Impossible Performance on the Part of the Grass (bits from the archives)


In 1892, British electrical engineers of the Department of Telegraphs in Calcutta, as part of an exercise, buried a piece of india-rubber cable core treated to withstand attacks by termites. After six months, when the cable was dug up, engineers found grass growing through the cable. On 1 February 1893, P. V. Luke, a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, wrote the following in his letter to the secretary of the institution:

What at first sight appears to be an impossible performance on the part of the grass seems less so when you come to examine the hard, sharp, needle-like points which characterise the roots of this species of grass.*

*P. V. Luke, ‘A new danger to which underground wires in India are exposed’, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, 22:104 (1893), pp. 146-147 (pp. 146-147)

Some brilliant cartoons from the ‘Wireless World’ magazine (1915)


Problems with “Colonial Science” and “Technology Transfer”

Scholarship on “colonial science” in British India has often in the past concentrated on “the introduction and dissemination of Western ideas, practices and techniques.”[1] Such simple “diffusionist” interpretation of the spread of Western science had plagued not only the study of science in colonial India, but also the scholarship on colonial science in general. The diffusionist model of the simple transfer of a progressive Western science to non-European colonies had been influenced by George Basalla’s seminal 1967 essay, The Spread of Western Science.[2] In the article, Basalla outlines “a three-stage model [that] describes the introduction of modern science into any non-European nation.”[3] In the first phase of Basalla’s model, colonies provide the foundations and source for geographical exploration and scientific analysis; phase two involves a period of “colonial science”, while phase three denotes the completion of the transplantation of Western science and the separation of the scientific tradition of the colonies from the traditions of Western science.

Basalla’s three-stage model remained influential in historical studies denoting Western science as a means for imperial expansion and control of India, instead of development.[4] However, from the 1980s onwards, the dominant theme in the historiographical scholarship of science in colonial India shifted from “diffusion” to diversity. Scholars began to recognise that Western science was seldom simply transferred from the West to India. Not only was technology transfer a complex process, but science and technology was also adapted according to the social and cultural contexts prevalent in India.

The “Centre/Periphery” Concept and “Colonial Science”

One of the concepts that had been central to the study of the history of colonisation and the transfer of scientific knowledge and technology from the West to the colonies was the theory of “centre and periphery”. Originally used in the social sciences, and especially in development economics in the 1950s and 60s, the “centre and periphery” has also been used by historians of science. The centre and periphery approach is usually used in economics and social sciences to depict the economic and political differences between the industrialised countries, and the developing and under-developed countries. The “centre” comprises of those countries that are suppliers of technology and capital, while the “periphery” consists of those countries, which due to the lack of their own resources, or because of the interests of the centre, are importers of products, technologies and ideas from the centre. The centre/periphery concept argues that this model is dependent on the centre being economically and politically dominant, and on the periphery’s aspirations to develop economic and political systems similar to that of the countries of the centre.[5]

Over the years, historians of colonial science and technology transfer have used the centre/periphery concept and written colonial histories with different purposes. While some historians wrote with a view to promote a nationalistic history, with a narrative of how technologies and scientific ideas produced by a nation in the centre were successfully spread across the world, other historians focussed on the adoption or rejection of new scientific ideas and practices by countries of the periphery.[6] In addition, a large number of historical works based on the centre/periphery concept regarded scientific ideas and technologies as material entities, which could be transferred from one place to another as physical goods.[7]

George Basalla’s essay on The Spread of Western Science has been instrumental in combining the centre/periphery concept and the study of colonialism and technology transfer. In the essay, Basalla aims to understand how the “modern” science of Western Europe was diffused to the rest of the world through a three-stage model. In phase-1, Europeans established contact with new lands as a result of trade, conquest or colonisation for settlement. The “nonscientific” societies served as sources of scientific knowledge for European science, which the Europeans gathered through maps, and plant and animal specimens. Although commercial exploitation also played an important role in such scientific study of new lands, Basalla, however, stressed that such exploration was a result of the European scientific culture and its need for scientific data. Also, the scientific knowledge gained from the colonies in the periphery resulted in Western science being modified as a result of the new information. According to Basalla:

European science, its practitioners forced to come to terms with exotic material at home and aborad, underwent a significant transformation while it was in the process of being diffused to a wider world. [8]

In time, the initial phase of exploration and reconnaissance resulted in the second, and more important, phase of “colonial science.” This phase was characterised by increased scientific activity in the colonies. Colonial scientists, who according to Basalla were Europeans, established local institutions in the colonies, replicating the fields of scientific investigations pursued in Europe. Such institutions and practices were dependent on European institutions and expertise, and resulted in what Basalla terms as “an external scientific culture.”[9] Basalla also clarifies that terming colonial science as being dependent on European institutions and expertise did not necessarily mean that it was inferior. Being dependent, according to Basalla, meant that practitioners of colonial science were trained in Europe and followed the methods and field of inquiry as that followed in Europe. Basalla writes:

[T]he colonial scientist works under handicaps at home and relies upon a scientific tradition located abroad. Although the group of men involved in the enterprise of colonial science is larger than that involved in phase-1 collecting, the number has not yet reached the critical size necessary for reciprocal intellectual stimulation and self-sustaining growth.[10]

In phase-3, with the rise of nationalism, colonial science gradually developed into an independent scientific tradition. The colonial periphery achieved scientific autonomy after a constant struggle with European beliefs. According to Basalla, the colonial scientist was replaced by a national of the colony who was trained in science and worked within the boundaries of the country.[11]

Basalla’s model was, for several years, considered useful in historical studies on colonial science and technology transfer, because it showed a linear path to national scientific development. R.K. Kochhar, in his 1991 article, Science in British India: Colonial Tool, stated that “modern science came to India in tow with the Europeans.”[12] In the article, Kochhar claimed that before the arrival of the British, scientific knowledge in India was erratic and motivated only by the curiosity of the locals, and studied the emergence of modern science in India on similar lines as Basalla studied the spread of Western Science.[13] Kochhar too, as Basalla did, proposed a three-stage model for discussing the advent and development of modern science in India. The first stage in Kochhar’s model was the “colonial tool stage”, which consisted of the introduction of science by the British colonists as a colonial tool. In this stage, much like Basalla’s phase-1, the colonists conducted geological and botanical surveys in order to utilise the knowledge for their own benefits. As a result of the exploration and surveying, the colonists established institutions such as the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1784, and the Geological Survey of India in 1851.[14] The second stage, called the “peripheral-native stage”, was established once the British were well established in India. In this stage, the British enrolled Indians as cheap labour to the “colonial science machinery.”[15] The third stage, called the “Indian response stage”, was the reaction to the second stage, similar to phase-3 of Basalla’s model, which was a reaction to the “colonial science” phase. In the third stage of Kochhar’s model, Indians began taking initiative in developing self-sustained and independent scientific activities.[16]

Problems with “Colonial Science” and “Technology Transfer”

New historical works have, however, proven Basalla’s and Kochhar’s models to be defective in several veins, and have re-examined the concepts of “technology transfer” and “colonial science”. Roy MacLeod, in his essay, On Visiting the Moving Metropolis: Reflections on the Architecture of Imperial Science (1982), revisited Basalla’s models and proposed an alternative to the understand the relations between the core and the periphery. According to Basalla, the core was a constant and stationary source of scientific knowedge. MacLeod, however, argues that the core was a “moving metropolis”, which was itself dynamic and changed substantially over time. These changes, in MacLeod’s view, also affected the scientific relations between the core and the colonial periphery, and the development of imperial science. MacLeod also pointed out the vagaries of historians’ definitions of the terms “colonial science”, “scientific colonialism”, “imperial science”, and “scientific imperialism”.[17] Although the concepts are closely related, MacLeod stresses that historians needed to logically differentiate between them. According to MacLeod, colonial science was the practice and application of science in the colonies through institutions and other structures, while scientific colonialism defined the processes through which colonial policies were implemented. Also, in MacLeod’s view, British imperial science was similar to colonial science, but only worked to serve the political ideologies and objectives of the “new imperialism” of the nineteenth century, while scientific imperialism was the implementation of science for the purposes of fulfilling imperial doctrine.[18] MacLeod’s notions were useful in illustrating that the spread of Western science as a result of colonialism was not a linear process as Basalla had indicated; contrarily, the spread of Western science and the processes of colonial science were more dynamic and flexible in nature.

