A New Approach to Europe: An interview with Ulrich Beck

Foto: Matthis Kleeb Solheim

Foto: Matthis Kleeb Solheim

Beck is widely known for his theory of the risk society and the process of individualization, and during Norsk sakprosafestival in October he held a lecture based on his recent book German Europe. He stresses approaches with new concepts that are beyond borders. We spoke to him after the lecture.

PH: I want to start with a question that links us together: many students in Norway have your texts on the curriculum in sociological theory, and read texts from Risk Society and Individualization. I wonder, since some of these texts are a bit old, do you have any thoughts on how they should be read today?

UB: Yes, you’re right. Risk Society I would say is a must-read anyway, because it puts different perspectives together and talks about risk, it talks about individualization, it talks about reflexive modernization, even if those three parts are not tied together so far all those issues are put on the table. In relation to Risk Society, of course, the book in German Weltrisikogesellschaft is not the same as World Risk Society in English. In English it’s World at Risk. It gives some innovations because then in Risk Society there’s not so much about global risk, it starts to talk about global risk, but this is actually the issue in World at Risk, and now I find that there are so many misunderstandings I have produced. Let me give you the basic example, risk society in German is risikogesellschaft, which is one word. In English it’s risk society; two words. And I think f. ex. Giddens is using it as risk and society, by saying all socities are involved in all kinds of risk discussions and have to manage risk and so on, but this is not what I had in mind. I am using the term risk society combining those two conventional terms in order to demonstrate that we are in a situation where neither risk nor society is the right term. Using the combination of those two was supposed to demonstrate that we are in a situation where we don’t have conventional terms to describe the society. Risk society, is therefore a society beyond control by their own means, maybe that’s why there’s so much misunderstanding, and this is of course a completely different picture than if you talk about risk in society, or risk as a subject of society. When I say risk society I am talking about a situation where we are beyond the conventional terms of risk and beyond the conventional terms of society, even if I didn’t make myself clear enough about it from the beginning.

Right now, in the research I’m working with some younger people. I’m trying to redefine those concepts in order to demonstrate more systematically that I’m trying to construct what I call a descriptive theory, or a diagnostic theory, in order to open up the social sciences to the fundamental change which we did’t anticipate in our old concepts. My argument is that conventional theory doesn’t get this, because it’s a universal theory, and we need this kind of descriptive theory, taking in the perspective of ‘the others’, in many ways, in order to find out about reality. Picking up maybe both concepts, now I’m talking about individualization not only from an unreflected, say European perspective as I did in the book. There was a phase of discussion about individualization in different Asian countries, which is documented in a special issue of the British Journal of Sociology[1] and in this discussion I learned that I have a European perspective that can not be universalized. It’s interesting to, for myself and other, to notice how we have to change the theory of individualization if you are confronted with individualization in China, or Japan, or South Korea. This is only part of the experience of the cosmopolitan turn in the social sciences, and the same is happening with risk. I am learning. F. ex. in South Korea, for many years I have had lots of conferences and discussion with South Koreans, and I was very astonished because the South Korean public identified itself with Risk Society, they see themselves as a risk society, so when I come there I’m on the evening television and have to say what new risks are going on in South Korea even though I have no idea what’s going on there. They are identifying themselves with risk because they are experienceing a kind of compressed modernity. Compressed modernity means that in 50 years they experienced what we did in 150 years, and they say this compressed modernity has made them open to risk, and different kinds of risks. It’s not you’re type of risk, but a different kind of description of risk with the background of our society. And this is what I mean, it’s not only that I understand them, but I have to change my own perspective and theory on risk. This is what I mean with desriptive theory in a cosmopolitan way. This happened afterwards, in 2007 or 2008.

Climate change is a good thing to some extent because it forces us to rethink politics, and to cooperate across borders

PH: That was an interesting example, and I thought about this when you were talking to Universitas saying that new students have to use the new concepts and push the sociology forward with someting more accurate to our reality, but at the same time when I read you, you say that individuals are more reflexive and move quicker than institutions, but this example show both a quick change in time, and over vast geographical areas.

UB. Yes, and if you take the example of Japan; I learned for myself from the Japanese discussion over individualization that I’m actually an optimist. Even if I’m still having an ambivalent picture, I’m still an optimist, because I’m thinking of individualization on the background of a welfare state, to some extent, and they don’t have a welfare state. At least not very much of it. In stead, the family is supposed to take care of the individuals, and the companies are supposed to do it, but those doesn’t work any more. So their individualization process is actually…, puts individuals and the whole society into crisis. It’s quite a different individualization process than we have in Europe and in Germany.

PH: You have been posed as an optimist by others from around the world before. By for example the American sociologist Richard Sennett in an interview I read in Die Zeit[2]. What do you think about this?

