Jan 5 2015

Ulrich Beck

Ulrich Beck

Ulrich Beck (pic: R.Schmeken)

LSE Director Professor Craig Calhoun pays tribute to the world-renowned sociologist, Professor Ulrich Beck, who died on 1 January 2015.

On New Year’s Day 2015, LSE lost one of its most famous and distinguished faculty members. Ulrich Beck was among the first Centennial Professors recruited to LSE when that programme was created by then-Director Anthony Giddens in 1997. He identified strongly with LSE and its cosmopolitan vision and remained an active part of the School until his death.

Beck studied law and philosophy before turning to sociology, in which he did his PhD under Karl Martin Bolte at Munich. Jurgen Habermas was a kind of role model as he engaged simultaneously in student politics and theoretical inquiry, sociology and philosophy. In his early work he addressed topics like the theory-practice debates in German and American sociology and the relationship between vocation and identity. The later concern informed his early studies in the sociology of work and professions, and foreshadowed his career-long concern for individualisation and reflexive management of relations between existing reality and the future.

This was at the centre of the book that made Beck famous, his 1986 study of Risk Society. This was one of the rare books with a vision original enough to change how many colleagues and students would see the world and their own work. Beck suggested that the basic orientation of modern society, the driving need behind its organisation had shifted away from material production toward coping with risks. He meant risks at every level from personal life chances to global catastrophes.

With Giddens, Scott Lash and others he would develop this perspective into a theory of reflexive modernisation and eventually of the ‘second modernity’. By this last phrase he meant the era that succeeded agricultural and industrial struggles to overcome material limits and cope with natural threats. The new era was one in which risks created by humans dominated. Beck’s account became one of the most influential of many approaches to conceptualising an era marked both by new capacities for choice and the dark sides of prior technological successes and the development of large-scale socio-technical systems.

Beck pursued the understanding of second modernity and its implications in dozens of books and hundreds of articles. Not surprisingly, he followed his early interest in the sociology of work with important studies of its transformation in this new era. He analysed the reinvention of politics. He was closely engaged in the growing understanding of climate change and environmental crisis. And he was one of the first sociologists of globalisation- indeed one of those who helped to popularise the word. Beck called attention to global interdependence and the limits of any sociological understanding that didn’t adequately recognise it. In several books on cosmopolitanism he tried at once to understand the actual growth of such a global perspective and to advance it. One of his targets was the ‘methodological nationalism’ of much social science. He called attention to the ways in which the very organisation of social science data and research reinforce the idea that nations are the ‘natural’ units of social organisation, and obscure the real organisation of social life on other scales.

Beck was strongly committed to Europe as a transnational structure and also a project crucial to coping well with reflexive modernisation and the risks of globalisation. He was astonished and troubled that the European project lost popular support just when it was most needed. Among his analyses was that German dominance was potentially fatal for cosmopolitan Europe. Concerned by both right and left-wing populists, he was one of the organisers (with Jurgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, and many others) of a 2014 call to Vote for Europe – and he died with the future of Europe still uncertain.

His attention was also drawn to the volatility of personal life – not least the reorganisation of love in this new era. This included the increasing importance of ‘distant love’ (to quote the title of a book co-authored with his wife, the sociologist Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim) but also the risks of love in a world where divorce was newly common. This was part of a broader inquiry into a world that institutionalised individualism and demanded constant choices. This created a chaotic context for love, and indeed for religion, but neither lost its importance.

Beck approached sociology with passion, seeking to illuminate the big issues of the age and place of individual lives within them. His writings were full of metaphors and creative efforts to capture a changing, challenging reality.

In his lectures, seminars and innumerable personal conversations at LSE, Beck was a warm and positive presence. His themes ranged from the ways modern society is organised in response to hazards and insecurities, to the nature of cosmopolitanism and the possibilities for successful reflexive strategies in both politics and personal life. He moved students and influenced colleagues. He will be missed.

– Craig Calhoun, 2 January 2015

Anthony Giddens, former LSE Director and co-author of Reflexive Modernisation with Ulrich Beck and Scott Lash, has written an obituary for the Suddeutschezeitung, which is available to read here: Ulrich Beck .

LSE is hosting a public event on 24 February with Anthony Giddens and Richard Sennett to pay tribute to Ulrich Beck. More details are available here: A Tribute to Ulrich Beck

If you would like to post a tribute to Professor Beck, leave your condolences or share any memories you have of him, please leave a comment below.

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4 Responses to Ulrich Beck

  1. Pingback: LSE Director Professor Craig Calhoun pays tribute… | Bristol Festival of Ideas

  2. LSE Press Office says:

    Mary Kaldor and Sabine Selchow from LSE’s Civil Society and Human Security Unit have written an obituary for Professor Beck, which was published in the Guardian on 7 January 2015.

