Ulrich Beck’s Cosmopolitanism


The German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, has made key contributions to ideas of how to understand the global in recent times.

His understanding of cosmopolitanism is rooted in how current academic discourse is concerned with theorising about the organisation and reconstruction of social and cultural life within a global framework. Technological advances through cyber communication, economic interdependency, global media coverage, political cooperation and the rise of multiculturalism draw attention to an underlying feature of contemporary times eloquently summed up by Asad as the ‘conquest of space’ (Asad 1982: 13); highlighting the  interconnectedness between societies, where the local becomes global and the global local (Beck 2002).  Coupled with the post 9/11 perceived ‘threat’ of terrorist attacks and the environmental risk factors (Beck 2010) this ‘conquest of space’ calls for a communal (understood globally) and cooperative response. Cosmopolitanism[1] is thus a rethinking of how society, and, by extension, individuals are understood to enable an exploration of the effects these changes bring and to facilitate a well-informed and well-deliberated response.

Cosmopolitanism is a divorce from hitherto ‘big ideas of European modernity – nationalism, communism and socialism, as well as neo-liberalism’ (Beck 2005: 280). Consequently, the social categories of ‘class’ and ‘class conflict’ are deemed inadequate to understand the complexity of the modern world (Beck 2012) and its stead Beck suggests that we contemplate the ‘cosmopolitical events’ that have ‘changed the world during the last 25 years’: the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, climate change, the nuclear disaster in Japan and the Arab uprising against authoritarian regimes (ibid). All of the above, he posits, are denominated by a common feature ‘1) they come by total surprise, which means they are beyond sociological categories and imagination; 2) all of them are transnational or global in their scope and implications’ (ibid: 7). Moreover, mainstream sociological discourse precludes this ‘cosmopolitan change’ by maintaining an absolute Eurocentric/North-American outlook, by projecting its particularity as universal, and by excluding a priori ‘what can be observed empirically – a fundamental transformation of society and politics within modernity’ (ibid: 7). It is precisely these two claims of Beck that this essay seeks to address.

Beck argues that ‘class’ is an inadequate category in terms of understanding the cosmopolitan challenge posed by the 21st century and in turn suggests that we, as sociologists, undergo a cosmopolitan transformation; that the social sciences undertake a paradigm shift from ‘methodological nationalism’ to ‘methodological cosmopolitanism’ (ibid). This cosmopolitan challenge, according to Beck’s argument, is a very real threat that ‘is no longer a dream, but has become a social reality…which has to be explored’ (Beck 2006).

Cosmopolitanism Defined

Cosmopolitanism as a concept, however nebulous, has its origins with the ancient Greeks (Stoics) and with the Enlightenment (Kant). Nonetheless, in its current reemergence in the writings of Beck it is a response to the rise of ‘new and unexpected forms of the social and political’ (Beck 1999).

The complexities involved in conceptualizing the unchartered territories of the challenges to an ‘Enlightenment-based modernity’ share a multiple and divergent range of responses, which include conceptual terms such as, ‘postmodernity’ (Lyotard), ‘late-modernity’ (Giddens), ‘global age’ (Albrow) and ‘reflexive modernisation’ (Beck); all share in denoting multifarious contingent realities, that predict a rise of complexities and uncertainties in socio-cultural and political phenomena (ibid).

Beck has coined the term ‘reflexive modernization’ to distinguish between two distinct types of modernities: first modernity and second modernity. The former is used to delineate a modernity based on territorial affiliations that has networks based on a nationalistic weltanschauung at its epicentre.  This then gives rise to a number of unforeseen consequences that are all interlinked. In Beck’s words:

The collective patterns of life, progress and controllability, full employment and exploitation of nature that were typical of this first modernity have now been undermined by five interlinked processes: globalization, individualization, gender revolution, underemployment and global risks (as ecological crisis and the crash of global financial markets). The real theoretical and political challenge of the second modernity is the fact that society must respond to all these challenges simultaneously (Beck 1999: 2 original italics).

These challenges that second modernity brings are characterized by their being unanticipated, global and come as a total surprise. Consequently, Beck sees the need for a paradigm shift that restructures the face of sociology so as to build a new frame of reference for changing social and political phenomena. This, he states, ‘does not only deal with the decline of the Western model. The key question is how the model relates to different modernities in other parts of the world’ (Beck 1999: 2 original italics). Thus, he iterates the cosmopolitan vision of his Cosmopolitanism by emphasizing that second modernity in a ‘reflexive modernisation’, shares the same time, space and challenges with non-Western societies; enabling a paradigm shift from a nationalistic territorial world view to a transnational global outlook and thereby eliminating the cultural bias that the social sciences have been accused of where non-Western societies are consigned a ‘pre-modern’ ascription defined by the absence of modernity (ibid). 

The distinguishing feature in this ‘Cosmopolitanism’ is thus the achievability of imagining the Other. The concept of imagining the Other and the difficulty therein has its genealogical roots in the philosophical writings of Bertrand Russell and the political works of John Rawls.

