Since the 1980s, researchers have discussed how modern societies organize themselves in response to risk. The term “risk society” goes back to the sociologists Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck who both tried to come up with an overarching theory of society itself.

Beck theorised that as a consequence of rapid technological advancement, we increasingly had and have to deal with the risk associated to human-made threats, like the climate crisis.

He characterised risks as follows:

  • risks are invisible
  • risks are universal – you can’t buy yourself out of them, everyone is affected equally (I don’t think this is true but it’s what he said)
  • risks are irreversible – we don’t know the outcome of sowing genetically altered crops (actually, we sort of do)

The risk society is defined not just by the distribution of goods (wealth), but more so by the distribution of “bads” (pollution, contamination, and other by-products of production).

Beck (1992, p. 21) defines risk as “a systematic management of the dangers and uncertainties that have been induced and even introduced by modernization”.


Living in and coping with world risk society - 42nd St. Gallen Symposium - YouTube, talk by Beck himself
Ulrich Becks concept of the Risk Society - YouTube, summary of Beck’s theories
(8) Sociology ShortCuts: Risk Society - YouTube, 3 minute explanation by Brian Wynne from Lancaster University