Risk Society and Media

Question: what are the implications of Becks “Risk society” thesis for our understanding of the media?

This question can be viewed in two parts.

What must be first understood is what a risk society is.  Secondly, what must be discussed is how such a societal paradigm’s development could be linked to media and communications practices.

Importantly, the use of the word “implications” within the question implies a negative connotation for the link between media and the risk society. While there is motivation to media outlets to commoditise and exploit the public trust that has been awarded to them in a resource scarce capitalist system, the role of the media is central to Beck’s idea of modernisation becoming reflexive (Beck, 2009), they occupy a key position in the mediascape of the “relation of definitions”.

This essay aims to briefly discuss this and it will argue that, as the risk society becomes increasingly mired in the anxiety of a reflexive modernity, this anxiety begins to take the form of more polarized, extreme views on risk. This is a schism that only serves to stifle meaningful discourse (such stagnation can be seen in a variety of “hotbed” issues), and it is a schism that best serves society if it is avoided.

It should be noted that the effect of the mediatisation of risk extends further then this, from the radicalisation of groups within society, especially within societies of ethnically diverse Diasporas, to the further stratified distribution of wealth and inequality, and the changing habits of consumption. However, due to the scope of this essay they will not be discussed explicitly.

So, what is a risk society?

In a public lecture given by Ulrich Beck at the London School of economics in 2006, Beck referred to the narrative of risk is a narrative of irony, and narrative that dealt with involuntary satire, optimistic futility, and attempts to anticipate what cannot be anticipated by the institutions of a contemporary society (Beck, 2006). As Socrates said, “I know that I know nothing”, and so, as we move towards a more technically driven society, we move towards a society where man-made consequences to man-made solutions become more unfathomable – manufactured uncertainties. It provokes us to re-assess the exceptional nature of this age and our positions within a society of ever increasing risk.

While the past is an indicator, like Schrödinger’s cat, the reality is, perceiving risk is an entirely futuristic exercise in calculating quantum physics, as it can be seen as both immeasurably minute and infinitely large in scale and scope. Risk society errs on the latter (Beck, 2006).  As society increasingly tries to reconcile growing perceived risks and an understanding of its unpredictability the question when implementing man-made technological solutions is no longer about the effectiveness and economic viability of the technology, rather how to manage the risks of utilising such technology, both political and economic, social and ethical. This is, in essence, Beck’s concept of reflexive modernisation.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, so the risk society is becoming a more globally shared experience. As Beck (2006) noted, it is not something that can be denied. The more emphatically the existence of world risk society is refuted, the more real it becomes.  And so, it is through this inexorable globalisation of risk that the questions of reflexive modernisation become equally interconnected.

But, how is the media involved?

While Beck’s work has not been widely critiqued by mass communication researchers, nor has he elaborated on the role of media in the risk society, it is clear that, spattered throughout his work, he has afforded media a fundamental role in the processes of reflexive modernisation (Cottle, 1998, p. 6).

The idea of the “relations of definitions” was created by Beck to encapsulate the way he saw risks as socially constructed within a public discourse. He identified the mass media as the medium for which the social construction, contestation, and criticism could occur within a risk society.

This has become increasingly important in our contemporary late modernity, as defining the ontology of risks, that is, what Beck refers to as manufactured uncertainties with the potential for catastrophe, and epistemology of how they understood, has also become increasingly problematic.

“Risks such as those produced in the late modernity differ essentially from wealth… [They completely evade] human perceptive abilities… They induce systematic and often irreversible harm, generally remain invisible, are based on causal interpretations, and thus initially only exist in terms of the (scientific or anti-scientific) knowledge about them. They can thus be changed, magnified, dramatized or minimised within knowledge, and to that extent they are particularly open to social definition and construction.” (Beck, 1992 p. 22–3)

While Beck acknowledges the historically exceptional scope, scale, and potential effect of contemporaneous risks, what is important to note, as is acknowledged in his above statement, is the fact that more and more these risks are invisible to the “human perceptive abilities”. Only when they are processed through fora that allow for the negotiation of a socially defined relation of definitions, such as within the scientific, legal, political, and economic systems, and, most importantly for our discussions, media and communications, can they become “visible” to the lay.

To Beck the most insidious of all risks that evade human perceptive abilities, above all others, is that of radioactivity and a nuclear catastrophe (Beck, 1992 p. 22).

Catastrophe. A foregone conclusion?

