Discourse, Global Risk and the Climate Change
Translating Ulrich Beck's Theory into an Empirical Research Agenda Relevant to IR Scholars
Research seminar of the Collège d'études mondiales with Sabine Selchow, post-doct of the chair Cosmopolitan risk communities | Ulrich Beck.
There has been a lively and critical discussion also within international relations (IR) about sociologist Ulrich Beck’s theory of reflexive modernization in general and his concepts of ‘cosmopolitization’ and ‘global risk’ in particular. Contributions to this discussion are often rich and useful in their seriousness and in terms of how their engagements with Beck (re)sharpen their own positions. Yet, they are rarely exactly about Beck’s theory and its premises. This is because they often build on a misunderstanding and / or ignorance of what the core of his theory is. What is often overlooked is that the focus, interest of and motivation for Beck’s theory is the argument for and development of (the grounds for) an epistemological turn in the social sciences, which is grounded in his distinct interpretation of the reality of contemporary (national) societies as being shaped by a ‘really existing internal cosmopolitanization’1 (Wirklichkeitskosmopolitismus).
This paper aims to contribute to the scholarship in international relations by translating Ulrich Beck's theory into an empirical research agenda that is relevant for IR scholars and their particular interests, i.e. enables studies beyond distinct sociological concerns. Central to this aim are three interrelated points. The first point is the insight that there is neither one ‘cosmopolitan’ kind of study nor one ‘cosmopolitan’ object of study. There are many possible ones. Second, and closely related to the first point, key to any empirical study following Beck’s theory is the establishment of a ‘cosmopolitan’ research foundation.
The ‘cosmopolitan’ research foundation is the disticnt observer ground, out of which the ‘cosmopolitan’ object of study arises. Empirical studies following Beck cannot be ‘simply’ and only about investigating ‘something’ through a different lens but about, first of all, establishing this ‘something’ through a ‘cosmopolitan’ lens. Third, empirical studies in international relations that aim to cash-in Beck’s theory require a methodological approach that is inspired by discourse theoretical premises, as an approach that ‘by nature’ aims to produce unexpected insights, rather than to reproduce in and through its underlying premises the world as we know it.
In order to achieve its aim the paper critically engages with a recent article entitled ‘Cosmopolitan communities of climate risk: conceptual and empirical suggestions for a new research agenda’2 by Beck and colleagues because, as the paper will show, in order to be true to and cash in Beck’s suggestions one actually needs to go (partly) beyond him, i.e. translating Beck's theory into an empirical research agenda relevant to IR scholars is a matter of going with Beck beyond Beck.
1 Beck, U. (2006) Cosmopolitan Vision, Cambridge: Polity, p. 9.
2 Beck, U. et al. (2013) ‘Cosmopolitan communities of climate risk: conceptual and empirical suggestions for a new research agenda’, Global Networks, 13 (1), 1-21.