David Wade Chambers and Richard Gillespie, in their essay, Locality in the History of Science: Colonial Science, Technoscience, and Indigenous Knowledge (2000), argue that while Basalla’s model was widely accepted by historians of science and colonialism, it failed because it assumed that the patterns of scientific and economic development of the West could be applicable to other parts of the world. The authors state, “without considerable modification this assumption is effectively blind to both history and culture, and is premised on the notion that ‘pre-scientific’ localities, today, start from a position similar to Europe’s before scientific take-off hundreds of years ago.”[19] The authors also argue that the concept of “colonial science”, as defined by Basalla and studied by several historians, was problematic. They stress that Basalla’s definition of “colonial science” implies that each locality develops into a scientific nation state only after going through the “colonial” stage, and ignores the social and cultural parameters that are unique to each locality. Chambers and Gillespie suggest that colonial scientific relationships must be seen as networks through which scientific knowledge was produced and circulated, instead of the linear, unidirectional model of technology transfer suggested by Basalla.[20]

In The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Progress, 1850-1940 (1988), Daniel Headrick discusses the process of technology transfer and also argues that “the transfer of technology from one society to another, and from one civilisation to another, is of an altogether higher order of complexity, and no theory has yet emerged to encompass it all.”[21] Headrick writes that technology transfer is not a singular process, but comprises of two distinct processes: “relocation” and “diffusion.”[22] Relocation, according to Headrick, is the movement of equipment, methods and personnel from one location to another, while diffusion involves the cultural acceptance and diffusion of skills, knowledge and attitudes from one society to another.

In Headrick’s view, technology transfer is incomplete without its agents: “exporters”, “importers”, and “migrants.”[23] Exporters, which include officials, tradesmen and engineers, are responsible for the “geographic relocation of technology”, and for exporting technology and skilled personnel to fulfill gaps in the demands of the importing country.[24] On the other hand, importers, which include students, local labour and local experts, are responsible for cultural diffusion of technology, with a view to develop skills and technologies in their home countries. Migrants, according to Headrick, are both exporters and importers. Headrick adds:

Hence we are left with four basic categories of transfer: the geographic relocation of technology by Western experts; its relocation by non-Western importers; its cultural diffusion by Western experts; and its diffusion by non-Western importers.[25]

In The Tentacles of Progress, Headrick also adds that due to the complex nature of the processes of technology transfer, especially in the case of colonial India, the relocation of technology is a much easier task than the cultural diffusion of technology. While geographic relocation of technology only requires transporting technology and personnel from one location to another by means of a transportation system that links both the home and the new locations, cultural diffusion of technology involves cultural, political and economic aspects, which make it liable to facing resistance. This is because, in Headrick’s view, cultural diffusion “takes a willingness to accept changes, a strong political cohesiveness, and a common vision to the future.”[26]

Headrick argues that these cultural, political and economic aspects of diffusion of technology are responsible for why the colonised regions failed to industrialise despite large-scale technology transfer. India, in Headrick’s view, is an apt example due to its size, population, and also due to the fact that India was colonised many decades before the British ruled Africa, Malaya or Indochina. However, Imperial interests caused delays in the cultural diffusion of technology in India despite India being the forerunner in technology transfer from the West. Headrick stresses that the unequal power relationships between India (and other colonies) and the colonisers was responsible for the failure of India’s attempts to industrialise.[27] The author also demonstrates that the introduction of railways in India, usually considered by many as a means of modernisation and economic development, had a far smaller impact on India’s developments than it had in any other country. Headrick states that the British did not introduce the railways in India with a view to help economic development in India, but to meet their own political and economic goals. He states, “after all, the prime concern of British railway policy in India was to make India useful to Britain, not to make Britain useful to India.”[28] Ian Inkster also makes a similar point on the railways in his essay Colonial and Neo-Colonial Transfers of Technology (1995). Inkster argues that while the development of the railways in Japan and Europe were applications of technological knowledge, “inducing certain types of learning, attitude change and institutional reform”, the building of railways in India was, on the other hand, was not seen as the development of a technological system. British ownership and the import of materials from Britain ensured that the railways project had no significant impact on any technological systems in India.[29]

Headrick also studies indigenous experts and enterprise, especially Jamsetji Nasarwanji Tata and Pramatha Nath Bose, founders of India’s steel industry. However, according to the author, the commercial and political interests of the colonisers restricted and limited indigenous entrepreneurs.[30] Even education of the locals was restricted by the colonisers, who “educated their subjects up to a point. Beyond that they withheld the culture of technology.”[31] Deepak Kumar and Roy MacLeod, editors of Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India (1995), also argue that British political control over agricultural and engineering projects, and education ensured that the transfer of technological knowledge and its dissemination into the local knowledge systems were almost impossible.[32] The engineering community involved in building India’s railway network was predominantly British, and only few Indian engineers reached positions where they could contribute to decision-making processes:

Colonial prejudice against the decision-making capabilities of Indians, their reliability in a crisis, and their ability to direct European and Anglo-Indian upper subordinates, was to prevent these well qualified officers from advancing further until the inter-war years, when Indianisation finally passed beyond the subaltern to the superior grades.[33]

The Tentacles of Progress, and Technology and the Raj can, however, be classified as examples of the centre/periphery concept. Studies on colonial periphery usually employ concepts that define the circulation of scientific knowledge and skills between the developed centre and the colonial periphery with terms such as “transfer”, ”spread”, “introduction”, and “adoption”.[34] The arguments made by the contributors in Technology and the Raj, and by Headrick as to why, despite extensive technology transfer, the colonies remained underdeveloped implicitly imply that the centre and the colonial periphery can be differentiated on the basis of their levels of scientific and technological advancements. These works also neglect the changes that scientific and technological ideas and techniques may have undergone as a result of being transmitted from one culture to another.

Recent historical works have, however, shown that the cultural orientations and internal dynamics of the colonial periphery are important aspects in the study of technology transfer. Kapil Raj, in his book, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 (2007), argues that the construction of scientific knowledge in the colonial periphery was a result of intercultural interactions, and not just the result of a straightforward transfer from the centre.[35] Raj argues that since South Asian and British colonial intellectuals possessed different tools and scientific knowledge, science in the colonial periphery could not have developed without fruitful scientific interactions between the two communities. Raj writes:

[S]cientific knowledge [is developed] through co-constructive processes of negotiation of skilled communities and individuals from both regions, resulting in as much in the emergence of new knowledge forms as in a reconfiguration of existing knowledges and specialized practices on both sides of the encounter.[36]

Raj’s study of interactions between European and Asians, and the way knowledge changed as a result of those interactions is in contrast with the usual centre/periphery and diffusionist models that studied the transfer of scientific and technological knowledge from the Western “metropolis” to the colonial peripheries as a result of superior knowledge. Raj stresses that although these relationships and interactions were asymmetric due to the greater economic, political and military powers of the Europeans, it did not, however, mean that the interactions were unidirectional. Raj also argues against Basalla’s technology transfer model in stating that scientific knowledge was not taken from the colonies in South Asia to the centre to be refined and reshaped before being applied in the colonies as “colonial science.” Instead, according to Raj, scientific knowledge was practiced and applied in the colonies through the cooperation between the colonisers and the colonies. This is evident in his study of geographic surveying, where local South Asian knowledge aided the English in mapping their administrative territories.[37] This, in Raj’s view, benefited both science in the colonies and in the West, thereby making the locals and the colonisers significant yet unequal partners in the creation of scientific knowledge, and “interpersonal trust between — certain — British and — certain — South Asians was predicated upon establishing their common genealogy, language, culture, and shared mercantile interests.”[38]

Kapil Raj’s Relocating Modern Science has resulted in historians questioning the term “colonial science”. By studying the contributions of individual scientific practitioners, Raj has pointed out the various complex interactions between colonisers and local experts, and the exchange of knowledge. More historical works by Kapil Raj have also revealed another aspect of cooperation and knowledge sharing between colonisers and the indigenes — the concept of “go-betweens”, or human agents who “made and changed the contents and the paths of knowledge.”[39] The go-betweens are additions to the agents of technology transfer that Headrick defined in The Tentacles of Progress — exporters, importers and migrants. Go-betweens — usually brokers, messengers, knowledge collectors and translators — were crucial for decision-making processes in politics, and for the dissemination and communication of scientific knowledge. In The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770-1820 (2009), Simon Schaffer and Kapil Raj discuss the largely ignored roles of go-betweens in the transfer of scientific knowledge in colonial India. Raj identifies five types of go-betweens who helped in the development of relationships between Asia and Europe — the “interpreter-translator”, the “merchant-banker”, the “procurer”, the “attorney”, and the “knowledge broker”.[40] Schaffer studies the intellectual network between Britain and India and the role of Tafazzul Husain Khan in helping the exchange and collection of scientific knowledge. Schaffer illustrates the role that this individual go-between played, not only in translating Newton’s Principia into Arabic, but also in collecting ancient literature and enabling English, Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit scholars to share their astronomical knowledge with each other.[41]


The historical works studied here have shown how the study of the history of colonial science and technology transfer has changed with the growing importance of studying the social, cultural and local aspects of scientific knowledge, the ideas and practices of indigenous individuals, and how scientific and technical knowledge is circulated in specific local and institutional contexts.

