R.I.P. Ulrich Beck (PopAnth)

Sociology loses one of its most important voices

by John McCreery on January 16, 2015


Ulrich Beck. Photo by International Students’ Committee via Wikimedia Commons.
Ulrich Beck. Photo by International Students’ Committee via Wikimedia Commons.

The death of Ulrich Beck on January 1, 2015 stilled one of sociology’s most important voices.

Beck has long been one of my favourite sociologists. That is because the world he describes in his book Risk Society reminds me very much of the world of Chinese popular religion that I studied in Taiwan.

There are two basic similarities. First, in the risk society as Beck describes it, public pomp and ceremony and ostentatious displays of wealth recede. Wealth is increasingly privatized, concealed in gated communities, its excesses hidden from public view. Second, social inequality not only increases but increasingly takes the form of differential exposure to many forms of invisible risks.

In the world that Beck describes, signs of wealth continue to exist. Coronations and royal births, celebrity weddings, CEO yachts, the massive homes of the rich and famous and their McMansion imitators are all visible evidence that wealth still counts.

But, says Beck, inequality’s deeper manifestations are now in differences in institutions that shelter the rich and expose the poor to risks that include not only economic fluctuations but also extreme weather and climate change, chemical and biological pollution, mutating and drug-resistant diseases. The hidden plots of terrorists and of those who combat them might also be added to this list.

 People with problems attribute them to invisible causes. They turn for help to those who claim special powers to diagnose and prescribe. 

When I visualize what Beck is talking about when he says that wealth is becoming invisible, I imagine an airport. In the main concourse there is little visible difference between those checking in at the First or Business Class counters and those checking in for the cattle car seats in Economy. All will pass the same array of Duty Free shops on their way to their planes.

But while the masses wait at the gates, the elite relax in comfortable, concealed spaces, plied with food, drink and WiFi, in lounges whose entrances are deliberately understated. This is not, however, the height of luxury.

Keiko Yamaki, a former airline stewardess turned applied anthropologist, observes in her study of airline service culture that the real elite, the super rich, no longer fly with commercial airlines. They prefer their private jets. Even those in First Class are more likely to be from the merely 1% instead of the 0.01%, who are now never seen checking in or boarding with the rest of us.

What, then, of invisible risks? The transactions that dominate the global economy are rarely, if ever, to be seen, negotiated in private and executed via encrypted digital networks. Financial institutions and the 1% who own them are protected from economic risk. The 99%, and especially those who live in the world’s poorest nations and slums are not.

The invisible threats of nuclear, chemical and biological waste are concentrated where the poor live. Drug-resistant diseases spread like wildfire through modern transportation systems, but the wealthy are protected by advanced technology and excellent health care. The poor are not.

At the end of the day, however, all must face misfortune and death, and here is where the similarity to Chinese popular religion comes in.

My business is failing. My daughter is acting crazy. My son was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident. He’s been married for three years and his wife still hasn’t had a baby. I feel sick all the time. I sometimes feel faint or pass out.

Why? The world of Chinese popular religion has answers. Impersonal factors, the alignment of your birth date with the current configuration of the stars, Yin and Yang and the Five Elements, may mean that this is a bad time for you.

Worse still, you may have offended one of the gods, ghosts or ancestors who inhabit the invisible Yin world that exists alongside the Yang world in which we live. The possibilities are endless. You need to find experts, mediums, magicians or priests, who can identify the source of your problem and prescribe remedies for it. You know that most who claim to be experts are charlatans but hope nonetheless to find the real thing.

Note how similar this is to the world that Beck describes, where the things that we fear most are said to be caused by invisible powers, the market, the virus, pollution or climate change, for example. Most of us don’t understand these things. We turn to experts for advice; but so many claim to be experts and say so many different things.

How do we find those who “really know”? The rich may have access to experts with with bigger reputations in finance, law, medicine, science or personal protection. But what does this really mean?

As I see it, all forms of consulting are magic. People with problems attribute them to invisible causes. They turn for help to those who claim special powers to diagnose and prescribe, and random chance alone will lead to identification of some who claim such powers as having “It,” that special something that produces desired results. Negative evidence will disappear in a context where most who claim special powers are known to be frauds.

The primary question for those looking for “It” is how to find the golden needle in a huge and constantly growing haystack. People turn to to their social networks for recommendations by trusted others, whose trust may, however, be grounded in nothing more than having found someone whose recommendations are, by sheer random chance, located in the tail of the normal curve where “success” is concentrated.

I read Beck’s Risk Society long before I read Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan. Taleb’s accounts of how traders who place lucky bets in the bond market are seen as geniuses with mystical insights into market mechanisms — at least until their funds collapse — seem to me to strongly support my theory of how all consulting works.

I read the words of “experts” who clamour for my attention and think of Taleb’s parable, the one in which a turkey has a perfectly consistent set of longitudinal data, stretching over nearly a year demonstrating the existence of a perfectly predictable world in which the sun will rise every morning and the farmer will feed the turkey. Then comes the day before Thanksgiving, and the farmer turns up with an axe.

Be warned: reading books like those by Beck and Taleb may reinforce skepticism of claims to scientific and other expertise. But think about it. Which world would you rather live in: One where careful scientists slowly develop hypotheses and look systematically for evidence to test them? Or a world in which our natural human tendency to magical thinking has no brake at all?

For his leading me to these thoughts, I do, indeed, mourn the death of Ulrich Beck.

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