Flow of Ideas


Glenn Rikowski, London, 16th February 2008

Risk Society

The theory of the “risk society” was generated by Ulrich Beck (1992) in his groundbreaking and widely read book, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. The notion that we now live in a “risk society” has become part of mainstream sociology. There are two phases in the shift into a risk society for Beck. First, industrial society produces threats or risks which become observed but they do not become issues of public debate or concerns within the media and politics. In the second phase, risks are an issue of public debate and the institutions of industrial society become recognised as producers of risks they cannot control.

For Beck (1992), the Risk Society is built around three social processes: the redistribution of wealth and risk (e.g., the decline of trade unions, student fees); individualisation – where responses to social structures and events are increasingly individualised, and this goes along with a corresponding decline in social solidarity and the eclipse of collectivities, groups and communities; and the de-standardisation of labour (e.g. agency workers).

Certainly, 9/11, the ‘war on terror’ and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought the concept of the “risk society” even more to the fore. Indeed, Beck has argued more recently that we live in a “world risk society” (2002).


The concept and fear of “risk” has penetrated educational institutions, procedures and practices in past decade, though it was a phenomenon that was gathering force in schools and colleges some time before Beck’s Risk Society of 1992. Basically, teachers and head teachers became more aware of the risks to school pupils. This was not just about ‘stranger danger’ and child abusers getting through the school gate; it spilled over into a range of activities. Playgrounds, outings into the community, field trips, and some sports all became potential areas of concern regarding possible accidents and health risks. Litigious parents, egged on by specialist law firms, lurked in the background. Articles in the Times Educational Supplement began to appear some years ago indicating that teachers in some schools were loath to take kids on field trips or foreign trips. Furthermore, science teachers were becoming more concerned about health and safety issues to an extent where some lab experiments of 15 to 20 years ago were deemed unsafe and unsound.

Thus, risk, and to an extent excitement began to be drained out of school life in the UK, and in many other developed capitalist countries. Teachers became acquainted with the ‘science’ or art of risk analysis, fuelling further fears about risk-taking in the school curriculum and in extra-curricular activities. Insurance companies rubbed their hands in glee.

A Hard Snow’s a Gonna Fall

This risk-aversion in school life has culminated in some bizarre and pathetic bans and proscriptions. When I was at school, the kids loved it when it snowed and they could go out and throw snowballs at each other. Today, the snowball fight is viewed as shear recklessness, and not at all a simple pleasure facilitated by nature. Thus, beginning in the United States, but subject to Atlantic drift, snowball fights on school premises have increasingly been seen as an activity to be banned. French Creek Elementary School (2002) in Chester, Pennsylvania announced that “Throwing snowballs is prohibited” in its ‘blacktop only’ rules. High school students at Morgan Park High School (und.) in Chicago were warned that “Throwing snowballs on school property is strictly forbidden” (rule 11, p.2). In the US Thetford township snowball throwing was banned throughout the municipality – with kids risking a criminal record if they were caught lobbing snowballs anywhere in the town (Mickle, 2008, p.1).

But the UK is not far behind, with perhaps a lack of snow in recent years slowing the icy trend. Here is a case from 2003:

“Children at a school in Norfolk have been banned from throwing snowballs at their classmates unless they ask their target’s permission first. In a move that rewrites the rules of playground winter warfare, pupils at Fairway Middle School, Norwich, have been told they will be punished if they launch sneak attacks” (Born 2003).

On the basis that snow was turning to ice, which the kids might also throw, ‘parents and teachers’ representatives’ backed the move’ (Ibid.). A kill-joy National Union of Teachers county secretary noted that:

“With the litigious nature of the society we live in now, I can see where the head is coming from. It is a sensible thing to do” (Ibid.).

You can’t be too careful with these lethal snowballs!