It was Russell who suggested that in order to judge whether our sentiments are based on moral assessments or preconceived prejudiced notions, we should, when reading the newspaper each morning, substitute and alternate nouns. Thus for example, a political event between the USA and Iraq would be reversed; similarly for example, riots caused by Black and Asian youths would be substituted with White youths, and in doing so ‘the action of mentally detaching the action from one country or ethnic group and attaching it to another helps ensure that moral claims about actions really are about those actions’ (Scarry 1998: 51) and not based on preconceived prejudiced notions.

On a similar note, in his ‘Theory of Justice’, John Rawls suggests that one become ‘featureless’ and ‘weightless’. That is that one completely annihilate one’s existence – to become totally oblivious to ones physical, psychological, moral and national affiliations and thereby by doing so it ‘is a way of bringing about equality…by erasing for one moment one’s own dense array of attributes’ (ibid) so that one can reflect on the supposition ‘what if I were Black, White, Northern or Southern?’ This is where I am sympathetic to Beck’s motive of trying to enable a global common denominator between social agents – but translated into a theoretical concept, ‘Cosmopolitanism’ does not achieve what it aims to do but quite ironically still maintains a Eurocentric bias.

Instead of embedding individuals into shared local similarities based on the social and cultural, it engenders them into a diverse relationship with the local and global described by Beck as the ‘both and logic’ of Cosmopolitanism that rejects the either-or principle (Beck 2002). This is where rather than have a structural basis for a theoretical position; Cosmopolitanism in turn suggests that we address the divergent political/cultural inclinations of individuals that transcend the nation state delimitations. He emphasises the importance of recognizing the inadequacy of the national outlook that, according to him miserably fails and states that ‘only the Cosmopolitan outlook adequately fits with reality and provides an adequate basis for action (Beck 2005: 110 original italics). This is where I believe that Beck over-romanticises the nature of how cosmopolitan the world has really become,  a feature noted by other critics as well (Calhoun 2010). This is where there is too much of an emphasis on the elimination of a nation based weltanschauung and consequently overlooks power structures that underlie such phenomena.

The Inadequacy of Beck’s Cosmopolitanism

What Beck perceives as problematic in the nationalistic outlook is the diversity of social identities; that within nation-based world views there is an underlying problem of conflict between race, religion, culture, ideology and economic interests. This, according to him, undermines the power of global cooperation and negotiating transnational agreements (Beck 2002). Consequently, he calls for a paradigm shift within sociology that is more adequately applicable and appropriated to address global phenomena. He sees the need to move from a nation based outlook to a more Cosmopolitan one as paramount; not doing so, he believes, will result in perpetuation of nation based interests in the geo-political world resulting in the rise of hegemony and imperialism. For example, he dismisses criticism of seeing the United States’ interests in Iraq as based on oil and suggests that such explanations stem from a national/imperialist world view which is too ‘soft’ a category to capture the real ontological nature of the cosmopolitan world.  In Beck’s words:

‘The national outlook …. fails because it cannot comprehend the new logic of power in global society. Anyone who believes that the global policeman NATO or the USA is merely pretending to play the role of global policeman while really pursuing American economic and geopolitical power interests in the powder keg of the Balkans or the Arab world not only misunderstands the situation but also overlooks the extent to which the politics of human rights (like the imposition of “free markets”) has become the civil religion, the faith of the United States itself … a new kind of postnational politics of military humanism is emerging’ (Beck 2006: 137).

This is a clear case of academic myopia; the urgency to prove Cosmopolitanism leads Beck to overlook and deny the underlying power structures. There is counter-evidence that has shown that the US has not always followed the Cosmopolitan ‘global policeman’ line of enquiry but has raised a considerable amount of doubt on the UnitedState’s inconsistency in pursuing human rights. Martell states that this inconsistency can be seen:

‘…for instance in GuantanamoBay, relations with China, in its policy on international justice, and in past interventions in democratic politics in Latin America and elsewhere. US interventions globally, or the choice about where to make them, have been affected by whether they are in US geo-political interests and are not in line with a consistent pursuit of human rights that this being their ‘religion’ would show (Martell 2008).  

The existence of these counter arguments suggest that human rights arguments can be used to legitimise the pursuance of national aims, which can be imperialistic and hegemonic. To dismiss them merely on grounds of the incomprehendability of the ‘new logic of power’ in global society is to undermine the underlying structures that bespeak of power, inequality and conflict (ibid).

Moreover, notwithstanding his dismissal of nationalistic outlooks because they represent a homogeneous claim to race, religion and culture, his Cosmopolitanism still maintains a reification of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. The assumption is of a hierarchical European/North American ‘Us’, and that the non-European/non-North American ‘Other’ must be tolerated.

The call for a shift in sociological categorisation from ‘methodological nationalism’ to ‘methodological cosmopolitanism’ that states that a nation based outlook is inadequate and too ‘soft’ a category to ‘capture the cosmopolitan challenge of the 21st century’ (Beck 2012: 7) implies that hitherto categories of first modernity were adequate and applicable to capture the phenomena that they defined (Bhambra 2010). Beck’s myopia here again overlooks making a mention of the adequacy or inadequacy of such categories in the past.

