cleverness of the US
administration to use the idea of risk as a reason to underpin a lot of decisions and
actions that could not be otherwise justified. It is a lesson in doing international politics as
risk minimization. For some time, one of the many justifications for the Iraq war was the
danger of terrorists obtaining weapons of mass destruction. This is a very hypothetic risk,
but it justified a preemptive attack, because the worst case seemed to be so horrible.
That’s an argument that we know from the protests against nuclear power in Germany:
the protesters argued that the danger of a nuclear catastrophe justified the violation of
laws, even if the danger was minimal.
JS: But why isn’t there a social or political movement that goes into the opposite
direction? According to your theories, we should experience the emergence of new approaches
and answers.
B: That is a question that I ask myself very often, too */and there are no simple
answers. Probably a lot of current events and solutions are more evident from the
sociologist perspective of reflexive modernization than from a governmental viewpoint,
even if the national politics fail to solve the problems. Actually, the pressing topics */not
only terror, but also unemployment, changes of the welfare state, emigration, ageing
society */are discussed in all Western societies. You have to find new forms of action
through transnational cooperation, you cannot do it yourself */yet we see only weak
attempts of cooperation. And I have to add that science is not very helpful either, because
a lot of research is limited to the concept of the nation state. So I came to the conclusion:
we need a second enlightenment! We have to start talking and thinking in new ways. In
this process, science and the media could play a key role. With the multiplication of reality
constructions, old certainties are dissolving. The media and science have to offer new
interpretations, they have to make the whole mess visible for the people */that is
something which cannot be done by individuals.
JS: Science plays a key role in your work. However, aren’t the scientific institutions and
researchers also deeply rooted in modernity? We are not experiencing a huge movement
towards an emancipatory science */most scholars in our field are leaning towards positivism,
theories of a middle range and value-free description.
B: That is a type of so-called ‘‘professionalization’’ which is also visible in sociology.
However, this system is not working so smoothly anymore, and I feel that there is a
growing insecurity in science as well. The respective developments are different in various
countries, though. In Great Britain, you will find an intensive and impressive discussion of
the necessity to find new and innovative tools of understanding and interpretation. In
Germany, we have a very stiff system that seems to be stuck in its structures. And in
Australia, change is the norm. So we can observe many different developments and
answers to the challenges I mentioned before.
JS: Nevertheless, social sciences in general still do not get involved in the public debate,
at least not directly. Usually, they say: ‘‘Here are our results. Now society and politics have to
decide what to do with these findings.’’ Should social sciences become emancipatory in the
sense that they intervene in the public discourse and offer the people the means of change?
B: Well, that’s a complex issue, and it might be more complex than what your
question implies. I have conducted research on the uses of scientific findings for quite a
long time*/this was one of my first research areas. And I found through several projects
that the opinion and comments of scientists are mostly irrelevant for the social and
political effects of their findings. Whether you give an evaluation or not does not change
these effects; they are much more dependent on the relevant questions and how you
communicate these questions. Scholars in the social sciences have to learn that there is no
direct way into social practice. You cannot fabricate this connection by valuing or by
propagating such a connection. It is the other side that decides what to do with the
findings, and you have to get them interested by asking the right questions. So the power
of science lies in choosing the right topics and by fascinating the others through the
respective findings. However, there are ways to break out of the existing structures, and
this relates to your previous question: I am an advocate of ‘‘cosmopolitan social sciences.’’
‘‘Cosmopolitan’’ does not necessarily mean ‘‘global’’ in this context. It means that the
traditional borderlines between the inside and the outside, between national and
international are not retained anymore */in order to get new mixtures between the
inside and the outside. This is not Wallerstein, it’s not the ‘‘world society,’’ but a concept
for very specific and concrete uses. For example, in certain parts of society, we have
gender and minority quotas in order to counter imbalances. It would make sense to have a
similar quota for ‘‘external’’ persons that bring new perspectives into scientific research,
coming from different backgrounds. I think it would be helpful to have people from all
continents, not only with a Western background, in the academic world and our
universities. They would look at the same questions from a different viewpoint, and
this cosmopolitan perspective would offer interesting insights. Compared to the
homogeneous recruiting system we have right now, especially in Germany, this would be
a significant improvement.
JS: How about another practical application: couldn’t we transfer this cosmopolitan
principle to journalism and break up the traditional differentiation between national and
international coverage? One example: usually, in German TV, you have a German
correspondent who is reporting on American topics from the United States. Wouldn’t it
make sense to have a US-American correspondent as well, or even somebody from a
completely different cultural context?
B: These are exactly the models I am talking about. How about European topics? Are
they domestic or foreign politics in the European countries? Certainly, they are */and
should be */domestic topics, but you rarely find connections between European and local
topics. For example, journalism should provide insights into how the European foreign
trade policies affect the employment situation in a small German village. Cosmopolitan
journalism must uncover these connections. And I believe that this would have a positive
effect on journalism’s overall attractiveness. The first ones who would do this will have an
enormous innovation potential at their hands.
