Remembering Ulrich Beck An unconventional thinker

Ulrich Beck
Ulrich Beck | Photo (detail): © Ulrich Beck’s private collection of photographs

He had an “extraordinarily acute feeling for the future”, describing the undesired side-effects of progress as few others have done. The great German sociologist Ulrich Beck died on 1 January 2015.

Ulrich Beck became famous for his book Risk Society, which was published in 1986, just prior to the Chernobyl disaster. But the “extraordinarily acute feeling for the future” subsequently attributed to him was not only evident in this book, it characterised his entire output. What set Beck apart from most other sociologists was his shrewd observation of how modernity, which up until the early 1970s had looked so optimistically into a future of such abundant technological promise, was being increasingly overshadowed by the undesired side-effects of this very progress.

But Beck was not a pessimist by nature. He was a scientist who held up a mirror to the present to show how negative developments were coming to a head. Despite all the crises and recent disasters like Fukushima, the 2008 financial market crash and the rising tide of terrorism over the past 30 years, he retained his belief in the emancipatory power of enlightenment and humanity’s ability to learn. That’s why he publicised his ideas, critiques and appeals well beyond academic circles, especially as he – like many social theorists of his generation – saw civil society as a crucial element in bringing about lasting change.

Ulrich Beck was born in 1944 in Stolp, a small town in Pomerania that is now part of Poland. He grew up in West Germany, studying sociology, philosophy and psychology at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) Munich. After initially holding professorships in Münster and Bamberg, he later returned to LMU Munich, where he taught sociology for decades, right up to his death. During this period, he was also a visiting professor in Cardiff, at the London School of Economics and in Paris and was showered with numerous other international appointments, honours and awards.

Global sociological debates

Beck’s fame was, however, based not only on his analyses of risk society, which he eventually subsumed under the heading World Risk Society in view of the transnational nature of nuclear and climate hazards. Instead, with his “second modernity” theory he sparked global sociological debates on the harmful effects to which today’s society is being exposed as a result of its large-scale industrial processes. His basic argument is that modern society is increasingly preoccupied with – if not overtaxed by – dealing with the consequences of its self-created infrastructure, be they of a scientific, financial or political nature. It has become “reflexive”, not only in a cognitive but also in a dramatic sense – in other words, confronted with itself and its adverse aspects.

Cosmopolitan fragmented world with its own dynamics

With a positively missionary zeal, Beck urged not only his colleagues in the social science community but also the public at large to recognise and acknowledge what had become a “cosmopolitan” reality, even in places where it has traditionally been least suspected, namely within nation-states themselves. What has evolved here – in families, in migrant communities and integration environments, in business companies and legal structures, but above all in the big cities that have become so extraordinarily diverse and multicultural – is a cosmopolitan fragmented world with a dynamics all of its own.

Europe as a prototypical response

Beck was a staunch public advocate of developing and invigorating Europe and the European Union. In his view, Europe is the world’s first-ever – prototypical – response to what has become a transnational society. Particularly since the financial market and sovereign debt crisis, which Europe has yet to resolve, Beck has continued to lend his rhetorically powerful voice and argumentation skills to the European cause – and to sharply criticise the German Federal Government’s crisis management. He has denounced the domination of the southern European debtor countries by Berlin’s strict austerity course as “taming tactics” that will ultimately not help but rather divide Europe.

But Beck would not be the unconventional thinker for which he is so admired if he had not come up with an idea that is as ambivalent as it is comforting and which was developed in theoretical terms in his last book, of which only a rough draft exists. This idea is summed up in the term “emancipatory catastrophism”. What nations, political cosmopolitans and the global economy are unable to accomplish, namely helping people worldwide to respond with a sense of shared responsibility and solidarity, may be achieved by (averting) climate catastrophe.

Ulrich Beck’s great body of work has made him one of the best-known and most cited sociologists. Beck died of a heart attack on 1 January 2015 at the age of 70.