The ‘risk society’ and beyond

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The ‘risk society’ and beyond

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


Lee Kyu-youn


Ulrich Beck, a leading expert in modern sociology, died on Jan. 1. Over the past few decades, he remained one of the most renowned overseas scholars in Korea. It was in 1986 when he published °∞Risk Society,°± and his ideas were introduced in Korea in the early 1990s. At the time, the country was facing a series of enormous disasters: the Seohae ferry sank in the Yellow Sea, the Seongsu Bridge collapsed and the Sampoong Department Store came tumbling down.

The dark side of compressed growth surfaced just as Korea was about to escape the label of being a developing country.

Whenever a disaster takes place, Korean media habitually cite Beck°Øs concept of °∞risk society°± and attempt to explain the incident°Øs cause and background. Beck and his °∞risk society°± concept is likely more renowned here than in any other country.

I°Øm among Beck°Øs followers, having covered those disasters as a journalist. But most of the incidents, however, were primitive, far from Beck°Øs °∞risk society.°± But because the term was so attractive, Korean media used the expression frequently, despite its inappropriateness. Beck°Øs idea holds more weight in explaining a simple accident.

From my understanding, he created the concept of °∞risk society°± by breaking down three presumptions.

The first is whether modern scientific technology provides safer protections to mankind, and the answer is no. Advanced technology produces higher risks. Immense and complex technologies, like nuclear power generation, bring with them a larger public risk.

The second is whether we can control risk, and the answer is also no. The prediction that risk can be prevented with advanced technology, or that an accident will not occur based on the probability, often failed. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan is a perfect example.

The third presumption is whether risks have borders, and the answer, once again, is no. The progress of globalization and the expansion of an accident°Øs scope have lifted borders. The aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster threatened all of East Asia.

As we can see, the aspects that support a risk society are advanced technologies, uncertainty and globalization. In other words, Beck urged us to fundamentally rethink °∞modernity,°± which has been praised as the achievement of mankind.

It°Øs an exaggeration to use the concept of °∞risk society°± when talking about a simple accident. So then, will Beck°Øs argument lose its power in our society?

The answer is no. Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, is an area where it hardly snows, but Mauna Ocean Resort°Øs roof still collapsed due to heavy snowfall. The Sewol ferry - the integration of the most advanced technologies - capsized, killing hundreds, while the servers at public institutions and media companies were felled by faceless cyberterrorists. °∞Risk society,°± in fact, explains more recent disasters more appropriately.

When Beck visited Korea, I attended his lecture. When asked if he sees Korea as a risk society, he answered that Korea is a classic example of a risk society. He added that it was because technological advancement, globalization and modernization progressed quickly here.

Korea is probably more dangerous than his assessment. It is an extremely closely connected society with extensive wireless networks, yet we shallowly reflect on our growth and modernity at the risk of our own existence.

Imagine the chaos we experienced when the wireless communication networks were temporarily paralyzed and public Internet networks were hacked. Think back to the past few weeks.

A photo or a video file can spread to tens of millions of people in less than a day, provoking instant rage. Maybe a second risk society, in which °∞informatization°± is included with globalization and modernization, has begun.

Fortunately, the celebrated sociologist provided a remedy for °∞cosmopolitanism.°± He said when we have more world citizens who exercise their sense of community, diversity and responsibility and when their voices grow strong, we can stay distant from extreme risks.

Although Beck has died, risk society remains. It is probable that Korea faces another risk. We must create a reliable shield of world citizens as soon as possible. JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 9, Page 30

by Lee Kyu-youn
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