Theories of Danger and Anxiety

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • byKim Hong-jung

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 various scholars on the issue of a risk society. Han Sangjin discusses the flaws of modernization faced by Asian nations based on the concept of a risk society, and Kim Daehwan searches for the causes of large-scale disasters in the process of modernization in Korea, which was achieved through a rush to growth. In addition, Chang Kyung-sup depicts modern Korean society as “a society of explosion and jerry-building,” created by a distorted idea of development, and Yee Jaeyeol points out the “daily abnormality” prevalent in Korean society.

The responses by Korean intellectuals to the discussion of a risk society which began in the 1990s are characterized, above all, by critical reflection on the so-called “compressed modernity.” In this respect, the Korean idea of a risk society during this period was different from that of the West. In other words, while the Western idea of a risk society was based on the awareness of destruction that paradoxically comes as a result of the standard development of modern rationality, intellect, and science, the Korean idea of a risk society was rooted in the horrors that occurred due to an abnormal process of modernization.

With the outbreak of the IMF foreign exchange crisis in 1997, Korea was swept up in neoliberal globalism. Irregular jobs were created in great numbers with increased flexibility in the labor market, market and competition oriented thinking infiltrated even the public sector, the social safety net was rapidly undermined, and the problem of polarization grew more severe. The foreign exchange crisis was in itself a catastrophe, and a drama of social changes led to catastrophic situations. After the foreign exchange crisis, Korea became not just a risk society in which buildings collapsed, bridges broke, and subways trains derailed, but a high risk society in which carrying on with daily life itself became a risk.

As it were, the concept of risk broke free of that of disasters or accidents, and expanded into life in general through the crisis. Korea in the 2000s has become closer to the risk society illuminated by Ulrich Beck on different levels (The Sociology of Risk in Uncertain Times by Rho Jin-chul, published in 2010, merits attention. The author deals with various theoretical issues regarding risk society, based on the system theory of Niklas Luhmann, and attempts an analysis on the issue of risk in Korean society.).

For instance, what are we to think of the candlelight vigils that heated up Korea in 2008? As we all know, the vigils began with the issue raised by the public, of the possible exposure of beef to mad cow disease, which was imported from the U.S. through the FTA signed by the newly launched government. Countless people participated in the vigils, and political discussions and cultural performances were held at the same time. The online and offline worlds coexisted. Outwardly, the issue manifested itself in such diverse ways, but the main factor that rallied the people to the streets was anxiety over American beef and distrust of the government that emphasized its safety. The people expressed their concerns and demanded a solution. What was important to them was not ideology or a political line, but the life and safety of their families. Mothers who came out to protest, pushing strollers, symbolized the candlelight vigils. Those who participated in the vigils were the risk community mentioned by Beck; the most important issue they wanted to convey to the government was that of safety and life; the logic behind the value of safety and life was risk; and what led to the action was the feeling of anxiety.

As Beck states, what is more important than scientific rationality in a risk society is social rationality, because modern science isn’t the answer to everything. Modern science is going through a process of evolution, and a tremendous unknown risk lies outside of the scientifically confirmed risks of today. Furthermore, it must be taken into account that pure science is at times misused due to the demands of businesses and governments. Therefore, the main agent in determining what a risk is should not be those few scientific experts, but those who are vulnerable to the risk when the risk becomes real. In other words, the main agent should be everyone on earth as citizens of a global risk society—everyone who is alive, including ourselves. In a risk society, anxiety, common sense, and desire for safety must be respected. The intellect must be restrained by a consideration for the unknown and the power of common sense should be more important than ever in a risk society.


1. Sasang
Quarterly magazine, autumn 1998
2. Sociology of Risk in Uncertain Times
Rho Jin-chul, Hanul Publishing Group
2010, 550p, ISBN 9788946052611