Beck, as the proponent of a society, is suitably nihilistic about nuclear energy. He sees their invisibility, scope, lethality and, multigenerational impact as calculations of risk approaching infinity. Even insignificant risks are now compounded by insignificant risks, a consumer surrounded by consumables of “minimal danger”, is in fact, surrounded by danger. Precedents instituted by scientific and legal approaches, essentially, collapse, as their potential consequences eclipse their potential use, and, hence, any form of oversight.

As such, Beck criticizes the basic validity of the institution that calculates this risk, the scientific.  He sees sciences’ monopoly on rationality as broken (Beck, 1992 p. 29) (even down to the rules of mathematics); that the erratic and unpredictable path of the effects of risks disrupts the idea of causality, causing science to be more theoretical than concrete; that scientists can no longer separate the political content of the definitions of risk from their impetus in pathos of objective rationality – to acknowledge this is to confirm Beck’s observation, and to reject it is to also acknowledge the dehumanising process that the scientific system engenders upon their contribution to the creation of a “relation of definitions”.

However, despite being part of the academic lingua franca the assertions of Beck’s risk society have remain problematic, and some elements murkily defined, this is especially the case with Beck’s fragmented writings on the role of the media. Cottle (1998, p. 25) noted that, despite the media’s key role in performing various processes within the risk society and the relation of definitions, Beck’s  “discussion of the mass media has, however, been found to be uneven, underdeveloped, and often contradictory…”

Forgiven the fact that, if self reflexive, Beck’s arguments would be contradictory, Beck’s powerful, if not inflammatory, ideas, while they have implanted their importance within the academic psyche, have resulted in a clear polarisation of ideologies.

Beck recognised the struggle in the negotiation of the relation of definitions between economic and political interests involving the scientific system, it is ironic, then, that disciplines of science heavily invested within Beck’s work, social science and media and communications, is also recognised, by Mythen  (2007, p. 4), to also be engaged in a struggle to negotiate the relation of definitions of Beck’s “risk society”, without significant success.

Mythen noted that, “what is notable about responses to the risk society thesis is that they have clustered around the polarities…  it would seem that the middle ground between these coalitions is sparsely populated. The impulse to either embrace rebuff Beck’s project has sidelined important sociological questions about which aspects of the risk society thesis can be profitably researched…” (2007, p. 795)

Mythen’s statement acknowledges the fundamental polarising effect of the nihilism within Beck’s concept of “risk society”, even down to the debate over its validity, and the barriers this schism creates to the meaningful discourse of its ideas.

So, does risk society warrant further investigation, or does the thesis’ nihilistic avoidance of discourse say otherwise? And, how does it affect our understanding of the role of the media

Beck’s writings on the risk society are a testament to the development of the 20th century. They are macro theoretical musings about the permeability of society’s different spheres and the understandings of risk that flow between them, and have provided a structure for us to understand the role of the media in the flows of communicating risks in the process of creating a “relation of definitions”.

It would be remiss of us to disregard Beck’s risk society and theorists have shown their applicability to a wide range of fields (Benn, 2004; Moldrup and Morgall, 2001; Stenson and Sullivan, 2001).

However, it would be equally remiss of us to allow the polarisation of “camps”, academic, political, or otherwise, to continue, and to allow the media to favour coverage of this schism, due to economic interests, and obscure the public sphere’s ability for common meaningful discourse.

As Mythen (2007, p. 807) stated,

“…Metaphorically speaking, we need to fund the fruits of Beck’s harvest at the same time as uprooting some of the weeds…”

Biblio

  • Beck, Ulrich (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.
  • Beck, Ulrich (1997) The Reinvention of Politics: Rethinking Modernity in the Global Social Order. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Beck, Ulrich (2006) ‘Living in the world risk society’, Economy and Society 35(3): 329-345
  • Beck, Ulrich (2009) ‘Critical Theory of World Risk Society: A Cosmopolitan Vision’, Constellations 16(1): 3-22
  • Benn, Suzanne (2004) ‘Managing Toxic Chemicals in Australia: A Regional Analysis of the Risk Society’, Journal of Risk Research 7: 399–412.
  • Cottle, Simon (1998) ‘Ulrich Beck, Risk Society and the Media’, European Journal of Communications 13: 5–32.
  • Møldrup, Claus and Morgall, Janine-Marie (2001) ‘Risk Society – Reconsidered in a Drug Context’, Health, Risk and Society 3(1): 59–74.
  • Mythen, Gabe (2007) Reappraising the Risk Society Thesis: Telescopic Sight or Myopic Vision? London. Sage.
  • Stenson, Kevin and Sullivan, Robert (2001) Crime, Risk and Justice: The Politics of Crime Control in Liberal Democracies. Uffculme: Willan.
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