February 22, 2021

Managing Risk and Sociological Theory

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

Here’s a situation that you might be familiar with: After months of being careful with a very small "pod" of three families, they decided to take a risk and allow another person into their trusted group.   That person ended up being an asymptomatic carrier of COVID and infected the whole group.  This is a tragic (and real) scenario.

It’s likely that you and your loved ones have had to individually assess risk and have been challenged either by a glut of some information, a confusion of incorrect information, or a deficit of good data. How are you assessing the decision to return to campus? Are colleges right to open up?

To help me think through these issues (and prepare for my undergraduate Foundations of Sociological Theory course), I’ve returned to a theorist I have not read since grad school who built his reputation on the study of risk: Ulrich Beck.

Beck was a German sociologist (1944-2015) who rose to importance when he wrote Risk Society in 1986, which delves into the sociological aspects of how we manage to live in an increasingly complex and out of control society. Beck was not merely interested in the kinds of “calculated risks” that we manage every day, but also with the uncertainties that come from non-quantifiable risks that are too difficult to for individuals to assess: Climate change and nuclear war, “frankenfoods” and pandemics, paleo diets and Peloton exercise regimes, ecological and economic crises. It makes me miss the old days when the cigarette smoking seemed to be one of the greatest risks to avoid. (Although, despite overwhelming evidence of their harm, people still smoke cigarettes. Evidence of the risk society with every puff, perhaps.)

We used to think that people approached risk as if they were tabulating a math problem: diligently weighing perceived costs vs the anticipated benefits. Psychologists say that we actually use a series of shortcuts. Instead of rationally assessing the risks, our brains rely on past experiences and memories. For example, if a pandemic is characterized as a flu, most people rely on their own experiences of having seasonal flu, which tends to be fairly mundane (despite ~62,000 deaths this last flu season, as per the latest estimate). Economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky talk about the “availability heuristic:” we make judgments based upon whatever case comes to mind.

Take my uncle, for example, who traveled to a part of the country where many people did not believe that wearing a mask was important for their survival during the COVID epidemic. He had no choice but to walk into a gas station to pay for his fuel up and watch everyone stare at him because he was wearing a mask. He was scared because of the risk everyone in the store posed to him. The attendant told him that everyone was scared of my uncle because he was the first person they’d seen wearing a mask.

What are the sociological insights to be made here? As a sociologist, Beck approaches the risk society as something that is experienced at both a collective and individualistic level. We find ourselves in a human-made world that is truly beyond our own comprehension, and as individuals we not only have a Durkheimian “functional interdependence,” we are also what Beck describes as “incompetent in matters [of our] own affliction.”

For Durkheim, our interconnection in the modern age was partially defined by our reliance on others (i.e., in order to live we rely others—butchers, plumbers, electricians—who have specialized in their roles.  For Beck,  our modern society has become so complex that we have little choice but to become “small, private alternative experts” in many matters that we have no firm understanding of.

Humans have always managed risk (i.e., natural disasters, disease), of course, although people didn’t understand that unseen microbes could kill you before the twentieth Century.  Our technological advancements have made us more aware of some avoidable risks but have also spawned a “new global risk landscape [of] manufactured uncertainty” (as he says in an interview here). There are undeniable benefits of modernity (e.g., advancements in medicine), but also serious consequences we do not fully comprehend.

The CDC provides guidelines about COVID risk, but how many of you have visited the website? Have you done your own individual-level risk assessment? Have you created your own risk-mitigation strategy to match your risk assessment? Me neither. (There are also clear and reliable resources for assessing risk, including many apps that can do that for you.)

Some argue that our brains have difficulty making sense of risk. Some say that we aren’t good at risk assessment because of our biases. Gaurav Suri, a computational neuroscientist at San Francisco State University, told NPR that there are two competing systems in our brains. One, the “associative effortless system,” tells us that things are okay:

We go outside. The streets look the same. We look in the mirror. We look the same. Our family often looks the same. All of these cues in the environment are lending weight to normal actions.

There are no competing images, since most COVID patients die isolated from their loved ones and family in a hospital. There’s a second, goal-directed way of thinking that requires work and effort, according to Suri. The second system, slower and needing more resources, loses out.

Certainly, as we look ahead to a year when a COVID vaccination becomes widely available, we will be confronted with the question of “why are many people anti-vaccination?” For Beck, this will be an example of how people in a risk society become their own “small, private alternative experts.”

So, not only does the technological progress of a risk society present to us these unintended consequences of modernity, our particular institutions of reason (e.g., science and representative democracy) are delegitimized right at the moment when we need them most—to orient ourselves amid the chaos.

And what have we seen in the face of the COVID outbreak? In Summer, academics asked “Will COVID-19 renew or diminish public trust in science?” Their preliminary report anticipated that trust in science would decline, but there are some indications that it has risen, despite the politicization of science during the pandemic. There is, however, a third level of destabilization according to Beck: a questioning over what progress really is, and how are we to understand our place in history. This is why Beck is fond of using the title of a famous etching by Francisco Goya: “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.”


It seems to me that nowadays we can face risk at any step. This is perfectly shown to everyone by the already annoying pandemic. That is, we are literally afraid to breathe the same air with other people. And this is scary and logical at the same time. There are not so many diseases that are transmitted through the air and before we did not pay much attention to this risk, but now, as described in the article, each person is like a biological bomb. This is probably the worst thing.

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