While historical works discussed here have focused on the changing concepts of technology transfer from the West to the colonies, what is also needed is a closer examination of how indigenous scientific and technical knowledge from the colonies, especially India, resulted in the transformation of scientific and technical knowledge in the West. This would require following the steps of Chambers and Gillespie, and viewing colonial scientific relationships as multilayered and polycentric communication network, while building a history of colonial science different from that of the “diffusionist” model and the “centre/periphery” dichotomy.


[1] David Arnold (ed.). The New Cambridge History of India III: Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 9

[2] George Basalla, “The Spread of Western Science”, Science, Vol. 156 (5 May 1967), pp. 611 — 622

[3] ibid, p. 611

[4] Although Basalla’s essay was concerned with colonialism and technology transfer as a whole, it’s tenets also applied to historical scholarship on colonial science in India, a topic this essay intends to study.

[5] See: N. Despicht, “‘Centre’ and ‘periphery’ in Europe”, in J. de Bandt, P. Mandi and D. Seers (eds), European studies in development: New trends in European development studies (London, 1980), pp. 38 — 41

[6] The theme of the reactions of different segments of Indian society to the scientific and technological knowledge brought from Britain to India during the rule of the East India Company has recently begun to attract the attention of several historians in India and abroad, most notable of whom have been Irfan Habib, Dhruv Raina, Deepak Kumar and Daniel Headrick.

[7] K. Gavroglu and M. Patiniotis (, “Science and Technology in the European Periphery: Some Historiographical Reflections”, History of Science, 46: 2 (2008), pp. 153 — 176 (p.156)

[8] Basalla, The Spread of Western Science, p. 613

[9] ibid, p. 613 — 614

[10] ibid, p. 614

[11] ibid, pp. 617 — 619

[12] R.K. Kochhar, “Science in British India. I. Colonial Tool”, Current Science, 63: 11 (10 December 1992), pp. 689 — 694 (p. 689)

[13] ibid, p. 690

[14] ibid, pp. 690 — 694

[15] ibid, p. 690

[16] ibid, p. 690

[17] Roy MacLeod, “On Visiting the ‘Moving Metropolis’: Reflections on the Architecture of Imperial Science”, Historical Records of Australian Science, 5: 3 (1982), pp. 1 — 16

[18] For imperial science and scientific imperialism, and how technology helped the expansion of European control, see: Daniel Headrick, “The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and the Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century”, The Journal of Modern History, 51: 2 (June, 1979), pp. 231 — 263

[19] David Wade Chambers and Richard Gilespie, “Locality in the History of Science: Colonial Science, Technoscience, and Indigenous Knowledge”, Osiris 2nd Series, 15 (2000), pp. 221 — 240 (p.226)

[20] ibid, p. 223

[21] Daniel Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850 — 1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 9

[22] ibid, p. 9

[23] ibid, p. 10

[24] ibid, p. 10

[25] ibid, p. 10

[26] ibid, p. 13

[27] ibid, pp. 13 — 16

[28] ibid, p. 91

[29] Ian Inkster, “Colonial and Neo-Colonial Transfers of Technology: Perspectives on India before 1914”, in Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India, ed. by Roy MacLeod and Deepak Kumar (New Delhi: Sage, 1995), pp. 25 — 51 (p. 35)

[30] Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress, pp. 259 — 303

[31] ibid, p. 345

[32] Roy MacLeod and Deepak Kumar (eds.), Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India (New Delhi: Sage, 1995)

[33] ibid, p. 184

[34] Gavroglu and Patiniotis (, Science and Technology in the European Periphery, p. 159

[35] Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650 — 1900 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

[36] ibid, p. 223

[37] ibid, pp. 60 — 93

[38] ibid, p. 224

[39] Simon Schaffer, Lisa Roberts, Kapil Raj and James Delbourgo (eds.), The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770 — 1820 (Sagamore Beach, M.A.: Science History Publications, 2009), p. x

[40] ibid, ch. 3, pp. 105 — 150

[41] ibid, ch. 2, pp. 49 — 104

Are We Living in a Risk Society? The Risk Society Thesis and Public-Expert Relationships

In Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, sociologist Ulrich Beck argues that contemporary Western society is in the midst of a transition from older forms of ‘industrial society’ to a distinctively postmodern ‘risk society’.[1] Both Beck and Anthony Giddens maintain that this process of transition and modernisation has initiated a variety of unique man-made or ‘manufactured’ risks.[2] The deleterious effects of these manufactured risks transcend political and geographical boundaries, giving rise to radical and controversial changes in social and cultural structures and politics. Beck contends that some of these risks also arise due to the inability of institutions and scientific experts to cope with the pace of scientific and technological advancements and assess their implications and effects. Thus, Beck describes risk society as “a phase of development of modern society in which the social, political, ecological and individual risks created by the momentum of innovation increasingly allude the control and protective institutions of industrial society.”[3]

Giddens identifies risks faced by contemporary society as “low probability high consequence risks” which “are the result of the burgeoning process of globalisation.”[4] Giddens does not, however, suggest that contemporary society is more risky than previously, but stresses that society is now increasingly preoccupied with the future and its safety.[5] Beck also stresses that postmodernity is characterised by the increasing unknowability and unpredictability of risks, because scientific and technological innovations, through their unanticipated consequences, have resulted in the production of risks that, due to their implicit nature and complexities, are confined within the realms of scientific knowledge and expertise and, due to their unforeseen global and long-term effects, cannot be easily calculated or assessed.[6]

One of the leitmotifs of Beck’s seminal risk society thesis is the theory that risks have resulted in postmodern society becoming reflexive and questioning its own principles – not in a self-reflecting way, but in a critical manner. In Beck’s view, industrial society’s beliefs in technological progress and its benefits are now being replaced by concerns of the risks that such technological progress entails.[7] The risk society posits that the pace of scientific and technological advancements has resulted in governments becoming reactive rather than proactive in matters concerning social risks. For Beck, a lack of control over the risks and uncertainties of manufactured risks, and a lack of visible responsibility for the outcomes of such risks has led to traditional institutions such as government and science losing their legitimacy, and a growing public scepticism of these institutions.[8]

On critical examination of Beck’s risk society thesis, especially concerned with the changing relations between the public and scientific expertise, one can see that Beck’s narrow focus on risk in order to justify the growing public scepticism of traditional institutions is a bit misplaced. It can be argued that public scepticism of social institutions and expertise cannot be wholly attributed to the emergence of unmanageable manufactured risks. It can also be argued that Beck’s concept of reflexive modernisation and how reflexivity relates to the public-expert relationship shows public-expert relationship to be a straightforward concept, which is not actually the case.

