Ulrich Beck

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Table of contents

    That was the key question behind the life's work of German sociologist Ulrich Beck.

    Beck had a taste of many academic disciplines throughout his life, but in the end, he found sociology to be the most effective in studying humans and their relationships. Alongside his wife, sociologist Elizabeth Gernsheim-Beck, and his good friend, modernist Anthony Giddens, Beck produced important work in many areas of sociology.

    • We will start with Ulrich Beck's biography, mentioning his education and professorship as well as his marriage to Elizabeth Gernsheim.
    • We will move on to his contributions to sociology.
    • We will discuss Ulrich Beck's take on modernity and 'risk society'.
    • Finally, we will mention his ideas on individualization, cosmopolitanism and zombie categories.

    Ulrich Beck: Biography

    Sociologist Ulrich Beck was born in 1944 in Slupsk, Pomerania. His mother was a nurse, while his father served as a naval officer in the German army. While Beck was a child, the family lived in Hanover. Later, Beck moved to Freiburg for his university studies.

    Education and professorship

    Initially, he studied law at Freiburg University. Then, in 1966, he quit his law studies and started to study philosophy, psychology, political sciences, and most importantly, sociology at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Bavaria. He won a public grant that supported his sociological studies.

    Karl Martin Bolte, another German sociologist of note, supervised his doctorate. Beck received his doctorate degree from LMU in 1972.

    Ulrich Beck, Munich old town, StudySmarterBeck received his doctorate degree from LMU, Munich.

    From 1979, Beck worked as a lecturer at the University of Münster. He became the co-editor of Soziale Welt, a position he retained until the end of his life.

    He returned to LMU to become a professor in 1992, keeping this post for the rest of his life as well. He served in many temporary international posts, including acting as a visiting professor at the University of Wales and at the London School of Economics. At the latter, he met Anthony Giddens, with whom he developed a strong professional and personal relationship.

    Marriage to Elizabeth Gernsheim

    Beck met Elisabeth Gernsheim while he was a doctorate student at LMU. They fell in love and got married shortly after.

    Gernsheim was also a renowned sociologist. The married couple co-authored two books and helped each other in their professional careers.

    The two books co-authored by Beck and Gersheim-Beck are:

    • The Normal Chaos of Love (1990)
    • Distant Love (2014)

    Elisabeth Gernshein was from a Jewish family, and after the Holocaust, she had family members scattered around the world. Experiencing Elisabeth’s life and personal history contributed to Beck’s theories within sociology. He once stated:

    ... with Elisabeth, I am forced to live the “cosmopolitan” reality I am writing about.

    Contributions of Ulrich Beck

    Ulrich Beck was an incredibly active researcher and a productive social scientist. He published 40 books and more than 250 research papers before his death in January 2015.

    His two most important contributions to sociology were his ‘risk society theory’ and his ideas of a ‘second modernity’ (as opposed to postmodernity).

    Ulrich Beck, Image of sociologist Ulrich Beck, StudySmarterBeck's theories on living in modern society continue to be relevant.

    Ulrich Beck on modernity

    A core component of Beck's sociological theory was his belief that we are in a period of second modernity.

    He did agree that the ideas of the Enlightenment Era that characterized modernity had been significantly transforming. However, this does not mean that we entered a period of ‘postmodernism’.

    According to Beck, we are simply experiencing ‘modernity’ going through some important changes.

    After the Enlightenment, modernity replaced an agricultural society with an industrial one. The industrial society has been replaced by an information society characterized by mass telecommunication and globalization. This ‘new’ society is part of second modernity.

    The five challenges Beck identified that mark the transition between first to second modernity are:

    • Multidimensional globalization

    • Radicalized/intensified individualization

    • Global environmental crisis

    • Gender revolution

    • The third industrial revolution

    Beck pointed out that second modernity has had incredibly positive impacts on humans, but it also brought its own issues. Environmental threats, global warming, and increased terrorism are only a few of the major problems the world is facing in this era. According to Beck, all of these issues make people insecure and forced to face increasing numbers of risks in their lives.

    Therefore, he argued that we now live in a risk society.

    Ulrich Beck’s risk society

    The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe influenced Beck’s ideas on the ‘risk society’. He published his book shortly after the incident, in 1986, titled Risk Society: Towards a new modernity.

    He argued that advancements in science and technology have accelerated modernization and globalization, a process which has created more societal risks alongside their positive impacts on the world.

