Ulrich Beck


Ulrich Beck
The Cosmopolitan Outlook

Excerpt from the catalogue Unstable Territory, ed. Mandragora, Firenze, 2013.

We do not live in an age of cosmopolitanism but in an age of cosmopolitisation: the ‘global other’ is in our midst

The collapse of a world order is often a moment for reflection on the dominant social theory and research of the time, but surprisingly this is not the case today. Mainstream social theory still floats loftily above the lowlands of epochal transformations (climate change, financial crisis, nation-states) in a condition of universalistic superiority and instinctive certainty. This universalistic social theory, whether structuralist, interactionist, Marxist, critical or systems-theory, is now both out of date and provincial. Out of date because it excludes a priori what can be observed empirically: a fundamental transformation of society and politics within modernity (from first to second modernity)[i]; provincial because it mistakenly absolutises the trajectory, the historical experience and future expectation of Western, i.e. predominantly European or North American, modernisation and thereby also fails to see its own particularity.

This is why we need a cosmopolitan turn in social and political theory and research (Beck and Grande 2010a): How can social and political theory be opened up, theoretically, empirically as well as methodologically and normatively, to historically new, entangled modernities which threaten their own foundations? How can it account for the fundamental fragility and mutability of societal dynamics of domination and power shaped, as they are, by the globalisation of capital and risks at the beginning of the twenty-first century? What theoretical and methodological problems arise and how can they be addressed in empirical research? Here I want to discuss these questions in five steps.

First, I will call into question one of the most powerful convictions about society and politics, one which binds both social actors and social scientists: methodological nationalism. Methodological nationalism equates modern society with society organised in territorially limited nation-states. Second, I propose to draw an essential distinction between cosmopolitanism in a normative philosophical sense and cosmopolitisation as a social scientific research programme. Third, I am going to illustrate this paradigm shift by re-mapping social inequalities; and, fourth, by discussing world risk society and its political dynamics. Fifth and finally, I will pick up the question: What does a ‘cosmopolitan vision’ imply for the social sciences and humanities at the beginning of the twenty-first century?

1          Critique of methodological nationalism

Twenty-five years ago in my book Risk Society (1986), I argue that there is an epochal shift from industrial to risk societies. The former were based upon industry and social class, upon welfare states and upon the distribution of various goods (as opposed to bads) organised and distributed through the state, especially of good health, extensive education, and equitable forms of social welfare. There were state-organised societies, there was a national community of fate, and there were large-scale political movements especially based upon industrial class divisions that fought over the distribution of their various ‘goods’. In the post-Second World War period in Western Europe, there was a welfare state settlement in such industrial societies based upon achieving a fairer distribution of such goods.

By contrast, the concept of risk society is based on the importance of bads. Risk societies involve the distribution of bads that flow within and across various territories and are not confined within the borders of a single society. Nuclear radiation is a key example of this, but also financial risks, global warming, SARS[ii] and so forth. These risks cannot be confined to any scientific space nor to any current sector of time. Such risks thus cannot be insured against. They are uncontrolled and the consequences are incalculable. This argument about the ‘borderlessness’ of the risk society has (together with the writings of many others) developed the analysis of ‘globalisation’ implications for sociology. Since then, I have given particular attention to the nature and limitation of methodological nationalism. What does this mean and what is wrong with it?

In brief: Methodological nationalism assumes that the nation, state and society are the ‘natural’ social and political forms of the modern world. Where social actors subscribe to this belief, I talk of a ‘national outlook’; where it determines the perspective of the social scientific observer, I talk of ‘methodological nationalism’. The distinction between the perspective of the social actor and that of the social scientist is crucial, because there is only a historical connection between the two, not a logical one. This historical connection – between social actors and social scientists – alone gives rise to the axiomatics of methodological nationalism. Methodological nationalism is neither a superficial problem nor a minor error. It involves both the routines of data collection and production as well as the basic concepts of modern sociology and political science – concepts such as society, social class, state, family, democracy, international relations etc.

Moreover, sociologists tended to generalise from ‘their’ particular society to a claim about how ‘society’ in general is organised. (This holds also for my book Risk Society). American sociology, in particular, developed in this way, presuming that all societies were more or less like that of the USA, just poorer! It was perfectly possible to study that particular society and then to generalise as though all, or at least most, other societies (at least those that mattered!) were much the same. This led to debates about the general nature of order or of conflict within ‘society’ based upon the distinct US pattern. Order and conflict theories were to be ‘tested’ within the USA and it was presumed that these conclusions could then be generalised to all societies or, at least, to all rich industrial societies. For decades it was simply how sociology worked; it was a taken-for-granted way of doing sociology – then ‘global studies’ marched in.