Risk society and the public-expert relationship

In order to critically evaluate the risk society thesis, it is important to study the institutional dimensions of the narrative, and understand the role of social institutions in assessing and managing risks. In the risk society thesis, Beck contends that social institutions are responsible for defining risks and informing the public of any risks. As a result, public interpretation of risks depends on information provided to them by the social institutions and experts. According to Beck, the generation of risk meanings in risk society depends on ‘relations of definition’, which are:

basic principles underlying industrial production, law, science, opportunities for the public and for policy. Relations of definition thus decide about data, knowledge, proofs, culprits and compensation. [9]

For Beck, a range of institutions – government, law, science and the media – are strategically associated with the assessment of risks.[10] However, in the risk society thesis, science is considered to be central to risk assessment and regulation. In Beck’s view, science has always been central to the development of society. While early industrial society used science as a means to dominate nature, major scientific developments towards the end of the nineteenth century made science central to ethics. Following on from this period, scientific and technological rationality became crucial to the identification and assessment of risks, moving away from the pre-industrial methods of risk assessment through religious beliefs. [11] Also, in The Reinvention of Politics, Beck avers that in the risk society, political decision making on matters of scientific and technological developments has shifted from government systems into economic, scientific and technological domains.[12]As a result, scientific experts have become the mouthpiece through which risks are communicated to the public. Scientific and governmental experts therefore not only define risks, but are also responsible for any debates about risks. In summary:

Risks are defined as the probabilities of physical harm due to given technological or other processes. Hence technical experts are given pole position to define agendas and impose bounding premises a priori on risk discourses.[13]

Having identified science and scientific experts as the centre of risk definition, assessment and inquiry, Beck examines the changing relationship between the lay public and scientific expertise. In Beck’s view, in industrial society, information about risks moved unidirectionally from the experts to the lay public. Beck bases this unidirectional communication to the competing values of ‘social’ and ‘scientific’ rationality.[14] Scientific rationality refers to the technical and scientific discourses used by experts, while social rationality refers to the social and cultural knowledge that the lay public attains through lived experience. Beck argues that in the transition from industrial society to risk society, the burgeoning amount of manufactured risks have driven the two rationalities apart.

In other words, what becomes clear in risk discussions are the fissures and gaps between scientific and social rationality in dealing with the hazardous potential of civilisation. The two sides talk past each other. Social movements raise questions that are not answered by the risk technicians at all, and the technicians answer questions that miss the point of what was really asked and what feeds public anxiety.[15]

In the risk society thesis, Beck is critical of experts. The nature of risks in the risk society has resulted in risks now being beyond the control and capacity of institutions that are responsible for limiting manufactured risks. In the risk society, risks cannot be adequately regulated using the existing methods of risk assessment. As a consequence, expertise is no longer definitive on matters of risk.[16] According to Beck:

key institutions of modernity such as science, business and politics, which are supposed to guarantee rationality and security, find themselves confronted by situations in which their apparatus no longer has a purchase and the fundamental principles of modernity no longer automatically hold good.[17]

In the risk society, institutions responsible for risk assessment and management are also considered to be manufacturers of risk. Beck writes: “They are no longer seen only as instruments of risk management, but also as a source of risk.”[18]

Beck also contends that as a consequence of failure of public institutions to calculate and control manufactured risks, the public is forced to distrust the rationality and motives of these institutions. In Beck’s view, the BSE episode is a historical benchmark for analysing public distrust of social institutions and expertise.[19] In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Conservative government in Britain denied any uncertainties over the safety of beef. As mentioned in the Philips inquiry report (2000), the Cabinet, despite being made aware of the possible risks to public health, denied and dismissed all suspicions over the risks of BSE to human health. Being confronted with a new risk, the social institutions responded in conventional fashion by reassuring the public of minimal risks. It was only following a wave of public concern in the late 1980s that the government recruited scientific experts to placate the public. Nonetheless, after years of denial, the government eventually admitted in 1996 that BSE was harmful to humans.[20]

Corresponding with the risk society thesis, the BSE incident is proof that expert systems are unable to control manufactured risks and are, therefore, losing public trust.[21] The risk society narrative also uses incidents such as Chernobyl and Bhopal in delineating patterns of public distrust in experts and institutions. However, Beck’s over-reliance on anecdotal evidences and clustered examples shows the risk society thesis’s shortcomings. Although incidents mentioned in Beck’s works illuminate public distrust in social institutions, Beck interprets public distrust to certain situations as being general and pervasive.

This view of public trust is, however, problematic. While Beck sees public trust as an absolute which social institutions either possess or dispossess, the issue of trust is more a process of negotiation. Even in the case of BSE, where public scepticism was clearly visible,  it is evident that the public’s response was varied.[22] According to the Philips report, while some argued that it was not the government’s task to protect the public against risks where the public can make an informed choice, others believed that the government must always work to reduce the public’s exposure to risks The public’s relation with social institutions is also not restricted to simple unidirectional flow of information of risks from the institutions to the public. On the contrary, the public are anxious to understand how social institutions make decisions on risks. Also, social institutions do not aim to achieve zero-risk, but to reduce the outcomes of risks to an acceptable level. The public also play a crucial role in helping social institutions decide what the acceptable levels of risk are, and how risks should be managed.[23]

In the risk society, where expert systems find it difficult to contain manufactured risks, it is reasonable to argue for growing public scepticism of expert systems. However, public distrust of expert institutions and systems, as evidenced by Beck, cannot be transformed into a general rejection of expert knowledge. Recent empirical studies have shown generally favourable public attitudes towards scientific and technological research in the UK.[24] The public’s positive perception of science has increased as compared to a few years ago, and the public sees almost all areas of scientific research beneficial. The public also feels better informed and positive about the impacts of science.[25]

Against Beck’s totalising approach, the question to ask is not whether the public completely ‘trust’ or ‘distrust’ expert institutions, but which underlying factors influence public trust in expert institutions. Public trust in expert institutions cannot be restricted to being either completely positive or completely negative, and public distrust of expert systems cannot certainly be generally attributed to the emergence of manufactured risks and the inability of institutions to manage them. Trust is a complex phenomenon and, therefore, the larger question of public attitudes towards experts and social institutions depends on the scientific and technological innovations in question and on varied contextual factors.

Firstly, public trust in expertise and public institutions is shaped by their assessment of the purposes of, and motivations behind certain decisions – related to science and technology – made by the expert systems. The level of public trust depends on whether or not the science is directed towards societal goals or commercial targets.[26] Secondly, public distrust of expert systems and especially regulatory authorities is apparent in domains where the government and industry work closely. In such cases, public distrust stems from suspicion of the government and industry’s motives, and the inability of government to regulate industry in such cases.[27] Similarly, levels of public engagement also influence public trust. Public distrust is heightened in cases where the public feel they are not included in the decision-making process, especially in matters related to what kinds of science and technology get funded and why. Also, public trust is related to whether or not scientists are encouraged to voice their concerns about potential risks and uncertainties instead of being urged to focus unduly on research and profit.[28] Another factor that influences public trust in expert systems is ethical judgement. The public’s primary concern is whether or not publicly funded science is used for social benefit, and whether or not the benefits are being distributed evenly across the different strata of society. [29]

Beck’s risk society thesis conveniently ignores all the factors which influence public trust in social institutions. Such a simplistic view of the complex public-expert relationship fails to recognise that both the public and institutions and dynamic interactions between lay and expert groups influence risk assessment and management.[30]

Reflexive modernisation and the public-expert relationship

One of the leitmotifs of Beck’s risk society thesis is ‘reflexive modernisation’. In Beck’s view, the changing nature of risks from pre-industrial and industrial societies to the postmodern risk society has produced marked changes in attitudes towards risks. The far-reaching impacts of manufactured risks have been responsible for heightening public awareness of risks. In reflexive modernisation, society is constantly aware of the risks, and questions its own actions and decisions in order to avoid the ‘bads’ of modernity. According to Beck, reflexivity is ‘built-in’ in contemporary risks.[31] The avoidance of the ‘bads’, such as the daunting possibilities of environmental and nuclear threats, demands new methods of constant risk assessment. [32] Therefore, society is transformed as a result of such reflexive forms of thought. Beck defines the elementary thesis of reflexive modernisation as:

the more societies are modernised, the more agents (subjects) acquire the ability to reflect on the social conditions of their existence and to change them in that way.[33]

Giddens explains that one of the requisites of modernity is public dependence on expert systems. In Giddens’s view, science and technology create as many new risks and uncertainties as they dispel and, consequently, the public must depend on scientific expert systems for accurate understanding of such manufactured risks. [34]In recounting the sceptical outlook of public reflexivity, Beck prioritises the central role of institutional experts and counter-experts within science and government in discussions about risks.