    Ulrich Beck, Illustration of rising temperature rising sea level and melting ice caps, StudySmarterGlobal warming is one of the new issues technological advancement has created and humanity has to face now.

    This is a new era of modernity which is characterized by uncertainty and risk.

    While risk society was created by technological advancement, Beck did not blame science per se for the growing uncertainty in society. Quite the opposite, he claims that only scientific progress can help the world measure, solve, and prevent societal risks.

    He, however, pointed out that scientists have a great responsibility for this. Beck argued that in recent decades, scientists abandoned the proper ways of doing science. This, along with the senseless competition between them, created uncertainty in the general public about the legitimacy of science, which is a serious problem. It has contributed gravely to the emergence of ‘risks’ not experienced before in society.

    Ulrich Beck: globalization and other sociological contributions

    Ulrich Beck, alongside Elizabeth Gernsheim-Beck and Anthony Giddens, contributed significant work on modernization, globalization and relationships within these contexts.

    • He wrote about ‘individualization’, which refers to humans becoming more self-centred in their personal and professional lives.

    • He theorized about ‘cosmopolitanism’ and how modern relationships work in a cosmopolitan environment.

    Beck and Gernsheim researched modern romantic relationships together. They found that people no longer feel the need to conform to societal norms.

    Many create their own unique lifestyles. They happily enter relationship arrangements that are more suitable for them personally, even if it is not 'traditional marriage'.

    People might also choose to live under separate addresses from their partners to have an individualized space and to spend their free time in a more personal manner.

    • He also wrote about the ‘democratization of science’, and ‘zombie categories’ are also connected to his name.

    In his work on zombie categories, Beck argued that sociologists must abandon sociological concepts that do not exist in reality. He claims that concepts such as social class, nation-state and the nuclear family have died out or turned into ‘zombie categories’ that are no use to social scientists anymore.

    This idea remains Beck's most controversial among all his contributions to sociology.

    Ulrich Beck - Key takeaways

    • Ulrich Beck was an incredibly active researcher and a productive social scientist. He published 40 books and more than 250 research papers before his death in January 2015.
    • Beck met Elisabeth Gernsheim while he was a doctorate student at LMU. They fell in love and got married shortly after. The couple co-authored two books and helped each other in their professional careers.
    • Ulrich Beck is most known for his belief that we are in a period of second modernity.
    • Beck argued that advancements in science and technology have accelerated modernization and globalization, processes which have created more societal risks alongside their positive impacts on the world.
    • Ideas on individualism, cosmopolitanism, the ‘democratization of science’ and ‘zombie categories’ are also connected to Beck's name.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ulrich Beck

    What is Ulrich Beck's theory?

    A core component of Beck's sociological theory was his belief that we are in a period of second modernity.

    He did agree that the ideas of the Enlightenment Era that characterized modernity had been significantly transforming. However, this does not mean that we entered a period of ‘postmodernism’. 

    According to Beck, we are simply experiencing ‘modernity’ going through some important changes. 

    What type of sociologist is Ulrich Beck?

    Ulrich Beck was an incredibly active researcher and a productive social scientist. He was also very controversial. Beck, alongside Elizabeth Gernsheim-Beck and Anthony Giddens, contributed significant work on modernization, globalization and relationships within these contexts.

    What is globalization according to Ulrich Beck?

    After the Enlightenment, modernity replaced an agricultural society with an industrial one. The industrial society has been replaced by an information society characterized by mass telecommunication and globalization. This ‘new’ society is part of second modernity. Beck pointed out that second modernity has had incredibly positive impacts on humans, but it also brought its own issues. Environmental threatsglobal warming, and increased terrorism are only a few of the major problems the world is facing in this era. 

    Is Ulrich Beck a functionalist?

    Ulrich Beck is a modernist sociologist.

    What is risk society according to Beck?

    The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe influenced Beck’s ideas on the ‘risk society’. He published his book shortly after the incident, in 1986, titled Risk Society: Towards a new modernity

    He argued that advancements in science and technology have accelerated modernization and globalization, a process which has created more societal risks alongside their positive impacts on the world. 

    This is a new era of modernity which is characterized by uncertainty and risk.


    While risk society was created by technological advancement, Beck did not blame science per se for the growing uncertainty in society. Quite the opposite, he claims that only scientific progress can help the world measure, solve, and prevent societal risks.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Where did Beck study law?

    Ulrich Beck was an incredibly active researcher and a productive social scientist.

    Where did Beck receive his doctoral degree from?

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