JS: Talking about developments in journalism: right now, we can observe far-reaching
changes of the work structures in journalism. For example, the increasing speed of news
editing and new forms of Internet reporting are transforming journalism practices. On the
other hand, there are many part-time journalists who can hardly make a living from this
stressful job. These trends are part of the developments you sketch in the concept of reflexive
modernization: We cannot expect life long employer /employee relationships anymore, and a
lot of people have multiple micro jobs. Do you believe that people can meet the demands of
this situation?
B: That’s a part of the controversial transformation that we already discussed in the
beginning of the interview. The development of working conditions and employment in
society is a classic example of the central question of whether */and how far */we will
understand that the modernization process permanently changes its own basis and
existence, mostly due to unwanted side-effects. I wonder: how can we experience these
far-reaching changes in the way people work */and still expect that there will be full
employment in society? Hannah Arendt realized this very early, when she said that
through better machines and better production, a lot of work becomes unnecessary, and
as a result, there will be job cuts in these areas. So the success of the working society leads
to its own transformation. If we continue to believe that full employment is the aim and
only useful way of human existence, and that it is needed to find an identity in society,
then we will run into problems when people cannot cope with the situation any longer.
We must develop an alternative. We have to ask whether there are other ways to organize
life and maintain a perspective in society, even if there aren’t jobs for everybody. In my
own theoretical work, I proposed the idea of ‘‘civic work.’’ That’s work which is not
necessarily paid, but rewarded in other ways. Certainly, we already have civic engagement,
but this is always seen as something additional, as a luxury. However, it is not viewed as an
alternative to work; it is an entirely different concept. But it is difficult to discuss these
ideas, especially in times where we have problems with unemployment */obviously, the
more problems we get, the more difficult it becomes to talk about alternatives, especially
with politicians. They seem to prefer to fall back on preaching the dogma of full
JS: But it’s not politicians alone */most likely, the greater part of society would not be
ready for such concepts! Do we need a wake-up call?
B: Well, it’s a bit like playing ping pong */the ball is jumping from one player to the
other and back again. You certainly cannot expect politicians to implement something
that is not already present in society. So you have to change the perceptions of the
people, they need to understand the importance of these processes. That has something
to do with education and knowledge, not so much with a wake-up call or radical
developments. A radicalization of political camps would lead to a reactivation of the old
solutions, to authoritarian forms, as we saw during the French riots. In times of insecurity,
there seems to be a tendency to fall back on authoritarian instruments. You can observe
the same thing in science as well: through the increasing rigidity of methods and
viewpoints, scientists try to cope with their own insecurities.
JS: You are talking about certain forms of empiricism.
B: Yes, that’s very obvious in sociology. Data analysis becomes more refined,
excessively concerned with small details. This is the scientific reaction to uncertainties.
However, this is usually accompanied by a loss of reflection. The perfection of methods
seems to be a solution at first */but this type of professionalization will not lead us to the
way out of the insecurities that go hand in hand with the process of reflexive
modernization. You can see this in the United States, where sociology is professionalized
like in no other country in the world, and there, the testing of hypotheses and statistical
analysis is the central line of the profession. And in this scientific environment, Michael
Burawoy, past president of the American Sociological Society, wrote an article where he
said */‘‘We have to get back into the public! We are losing contact with society.’’4 That
statement had an enormous influence in the United States, and now the Europeans are
beginning to hear the message as well. Burawoy is cautious, though */I would phrase this
more radically */by saying: ‘‘We have to stick to professional methodological practices, but
if we do not succeed in translating our stuff for the public, we are not doing our job
properly and we will lose influence.’’ He also adds that we have to study the classics of our
field again, because they provided great ideas about how to combine theory, research and
public dissemination of the findings. Basically, he said that we need a renaissance of
classical sociology. So obviously, the over-specialization reaches its limits, and it puts itself
at risk, especially if you think of it in terms of public funding: if society does not see a need
for a certain type of research anymore, then there is the danger of job cuts and the closure
of institutes and departments. And as you can see: There’s a counter impulse now, starting
in the heart of American sociology.
JS: One could probably identify some parallel developments in communication studies
as well.
B: Yes, that is interesting. I see this in many parts of the social sciences, everywhere.
It is a process similar to what we have discussed previously, in relation to other concepts,
like environmental risks and the terror problem. The principles of reflexive modernization
can be applied to science as well.
JS: You have sketched out a perspective that you have developed in the last 20 years.
Let us have a look at the future: what are the next goals in your theoretical work?
B: I have developed a cosmopolitan perspective in my last books, and apply it to the
social sciences as well. Currently, the social sciences are very much relying on
methodological nationalism, with the unspoken implication of a national ‘‘container
society.’’ In my current work, I would like to offer an alternative. This could be the
‘‘methodological cosmopolitism.’’ In my last three books I defined this approach in relation
to power and control in society. I discussed the theoretical and philosophical implications,
and I tried to illustrate the concept with the example of Europe */I developed the
European perspective together with Edgar Grande.5 We argue that we need new concepts
if the nation state cannot be described in the same terms as Max Weber did 100 years ago.