Reflexive modernization here means that skepticism is extended to the foundations and hazards of scientific work and science is thus both generalized and demystified. [35]

Unfortunately, the risk society thesis fails to consider the role of tradition and aesthetics. While, according to the risk-society narrative, risk awareness may be increasing, public understanding of risks remains disputable. Beck’s insistence on a completely uniform and rational public perception of risk fails to account for the social and cultural dimensions of risk perception. This means that public understandings of risk are more varied and irregular than Beck acknowledges. According to Wynne, the lay public may ‘follow logics that are obscure and apparently capricious, that can be encapsulated and “naturalised” in fatalistic beliefs, identities and senses of (non) agency’.[36]

Lash also argues against Beck’s reductionism and maintains that reflexivity must be understood with regards to cultural practices and behaviours. Secondly, Lash challenges the fact that modernisation undermines the authority and credibility of expert institutions. According to Lash, expert institutions are restructuring themselves according to the needs of the society, instead of dissolving due to public scepticism.[37] For Wynne, although Beck’s construction of lay-public reflexivity suggests that only institutions and experts can define risks, the fact that the lay public can also interpret and define risks using their cultural and social beliefs and practices contradicts the theory of reflexivity being a straightforward relationship between lay individuals, and institutions and experts.[38] Wynne’s criticisms of Beck’s risk society thesis can be found in his study of Cumbrian sheep-farming following the Chernobyl accident.

After the accident at Chernobyl, there were concerns that the radioactive material that leaked from the plant could have been carried in the air and deposited in Britain. Government scientists negated the claim, arguing that any radioactive material deposited on the soil would either be washed away or would be chemically locked in the soil. Farmers in Cumbria, however, became increasingly concerned about the introduction of nuclear pollutants into the food chain through vegetation and sheep. Experts acknowledged that although this was possible, the contamination would not last for more than a few weeks even if some sheep became contaminated. As a result, the government, on the advice of the experts, placed a temporary ban on the movement or slaughter of sheep until the risk of contamination receded.[39] However, towards the end of this quarantine period, the government extended the ban to a indefinite period, leaving the local community discontented. Wynne writes:

Although the farmers accepted the need for restrictions, they could not accept the experts’ apparent ignorance of the effects of their approach on the normally flexible and informal system of hill farm management.[40]

The government had discovered high levels of radioactive contamination in the Cumbrian soil. Although the government attributed the contamination to Chernobyl, locals argued that much of the contamination had come from the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria and not from Chernobyl. The government denied such claims; however, a survey report revealed that scientists had traced almost half of the radioactive contamination to the Sellafield plant.[41]

Wynne’s case study can, in some respects, be understood as an advocate of Beck’s risk society thesis. The Cumbrian community’s scepticism of the government and the experts, and their identification of inconsistencies in the arguments and findings of the experts conform to Beck’s definition of reflexivity. Wynne also argues, in concordance with Beck, that public scepticism of governments, institutions and expert opinions are becoming increasingly commonplace in modern societies. However, both Beck and Wynne differ in their perspectives on reflexivity with regards to the sources of information that enable public reflexivity. The risk society thesis suggests that experts and governments identify and define risks through intellectual processes, while Wynne contends that public understanding of risks lies outside the realms of expertise and the intellectual processes followed by experts. According to Wynne, the Cumbrian sheep-farming case study shows that the farmers’ mistrust of scientific expertise and the government was backed by local knowledge and cultural experience.

The Cumbrians’ reactions to Sellafield and Chernobyl strikingly substantiate the point that lay people define and judge a risk according to their experience of those institutions supposedly “in control” of hazardous processes, not just according to the physical parameters of the processes alone.[42]

In the case of Cumbria, the farmers – not the experts or the government – were eventually responsible for providing an accurate assessment of risks. As a result, the lay actors were responsible for dissolving the boundaries between themselves and the experts. This view, nonetheless, contrasts the risk society thesis, which, in substantiating scientific and institutional expertise, overlooks the knowledge that lay actors possess as a result of their cultural experiences and local sources. Beck depicts experts and the public as two disparate groups, a notion that neglects the complex interactions within and between the groups.


This essay has studied Beck’s risk society and the impacts of risk on public trust in social institutions and expert systems. As can be inferred from this essay, Beck maintains that public reflexivity results in distrust of expert systems while simultaneously insisting that the lay public remains dependent on expert systems and social institutions for the knowledge and understanding of risk. It has also been demonstrated that the risk society thesis stresses the growing divide between experts and the lay public. Although attributing blame for risks to expert systems and social institutions has become a common response to growing incidents of manufactured risks, Beck nonetheless overemphasises the levels of distrust.

The levels of trust between the public and expert systems depend on multiple factors, and cannot be generalised. Beck fails to grasp that trust means different things to different people and, in depicting public distrust as a usual response to risks, ignores the variable trust relations and the different social and cultural factors that influence the lay public’s decisions about risk. Over the course of this essay, it has become apparent that the growing cultural recognition of risk does not produce public distrust of social institutions. The ambiguities and complexities that arise out of the dynamic interactions between the public and expert systems, as discussed in this essay, show that the public-expert relationship is more exceptional than Beck recognises.


Adam, B., Beck, U. and Loon, J. (eds.). The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues for Social Theory. London: Sage Publications, 2000.

Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage Publications, 1992.

Beck, Ulrich. World Risk Society. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999.

Beck, Ulrich. ‘Self-Dissolution and Self-Endangerment of Industrial Society: What Does This Mean?’. In Reflexive Modernisation: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, ed. by Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994.

Beck, Ulrich. ‘Risk Society and the Provident State’. In Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology, ed. by S. Lash, B. Szerszynski and B. Wynne. London: Sage, 1996.

Beck, Ulrich. ‘The Reinvention of Politics: Towards a Theory of Reflexive Modernization’. In Reflexive Modernization: Politics Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, ed. by Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994.

Beck, Ulrich. ‘The Anthropological Shock: Chernobyl and the Contours of the Risk Society’. Berkley Journal of Sociology, 32 (1987), 153-165.

Beck, Ulrich. Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.

Beck, Ulrich. The Reinvention of Politics: Rethinking Modernity in the Global Social Order. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997.

Beck, Ulrich. ‘Living in the World Risk Society’. Economy and Society, 35: 3 (August 2006), 329-345.

Beck, Ulrich. ‘Politics of Risk Society’. In The Politics of Risk Society, ed. by J. Franklin. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998.

Chilvers, J. and Macnaghten, P. The Future of Science Governance: A review of public concerns, governance and institutional response. University of East Anglia and Durham University, April 2011.

Giddens, Anthony. ‘Risk Society: The Context of British Politics’. In The Politics of Risk Society, ed. by J. Franklin. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998.

Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990.

Giddens, Anthony. ‘Risk and Responsibility’. The Modern Law Review, 62:1 (January 1999), 1-10.

Lash, S. and Urry, J. Economics of Signs and Space. London: Sage, 1994.

Lord Phillips, Bridgeman, J.  and Ferguson-Smith, M. The BSE Inquiry Report. 2000. Available from:

Mythen, Gaybe Ulrich Beck: A Critical Introduction to the Risk Society. London: Pluto Press, 2004.

RCUK/DIUS. Public Attitudes to Science 2008: A Survey. London: Research Councils UK and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, 2008.

Reilly, J. ‘Just Another Food Scare? Public Understanding of the BSE Crisis’. In Message Received: Glasgow Media Group Research 1993 – 1998, ed. by G. Philo. New York: Longman, 1999.

Stilgoe, J., Irwin, A. and Jones, K. The Received Wisdom: Opening up Expert Advice. London: Demos, 2006.

Stirling, Andy. ‘Keep it Complex’. Nature, 468 (23/30 December 2010), 1029-1031.

Wynne, Brian. ‘May the Sheep Safely Graze? A Reflexive View of the Expert-Lay Knowledge Divide’. In Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology, ed. by S. Lash, B. Szerszynski and B. Wynne. London: Sage, 1996.

Wynne, Brian. ‘Misunderstood Misunderstandings: Social Identities and Public Uptake of Science’. Public Understandings of Science, 1 (1992), 281-304.

Wynne, Brian. ‘Sheepfarming after Chernobyl’. Environment, 31(2) (March 1989), 10-15 and 33-39.

Yearley, Steven. Making Sense of Science: Understanding the Social Study of Science. London: Sage Publications, 2005.


[1] First published in German in 1986. The English translation was published in 1992. The 1992 edition of Beck’s publication will be used and referred to for the purposes of this essay.

Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage Publications, 1992)

[2] Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 112; Anthony Giddens, ‘Risk Society: The Context of British Politics’, in The Politics of Risk Society, ed. by J. Franklin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), pp. 23-34 (p. 28)

[3] Ulrich Beck, ‘Risk Society and the Provident State’, in Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology, ed. by S. Lash, B. Szerszynski and B. Wynne (London: Sage, 1996), pp. 27-43 (p.27)

[4] Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), p. 133

[5] Anthony Giddens, ‘Risk and Responsibility’, The Modern Law Review, 62:1 (January 1999), 1-10 (p.3)

[6] Beck, Risk Society, p. 21

[7] Ulrich Beck, ‘The Reinvention of Politics: Towards a Theory of Reflexive Modernization’, in Reflexive Modernization: Politics Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, ed. by Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), pp. 1-55 (pp. 5-6)

[8] Ulrich Beck, ‘The Anthropological Shock: Chernobyl and the Contours of the Risk Society’, Berkley Journal of Sociology, 32 (1987), 153-165 (p.156)

[9] Ulrich Beck, Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), p. 130

[10] ibid, p. 61

[11] Beck, Risk Society, p. 27 and p. 24

[12] Ulrich Beck, The Reinvention of Politics: Rethinking Modernity in the Global Social Order (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997)

[13] Beck, Risk Society, p. 4

[14] ibid, p. 29

[15] ibid, p. 30

[16] ibid, p. 28 and p. 61

[17] Ulrich Beck, ‘Living in the World Risk Society’, Economy and Society, 35: 3 (August 2006), 329-345 (p. 336)

[18] ibid, p. 336

[19] Ulrich Beck, ‘Politics of Risk Society’, in The Politics of Risk Society, ed. by J. Franklin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), pp.9-22 (p. 9)

[20] Lord Phillips, J. Bridgeman and M. Ferguson-Smith, The BSE Inquiry Report (2000) Available from:

Also see: Gaybe Mythen, Ulrich Beck: A Critical Introduction to the Risk Society (London: Pluto Press, 2004), pp. 61-62

Jack Stilgoe, Alan Irwin and Kevin Jones, The Received Wisdom: Opening up Expert Advice (London: Demos, 2006), pp. 17-18

[21] Beck, Living in the World Risk Society, p. 337

[22] J. Reilly, ‘Just Another Food Scare? Public Understanding of the BSE Crisis’ in Message Received: Glasgow Media Group Research 1993 – 1998, ed. by G. Philo (New York: Longman, 1999), pp. 128-146.

[23] Lord Philips, The BSE Inquiry Report, para. 1291-1294

[24] RCUK/DIUS, Public Attitudes to Science 2008: A Survey (London: Research Councils UK and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, 2008)

[25] Jason Chilvers and Phil Macnaghten, The Future of Science Governance: A review of public concerns, governance and institutional response (University of East Anglia and Durham University, April 2011), pp. 15-16

[26] ibid, p. 16

[27] ibid, pp. 16-17

[28] ibid, pp. 17-18

[29] ibid, pp. 19-20

[30] Brian Wynne, ‘May the Sheep Safely Graze? A Reflexive View of the Expert-Lay Knowledge Divide’, in Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology, ed. by S. Lash, B. Szerszynski and B. Wynne (London: Sage, 1996), pp. 44-83 (p. 76)

[31] Beck, Risk Society, p. 165

[32] Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity Press), p. 12

[33] Ulrich Beck, ‘Self-Dissolution and Self-Endangerment of Industrial Society: What Does This Mean?’, in Reflexive Modernisation: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, ed. by Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), pp. 174-183 (p. 174)

[34] Giddens, Risk and Responsibility, p. 4

[35] Beck, Risk Society, p. 14

[36] Wynne, May the Sheep Safely Graze?, p. 53

[37] S. Lash and J. Urry, Economics of Signs and Space (London: Sage, 1994), p. 119

[38] Wynne, May the sheep Safely Graze?, p. 47

[39] Brian Wynne, ‘Misunderstood Misunderstandings: Social Identities and Public Uptake of Science’, Public Understandings of Science, 1 (1992), pp. 281-304 (p. 283)

[40] Brian Wynne, ‘Sheepfarming after Chernobyl’, Environment, 31(2) (March 1989), pp. 10-15, 33-39 (p. 34)

[41] ibid, p. 36

[42] ibid, p. 36

‘Risk Society’ in History

In 1986, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck famously proclaimed the transition of contemporary Western society from older forms of industrial society to a distinctively postmodern ‘risk society’. In his seminal work, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Beck argues that the consequences of the growth in human knowledge, and scientific and industrial development are the proliferation of risks. [1] As a result, risk society and industrial society differ in the fact that while industrial society was based on the production and distribution of goods, the principle of risk society is the prevention of ‘bads’, or risks, of modernisation.[2]

Beck claims that the nature of risks and the critical reflection upon, and confrontation with, the dangers of modernisation differentiate risk society and industrial society. In risk society, firstly, the nature of risks has changed as compared to industrial society. Risks are no longer attributed to natural or supernatural causes, but are consequences of modernisation itself. The seemingly incalculable common threats of pre-modern society — plague, famine, and wars etc., commonly attributed to external factors — were transformed into calculable risks in early industrialisation (or industrial modernity, or simple modernity). However, according to Beck, these risk calculations of industrial modernity fail in risk society.[3] The risks of postmodern society, due to their global and non-localised nature, and long-term effects, have become incalculable and are therefore no longer risks, but uncertainties.[4] Secondly, in risk society risks cannot be easily assessed due to their implicit nature and growing technological complexities. Beck argues that in contrast to the visible and perceptible hazards of industrial society, most of the risks of today escape perception, for they are confined within the realms of scientific knowledge rather than in everyday experience. As an example to illustrate this difference, he compares the hazards of foul-smelling and unclean cities of early modernity to the present-day risks of nuclear threat and toxins in foodstuffs.[5] In addition to the ‘risk society’ theory, Beck also theorises the emergence of a postmodern society that becomes reflexive due to its anxieties about risks produced as a consequence of modernisation.[6] He contends that reflexivity is a process of modernity confronting itself over the dangers of modernity.

At the heart of Beck’s argument lies the fact that technological modernisation has resulted in a move from a relatively safe and ordered industrial society to an insecure risk society. The risk society thesis, consequently, illustrates the complex relations between technological growth, modernity, risk and society as an exclusively postmodern transformation. On the contrary, thinkers of the early industrial society also discussed modernisation of society in terms of uncertainties and risks, and were ‘reflexive’ in thinking about the new risks that technological progress entailed. Beck’s description of industrial society as being modern and progressive, and of risk society as being postmodern and reflexive ignores the varying nature of risks and technological complexities that contemporaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had to face while constructing new and safer technologies.

The Changing Nature of Risks

The leitmotif of the risk society thesis is the changing nature of risks and the growing importance of experts and regulation. According to Beck, in the transition from industrial society to risk society, natural hazards have been replaced by man-made risks and dangers.[7] Giddens also makes a similar point when describing risks of the risk society as “manufactured risk … created by the very impact of our developing knowledge upon the world”.[8] As compared to the natural hazards that prevailed in industrial society, manufactured risks are considered to be more catastrophic.[9] To illustrate the catastrophic nature of manufactured risks, Beck argues that most of the man-made technological forces, including nuclear power and genetic technologies, are capable of causing the extinction of human life, and that technological modernisation has made society capable of self-destruction.[10]

There would pretty soon be unanimous agreement on one basic historical fact: namely, that the second half of the twentieth century has distinguished itself — by virtue of the interplay of progress with the possibility of annihilation by the ecological, nuclear, chemical and genetic hazards we impose upon ourselves.[11]

Beck’s clear differentiation between industrial society’s natural hazards and risk society’s manufactured risks is, however, inaccurate. Urban and industrial development in the nineteenth century also posed great risks to society and the environment. The introduction of gas lighting in London and Paris in the early nineteenth century can be studied as an example of manufactured risk in industrial society. While the proponents of gas lighting saw it as a symbol of modernity and progress, gas lighting, however, brought with it many political and economic risks, and opposition. The major opponents of gas lighting were the laypeople who, in addition to being concerned about the ugliness of gaslight and uneasy about allowing the expanding industries into their personal spaces, were also concerned about the technology itself.[12] Fressoz, in his study of the gas lighting controversy, states that the opponents of gas lighting had a more accurate vision of the risks that the technology entailed. This was in contrast to the views of the experts, who considered the technology as inherently ideal and predictable.[13]

