Modernity: Risks and Realities Reviewing Beck and Potter

January 1, 2007

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 1997. “Modernity: Risks and Realities: Reviewing Beck
and Potter
. Ottawa: Carleton University.

Tools Jonathan Potter offers in his book Representing Reality Discourse, Rhetoric and Social Construction “Introduction” and Chapters 1 and 2, which could enhance Beck’s discussion of myths of modernity as described in Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity “Preface.”

The image of Ulrich Beck writing by a sparkling lake provides a powerful backdrop to this highly influential catalytic work, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Beck, a sociology professor at the University of Munich wrote the original German text, Risikogesellschaft, in 1986 in the aftermath of the Chernobyl catastrophe. It became ‘one of the most influential European works of social analysis in the late twentieth century.’ (Lash and Wynne, Introduction Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, 1992: 1) Global hazards threaten the health of plants, animals and people in urban environments and pristine havens. The ecological crisis is central to this thought-provoking social analysis of the contemporary period. Beck places us as eye-witnesses to a transformation in society in which environmental risks have become the predominant product, not just an unpleasant, manageable side-effect, of industrial society.

Beck’s vision of a new era calls for a macro-sociology of change in which science as modernism’s secular religion is dethroned. Potter’s investigation in Representing Reality Discourse, Rhetoric and Social Construction is at the micro level, examining how scientific facts are constructed. This brief comparison looks at tools Potter offers in his book (Introduction and Chapters 1 and 2) which could enhance Beck’s discussion of myths of modernity as described in the Preface of Risk Society.

Beck reinterprets this period, not as the mythical ‘end of history’ but as a continuity or even a beginning of modernity. This reflexive modernity or risk society evolves beyond its classical industrial society. In ‘classical industrial society, the ‘logic’ of wealth production dominates the ‘logic of risk production, in the risk society this is reversed (Beck 1993: 12).’

In this myth of modernism faith in science and progress drives an industrial society perceived as a ‘thoroughly modern society’ (Beck, 1992: 11). Beck questions science’s claim to elitist truth and enlightenment. Scientists have made errors that have resulted in environmental disasters. He does not call for the end of science but for a change within science. He extends scientific skepticism to the foundations and consequences of science itself (Beck, 1992: 55).

This is where Potter’s more precise methods would be valuable to Beck. Beck’s analysis is far-reaching, at times vague. He describes science as becoming “self-service shops for financially well endowed customers in need of arguments’ (Beck, 1992: 173) There is no connection made here to empirical studies, no proof to substantiate his claims. Potter’s tools could provide the missing analytic glue.

Jonathan Potter, a professor of Discourse Analysis at Loughborough University recognises two important precursors in his research: John Austin in How to Do Things with Words and Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. The description of the ‘skilful interweaving of theoretical, methodological and empirical material’ (Southgate, 1992: 358) used in the review of another of his publications applies equally well to Representing Reality.

Beck calls for a constant questioning of the role of science, of technological progress. Potter offers specific theories and methodologies: the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) a ‘radical reappraisal of the traditional view of scientific facts’ (Potter, 1996: 13). This calls for a relativist stance in which the validity of scientists’ truths should also be questioned. In constructionist theory analysts question the elite status of scientific knowledge by closely observing in their habitat (the laboratory) the culture of laboratory scientists as one would an ‘exotic’ ethnic group. Interest theories connect scientists and their social milieu, linking their findings with their ideologies and allegiances. The Quine-Duhem model of the web of belief uses the metaphor of a drum to describe the network of belief. The skin of the drum is tightened and pulled in different directions as new and opposing scientific findings are added to the network. The drum network allows room for contradictory findings. It also allows for the discarding of theories that no longer can be substantiated by new findings. Traditional social scientists use reports or descriptive accounts as if they were factual objects. Ethnomethodologists question these false assumptions by using indexicality, reflexivity (considering reports both for the event they describe and the relation of the report to the event) and the documentary method of interpretation. Conversation analysis deals with practices of description by converting theoretical or philosophical issues of fact and description into questions that can be addressed analytically through studies of records of interaction. Speakers of descriptive discourses, even in what might appear to be the most mundane conversation are designing their talk-in-interaction for certain affects. By investigating fact-construction at the micro level, through discourse analysis of what appear at times to be mundane conversations, Potter reveals the rich potential of this tool for questioning fundamentals of truth.

As risks spread around the globe so does public awareness. The consequences of classical industrial society are questioned. The modernist view, based an assumption of realism in science created a system in which scientists working in an exclusive, inaccessible environment disallowed public skepticism. Lay people often those most directly affected by the pollution of modern technology search for ways to protect themselves. No longer confident in technical experts they become experts in compiling their own dossiers.

Potter’s subtle, intriguing arguments might convince policy makers and scientists where Beck might fail. There is a risk however that the tools of fact construction he describes could be better used by those who are already in power, the risk producers. Informed readers, the general public might be aware they are being manipulated by the presentation of ‘facts’ but it would take a skilful professional to be able to consciously construct facts for their own purposes.

This brief comparison of one aspect of these two social analyses was also written by a sparkling lake. On the surface the clear water mirrors the stunning autumn colours of the Gatineau Hills. However, like any seemingly pristine lake, closer examination reveals an over-abundance of algae growth in some areas, a reflection of a potential threat of pollution. Only through a professional laboratory’s water analysis can concerned residents of the lake arm themselves with factual information, to enhance their input into municipal policies. With good rhetorical skills and a solid dossier lake residents too can be agents of change. Beck’s essay style may well be dense, vague prose but it is well worth the effort. At his best he is inspirational. He pulls all of us into his sphere of action, the public and scientists giving hope that a democratic reciprocal discourse is possible.


Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Translated by Mark Ritter. London: Sage.

Draper, E. 1993. ‘Risk, Society and Social Theory,’ Contemporary Sociology. 22:5:641-644.

Dryzek, J. S. 1995. ‘Toward an ecological modernity,’ Policy Sciences. 28:1:231-242.

Hall, J. R. 1994. ‘Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity.’ The Sociological Review. 42:2.

Lidskog, R. 1993. ‘Ulrich Beck: The Risk Society. Toward a New Modernity,’ acta sociologica 36:4:400-403.

Potter, Jonathan. 1996. Representing Reality Discourse, Rhetoric and Social Construction. London: Sage Publications.

Rustin, M. 1994. ‘Incomplete Modernity: Ulrich Beck’s “Risk Society,’ Dissent 41:3 394-400

Satterwhite, J. H. 1994. ‘Ulrich Beck: Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity.’ Social Science Quarterly. 75:1 236.

Southgate, D. 1994. ‘Mapping the Language of Racism.’ Sociology. 28:1:358-9.


© Maureen Flynn-Burhoe 2001. Personal research tool. Carleton University. Last updated March 2002. Please contact for comments, corrections and copyright.


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