UB: Let me put it in relation to Europe, since I talked about the European crisis today. If you put it an historical perspective I have to say; Europe hasn’t been in any better shape than today. If you compare it with other parts of the world right now, it’s even the best part to live in. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s part of taking this crisis seriously. Specially as a German I have to say; it has never been such a situation for Germany all over history, not because it’s a German Europe, but because we’re a democratic country now. Therefore I’m a little bit sick of the pessimism. I’m sick of the pessimism, and I don’t understand it. It’s a very easy way of relating to our reality. Maybe something is really going on and we have to talk about it, but pessimism will not solve it. I think pessimism is about the inability to think beyond the old concepts, because you are frightened in your old concepts, you become a pessimist when your thinking doesn’t work anymore. Ok, this is true, but then start over and look at reality, and let’s try to find out what’s going on. I’m not an optimist, but I think it’s only laziness of the intellectuals and all these sociologists using the post-prefix, everything is post, post, post, but this doesn’t say much. Post is actually the idea that demonstrates that they have no idea what’s going on.

Risk society, is therefore a society beyond conrol by their own means, maybe that’s why there’s so much misunderstanding, and this is off course a completely different picture than if you talk about risk in society, or risk as a subject of society

(the interview continues below)

Foto: Matthis Kleeb Solheim

Foto: Matthis Kleeb Solheim

PH: To say something more about Europe; the American sociologist Jeffrey Alxander held The Vilhelm Aubert Memorial Lecture at the University of Oslo about the backlash against multiculturalism in Europe this spring. He used the EU policy towards immigration and integration as an example for the discrepancy between people’s attitudes and official goals, and meant that the discrepancy posed a threat for Europe. And I wondered while reading Risk Society; could one say that right wing extremism is a form of reaction to detraditionalization?

UB: It’s a reaction to detraditionalization and a reation to cosmopolitanisation. It’s a reaction because they feel how much we depend upon «the other», and they right wing extremists  don’t want this to happen. Their suggestions don’t work. They are just fictious, but that’s not easy to tell the public. The narrative that «the other» is part of our own existence, even if we want it or not, is not easy to accept for most of people. As sociogists we have to see that this is a difficult situation for many people, because they feel estranged in their own countries some times. As a sociologist you have to take this seriously. Still the most important issue is to say: whatever you do «the other» is a part of our own existence. The religious other, the cultural other, poor people: all of them. You can try to exclude them, but you cannot really exclude them, because you depend on them in many ways. I think this has to be said, and accepted as a condition, because then you can ask what kind of arrangements should we make. Could we make research on it, and what kind of arrangements could we make in order to get along with this situation. And I think Alexander is right. I think one of the big issues…, I wouldn’t say multiculturalism because multiculturalism is an old term again. Multiculturalism is having many different cultures in one nation, and not being cosmopolitanized. Comsopolitisation ia a concept that opens up for dependence on people we don’t have in our local community even, we are related to them as well. These are different concepts. Still abound to the massive amount of nationalism and multiculturalism, or I would use cosmopolitisation, I think it’s the most important challenge for Europe. Economic crisis? Yes, I think somehow we’re gonna handle it, but if there’s going to be another national exclusion on the European level, if we think Europe as a nation, and not as a meeting point, it’s going to be hard to hold together.

PH: You said something interesting about cities as drivers for Europeaness which relates to this was, in stead of the nation state as we are used to think about. It has been posed as a problem for the EU for a long time that it doesn’t have a stage, or a common paper that makes sense, or anything. Do you se a possibility for a development towards this? And, in that case where do you think it will come?

UB: I think so. Some years ago I started an initiative on Europe called Manifest Europa: We are Europe. We tried to say: we have to create Europe from below. It’s one idea, but you also need actors. You need several actors, and I then started to think that actually climate change is not only a bad thing. Climate change is a good thing to some extent because it forces us to rethink politics, and to cooperate across borders. I think the nation states don’t do this, and then I suddenly found out…, and this is our project now, to look at cities; on how they react to climate change, on how they connect with other cities, and how they develop all kind of institutional ideas of innovations. This is a way of starting a new approach to Europe, from the cities. If you look at the history of Europe we’ve had this discussion before. You have the discussion over regions of the cities, but this discussion got into the background of the crisis. Now the nation states are the only actors again. I think we have to get beyond this, and start talking about the cities; they have a lot in common. They don’t see those borders. People have a kind of city identity, and see this as a European identity. It’s more evident for people living in cities, it’s every day evident, so we should use this as a new approach. Not only cities, but both nations and cities. Cities make up a different kind of Europe where it’s easier for people to identify themselves as Europeans. I just started on this,  and actually it’s the first time I’m talking publicly about it, but I hope it’s going to be picked up somehow.

Economic crisis? Yes, I think somehow we’re gonna handle it, but if there’s going to be another national exclusion on the European level, (…) it’s going to be hard to hold together



[1] The British Journal of Sociology Special Issue: Varieties of second modernity: extra-European and European experiences and perspectives. Eds.: Beck, U. & Grande, E., September 2010, Volume 61, Issue 3, Pages 409-638

[2] Oversatt til norsk under tittelen «Frihet eller kapitalisme» i Morgenbladet 19.05.2000