The Social Production and Distribution of Risk: Theorizing Class and Risk Society
Curran, Dean Felix
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Socially produced risks – ranging from financial crises to climate change – are of fundamental importance to contemporary economic, political, and social life. Given the central importance of these risks, the development of frameworks that analyze the relation between risk, power, and inequality is a key task for sociology. Ulrich Beck’s theory of risk society is a leading and powerful framework for analyzing the growing social production and distribution of risk, but it has fundamental problems in its understanding of the relation between risk and class. Beck has argued that class relations will be dissolved due to the increasingly equal and catastrophic nature of risks, while, in response, his critics have shown that increasing risk does not undermine class. This thesis explores the important, but as yet unasked, question: if class does continue to be a central factor, will it become even more important due to the changes associated with risk society? In pursuing this question, this study shows how the theory of risk society has conceptual resources and explanatory implications that both Beck and his critics have misapprehended. Firstly, it is argued that the processes associated with risk society tend to exacerbate class inequalities rather than simply dissolving or reproducing them. Secondly, it its argued that the theory of risk society is not antithetical to class analysis, but can actually make an important contribution to theorizing the dynamics of existing class relations. By analyzing how the distribution of environmental bads and the social production and distribution of financial risk tend to intensify class inequalities, this thesis substantiates this re-theorization of risk society and class. It thereby makes a fundamental intervention into contemporary understandings of the relation between risk, inequality, and power in the twenty-first century.