This time last year there was another outbreak of snowball madness reported in the press:

“A row has broken out after children were suspended from school – for throwing snowballs. Shocked parents could not believe it when the youngsters were sent home from Bretton Woods Community School in Peterborough. Head teacher John Gribble has defended the ban, saying the teenagers had broken a ban on snowball fights. The rules had been introduced for health and safety reasons” (Daily Mail, 2007).

Seven boys aged between 15 and 16 were excluded, and some parents said that the decision was ‘laughable’ (Ibid.).

After snowballs, it appears that the great English cuppa is under threat!

“Schools could be banned from selling tea and coffee to pupils under 16. The School Food Trust, a government body, is consulting on a code of practice for drinks provided for pupils. Soft drinks such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola are already barred. Parents and teachers are now being asked about extending the ban” (Milne, 2008).

Apparently, Dr. Michael Nelson, the Nutrition Director at the School Food Trust, has suggested that ‘children need to be encouraged to choose water, or more nutritious options such as fruit juice or milk’ (Ibid.). Perhaps bread and water, with a following cold shower and marching round the playground before lessons begin might be best in the new Spartan education regime. When I was at school, we had free milk and government controlled nutritional standards for school meals – but we still had our snowball fights!

Conclusion: No-Risk Schools

Schools are involved in the social production of labour power in capitalist society (Rikowski, 2007). One aspect of this is the social nurturing of work attitudes (including a disciplined attitude to work and taking orders). Kids breaking snowball bans not only provide a challenge to the school’s authority; it also becomes an indicator that there is still much work to do for the school regarding these ‘attitudes’. Of course, the kids might get injured, and this falls back on the state’s investment in their labour power; though it is hard to see how snowball fighting could cause great physical or psychological damage, unless allied to prior bullying projects.

This and the fear of legal action, parental disapproval and teachers getting caught in the cross-fire means that ‘risky’ games such as snowball fights become banned. At the French Creek Elementary School (2002), the rules for playing on the tarmac surface include: “Physical contact or verbal abuse in any form is not permitted”. Thus, bang go games of tag and many other traditional playground games. If translated into British schools, this American rule would see the end of pretty much all traditional school playground games.

One reaction to a ‘risk society’ or schools is to clamp down on potential risks to the extent that fun, creativity, experiment and exhilaration are purged out of school life. The no-risk school becomes the model. Ironically, this is happening at a time when there are calls for more creativity and excitement in the school curriculum in England.


Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage.

Beck, U. (2002) The Silence of Words and Political Dynamics in the World Risk Society, Logos, Fall, at Logosonline: http://logosonline.home.igc.org/beck.htm

Born, M. (2003) Would you mind terribly if I threw a snowball at you? The Daily Telegraph, 11th January, online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/global/main.jhtml?xml=/global/2003/01/11/brsnow11.xml

Daily Mail (2007) Parents’ anger after pupils sent home for breaking snowball ban, Daily Mail, 9th February, online at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=435218&in_page_id=1770

French Creek Elementary School (2002) French Creek Elementary School 2003 – 2004: Standards of Behavior – School-Wide Expectations: Top Ten Playground and “Blacktop Only” Rules, Chester County, Pennsylvania, online at: http://ojrfc.ojrsd.com/about/index.asp?page=998

Mickle, B. (2008) Thetford’s snowball ban won’t stop child’s play, supervisor says, The Flint Journal, posted 7th February Mlive.com, ‘Everything Michigan’, online at: http://blog.mlive.com/flintjournal/newsnow/2008/02/thetfords_snowball_ban_wont_st.html

Milne, J. (2008) Drinks ban on school cuppas is brewing, Times Educational Supplement, 15th February, p.4.

Morgan Park High School (und.) Morgan Park High School: Rules and Procedures, Chicago, Illinois, online at: http://www.morganparkcps.org/rules_and_procedures.jsp

Rikowski, G. (2007) Marxist Educational Theory Unplugged, a paper prepared for the Fourth Historical Materialism Annual Conference, 9-11th November, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Marxist%20Educational%20Theory%20Unplugged

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