kiltedmonkey (kiltedmonkey) wrote,

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Risk Society Essay

Well, it took me like TWELVE hours (no kidding), but here it is, in all its mostly unreferenced glory (yay, that's what I'll be doing now).

Read, let me know what you think, if you can get through it XD (if not I suggest skipping to the part about safety standards, it's near the bottom. Read that and get MAD at exporters in Western society!!!)

...Ahem. On with the essay. But oh gosh, an apology to Andrew before I start...I was very impressed by your suggestion and really (as I told you) wanted to include it...but by the time I got to the end of the actual essay, not the conclusion, it was literally 6am. I had neither the time nor the energy left to go into the whole global-warming-affecting-Africa thing. Thank you for opening my eyes to it though, and I will certainly read up on it before the exam, as that might well be of use there :)

Now, here you go:

Based on the criteria found in the works of Ulrich Beck, contemporary British society can to a fair extent be considered a ‘Risk Society’, at least inasmuch as risks which affect this country, if not those which affect other countries. This can be seen primarily with risks created by technological and social advances, attitudes to the perceived risks posed by global threats such as nuclear power, the so-called ‘trust-risk relationship’ which the British public have with those who possess expert knowledge, and manufacturers’ refusal to adhere to sufficient standards of safety.

Beck states that “[i]n advanced modernity the social production of wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risks. Accordingly, the problems and conflicts relating to distribution in a society of scarcity overlap with the problems and conflicts that arise from the production, definition and distribution of techno-scientifically produced risks.” This theory that essentially, the creation of wealth brings about the creation of risks, indicates that in wealthy capitalist countries, there should be more technologically or scientifically produced risks than in poor countries. Given that the United Kingdom is one example of a wealthy capitalist country, it makes sense that Britain should exhibit more of these risks than third world countries.

However, there is another facet of the rich/poor divide which must be taken into consideration. It can be argued that the while the amount of risks being created increases as technology becomes ever more advanced, a more significant development in the understanding of risks in society is actually the now widespread knowledge that these risks are being created. According to Beck (1992: 20), there are two distinct periods of modernization, and these illustrate the difference between rich and poor countries in today’s society. On one hand, the distribution of wealth is paramount in countries where resources are scarce, and technological advances promising to generate more wealth are supported, the risks they may create swept under the carpet in the face of deliverance from poverty. The opposite of that, however, is happening in the wealthy Western countries today. In these countries, people do not have to fight in order just to live, and in fact the pendulum has swung so far the other way that there is a growing problem with people being overweight. However, the fact that technological and scientific development is not urgent and necessary permits people to question the legitimacy of progress for progress’s sake, particularly when it brings with it side effects which are, or are potentially, harmful.

Beck also argues that as technology has advanced, the nature of risks has actually changed. For example, he cites the sewer-free cities of the nineteenth century where the risk posed by the human waste in the streets contrasts greatly with the risks in today’s society, as “hazards in those days assaulted the nose or the eyes and were thus perceptible to the senses, while the risks of civilization today typically escape perception and are localized in the sphere of physical and chemical formulas (e.g. toxins in foodstuffs or the nuclear threat)” (1992: 21). In the case of less serious risks, dispersal of the knowledge of these risks’ existence has led to preventative measures being developed – for example, at present there is a project between Pennsylvania State University and Human University in Changsha, China, to develop a “spherical plastic widget” which will float inside a milk carton and will indicate, when placed next to a detector they envision will be placed at supermarket checkouts, whether the milk contains bacteria which causes food poisoning. (New Scientist) However when it comes to more serious, global threats, finding a solution is much more complicated. Threats posed by nuclear weapons and global warming, to name just two examples, are often widely discussed. There is, of course, far more to these dangers – and their domination of public discourse, than meets the eye.

The role of the media in publicising risks, for example, is undoubtedly complex, with the foremost concern being exactly how they choose which things deserve to be reported. However, Blomkvist and Sjöberg (1978: 207) think it is a matter of what stories will make them money: “Our press must make a living out of its sales so, in choosing news, the attractiveness or degree of interest must be considered. The same is true, of course, for radio and television which are also quite dependent on public reactions…accidents are reported…[because] they arouse curiosity.” In the same way, potential accidents also arouse curiosity, as well as fear, and therefore are also attractive to reporters. There is no doubt that those risks which have the potential to cause disasters on a global scale are among the most interesting to report. However, care also has to be taken in order not to spark an unnecessary panic. Therefore it is clear to see that the media are in a very powerful position within society, acting almost as the guardians of knowledge – at least as far as the general public are concerned. However, their knowledge comes from other sources, so not only do the public have to trust that the media report accurately the facts that they are given, they must also trust that the sources of the information are providing accurate facts as well. This is where another important element of Beck’s theory of the ‘Risk Society’ comes into play: the idea of ‘expert systems’.