Another distinctive character of the ‘new risks’, according to Beck, is that manufactured risks, due to their low probabilities but unlimited consequences, are no longer calculable and predictable. As a result, such risks are no longer risks, but uncertainties that go beyond the methods of insurance and institutional responsibility used to manage industrial risks of the nineteenth century.[14] The management of such a risk was also central to the gas lighting controversy. The presence of a 200,000 cubic feet gasometer in Paris in the 1820s was a major concern for public safety. Although scientists and academicians in favour of gas lighting acknowledged that the explosion of the gasholder was highly improbable, opponents argued that even a miniscule chance of explosion was unacceptable. Insurance providers also, due to the unknown risks, refused to insure homeowners, which was highly unacceptable to the opponents. Consequently, the government imposed strict regulations in order to set a minimum standard of safety and regulate the uncertainties of the new technology.[15]

Risk, Public and Social Institutions

In the risk society thesis, Beck argues that in contrast to industrial society, postmodern risk society is defined by growing public scepticism of social institutions and scientific expertise. In Beck’s view, postmodern risks, due to their nature, can be identified and investigated only using the tools of science, which, as a consequence, makes scientific expertise and institutions responsible for all debates about risks.[16] However, due to the complexities of manufactured risks, governments and experts are unable to manage risk incidents and provide the public with relevant information. As a result, lay publics have become sceptical of governmental and institutional management of economic, technological, health and social risks of the postmodern risk society. [17] This, according to Beck, is in stark contrast with industrial society, where public trust in scientific expertise and social institutions was relatively stable. Beck argues that such trust was borne out of the public’s view of technological advancement as a means of prosperity.[18] However, such public trust in social institutions and scientific expertise, attributed to the industrial society, was not a given. A major example of public distrust and scepticism of scientific and institutional management of risks in the industrial society is the mass movement against compulsory smallpox vaccination in Britain from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.

Under the Vaccination Acts of 1853, 1867, and 1871, all infants were to be vaccinated against smallpox within the first three months of their life. However, many saw these Acts as tyrannical and refused to oblige. While many historians have seen this anti-vaccination movement as anti-progressive, the controversy had deeper causes and implications. Firstly, the controversy centred on the risks that the technology of vaccination involved. The process of vaccination in the nineteenth century involved the unsanitary and dangerous ‘arm to arm’ method — the deliberate introduction of impurities such as calf lymph into the child’s body — that carried the risk of exposing children to blood-borne and animal diseases. Vaccination was deplored not only because it was risky, but also because it violated the purity of the body and its fluids. Anti-vaccinators also insisted that adulterating the ‘pure’ blood within one’s body was a form of poisoning.[19]

The compulsory vaccination initiative also resulted in public scepticism of scientific and bureaucratic expertise. The bulk of the support for the anti-vaccination movement came from the lower classes. This was mainly because while the children of the better offs were vaccinated privately with lymph obtained from a reliable source, the children of the poor were vaccinated at the hospitals with lymph of unknown origin. Also, the working-class opponents of compulsory vaccination saw the Acts as forms of state oppression. Durbach also writes that the opponents of vaccination were aware of the new ideas in vaccination, and used them to argue that the state, instead of introducing impurities in the body, should concentrate on building up the constitution of individuals and create healthy bodies by promoting good diets, and provide a better living environment for the people.[20] In 1896, the Royal Commission on Vaccination appointed in 1889 finally stated that vaccination should remain compulsory; however, parents who ‘honestly opposed’ vaccination would not be prosecuted.[21] Finally, in 1907, vaccination was no longer compulsory and anyone could obtain exemption.[22]

One distinguishing characteristic that differentiates the risks of industrial society and the risk society is that risks faced by early industrial societies — earthquakes, floods and famines — were spatially and temporally limited.[23] Beck argues that although natural risks harbour severe negative consequences, they are nonetheless specifically local phenomena. In contrast, manufactured risks — nuclear reactors and chemical pollution — transcend national boundaries and have long-term consequences.[24]

In the nineteenth century, vaccination posed such risks due to its long-lasting side effects. Promoters of compulsory vaccination failed to contemplate the effects of vaccination on the malnourished bodies of urban working-class children, some of who were vulnerable to adverse reactions. The unhygienic process meant children could also contract congenial or hereditary syphilis. Syphilis was a major concern because, along with being a social stigma, it could also be transmitted to present and succeeding generations. In late-Victorian culture, syphilis was considered a threat not only to an individual’s health but also to that of the nation. Anti-vaccinators employed this sentiment in arguing that vaccination threatened the health of the entire human race.[25]

Public outrage over the water supply in nineteenth-century London is also an instance of industrial society’s understanding of risks and scepticism of social institutions. In 1828, Dr William Lambe, fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, asserted that the ordinary drinking water supplied to the citizens of London from the Thames was unfit for human use. In the same year, the Royal Commission on Water Supply began an inquiry into London’s water. The inquiry was the first significant discussion of the present and future standards of water supply in Britain.[26]

What, nonetheless, triggered William Lambe’s claims and the inquiry was the appearance in 1827 of ‘Dolphin’, a pamphlet by a journalist, John Wright. Wright’s pamphlet was an outburst against the Grand Junction water company. Like most other water companies of the time, the Grand Junction Company also took water from the tidal Thames. Although the water companies used subsidence reservoirs to purify the river water, the water still emerged turbid and discoloured. What outraged Wright was that the Grand Junction Company took its water from very close to the outlet of one of London’s great sewers. In order to strengthen his argument on how the water provided by the company was contaminated and unfit for human use, Wright included testimonials from medical men who believed their patients were severely affected by the contaminated waters of London.[27]

Wright’s pamphlet ignited widespread public outrage against the poor water supply in London. The pamphlet also provided an outlet for people to vent their growing frustrations with the poor but expensive services provided by the water companies. The matter was discussed in public meetings and newspapers, and finally in mid-1827 a Royal Commission on the Metropolitan Water Supply was established. Although the commission’s report studied the workings of the water companies, it did not lead to the reformation of water supply until Edwin Chadwick raised the issue in the 1840s. The 1827 furore and the 1828 inquiry by the Royal Commission on Water Supply did, nevertheless, force some of the water companies to establish filtration works for treating their water.[28]


According to Beck, postmodern risks, as opposed to hazards of the industrial society, are consequences of modernisation itself. The risk society is characterised by risks that can no longer be attributed to external causes. Risks now depend on industrial and political decisions and are, therefore, ‘politically reflexive’.[29] The concept of Beck’s risk society is intrinsically linked to the concept of reflexivity.[30] Beck contends that reflexivity is an unintended consequence of the risks of modernity, and is the process of modernity questioning and critiquing its own practices. Therefore, risk society is the ‘reflexive modernisation’ of industrial society, where

‘reflexive modernisation’ means self-confrontation with the effects of risk society that cannot be dealt with and assimilated in the system of industrial society.[31]

Beck claims that this process of critical reflection is the chief difference between industrial society and risk society.[32] But, similar to risk society, early industrial societies were also critical of their actions. In 1664, at the behest of Charles II, John Evelyn (1620 — 1706), an English diarist and founding member of the Royal Society, published his Sylva, which studied the state of the king’s forest reserves. He was concerned with rapid deforestation and the devastation caused by increasing numbers of shipping vessels, and grounds needed for pasture. Among Evelyn’s recommendations was the prohibition of cutting trees in certain areas, and the planting of seeds in other areas to balance any losses to forest cover. Evelyn’s ideas influenced a national movement to plant trees and rebuild natural landscape.[33]

Lowood’s study of the emergence of an innovative approach to management of forest resources in the second half of the eighteenth century in central Europe is another example of industrial society’s reflexivity. At the time, forests constituted a major portion of the local and regional economies of central Europe.[34] Wood obtained from forests was an indispensable product for private and commercial use. Following the Seven Years’ War (1756 — 1763), severe shortage of wood resulted in an impending crisis, just when rulers sought to encourage expansion of trade and industry. Efforts to reduce consumption of wood by redesigning products made of wood, and by trying to study and increase efficiency in wood burning were only beneficial on a small scale. The growing crisis required a novel approach to forest management.[35]

In order to train future foresters, a number of private forestry schools were established, and books and publications of forestry began emerging. The first writers on forestry were financial officials and chief foresters, who introduced mathematical and quantitative analysis to the management of forests. Mathematics figured prominently in the curriculum of forestry schools. The proponents of mathematics in forestry argued that mathematical sophistication would result in the establishment of new procedures and solutions to the problems of forestry. By 1800, the forester trained in specialised in mathematics and quantitative analysis was capable of calculating the quantity of wood in the forest through the use of mathematics and forestry science, instead of using methods of direct measurement. This large-scale experiment in Germany provided systematic management of forests, in order to restore the depleted and neglected forests.[36]

Industrialisation in early nineteenth century was also responsible for widespread environmental damage in Britain. Forests were destroyed for use in industries and to make space for the large-scale expansion of urban areas. Although the industrial towns of nineteenth-century Britain were provided work and opportunities to the people, they were not beautiful places to live in. There were numerous protests about the poor air and water quality, and against the filth in the collieries and lead mines. As a consequence, the government passed the 1863 Alkali Act and a Public Health Act in 1875, and urban parks were developed in order to improve air conditions and provide recreational space.[37]

Evans writes that squalid urban living conditions in the nineteenth century “gave rise to the garden city movement and to the great British holiday”.[38]The countryside, from which people moved into industrial towns for want of jobs and wealth, swiftly became a symbol for health and happiness. This new attitude towards nature also changed the way humans perceived their dominion over the natural world. The process of industrialisation began to be scrutinised, since moralists saw industrialisation as a means of achieving man’s eternal aim of taming nature. Also, according to Evans, Charles Darwin’s publications, especially On the Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871, brought humans to the same level as all other creatures, which changed the new urbanites’ perspective of nature, resulting in a growing concern for the welfare and preservation of wildlife and natural environments. [39]

Agricultural intensification from mid nineteenth-century also led to “the modern interaction between farming and wildlife.”[40] Changes in farming techniques and the massive changes to the British landscape affected many types of wildlife and their habitats. The extensive draining of marshlands in the early 1800s accounted for large-scale loss of wetland species. Fortunately, the changing attitudes that paved the way for an increasing interest in preservation and wildlife formed the basis for the foundation of natural history societies. The most prominent of the many societies formed in the early nineteenth century was the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824, which became ‘Royal’ (RSPCA) a few years later.[41] It was only during the last half of the nineteenth century that conservation of nature in the face of threats of industrialisation and agriculture came to the fore.[42] Recourse to law was seen as the best way to counter threats to nature. Consequently, in June 1869, the Sea Birds Preservation Act was introduced, followed by the 1876 Wild Birds Protection Act; and in 1888, the first local by-laws for the protection of plants was passed. Further amendments were made to the Wild Birds Protection Act, proving that the conservationist movement had gained momentum.[43]


It cannot be disputed that the risk society thesis offers insight into the complex relationships between social institutions, reflexivity and the production of risk. However, Beck’s conception of risk society as a predominantly postmodern phenomenon has its weaknesses.

Firstly, industrial society was capable of producing manufactured risks, which Beck claims are a novelty of the postmodern risk society. Fressoz writes:

Industrialising societies of the nineteenth century could be well aware of the risks brought by innovations, and a critical attitude toward technological progress appeared in the writings of opposers to gas lighting.[44]

Secondly, the anti-vaccination campaign and the public outrage over water supply in London provide examples of the public’s growing distrust in social institutions in the nineteenth century. The emergence of public movements towards ecological conservation also contradicts Beck’s postulation of postmodern reflexivity. Evans shows industrial society’s awareness of the ecological and social risks of modernity can be inferred from the emergence of societies to deal with such risks. Although many such societies lasted for only short periods of time, the very fact that these societies were formed is indicative of the reflexivity of industrial society. Furthermore, the emergence of scientific methods to manage environmental risks, as discussed by Lowood, and the public outrage over the poor quality of water supply in London, as discussed by Hamlin, also prove industrial society’s reflexivity when faced with the risks of modernisation.

Beck’s perspective of the risk society is also unconditionally negative. While Beck sees risk as nothing but harm, he overlooks the fact that risk can also result in social progress. Fressoz, Durbach and Hamlin’s works deliberate that technological (in the case of gas lighting) and sanitary (in the case of vaccination and water supply) safety were socially constructed in an undercurrent of risk. Public doubts over gas lighting, water supply and vaccination resulted in the opening up of expertise and experts’ views to wider debate, which resulted in better risk assessment and regulation.[45]

Lastly, in applying the risk society thesis to historical practices, it has become clear that by exaggerating the differences between industrial society and risk society on the basis of the understanding and acceptance of risks, Beck produces a very straightforward historical account that does not consider the challenges industrial society faced in controlling modernisation and its risks.

[1] First published in German in 1986. The English translation was published in 1992. The 1992 edition of Beck’s publication will be used and referred to for the purposes of this essay.

Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage Publications, 1992), p. 2

[2] ibid, p. 3

[3] ibid, p. 22

[4] Anthony Giddens, ‘Risk and Responsibility’, The Modern Law Review, 62:1 (January 1999), 1-10 (p.4); Also see, Anthony Giddens, ‘Risk Society: The Context of British Politics’, in The Politics of Risk Society, ed. by J. Franklin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), pp. 23-34 (p. 27)

[5] Beck, Risk Society, p. 21

[6] ibid, p. 19

[7] ibid, p. 4

[8] Anthony Giddens, Runaway World (London: Profile Books, 2002), p. 26

[9] Ulrich Beck, Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), p. 100

[10] Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 53; Also see Beck, Risk Society, p. 39

[11] Beck, Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk, p. 83

[12] Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, ‘ The Gas Lighting Controversy: Technological Risk, Expertise, and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London’, Journal of Urban History, 33 (2007), 729-756

Also see: Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialisation of Light in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1988), pp. 27-37

[13] ibid, pp. 735-736

[14] Ulrich Beck, ‘The Reinvention of Politics: Towards a Theory of Reflexive Modernization’, in Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, ed. by U. Beck, A. Giddens and S. Lash (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), pp. 1-55 (p. 27)

Also see Beck, Risk Society, p. 101

[15] ibid, p. 736

[16] Beck, Risk Society, p. 4

[17] ibid, p. 4 and p. 169

[18] ibid, p. 29

[19] Nadja Durbach, Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 (London: Duke University Press, 2005)

[20] ibid, pp. 119-123

[21] Nadja Durbach, ‘Class, Gender, and the Conscientious Objector to Vaccination, 1898-19077’, Journal of British Studies, 41:1 (January 2002), 58-83 (p. 68)

[22] Durbach, Bodily Matters, p. 196

[23] Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 143

[24] Beck, Risk Society, pp. 19-21

[25] Durbach, Bodily matters, p.153

[26] Christopher Hamlin, A Science of Impurity: Water Analysis in Nineteenth Century Britain (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990), pp. 73-99

[27] ibid, pp. 81-82

[28] ibid, pp. 73-99

[29] Beck, Risk Society, p. 183

[30] ibid, p. 21

[31] Beck, The Reinvention of Politics, p. 6

[32] ibid, pp. 19-21

[33] David Evans, A History of Nature Conservation in Britain (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 21-22

[34] Henry E. Lowood, ‘The Calculating Forester: Quantification, Cameral Science, and the Emergence of Scientific Forestry Management in Germany’, in The Quantifying Spirit in the 18th Century, ed. by Tore Frängsmyr, J.L. Heilborn, and Robin E. Rider (Oxford: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 315-342 (p. 318)

[35] ibid, pp. 318-320

[36] ibid, pp. 319-322 and pp. 330-333

[37] Evans, A History of Nature Conservation in Britain, pp. 23-26

[38] ibid, p. 25

[39] ibid, pp. 26-27

[40] (Kenneth Boulding quoted in Chisholm 1972), ibid, p. 28

[41] ibid, p. 39

[42] ibid, p. 36

[43] ibid, p. 36-37

[44] Fressoz, The Gas Lighting Controversy, p. 750

[45] Fressoz, The Gas Lighting Controversy, p. 731; Durbach, Bodily Matters, pp. 199–207; Hamlin, A Science of Impurity, pp. 299-306