2          How to research ‘really existing cosmopolitisation’?

We can distinguish three phases in the way the word ‘globalisation’ has been used in the social sciences: first, denial, second, conceptual refinement and empirical research, third, ‘cosmopolitisation’. The initial denial is over because the theoretical and empirical refinement revealed a new social landscape in the making (see for many Held et al. 1999). Its dominant features include interconnectedness, which means dependency and interdependency of people across the globe. Virtually the entire span of human experiences and practices is in one way or another influenced by the overwhelming interconnectivity of the world. (This should not be confused with world system and dependency theories.)

The third phase uncovers the core unseen and unwanted consequence of this global interconnectivity: really existing cosmopolitisation – the end of the ‘global other’. The global other is here in our midst. This is precisely my point: to clearly distinguish between philosophical cosmopolitanism and social scientific cosmopolitisation.

Cosmopolitanism in Immanuel Kant’s (1957 [1795]) and Jürgen Habermas’s (1997) philosophical sense means something active, a task, a conscious and voluntary choice, clearly the affair of an elite, a top-down issue. In reality today, however, a ‘banal’, ‘coercive’ and ‘impure’ cosmopolitisation unfolds unwanted, unseen – powerful and confrontational beneath the surface or behind the façade of persisting national spaces, jurisdictions and labels. It extends from the top of the society down to everyday life in families, work situations and individual biographies – even as national flags continue to be raised and even if national attitudes, identities and consciousness are strongly being reaffirmed. Let us go into more detail:


Banal cosmopolitisation is, for example, seen in the huge array of foodstuff and cuisines routinely available in most towns and cities across the world. It is possible with enough money to ‘eat the world’.


Migrants organise a kind of ‘upward mobility beyond national border’ for themselves and their families. This way they are becoming border artists. Describing ‘trans-migrants’ as a political security risk, as socially marginal, and as an exception to the rule of territorial confinement, mainstream migration studies have mirrored and affirmed the nationalist image of normal life (e.g. Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2003).

Work and workers

Transnational corporations, looking for cheap labour, are outsourcing jobs to foreign countries. In first modernity, national borders have reduced international competition between all types of workers of different nationality. In second modernity, outsourcing capitalism induces competition between domestic and foreign labour of many categories (same qualifications, less income). Here you have a coercive cosmopolitisation unfolding unwanted, often unseen beneath the surface of national spaces which has a tremendous impact. This cosmopolitisation of labour does not imply cosmopolitanism, but is the background for renationalisation, mostly in the old centre of the world.


Can a cosmopolitisation of love be observed? Sure, it can. The belief in the Either/Or, which was once taken as self-evident fact – either we or they, either here or there – seems to be on the wane or has actually disappeared from the horizon of love. Nothing now seems to separate human beings any more in any absolute way, neither skin colour, nor national hostility, neither religious differences nor the distance between continents, and so forth. On the contrary, people are susceptible to the attractions, the lure even, of the unlimited possibilities in the global other, in those who are far away: long-distance love (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2011). This spells the disappearance of unbridgeable chasms for, since they now appear bridgeable, they turn out therefore to be in the process of being bridged.

The vantage point that enables us to gauge the dimensions of the new landscapes opening up for love and the family is as follows: the unity of language, passport, skin colour and household which had seemingly prevailed as the national model of the family since the beginning of time is now breaking down.

Long-distance love and global families are no longer marginal phenomena; they have long since taken up a position at the heart of the ‘majority society’. ‘The global other is in our midst’ acquires here a literal, intimate, family connotation. One’s brother-in-law now has a wife from Thailand. A woman from Poland has been hired to look after grandpa. One’s godchild has recently started living with a theologian from Togo. Where is Togo, actually? How come he is here? Is he here for the sake of a residence permit or out of ‘genuine love’?

What do I mean by ‘global families’? Global families embody the contradictions of the world and these contradictions are worked out in them. Not all families embody all the contradictions, but some embody some of them. For example, there are marriages, parents, and couples with dual-nationality and they may embody the tensions between two countries or between the majority and minority communities in those countries, while immigrant families may incorporate the tensions between the centre and the periphery. Global families and long-distance relationships mirror a state of ignorance that has been nationally programmed and embodied in law. It follows that love and the family become the setting in which the ‘cultural wounds’, the rage and the anger that global inequalities and their imperial history continue to generate in the souls of the living to this day, are endured and fought out.

Global families, then, are not families with global power, nor families with global horizons; nor are they one-World families or families of World citizens. We might rather call them families embodying world conflicts, families ripe for world adventures or even families seeking their fortunes in the world, families attempting to turn poverty and conflict into ‘gold’. But what they demonstrate is that the universal image of the ‘good family’ that we have always taken for granted is now fundamentally in flux – a development that bears some responsibility for fundamentalist reactions and counter-movements.

