A term devised by the German social theorist Ulrich Beck, which refers to the way in which advanced modernity ‘becomes its own theme’, in the sense that ‘questions of the development and employment of technologies (in the realms of nature, society and the personality) are being eclipsed by questions of the political and economic “management” of the risks of actually or potentially utilized technologies—discovering, administering, acknowledging, avoiding or concealing such hazards with respect to specially defined horizons of relevance’ (see his Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, 1986, trans. 1992).
In Beck's periodization of social change, simple modernity is synonymous with the development of industrial society, and the new reflexive modernity with the emergence of the so-called risk society; that is, a condition wherein the growth of knowledge has everywhere created ‘manufactured uncertainty’ (for example the risk of ecological disaster), so that scientific expertise is increasingly called upon to alleviate the effects of earlier applications of science. Whereas industrial society was concerned primarily with the production and distribution of goods, the risk society is organized around the management and distribution of ‘bads’ or dangers, not only those associated with physical risk deriving from the application of technological processes but also with the consequences of risky organizational activity and social relations. Reflexive modernity—an intermingling of continuity and discontinuity that is said to be evident, for example, in the critique of science developed by the Green movement—dissolves those ‘forms of the conscience collective’ (such as class culture and family roles) ‘on which depend and to which refer the social and political organizations and institutions in industrial society’.
More specifically, according to Beck, during the 1950s ‘the unstable unity of shared life experiences mediated by the market and shaped by status, which Max Weber brought together in the concept of social class, began to break apart. Its different elements (such as material conditions dependent upon specific market opportunities, the effectiveness of tradition and of precapitalist lifestyles, the consciousness of communal bonds and of barriers to mobility, as well as networks of contact) have slowly disintegrated’. This ‘individualization of social inequality’ means that, ‘under the conditions of a welfare state, class biographies, which are somehow ascribed, become transformed into reflexive biographies which depend on the decisions of the actor’. Increasingly, therefore, everyone must take the risk of choosing between a huge array of disparate social identities, life-styles, opinions, and groups or subcultures. Attachments to social classes become weaker, people are separated from the traditional support networks provided by family or neighbourhood, and work loses its importance as a focus of conflict and identity formation. Ascribed differences—of ethnicity, gender, age, and nationality—provide the basis for new life-styles and self-conceptions that replace class solidarities. In Marxist terms, this is capitalism without classes, but with new and still emerging forms of differentiation and inequality.
Beck has worked collaboratively with Anthony Giddens to develop his ideas (see, for example, Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash, Reflexive Modernization, 1994).