Tag Archives: Ulrich Beck

Reading Analysis – Youth and Society – Individualized Society

An analysis of the quotation:

‘In the individualized society the individual must therefore learn, on pain of permanent disadvantage, to conceive of himself or herself as the center of action, as the planning office with respect to his/her own biography, abilities, orientations, relationships and so on.’ (Beck, 1992: 135, cited in Thomson 2007: 79)


Plays, Books, Movies and Music; through narratives and lyrics, these various forms of media have often shown how the human psyche has had a desire to control its own destiny.  Ulrich Beck claims that this is no longer in the realm of fiction, but is becoming an increasingly necessary part of everyday life.

‘In the individualized society the individual must therefore learn, on pain of permanent disadvantage, to conceive of himself or herself as the center of action, as the planning office with respect to his/her own biography, abilities, orientations, relationships and so on.’ (Beck, 1992, p. 135, cited in Thomson 2007, p. 79)

It is widely acknowledged that ‘western’ society is changing.  We are living in an increasingly ‘individualised’ society, where choices are forced upon us, and we need ‘to make an active effort […] day after day’ (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002, p. 3), or we ‘face the consequences of failing to do so’ (Thomson 2007, p. 79).  These forced decisions that once could be left to chance, have passed; we are now required to make the choice and accept the consequences.

Becks’ quotation suggests that in our current and future societies, in order to reduce the ‘risk’ of being disadvantaged by the situation we find ourselves in, we need to take action to create and manage all elements of ourselves, and our relationships.  We must also be willing to do this not only once, but on an ongoing basis.  Glasencnik (2011) followed this unknown imperative.  At various points in her narrative, it is shown how she took up this challenge to direct her path, and avoid being disadvantaged by her situation.  She actively constructed her biography, and ‘the bonds and networks surrounding it’ (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002, p. 4).

Thomson (2007) finds these concepts useful to assist with describing changes in youth transitions, as well as an overall ‘biographical approach’, though limits its applicability to Youth.  She tells us of two ‘main criticisms’ (p. 89); that of ‘generalisation’ and an overemphasis on change.  She states that generalisation is a common criticism of social theories, and doesn’t place emphasis on this claim, however Skeggs (2002) claims that this theory, along with several others, only acknowledge a ‘white, middle class and western’ group.  Beck & Beck-Gernsheim counter this with research suggesting a ‘much greater degree of mobility in and out of poverty amongst a wide range of people and at different periods of people’s lives’ (2002, p. 207).

Thomson also suggests Beck places too much emphasis on change, as opposed to continuity – how we are tied to the past, our families, etc.  Beck & Beck-Gernsheim counter-claim that current theories overemphasise continuity, and that ‘belonging’, especially to family, is becoming ‘elective’ in nature (2002, p. 85-86).  Nilan (2007) and Atkinson (2007) criticise Beck for overplaying agency, and underplaying structure. Woodman (2009, p. 244-246) identifies several other criticisms by various researchers; however he considers many are based on a ‘misrepresentation’ of Beck, and that many are using his theories as a ‘foil […] constructed to be demolished’(p. 246), and as a way to create and fill an empty middle ground between structure and agency (p. 246).  Beck & Beck-Gernsheim inform us that they do not claim that individualisation is experienced by all societies equally (2002, p. 5; Thomson 2007, p. 90), but consider that it ‘should be seen as designating a trend’.

In our changing society, we are being faced with new challenges, across generations and social classes.  The structure and largely typical linear biography of the past is fading; new forms of society structures and changes in transitions are becoming the norm.  A line from Terminator 2 says it all: The future is not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.

Word Count: 572

Atkinson, Will 2007, ‘Beck, individualization and the death of class: a critique’, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 58, Iss. 3, p. 349 – 366.

Beck, Ulrich, Beck-Gernsheim, Elizabeth 2002, ‘Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences’ SAGE Publications, London.

Beck, Ulrich 2007, ‘Beyond class and Nation: reframing social inequalities in a globalising world’, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 58, Iss. 4, p. 679-705.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day 1991, Feature film, Tri-Star Pictures, California.

de Beer, Paul 2007, ‘How individualised are the Dutch?’ Current Sociology, Vol. 55, No. 3, 389-413.

Dwyer, Peter, Wyn Johanna 2001, ‘Youth, Education and Risk: Facing the Future’, RoutledgeFalmer, London.

Furlong, Andy 2009, ‘Handbook of Youth & Young Adulthood: New Perspectives & Agendas’, Routledge, London.

Glasencnik, Rebecca 2011, ‘My Path to University’, YouTube ™, Digital Narrative. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFCXpGgg4ZI&hd=1

Henderson, Sheila, Holland, Janet, McGrellis, Sheena, Sharpe, Sue, & Thomson, Rachel 2007, ‘Inventing adulthoods: a biographical approach to youth transitions’, SAGE Publications, London.

Jureidini, Ray & Poole, Marilyn (eds) 2003, ‘Sociology: Australian connections’, (3rd ed.) Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, Australia.

Nilan, Pam, Julian, Roberta & Germov, John 2007, ‘Australian youth : social and cultural issues’, Pearson Education Australia, Frenchs Forest, N.S.W.

Scott, John 2006, ‘Fifty Key Sociologists, the Contemporary Theorists’ Routledge, London.

SGY130 2010, ‘Youth & Society Study Guide’, Griffith University, Brisbane.

Skeggs, Beverley 2002, ‘Techniques for telling the reflexive self’ in T. May (ed.) ‘Qualitative Research in Action’, SAGE, London.

Thomson, Rachel 2007, ‘A biographical perspective’, in M Kehily (ed), ‘Understanding Youth: Perspectives, identities and practices’, SAGE, London.

Woodman, Dan 2009, ‘The mysterious case of the pervasive choice biography: Ulrich Beck, structure/agency, and the middling state of theory in the sociology of youth’, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 12, Iss. 3.