Personally, I will try to show that this has practical implications as well, and that new
definitions are also useful for scientific practice. And I have to add: these are also
methodologically interesting questions. Can we still work with the standard sociodemographic categories, like nation, gender and so on? Probably we have to ask different
questions, use different concepts and indicators.6 We talked about this in the beginning of
the interview in regard to the French riots: the problem of differentiating between
foreigners, locals, citizens and so on. These concepts do not work inside Europe anymore.
For example, there is the simple question of what a household is. This is a basic category
for all social sciences */I guess that is true for many questions in communication and
journalism studies as well */and its meaning is absolutely unclear, to say the least. The
spatial, social and economic definitions of this category are in a state of flux, but we still
pretend that they exist in their traditional meaning. Just think of the problems that we get
with the old definitions if we do not consider the growing participation of women in the
work force and the new definitions of ‘‘couple’’ and ‘‘partnership.’’ What is a couple
nowadays? The French sociologist Kaufmann answered this question in a surprising way:
he says that a ‘‘couple’’ relationship starts when two people are buying a washing machine
together! That’s when they have to commit themselves to a relationship. Kaufmann says
that sex can happen, that all kinds of things can happen without real commitment, which
is what defines the relationship of a couple. Another example: in my book on Europe,
I tried to show the readers what European society is */a society that does not exist as a
nation state. So I thought it might be interesting to show the ‘‘horizontal Europeanization,’’ relationships across the national borderlines. I simply asked: How many ‘‘European’’
families are there in Europe? How many are married, how many are parents? That is the
European microcosm! But it is a question that can drive you nuts */you simply cannot get
this information. The information doesn’t exist in the national member states’ statistics.
They do not have this type of data in their records. For example, a marriage in Brussels
does not appear in the German records */and that’s just a bi-national case. So if you try to
systematically think about these problems, you realize that there is zero information right
now. And that is a central task for sociology. We have the funding and the resources, and it
is an elementary question. We have to solve these problems!
JS: Professor Beck, thank you for this interview!
French suburbs.
Augsburg is a medium-sized city in Bavaria, Germany.
Niklas Luhmann (1927 /98), a famous German sociologist, is one of the primary thinkers
behind functional systems theory in the social sciences. Luhmann’s theories are very
prominent in German journalism research (see also Löffelholz and Quandt, 2006 and the
forthcoming Theory Review section in Journalism Studies 7(4) by Armin Scholl).
See Burawoy (2005). Beck expands on this argument: ‘‘[S]ociology not only needs a public
voice, it also needs to be reinvented first . . .’’ (2005b, p. 335).
See Beck and Grande (2004).
From the perspective of communication studies, Scheufele and Wimmer (2006) define a
methodological framework for the analysis of media use in the context of this sociopolitical change.
(1992) The Risk Society: towards a new modernity , London: Sage Publications.
(1999) What is Globalization? , Cambridge: Polity Press.
BECK, ULRICH (2000) World Risk Society , Cambridge: Polity Press.
BECK, ULRICH (2002) ‘‘The Cosmopolitan Society and Its Enemies’’, Theory, Culture & Society 19
(1/2), pp. 17 /44.
BECK, ULRICH (2005a) Power in the Global Age , Cambridge: Polity Press.
BECK, ULRICH (2005b) ‘‘How Not to Become a Museum Piece’’, The British Journal of Sociology
56(3), pp. 335 /343.
BECK, ULRICH (2006) The Cosmopolitan Vision , Cambridge: Polity Press.
BECK, ULRICH and BECK-GERNSHEIM, E. (2002) Individualization , London: Sage.
BECK, ULRICH, GIDDENS, ANTHONY and LASH, SCOTT (1994) Reflexive Modernization */politics, tradition
and aesthetics in the modern social order , Cambridge: Polity Press.
BECK, ULRICH and GRANDE, EDGAR (2004) Kosmopolitisches Europa [Cosmopolitan Europe] , Frankfurt
am Main: Suhrkamp.
BURAWOY, MICHAEL (2005) ‘‘For Public Sociology’’, American Sociological Review 70(February),
pp. 4 /28.
LÖFFELHOLZ, MARTIN and QUANDT, THORSTEN (2006) ‘‘New Journalism, Old Theories? Current
developments in journalism theory: the German speaking countries’’, Ecquid Novi, The
South African Journal for Journalism Research 27(forthcoming).
SCHEUFELE, B. and WIMMER, JEFFREY (2006) ‘‘Zur Problematik soziodemographischer Variablen im
Rahmen der Mediennutzungsforschung’’ [‘‘About the Difficulty of Socio-demographical
Variables in the Context of Media Use Research’’]’’, in: W. Wirth, E. Lauf and A. Fahr (Eds),
Forschungslogik und -design in der Kommunikationswissenschaft, Band 2, Anwendungsfelder in der Kommunikationswissenschaft [Research Logic and Design ] , Cologne: Von
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