Ulrich Beck

This difference in how people are affected by class and risk positions is essential. To put it bluntly, in class positions being determines consciousness, while in risk positions, conversely, consciousness (knowledge) determines being.

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  1. shinichi Post author

    Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity

    by Ulrich Beck

    (1992)

    This panoramic analysis of the condition of Western societies has been hailed as a classic. This first English edition has taken its place as a core text of contemporary sociology alongside earlier typifications of society as postindustrial and current debates about the social dimensions of the postmodern.

    Underpinning the analysis is the notion of the `risk society’. The changing nature of society’s relation to production and distribution is related to the environmental impact as a totalizing, globalizing economy based on scientific and technical knowledge becomes more central to social organization and social conflict.

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  2. shinichi Post author

    (p.52-55)

    These differences also make it appear understandahle how quite differem groups are affected then and now. In the past, the affliction was dictated along with one’s class fate. One was born into it. It stuck to one. It lasted from youth to old age. It was contained in everything, what one ate, how and with whom one lived, what kind of coworkers and friends one had, and whom one cursed and, if necessary, went into the streets to protest against.

    Risk positions, on the contrary, contain a quite different type of victimization. There is nothing taken for granted about them. They are somehow universal and unspecific. One hears of them or reads of them. The transmission through knowledge means that those groups that tend to be afflicted are better educated and actively inform themselves. The competition with material need refers to another feature: risk consciousness and activism are more likely to occur where the direct pressure to make a living has been relaxed and broken, that is among the wealthier and more protected groups (and countries). The spell of the invisibility of risks can also be broken by personal experiences, such as fatal signs on a beloved tree, the planned nuclear power plant in the area, a toxic waste accident, media reporting on it, and similar things, which in turn sensitize one to new symptoms, toxic residues in foodstuffs, and the like. This type of affliction produces no social unity that would be visible on its own and to others, nothing that could be designated or organized as a social class or stratum.

    This difference in how people are affected by class and risk positions is essential. To put it bluntly, in class positions being determines consciousness, while in risk positions, conversely, consciousness (knowledge) determines being. Crucial for this is the type of knowledge, specifically the lack of personal experience and the depth of dependency on knowledge, which surrounds all dimensions of defining hazards. The threatening potemial that resides in the determinams of the class situation – the loss of a job, for instance – is evident to everyone affected. No special cognitive means are required for this, no measuring procedures, no statistical survey, no reflections on validity, and no consideration of tolerance thresholds. The affliction is clear and in that sense independent of knowledge.

    People who find out that their daily tea contains DDT and their newly bought cake formaldehyde, are in a quite different situation. Their victimization is not determinable by their own cognitive means and potential experiences. Whether DDT is contained in the tea or formaldehyde in the cake, and in what dose, remains outside the reach of their own knowledge just as much as does the question of whether and in what concentrations these substances have a long- or short-term deleterious effect. How these questions are decided, however, decides a person’s affliction one way or the other. Whether yes or no, the degree, the extent and the symptoms of people’s endangerment are fundamentally dependent on external knowledge. In this way, risk positions create dependencies which are unknown in class situations; the affected parties are becoming incompetent in matters of their own affliction. They lose an essential part of their cognitive sovereignty. The harmful, threatening, inimical lies in wait everywhere, hm whether it is inimical or friendly is beyond one’s own power of judgment, is reserved for the assumptions. methods and comroversies of external knowledge producers. In risk positions, accordingly, features of daily life can change overnight, so to speak, into ‘Trojan horses’, which disgorge dangers and with them risk experts, arguing with each other even as they announce what one must fear and what not. Even the decision of whether one will let them in or ask them for advice at all does not lie in the hands of the afflicted parties. They no longer pick the experts, but instead the latter choose the victims. They can barge in and out at will. For hazards can be projected onto all the objects of daily life. And that is where they are now lodged – invisible and yet all too present – and they now call for experts as sources of answers to the questions they loudly raise. Risk positions in this sense are springs, from which questions rise to the surface, to which the victims have no answer.

    On the other hand, this also means that all decisions on the risks and hazards of civilization falling within the compass of knowledge production are never just questions of the substance of knowledge… They are at the same time also decisions on who is afflicted, the extent and type of hazard, the elements of the threat, the population concerned, delayed effects, measures to be taken, those responsible, and claims for compensation. If it is determined today in a socially binding way that, for example, DDT or formaldehyde are dangerous to health in the concentrations in which they appear in ordinary products and foodstuffs, this would be the equivalent of a catastrophe, since they are present everywhere.

    This makes it clear that the margins for scientific research become narrower and narrower as the threatening potential increases. To admit today that one had been mistaken in setting the acceptable values for the safety of pesticides – which actually would be a normal case in science – amounts to the unleashing of a political (or economic) catastrophe, and must be prevented for that reason alone. The destructive forces scientists deal with in all fields today impose on them the inhuman law of infallibility. Not only is it one of the most human of all qualities to break this law, but the law itself stands in clear contradiction to science’s ideals of progress and critique.

    Unlike news of losses in income and the like, news of toxic substances in foods, consumer goods, and so on contain a double shock. The threat itself is joined by the loss of sovereignty over assessing the dangers, to which one is directly subjected. The whole bureaucracy of knowledge opens up, with its long corridors, waiting benches, responsible, semi- responsible, and incomprehensible shoulder-shruggers and poseurs. There are front entrances, side entrances, secret exits, tips and (counter-)information: how one gets access to knowledge, how it should be done, but actually how it is twisted to fit, turned inside and outside, and finally neatly presented so that it does not say what it really means, and signifies what people should rather keep to themselves. All of that would not be so dramatic and could be easily ignored if only one were not dealing with very real and personal hazards.

    On the other hand, the investigations of risk researchers also take place with a parallel displacement in everyone’s kitchen, tea room or wine cellar. Each one of their central cognitive decisions causes the toxin level in the blood of the population to shoot up or plunge, so to speak – if one first short-circuits the entire division of labor. In risk positions then, unlike class positions, quality of life and the production of knowledge are locked together.

    (p.69)

    We are concerned, then, with a permanent large-scale experiment, requiring involuntary human subjects to report of the accumulating symptoms of toxicity among themselves, with a reversed and elevated burden of proof. Their arguments need not be heeded, because, after all, there are acceptable levels that were met! Those levels, which really could only be determined from the reactions of people, are held up to deny the fears and diseases of the afflicted! And all of this in the name of ‘scientific rationality’! The problem is not that the acceptable level acrobats do not know. The admission of ‘not knowing either’ would be comforting. That they do not know, and yet act as if they did, is the annoying and dangerous thing, as well as the fact that they continue to insist on their impossible ‘knowledge’ even where they should have known better long ago.

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