Risk society and the distribution of bads: theorizing class in the risk society


  • Thanks to Sarah Cheung, Gabe Mythen, Andrew Sayer, Marcus Taylor, the five anonymous reviewers, and the editors for their helpful suggestions and comments on this paper.

(Corresponding author email: d.curran@queensu.ca)


Ulrich Beck states in the Risk Society (1992) that the rise of the social production of risks in the risk society signals that class ceases to be of relevance; instead the hierarchical logic of class will be supplanted by the egalitarian logic of the distribution of risks. Several trenchant critiques of Beck's claim have justified the continued relevance of class to contemporary society. While these accounts have emphasized continuity, they have not attempted to chart, as this paper will, how the growing social production of risk increases the importance of class. This paper argues that it is Beck's undifferentiated, catastrophic account of risk that undergirds his rejection of class, and that by inserting an account of risk involving gradations in both damages and calculability into Beck's framework, his theory of risk society may be used to develop a critical theory of class. Such a theory can be used to reveal how wealth differentials associated with class relations actually increase in importance to individuals’ life-chances in the risk society. With the growing production and distribution of bads, class inequalities gain added significance, since it will be relative wealth differentials that both enables the advantaged to minimize their risk exposure and imposes on others the necessity of facing the intensified risks of the risk society.