    Mary Kaldor writes:

    “This obituary for the Guardian was written jointly by me and Sabine Selchow. Sabine works half time for me and half time for Ulrich on our research programmes (both European Research Council Advanced Grants). Sabine was talking to Ulrich every other day and was in email contact only an hour before he died. In early December, I attended a meeting on Cosmopolitan Data in Paris organised by Ulrich and Sabine, which opened up some very exciting directions for research especially in the realm of digital data. We had so many plans for the coming year about projects we were going to undertake both separately and together. The day before he died he was finishing the introduction to his new book Metamorphosis of the World.

    He died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack so it has been a terrible shock for Elisabeth, his wife, and indeed everyone. It is impossible to describe what we have lost with Ulrich’s death. We still had so much to learn from him. He was such a good friend and colleague and mentor. And his public role, especially in Germany, was and is so needed. As Sabine puts it ‘ a critical thinker, voice of conscience and beautiful mind is gone’.”

    The obituary is available to read here: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jan/06/ulrich-beck

  3. Helmut K. Anheier, Dean and President, Hertie School of Governance Berlin, pays tribute to Ulrich Beck:

    While Craig Calhoun offers a comprehensive overview of Ulrich Beck´s intellectual agenda and contributions, there is nonetheless one aspect that may well deserve more attention: his thinking about the current roles and prospects of the social sciences themselves, especially in the context of globalization. As will become clear, Beck was deeply concerned about what he saw as fundamental flaws in their foundations and institutionalization. For him, the social sciences are hostage to inert, out-dated and increasingly inadequate thinking more reflective of their founding period of the late 19th and early 20th century than of today´s globalized world.

    For Beck, the process of globalization involves two major challenges for the social sciences. The first challenge is conceptual. Many basic social science concepts such as culture, citizenship, participation, social mobility, including civil society and the economy, appear ‘country-bound,’ linked to the nation state, and seem to stop at national boundaries. For him, the conceptual foundations of sociology such as Max Weber´s Grundbegriffe der Soziologie breath the air of the late 19th century, as did the national styles that soon emerged, i.e., “American” or “French” sociology.

    The second challenge is methodological or empirical. The major building blocks of social science data systems—from national accounts and labour market statistics to population survey research and organizational databanks—assume that the nation state is, if not primary unit of analysis, nonetheless the basic cognitive reference point for data aggregation and comparison. Even environmental statistics are related to the nation state as primary unit of analysis as if climate systems or global warming trends recognized such units.

    The implicit equation of country-society- economy-polity is fundamentally challenged by globalization. Globalization creates new institutions, organizations, networks and communities, etc. and with changes in cultures, values, and behavioural patterns. These not only cut across the nation state and related units, but they increasingly create and reflect social realities that are sui generis and can no longer be captured conceptually and empirically by existing social science terms and data. Globalization is more than the sum of national societies and economies or their international aspects. It is something qualitatively and quantitatively different, and ultimately challenges the assumed equivalence between nation state, domestic economy, and national society.

    For Beck, globalization has profound implications for standard social science. These were the topic of a workshop on Methodological Nationalism“ organized by Mary Kaldor and myself at the London School of Economics and Political Science on 26-27 June 2002. The LSE workshop, followed up by a second one in 2004 at the University of California, Santa Barbara, brought together experts who, like Beck, worried about the growing disparity between emerging social, economic, political even judicial realities and the conceptual as well as methodological repertoire of the social sciences. Participants included, next to Ulrich Beck, his wife Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Mary Kaldor and myself, Anthony Giddens, Meghnad Desai, Richard Sennett, Saskia Sassen, Martin Shaw, Emma Rothschild, Hakan Seckingelin and Sally Stares, among others. The workshops showed many fruits over the years, from contributions to the Global Civil Society Yearbook (see Mary Kaldor, Henrietta L. Moore and Sabine Selchow (eds.). Global Civil Society: Ten Years of Critical Reflection. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), the Cultures and Globalization series (Sage Publications, 2007-2012), the Global Studies Encyclopaedia (Sage Publications, 2012) or the Hertie School´s annual Governance Report (Oxford University Press, 2013-), which addresses the challenges of policymaking in a globalizing world und conditions of limited national sovereignty.

