On the Death of Ulrich Beck “The greatest sociologist of his generation”

Risk researcher Ulrich Beck: “An inspirational dialogue partner”
Risk researcher Ulrich Beck: “An inspirational dialogue partner” | Photo: BeckGroeberKleine/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

He was one of the nation’s most significant intellectuals, a political thought leader and bestselling author. He was also a good friend of the Goethe-Institut. Now the sociologist Ulrich Beck has died at the age of seventy. The Goethe-Institut mourns his passing.

“Ulrich Beck was the greatest sociologist of his generation.” With these simple and unambiguous words, Lord Anthony Giddens begins his obituary for an esteemed colleague in the Süddeutsche Zeitung – without pathos, but also without a fear of superlatives. Beck’s importance is not just beyond doubt for the British.

Beck was long linked with the Goethe-Institut by a close friendship. He was often the guest of numerous Goethe-Instituts around the world. Genoa, Beirut, Barcelona, Sofia and Sarajevo are just a few of the cities where Beck impressed the audience with his lectures and discussion input. “As an outstanding academic, he was an inspirational dialogue partner not only intellectually;” recalls Johannes Ebert, the Secretary-General of the Goethe-Institut, “his openness and great interest in the questions and views of the audience in his host countries was also moving.” Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the President of the institute, adds, “Ulrich Beck trusted in the self-responsibility of the individual. He considered it the prerequisite and the opportunity to master epoch-making changes and develop mutual responsibility.”

What we have in common, what unites us, was always the focus for Beck. Only a few weeks ago, Ulrich Beck was the guest of the Goethe-Institut Sarajevo, which had organized a series of lectures on Culture – Identity – Citizenship together with the university there. At the end of the event, the dean of the Faculty of Political Science, visibly moved, thanked Beck and underscored that this was the first time since the Bosnian War that students from all of Bosnia and Herzegovina were attending a lecture together. The students celebrated Beck with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

As a risk researcher Beck dominated many political debates in recent decades. He became famous in 1986 with the bestselling book Risk Society, which was translated into more than 35 languages, and followed up on it in 2007 with World Risk Society.

According to Beck’s analyses, modern society does not suffer from its defeats, but from its victories. Global terrorism is a consequence of the victory of modernity. We are threatened by the climate disaster because of the success of industrialization. Mass unemployment is a result of increased productivity. The age pyramid is breaking down social benefits systems because medical science has allowed people to live longer.

Beck’s explanations of the social construction of global risks in the “second modernity” received a great deal of approval. Since risk – as the anticipation of possible disaster – is not measureable, its perceived extent depends on its definition. It can be dramatized or minimized, transformed or denied. And it must become visible – like the hurricane that is declared the herald of global warming.

The global risks, Beck argued, are beyond our control. He criticized that politicians sometimes stage the horrors and take advantage of the fear of terrorism to introduce unchecked security regulations and monitoring instruments.

With humour, catchy imagery and a grip on reality, Beck – sometimes along with his wife and colleague Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim – published one bestseller after the other. In The Normal Chaos of Love (1990) and Distant Love (2011) the couple described the breakdown of traditional values and bonds as well as the consequences of individualization.

Ulrich Beck in an interview with the Goethe-Institut Spain on the subject of mobility: