Theories of Danger and Anxiety

Risk Society, written by Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist, was published in 1986 and translated into English in 1992, and into Korean in 1997. Since then, the term “risk society” has been used by sociologists around the world, and the concept has had a profound effect on the diagnosis of the new reality and search for solutions in the late 20th century.

The risk spoken of by Ulrich Beck in Risk Society is conceptually distinct from danger. First, danger refers to an actual threat to the physically existing body or property. For example, chemical substances are dangerous to the human body. Freon gas is dangerous to the ozone layer, and junk food is dangerous for one’s health. Danger is a specific entity, and causes real harm. Risk, however, is unrelated to such a physical or empirical reality of a threat. Risk refers to the statistical probability of something happening to bring harm to the body or property. For that reason, risk is calculable, controllable, and predictable. Therefore, the expression “uncontrollable risk” is contradictory. A risk is a danger taken into account under rational calculation. It is preparation against a danger that may arise in the future, and involves prevention against the occurrence of danger.

Risk is nowhere. But anything can become a risk. Risk is not something that exists in reality; it is a perspective through which reality is seen in a special way. Thus, the same danger can be a risk to someone, yet not to someone else. Therein lies the reason why culture plays a key role in the constitution of a risk. For instance, a certain society (Germany) sees nuclear power plants as a serious risk, and based on the rational idea that they can cause fatal and widespread destruction on the earth’s ecosystem, has declared a departure from this volatile power, and has gained a social consensus to no longer build nuclear plants. Some societies, however, myth-ify the safety of nuclear plants, despite having witnessed the tremendous damage caused by nuclear accidents in catastrophes such as Three Mile Island in 1979, and Chernobyl in 1986. Such phenomena show that in defining a risk, the different attitudes of different societies, as well as their judgments and values, play a more fundamental role than objective scientific knowledge.

Even within a single society, risk evolves according to the times. In other words, a society can show drastic changes in its constitution of a risk during a short period of time. For instance, smoking wasn’t considered a particularly risky behavior in Korea just 10 years ago. People were allowed to smoke in public places, including buses, and were even encouraged to smoke under certain circumstances, such as during military service. Smoking served as a symbol of masculinity, youth rebellion against society, the aesthetic preference of women, as well as refinement amongst intellectuals. In the past 20 years or so, however, Korean society has come to see smoking as a risk. Today, smoking is seen as a slow suicide, as well as an attack on others and their health. Such perceptions arise from the awareness that smoking can cause a number of diseases, as well as that smoking is accompanied by risks.

A risk society is a society dominated by such perceptions of risk. What drives people to action is no longer a release from hunger. They want release from anxiety. A risk society does not come from a righteous, revolutionary fervor; rather, what drives a risk society today is a desire for safety. Class variables, too, lose a great deal of their significance. As Beck likes to put it, smog is democratic. Environmental disasters do not care about class or borders or race. Concerns over food on the table, fear of environmental disasters, including global warming, and anxiety over countless new diseases move the citizens of a risk society in a political way. The new political agent that Beck calls a “risk community” is formed on a worldwide scale, with the anxiety over potential catastrophic disaster as its motivating power. Politics descends to the level of life. Politics turns into a political life centered around the issues of safety and anxiety. In this respect, a risk society shows new kinds of social constitutions and changes heretofore not experienced by mankind.

It was in the mid-to late-1990s that full-fledged discussions on risk societies began in Korea. The collapse of the Seongsu Bridge in 1994 and that of the Sampoong Department Store in 1995 awakened a great sense of crisis in a society optimistically steeped in the myth of success and progress. It was during this period that Korean sociologists began to do a thorough dissection of Korean modernity through the concept of a risk society.

The fall 1998 issue of Sasang carries the opinions of v...