The inadequacy of sociological categorisation in both first and second modernity, as Bhambra has shown, stems from the genealogical origins of such an enquiry; it fixes a European epicentre as its focal point whilst ‘Others’ are set in its periphery. Even with the supposed all-embracing Beckian Cosmopolitanism the trajectory has always been centred in the West (ibid).   In Beck’s own words:     

“Cosmopolitanism, which has taken up residence in reality, is a vital theme of European civilization and European consciousness and beyond that of global experience. For in the cosmopolitan outlook, methodologically understood, there resides the latent potential to break out of the self-centred narcissism of the national outlook and the dull incomprehension with which it infects thought and action, and thereby enlighten human beings concerning the real, internal cosmopolitanization of their life worlds and institutions” (2006:2).

Here there are two implications being made: 1) that the central focus point of Cosmopolitanism revolves around ‘European civilisation’ and ‘European consciousness’ and the ‘Other’ is only given a platform if it has an impact or is relevant to a homogeneously described ‘Europeanism’; 2) that the world is a very real cosmopolitan locus. Both these claims are contestable.

To cite a more explicit example of a Eurocentric weltanschauung Beck states that ‘the West should listen to non-Western countries when they have something to say about the following experiences’ (Beck 2000: 89 cited in Bhambra 2010:39). The conditional clause here, ‘when they have something to say’, excludes their relevance when they are silent and thus implies a hierarchical category of ‘Us’ and ‘Others’ (ibid). Moreover, a simplistic ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ presupposes the singularity of these two categories; both are assumed as being homogenous and monolithic  that ‘betrays the very ideal the concept (cosmopolitanism) expresses (Bhambra 2010: 41). Beck goes on cite four themes which include ‘the possibilities of coexistence in multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multicultural societies and the question of tolerance in a confined space where cultural differences are prone to lead to violence (ibid). These themes do no portray anything beyond policing cultural diversity. If Cosmopolitanism is to be cosmopolitan then it should be diverse, vibrant and constantly changing through the genuine intermingling and interaction of cultures but Beck’s works do not reveal anything beyond managing diversity through an indifferent attitude towards the Other. 


In light of the considerations I have noted above, it does not show more than a European endeavour aimed at tolerating the peripheral Other. The very problem of Cosmopolitanism is, as noted by Pollock and others, is that its genealogy is traced through the Stoics and Kant and then projected on to the world; it is based on one culture and then disseminated outwards (Pollock, Bhaba et al. 2000).

Beck’s Cosmopolitanism does not create sensitivity towards cultural difference but rather an indifference towards the Other, and as such, it results in parallel lives that only come into contact with each other when it matters most to the hierarchical European.

Furthermore, in an attempt at realizing his Cosmopolitan ideal he does not taken into consideration the underlying structures of power, inequality and conflict. What remains thereafter is a mere wishful optimism of global humanism. In his overzealous attempt of ‘proving’ the urgency of Cosmopolitanism, he overrides and undermines nationalistic tendencies that are clearly visible in global politics. Moreover, there are conspicuous contradictions in his thought with regards to the role of agency.

Beck would do well to recognize his bias and engage in a de-centred cosmopolitan notion that transcends the epicentres of particularism, and simultaneously, delve into the interconnections of the past and present; the ‘connected histories’ from all directions of time and space (Chakrabarty 1992; Pollock, Bhaba et al. 2000; Bhambra 2010).  


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Beck, U. (1999). World Risk Society. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Beck, U. (2002). “The Cosmopolitan Society & Its Enemies.” Theory Culture & Society 19(1-2): 17-44.

Beck, U. (2005). Power in the Global Age. Cambridge, Polity Press.

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Beck, U. (2010). “Climate for Change or How to Create a Green Modernity?” Theory Culture & Society 27(2-3): 254-266.

Beck, U. (2012). “Redefining the Sociological Project: The Cosmopolitan Challenge.” Sociology 46(1): 7-12.

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Chakrabarty, D. (1992). “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for Indian Pasts?” Representations 37(Winter): 1-26.

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Martell, L. (2008). “Beck’s Cosmopolitan Politics.” Contemporary Politics 14(2): 129-143.

Pichler, F. (2008). “How Real is Cosmopolitanism in Europe?” Sociology 42(6): 1107-1126.

Pollock, S., H. K. Bhaba, et al. (2000). “Cosmopolitanisms.” Public Culture 12(3): 577-589.

Scarry, E. (1998). The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons. The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence. New York, Continuum Publishing: 40-62.

[1] For the purposes of this article I have used ‘Cosmopolitanism’ with a capitalized ‘C’ as a proper noun to denote Beck’s technical definition of the term, whilst the uncapitalised ‘cosmopolitanism’ is a common noun used in its lexical sense.


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