Beck explains that when it comes to contemporary risks, the general public is forced to rely on people who possess expert knowledge – usually scientists: “[m]any of the newer risks…completely escape human powers of direct perception. The focus is more and more on hazards which are neither visible nor perceptible to the victims…that require the ‘sensory organs’ of science – theories, experiments, measuring instruments – in order to become visible or interpretable as hazards at all.” (1992: 27). In this way, not only are the public often unable to recognise risks which affect them, but they are utterly dependent on there being enough concrete evidence that a risk exists as to generate a consensus among the scientific community. Given that even such well-publicised risks such as global warming are still being argued over by some, it is no surprise that more than a few members of the public still doubt the validity of the argument for lowering carbon emissions. However, more serious than convincing the public that such a ‘far away’ risk exists (for while the threat of global warming is global and will affect everyone, it is thought by some that the effects will not be felt until reasonably far enough in the future that it will not become a serious issue during the lifetimes of the currently living) is the possibility that a lack of scientific consensus - or scientific testing itself - might lead to a disaster in the near future. In the field of manufacture, for example, Beck states that “…in the effort to increase productivity, the associated risks have always been and still are being neglected. The first priority of techno-scientific curiosity is utility for productivity, and the hazards connected with it are considered only later and often not at all.” (1992: 60). As a result, technological advances, while tending to increase productivity and wealth, can often lead to dangers which may not be discovered for some time. Ridiculously, when people – scientists for example, or employees of the manufacturer – come forward and attempt to warn people of the risk, often there are outright denials, and the burden of proof falls to them. Instead of the safer protocol where products must be proven safe before they are distributed or sold, it falls to people to determine the risk posed by the products after their manufacture, and often after the damage has already been done. In some cases, even when the manufacturer knows that their product poses a risk to the health or safety of their customer, they do not take any action. One such instance was that of the hazards posed by the mining of and working with, asbestos. Despite countless indications, reports, diagnoses of asbestos-related diseases and insurance companies refusing to sell life insurance to asbestos workers – evidence dating as far back as 1898, and that is discounting the fact that Pliny the Elder observed that slaves working in asbestos mines died of lung disease in the first century AD – the first step towards combating asbestos-related diseases was not taken until 1931, when regulations were put in place allowing a ‘safe level’ of asbestos which led to one in three workers contracting asbestosis after 15-19 years exposure (website). The effects of insufficient legislation and inaction by manufacturers of asbestos products continue to be felt, as 5,000 people in the UK die every year from asbestos-related diseases (2002), and legislation which attempts to limit these effects has continued to be passed until as recently as the Controls of Asbestos Regulations of 2006.

However, manufacturers ignoring risks can also turn into hypocrites. Some people have no compunction against exporting products which do not meet the safety standards in their own country, nor importing goods from countries which have less safe manufacturing processes. Zeckhauser (1991:381), referring to America but with logic equally applicable in the UK, supports these manufacturers: “Worldwide standards for risk are not appropriate…because individuals’ attitudes to risk are likely to vary considerably, depending on their countries’ state of development. Imposing the risk standards of an economically advanced society on less developed countries will reduce their welfare by retarding economic growth and the benefits it provides. The main reason for the United States’s higher safety standards is not superior awareness of safety’s importance but rather a greater ability to afford the luxury of greater safety. In many underdeveloped countries, increased income has a major impact on the individual’s prospect of survival.” However, given the statistics previously cited with regard to the blatant refusal to acknowledge the dangers of asbestos in developed countries despite clear evidence, this declaration that developed countries have higher safety standards than developing countries is frankly worrying, as if this is an example of these so-called higher standards, it could be argued that far greater and/or more numerous risks are being posed to the health of workers in these developing countries. Furthermore, Zeckhauser cites avoiding the curtailing of economic growth in developing countries as an excuse for observing less stringent safety standards, but is a reduction in rates of economic growth really too high a price to pay for preserving human lives? While he states that Western safety standards are essentially an expensive luxury, given the decades of insufficient legislation passed to deal with the dangers of asbestos, it does not seem far-fetched to conclude that other safety standards may be similarly lacking, and therefore that at least some standards observed by Western societies are in fact not exceeding, but rather barely meeting the thresholds of human safety. Based on this theory, the idea of allowing developing countries to maintain even less stringent safety standards seems to border on outright neglect. While the risks do not affect the population of Western societies directly, they can have indirect consequences, for example holidaymakers might be harmed by the products, or contaminated drinking water; or food grown with unsafe fertilisers could be imported back into developed countries. Even should there be no effect on the Western societies, the inequality required by the capitalist system – the Western societies need other countries to buy their products, supply labour, and a myriad other things – should ensure that all countries collaborate to ensure similarly high standards of safety for everyone, at the very least for the sake of the economy, if not for the principles of basic human rights.

In conclusion, contemporary Britain can be considered a ‘Risk Society’ in terms of the majority of risks which apply to the country itself. Greater attention is being paid to the risks created by scientific and technological advances, and more global risks - while they are being debated - are being brought to the attention of the public. The media’s role in publicising risks is becoming more understood, as is science’s role in determining where new risks exist. However, more needs to be done with regard to testing safety prior to product manufacture, as well as more stringent safety regulations being put into place as soon as a danger is identified, to minimise the harm it can cause – regardless of the impact on trade here in the UK or elsewhere.

If anyone tries to plagiarise this essay they will be NINJAED. I worked too hard on it XD Siriusly though, I can't imagine why anyone would want to. Oh well. Time to pretend to sleep ;)
Tags: essay, risk society, sociology

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