Honouring Ulrich Beck: Re-vitalising The Sociological Imagination

The great German sociologist Ulrich Beck has died at the age of 70. Like many sociologists, I was influenced by his writing and also like many others, I did not always agree with his theories. Either way, Beck never failed to challenge our sociological imaginations in an esteemed international career spanning over two decades.

Elsewhere, I wrote about what Beck’s conception of public sociology might mean for applied sociologists. In How Not to Become a Museum Piece, Ulrich argues that sociology has permeated many applied fields. He finds sociological concepts and methods are being used in government, journalism, social policy and law enforcement, but they’ve been transformed so they aren’t recognisable as sociology. As Ulrich argues, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

A re-vitalised sociological imagination can and does have all kinds of impacts. - Professor Ulrich Beck
A re-vitalised sociological imagination can and does have all kinds of impacts. – Professor Ulrich Beck

Beck argues that our discipline has failed to take control of our knowledge diffusion. Beck muses that in some ways, this makes sociology “provocative” and exciting, because it is able to take life in new forms. In other ways, it suggests that sociology requires re-invention if we are to take charge of how sociology gets applied in non-academic contexts. Beck argues that the best way to do this is by addressing inequalities in different national contexts in novel ways. He also argues sociology needs to find new approaches if it is to actively shape social progress at the transnational level. Otherwise, he warns, sociology is at risk of becoming a “museum piece.” Beck writes:

a re-vitalised sociological imagination can and does have all kinds of impacts – it can be neglected, misunderstood and redefined for all kinds of interests. When public or other kinds of sociology become an integral part of practical and political discourses, they are effectively being ‘transformed’, that is, divested of their sociological identity, and constructed ‘anew’ in the interests and for the purposes of practical argumentation and acting.

The New York Times remembers Beck as the Sociologist Who Warned of Dangers of Technology. We remember him as one of modern sociology’s titans, who saw sociology making an impact everywhere, and compelled us to take back control of how our knowledge is used and reimagined by the public.