Risk Society: Crisis, Power, and Neoliberalism

Instructor: Suzanne Schneider
This is an online course (British Summer Time)

By the mid-1980s, modernity appeared to have reached a new and dangerous precipice: nuclear standoff characterized the political domain, while the Chernobyl disaster focused global attention on the toxic effects of even ordinary, non-nuclear industrial production. Humanity’s celebrated technical progress had, it seemed, generated novel, potentially catastrophic, risks at the global level. Not only did these new conditions create new challenges for governance and public policy, but they deeply affected the psychic and cultural states of individuals and societies no longer able to blithely count upon an ever brighter future. “Risk society is a catastrophic society,” wrote the late sociologist Ulrich Beck in 1986, one in which “the exceptional condition threatens to become the norm.” What does it mean to view the world through the lens of risk, with one eye always fixed on the horizon of possible disaster?

This class offers an introduction to the idea of a risk society and its material, political, and affective consequences. Delving into foundational works by Beck and his contemporary Anthony Giddens, as well as their critics, we will ask: What are the main attributes of the risk society, and to what extent are they truly novel? How should we understand the production and uneven distribution of risks in contemporary life, and to what extent is the idea of a risk society compatible with older critiques of capitalism and the state? What role does ‘individuation’ or ‘responsibilisation’—where individuals are tasked with responsibility to navigate increasingly complex social and economic worlds—play within the risk society? How should we think about risks that are both universal and unequally distributed along lines of race, class, and gender? What coping mechanisms are offered for the management of risk by individuals, institutions? Alongside Beck and Giddens, readings will include works by Michel Foucault, Mary Douglas, Deborah Lupton, Gerd Gigerenzer, and others.

Course Schedule

Sunday, 2:00-5:00pm ET
July 07 — July 28, 2024
4 weeks


Registration Open

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