    The proceedings of the 2002 workshop, however, were never published, and only informal summary notes exist, compiled by Sally Stares at the time and with my own added. Excerpts may well be worth presenting here in an abridged and edited version as they highlight as well as illustrate an important facet of Ulrich Beck´s work: his vision of a cosmopolitan social science. What is more, one of his last major research projects, the sociology of climate change, was an attempt to advance his contributions to the 2002 workshop at LSE. Of course, Ulrich Beck did not invent the term methodological nationalism, nor was he the first to link it to globalization; yet, as the following summary excerpts of what Ulrich Beck said at the workshop show, he was intellectually probably the most radical in his conclusions:

    “Methodological nationalism is the social-science equivalent to what we might call the ‘national perspective/national gaze’ in social actors: a taken-for-granted belief that nation-state boundaries are natural boundaries within which societies are contained. Methodological nationalism is not an overt value judgement in itself, but an example of what Max Weber terms Wertbeziehungen (value relationships). Methodological nationalism is not a prejudice to be overcome; it is more like a state of mind or ubiquitous style of thinking, a taken-for-granted dichotomisation of inside-state/outside-state. To counter it requires some sort of post-national imagination.

    Global social inequalities are just one example that reveals the impact of methodological nationalism. In theorising social inequalities, methodological nationalism means that — from an intra-state perspective — ‘small’ national-level inequalities may be explained by some sort of domestic merit system and positively, reflexively legitimised as such, whereas ‘large’ global inequalities may be ignored by focusing attention away from the outside world (these are negatively legitimised). The effect of this outlook is to telescope in on internal affairs so that the global picture remains beyond sight. That domestic and global inequalities are not only related but that they constitute the same social reality escapes social research based on methodological nationalism.

    Even explicitly ‘global’ research on inequality is usually based on 200 or so different relevance and observation frames (i.e., countries), so that a truly global perspective is not attained. One might interpret this more insidiously as a collusion by state authorities and state-focused social sciences to ‘exclude the excluded’ via some organised, averted gaze. One does not have to look far to find examples of such collusions and their consequences: emerging economies, for instance, are often forced to take on economic and other risk burdens by industrialised nations with no regard for the external effects they will generate. Or take the writing of national histories — European nation states continually ignore how much colonialism and imperialism fostered their own development.

    Maintaining the currently existing ignorance about global inequalities would require the maintenance of within-nation equality norms alongside suppression of cosmopolitan norms, and the continuance of the idea of incomparability of social justice/equity across nation-state borders. But with globalisation, country boundaries are becoming permeable and internal globalisation is taking place in spaces formerly the province of the state. For example, human rights issues are increasingly removed from national citizenship contexts; educational curricula, family systems, work relations, private life etc. are increasingly becoming transnational; communication, information, cash flows, risks, products and services are rapidly becoming global phenomena. International agencies (e.g. the UN, World Bank) are beginning to make global data available so that comparisons are inescapable. There is increasing awareness of inclusion and exclusion in global rather than merely within-state terms, with the rise of supranational trade agreements (EU, NAFTA, etc.) and the study of diaspora cultures, global cities etc., and of course with the great increase in terrorist attacks recently.

    Methodological nationalism raises problems, then, because it is inadequate as a way of conceptualising a globalised reality; it therefore also hinders research, and ultimately also evidence-based policymaking. Cosmopolitan social science is the alternative: the systematic breaking up of assumed realities created within the confines of methodological nationalism and its ‘bounded’ politics of inside/outside. It involves revealing and criticising the self-perpetuation of existing social science concepts – particularly the circularity of the national perspective and its justification, and the strategies concealing cosmopolitan realities – and contributing to a re-imagining of the political. After Lakatos, we have a ‘positive problem shift’”.

    Thus, for Ulrich Beck, cosmopolitan social science is the beginnings of a new critical theory; an approach in which the national perspective is no longer assumed as a central organising principle, and in which the contradictions, dilemmas and unseen and unwanted effects of modernity are analysed. It is not a thesis of the end of the nation-state, nor is it methodological postmodernism, where “anything goes”, nor can it be generalist – it must be applied and assessed in actual research. Over the course of the decade or so following the LSE workshop, a decade that proved to be his last, this is exactly what Ulrich Beck did. Hopefully, this task will be taken up by others; perhaps at a workshop to assess how far we have come and how far we still need to go in the modernization, and indeed, reconstitution of the social sciences.

  4. Bridget Hutter, Department of Sociology and Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation, LSE says:

    Ulrich Beck was not only a great sociologist but he was also a lovely person. His work on the risk society has been hugely influential and insightful. It provoked much constructive debate and although some scorned it for its lack of evidence, it stimulated many empirical studies which have started to map out the nuances, patterns and caveats of his theory. Ulrich was generous about his critics and also generous with young academics spending time engaging with their questions and critiques.
    He was very influenced by contemporary events and sought to explain and understand them. Following 9/11 he debated (sadly only virtually) with the late Richard Ericson about the insurability of world risks, an exchange that still provokes much discussion among LSE students of risk and regulation. In recent years his growing interest in Asia translated into characteristic generosity towards upcoming Asian scholars. I remember fondly our discussions about the implications that Asian studies of risk and risk regulation might have for the risk society thesis. I am sure that this work, like his many other works, will continue to be influential and to generate an important legacy of work and tribute to this truly humane thinker.

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