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Risk is key source of inequality in 21st century

New book by sociology assistant professor Dean Curran looks at link between wealth and political power to risk

Curran’s book examines certain types of power – whether it be wealth or political power in terms of class – and how they enable some people to avoid certain types of risks and benefit from other types of risks.

By Doug Ferguson
June 23, 2016

As he contemplates problems such as climate change or the great recession, Dean Curran wonders why some people seem to come out on top while others suffer the consequences.

“I’m trying to think about a way in which certain types of power — whether it be wealth or political power in terms of class — enable some people to avoid certain types of risks and benefit from other types of risks,” says Curran, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts.

As the recipient of an Insight Development grant from the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Curran has written a book titled Risk, Power and Inequality in the 21st Century.

“I don’t give any predictions like, ‘This is what the world will be like in a hundred years,’” he says. “Rather, what I do is identify existing tendencies that are pushing certain things in a specific direction, and then argue that if these tendencies aren’t arrested or countervailed or critically engaged with, they are likely to lead to worse outcomes.”

Perception of risk dominates society

Curran is partly inspired by the late Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist who helped coin the term “risk society” during the 1980s. Beck argued that the modern world increasingly has an acute consciousness of risk, both actual and hypothetical, arising from its growing scientific and technological prowess linked to its ability to both produce and detect potential threats at an ever subtler level.

Ironically, it is becoming centred on debating, managing or preventing the consequences of its own knowledge — such as climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which powers machines invented to make people’s lives easier.

The integration or globalization of the world’s economies and cultures, amplified by things such as mass media, is creating a perception of dangers common to all nations and groups, even the rich.

A social order that was once largely seen as focused on "who got what" — the distribution of goods tied to social class, with those at the top getting the largest slice of the pie — is now concerned with what Beck called the distribution of “bads,” or risk issues that arise from advanced modernization.

The result is a seemingly endless series of disputes between opposing interests, each using science to support their arguments about what is a risk, such as radioactivity from nuclear power plants that is invisible to unaided human senses.

Traditional notions of class based on wealth that underpinned older theories of how earlier industrial societies operated are in Beck’s view obsolete. Risks such as climate change affect everyone equally, making class irrelevant and creating a crisis of confidence that undermines traditional institutions and structures of power.

Sociologist says prevailing theory needs to be reworked

Beck’s theory is that in the face of growing catastrophic risks, existing class inequalities will tend to be diminished. But Curran disagrees that class relationships are no longer significant.

“Beck’s work, to me, is really insightful, but it’s also significantly in need of being reworked and refined," he says.

The two sociologists debated each other in rival papers published in the British Journal of Sociology in 2013.

“I said some of the things he said about the egalitarian nature of risks were not only wrong, but if you actually used this framework, you could identify some really interesting changes in power relationships,” says Curran.

People need to be aware not only of inequalities of income, but also of risk, he says. “In my book, part of what I’m doing is thinking about ways of how risk relates to power, and how risk relates to inequality.”

An example is the U.S. financial crisis of 2008 that sparked the so-called great recession. Curran says this shows how certain well-placed elites in the U.S. and the U.K. were able to warp the financial system for their own gain and then minimize the impact of the resulting economic fallout on themselves while millions of people with less inside knowledge and financial resources lost their homes and livelihoods.

Risk classes exist, weath provides private ‘escape routes’ from risk

“It is often the case that if you are wealthier, if you have more power, you’re generally able to better capture these socially scarce private escape routes from risk,” he says.

Risk is not a social leveler, as asserted by Beck. Instead, in Curran’s view, it's a key source of contemporary inequality, creating “risk classes.” Beck partly came to acknowledge this view in his recent reply to Curran.

Curran argues that reconstructing Beck’s theory of the risk society can shine a much-needed light on the modern condition.

“The great thing about humans is that we do have some agency or capacity to act, so there’s always the possibility of reflexively looking at these tendencies and changing them, and that’s the point of the book,” says Curran.

“The book’s point is not, ‘Everything is terrible and this is how terrible it’s going to be 20 years from now.’ Rather, its point is: ‘Here are some bad processes that are going on, or some unfortunate processes, that we can do something about if we take them seriously and work to redress them.’”