Beck in Brazil by Rodrigo Constante Martins

Beck's Risk SocietyThe influence of Ulrich Beck’s work on the social-environmental studies in Brazil

by Rodrigo Constante Martins


Ulrich Beck’s work had a significant impact on the establishment of the conceptual field of environmental sociology in Brazil. In particular, his book Risk Society (originally published in 1986, but its first Brazilian edition would be published in Portuguese only 14 years later, in 2010) had a great influence – since the late 1980s – among the Brazilian research groups dedicated to the debate on the relationship between society and nature in modern contexts.

Among the scholars of socioenvironmental conflicts in the country, Beck’s work frequently took its place alongside Anthony Guidens’ in the debates on modernity. Such articulation, however, did not necessarily mean a consensual dialogue between these two authors. Following the work of both authors during the 1990s, it became increasingly evident for Brazilian experts on the society-nature relationship, the existence of a rich tension between the two approaches.

As it is well known, Beck and Giddens consider that the current risks are objectively different. For both, contemporary society is characterised by the radicalisation of the principles which guides the process of industrial modernisation, which would mark the passage of the modern society to the late modernity, according to Giddens, or to the risk society – and reflexive modernisation – according to Beck. These arguments – developed in Reflexive Modernisation (1995) – would become fundamental for studies seeking to identify the environmental crisis of the late twentieth century as still being an event of the reflexive modern society, thus rejecting the thesis which used to take the environmental issue as one of the milestones of the alleged postmodern condition.

It is clear that Beck’s work was based on a thesis of modernity itself. He claimed the leading role of industrialisation in differentiating pre-modern and modern worlds (a thesis classically defended by authors such as Durkheim and Marx). He suggested that the most powerful extension of this role would be the power of technology and industrial development within social relationships. He then stated that this power would have been deeply transformed by its own development, which produced global risk, as a set of “manufactured uncertainties.”

Thus, the industrial society, characterised by the production and unequal distribution of goods, would have been displaced by the risk society, in which the distribution of risks would no longer correspond to the social, economic and geographical differences typical of the first industrial modernity. The development of science and technology could no longer cope with the prediction and control of risks generated. As a consequence, this would promote high-gravity effects on human health and on the environment – unknown effects in the long run, which when discovered would tend to the condition of irreversibility.

In Brazil, this notion of the centrality of risk influenced studies on various issues related to biodiversity conservation, production of Genetic Modified foods in agriculture, water management and food security. Dialoguing with studies in the sociology of science, Beck’s discussion of risk was also incorporated with significant recurrence in monographs and doctoral theses devoted to the study of empirical situations of conflicts between “experts and lay people”. In these studies, the actual environmental issues, mainstreamed by disputes between different modalities of knowledge, was problematised in a constructionist perspective, in which the perceived risk was understood as relative from the categories of perception of the social world.

A further important point of Beck’s work which is incorporated in the socioenvironmental studies in Brazil is related to the construction of new ways of exercising politics. In The Reinvention of Politics (1997), the author highlighted how the emergence of universal values (such as human rights, preservation of species, responsibility for future generations, etc.) would extrapolate the left-right political metaphor. In terms of governance of public life, there would be the need to think of spaces for sub-politics, involving different levels of interests and social actors. In this case, it would need the formation of true forums of negotiation focused on the control of risks, involving experts and lay people, as well as representatives of large economic groups, workers’ organisations and environmentalists. In this case, civil society, not only state institutions, would be agents in sub-politics.

In Brazil, this discussion has taken shape through participatory decentralisation of decisions on the environment and food security, through themes such as allowing the cultivation of GM foods and the governance of natural resources (in the latter case, we had the creation, for instance, of Environmental Councils, Sustainable Development Councils and River Basin Committees). In accordance with Beck, the defence of social participation within the arenas of Brazilian environmental politics would become an important indicator of an ecological or reflexive democracy.

However, Beck’s thesis on the risk society, as all important theses in sociology, also sparked criticism of great value for environmental studies, particularly in the so-called peripheral or, currently, post-colonial countries. This is the counter-argument undertaken by the theorists of environmental justice, which highlighted the Eurocentric nature of risk theory. This is mainly due to Becks’ emphasis on the global and democratic character of the risk, which would reach almost interchangeably different people and social classes, Western and non-Western society (as he used to define it), going beyond the typical national and/or regional borders of the so-called industrial society of the first modernity. For theorists of environmental justice, the main feature of the risk would be its class character, with quite evident geopolitical boundaries. In Brazil, such a theoretical framework has influenced prominent studies which articulate elements from the notion of risk with empirical diagnosis of process of environmental inequality, which can be manifested both in the forms of unequal environmental protection as well as unequal access to environmental resources.

Sadly, we will not be able to debate and incorporate new ideas being produced by Beck anymore. However, even placed in the critical target condition, the notion of risk developed by Beck is still undoubtedly an important pillar in the constitution of the field of socioenvironmental studies at an international level and in Brazil, in particular.

Professor Rodrigo Constante Martins

Department of Sociology, Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil

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