And there is a cosmopolitisation of motherhood as well. Medically assisted reproduction opens a brave new world of options (we have no words for it!): the ‘egg donor mother’ or the ‘surrogate mother’; to put it into a formula: ‘My mother was a Spanish egg donor’ or ‘my mother was an Indian surrogate mother’. Thus by bio-scientific manipulation, global inequality is being incorporated into the human body and identity.


The victory of medical transplantation (and not its crisis!) has swept away its own ethical foundations and opened the floodgates to an occult shadow economy supplying the world market with ‘fresh’ organs. In the radically unequal world there is obviously no shortage of desperate individuals willing to sell a kidney, a portion of their liver, a lung, an eye, or even a testicle for a pittance. The fates of desperate patients waiting for organs have become obscurely embroiled with the fates of no less desperate poor people, as each group struggles to find a solution to basic problems of survival. This is what the Age of And creates: an impure, really existing cosmopolitanism of deprivation.

In a fascinating case study, the anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2005) has shown how the excluded of the world, the economically and politically dispossessed – refugees, the homeless, street children, undocumented workers, prisoners, ageing prostitutes, cigarette smugglers, and petty thieves – are lured into selling their organs and this way becoming physically, morally, and economically ‘embodied’ in mortally thick bodies and in persons who are rich enough to buy and ’incorporate’ the organs of the poor global others.

In the name of the neo-liberal ideology of the free market and a basic democratic right to unlimited choice, fundamental values of modernity – the sovereignty of the body, the human being and the meaning of life and death – are being eliminated without anyone noticing, let alone recognising this for what it is: a process that symbolises our age.

We live in the Age of And but think in categories of Either/Or. The notion of ‘And’ is not intended to convey the shallow political message that ‘we are all connected’; nor does it refer to the ‘inclusive’ or ‘synthesising’ And that normalises imperialism and existing power relations by pointing to the life-saving ‘spare’ organs of ‘the global others’. The notion of the discontinuous, contradictory both/and that I have in mind stands for ‘impure’ cosmopolitanism and commerce, consent and coercion, gift and theft, science and sorcery, care and human sacrifice. This impure, banal, coercive, dirty, bloody cosmopolitanism of ‘living kidneys’ has ‘bridged’ the Either/Or between North and South, core and periphery, haves and have-nots, unbounded freedom and commodity fetishism.

In the individualised bodyscapes of And, continents, races, classes, nations and religions all become fused. Muslim kidneys purify Christian blood. White racists breathe with the aid of one or more black lungs. The blonde manager gazes out at the world through the eye of an African street urchin. A secular millionaire survives thanks to the liver carved from a Protestant prostitute living in a Brazilian favela. The bodies of the wealthy are transformed into patchwork rugs. Poor people, in contrast, have been mutilated into actually or potentially one-eyed, one-kidneyed spare-parts depots, and this has occurred ‘by their own free will‘, and ‘for their own good‘, as the affluent sick constantly reassure themselves. The piecemeal sale of their organs is their life insurance. At the other end of the process, the bio-political ‘citizen of the world‘ emerges – a white, male body, fit or fat, with the addition of an Indian kidney or a Muslim eye, and so forth. In general, the circulation of living kidneys follows the established routes of capital from South to North, from poor to more affluent bodies, from black and brown bodies to white ones, and from females to males, or from poor males to more affluent ones. Women are rarely the beneficiaries of purchased organs anywhere in the world. From this it follows that the Age of And is divided and recombined into organ-selling nations versus organ-buying ones.

Even the hellish fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch, the clairvoyant nightmare visions of Francisco de Goya with their motto ‘The sleep of raison brings forth monsters,‘ or the image of modern war in Picasso’s Guernica still acknowledge, for all their negativity, the moral world order of Heaven and Hell, reason and madness, war and peace. But this world order disintegrates in the weird cosmopolitanism of ‘fresh’ kidneys in our time.

Ulrich Beck (1944, Stolp, Pomerania, Germany—now Słupsk, Poland) is Professor of Sociology at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and, since 2013, the Principal Investigator of the ERC project: Methodological Cosmopolitanism—In the Laboratory of Climate Change. Since 1997, he has been the British Journal of Sociology Visiting Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and, since 2011, Professor at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris as well. Beck has received many international prizes and honors. Selected publications include: Risk Society (Sage, 1992); What is Globalization? (Polity, 2000); Individualization (with Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Sage, 2002); Power in the Global Age (Polity, 2005); The Cosmopolitan Vision (Polity, 2006); Cosmopolitan Europe (with Edgar Grande; Polity, 2007); World at Risk (Polity, 2009); A God of One’s Own (Polity, 2010), Distant Love (with Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim; Polity, 2013); German Europe (Polity, 2013).

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