Beck was born in the Pomeranian town of Stolp, Germany (now Słupsk in Poland), in 1944, and grew up in Hanover. He began university studies with a focus on law at Freiburg, and from 1966 onwards studied sociology, philosophy, psychology and political science at the University of Munich. Starting in 1972, after earning a doctorate, he was employed at Munich as a sociologist. In 1979 he qualified as a university lecturer with a habilitation thesis. He received appointments as professor at the universities of Münster (1979–1981) and Bamberg (1981–1992). From 1992 until his death, Beck was professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Sociology at the University of Munich. He received numerous international awards and honors, including election to the Council and Executive Board of the German Society for Sociology.
From 1995 to 1997 he was a member of the Kommission für Zukunftsfragen der Freistaaten Bayern und Sachsen (Bavarian and Saxon State Commission for Questions Concerning the Future). Beginning in 1999, he was the speaker of the DFG research programme on reflexive modernity.
From 1999 to 2009 Beck was a spokesman of the Collaborative Reflexive Modernization Research Centre 536, an interdisciplinary consortium of four universities in the Munich area funded and overseen by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Beck's theory of interdisciplinary reflexive modernization on a basis of a wide range of topics in appropriate research was empirically tested. The theory of reflexive modernization works from the basic idea that the rise of the modern industrial age produces side-effects across the globe that provide the institutional basis and coordinates that modern nation-states question, modify, and open for political action.
He was active as sociologist and public intellectual in Germany and throughout the world, regularly intervening in debates on the European Union, climate change and nuclear energy. At the time of his death, he and his international research group were only 1.5 years into the 5-year research project "Methodological Cosmopolitanism – in the Laboratory of Climate Change" (the Cosmo-Climate Research Project), of which Beck was the Principal investigator. For this research project he received the prestigious ERC Advanced Grant, scheduled to terminate in 2018. Along with Beck, sociologists David Tyfield and Anders Blok lead work packages within the overall project. The project also fostered international research collaboration with various research 'hubs' in East Asia through the Europe-Asia Research Network (EARN). In cooperation with EARN, Beck and sociologist Sang-Jin Han had been set to lead a 2-year project for the Seoul Metropolitan Government beginning in 2015.
For 25 years, Beck delivered new diagnoses to the following question: How can social and political thought and action in the face of radical global change (environmental destruction, financial crisis, global warming, the crisis of democracy and the nation-state institutions) be intertwined in a new modernity? A radicalized modernity, for Beck, attacks its own foundations. Institutions such as the nation-state and the family are globalized 'from the inside'.
Beck studied modernization, ecological problems, individualization and globalization. Later in his career, he embarked on exploring the changing conditions of work in a world of increasing global capitalism, declining influence of unions and flexibilisation of the labour process, a then new theory rooted in the concept of cosmopolitanism. Beck also contributed a number of new words to German and anglophone sociology, including "risk society", "second modernity", reflexive modernization and Brazilianization (Brasilianisierung). According to Beck, all contemporary political thinking emanates from the methodological nationalism of political thought and sociology (and other social sciences).
Risk society was coined by Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens during the 1980s. According to Beck and Giddens, the traditional industrial class structure of modern society is breaking apart. Globalization creates risks that concern people from all different classes; for example, radioactivity, pollution, and even unemployment. Affluent households act to insulate themselves from these risks, but cannot do so for some; for example global environmental change. The poor suffer them. He points out that risks are also socially constructed and some risks are perceived as more dangerous because they are discussed in mass media more frequently, such as terrorism. Risk society leads to analysis of risks, causing prejudgment.
Beck was the editor of the sociological journal, Soziale Welt [de] (in German, since 1980), author of some 150 articles, and author or editor of many books.
1999 German-British Forum Award for outstanding service to German-British relations (together with Anthony Giddens)
2004 Award of DGS for outstanding achievements in the field of public achievement in sociology
2005 Schader Prize, the most prestigious award for social scientists in Germany
2014 Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Contribution to Future Research of the International Sociological Association
In 2013 he received an ERC advanced grant to carry out the Cosmo-Climate Research Project (Methodological Cosmopolitanism: In the Laboratory of Climate Change), with David Tyfield and Anders Blok amongst others.
Honorary doctorates (8): University of Jyväskylä, Finland (1996), University of Macerata,Italy (2006), University of Madrid (UNED), Spain (2007), Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt (2010), University of Lausanne, Switzerland (2011), Free University of Varna, Bulgaria (2011), University of Buenos Aires, Argentina (2013), St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia, Bulgaria (2013).
Among his major works are:
Beck, Ulrich (1974) Objectivity and normativity. The theory-practice debate in modern German and American sociology. Reinbek, Rowohlt.
Beck, Ulrich with Michael Brater and Hans Jürgen (1980). Home: sociology of work and occupations. Basics, problem areas, research results, Rowohlt paperback Verlag GmbH, Reinbek.
Beck, Ulrich (1986) Risikogesellschaft – Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne (Risk Society)
Beck, Ulrich (1988) Gegengifte : die organisierte Unverantwortlichkeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Beck, Ulrich (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage
Beck, Ulrich & Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (1994) Riskante Freiheiten – Gesellschaftliche Individualisierungsprozesse in der Moderne
Beck, Ulrich & Giddens, Anthony & Lash Scott (1994) Reflexive Modernization.Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Beck, Vossenkuhl, Ziegler, photographs by T. Rautert (1995) Eigenes Leben – Ausflüge in die unbekannte Gesellschaft, in der wir leben
Beck-Gernsheim, Elisabeth & Beck, Ulrich (1995) The Normal Chaos of Love. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Beck, Ulrich (1995) Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Beck, Ulrich (1996) The Reinvention of Politics.Rethinking Modernity in the Global Social Order. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Beck, Ulrich (1997) Was ist Globalisierung?
Beck, Ulrich (1998) Democracy without Enemies. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Beck, Ulrich (1998) World Risk Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Beck, Ulrich (1999) What Is Globalization? Cambridge: Polity Press.
Beck, Ulrich (2000) The Brave New World of Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Adam, Barbara & Beck, Ulrich & Van Loon, Joost (2000) The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues for Social Theory. London: Sage.
Beck, Ulrich & Beck-Gernsheim, Elisabeth (2002) Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences. London: Sage.
Beck, Ulrich & Willms, Johannes (2003) Conversations with Ulrich Beck. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Beck, Ulrich (2005) Power in the Global Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
”World citizens of all countries, unite! Democracy beyond the nation-state: Europe must make a beginning. Theses for a cosmopolitan manifesto”. (World Citizen manifest) in. The Time, 1998 No. 30
”The Society of the Less. The burst dream of the rise in Germany”, ZDF, January 17, 2005
”Gentle world power Europe. Vision of a cosmopolitan empire that no longer relies on national ideas”, in: Frankfurter Rundschau July 5, 2005
”Blind to reality”, in: Frankfurter Rundschau, September 3, 2005
”Europe can not be built on the ruins of the nations”, with Anthony Giddens, In: The World, October 1, 2005
”Farewell to the utopia of full employment”, in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, November 4, 2006
”Tragic individualization”, in: Sheets for German and international politics, 2007, Issue 5, pp 577-584.
”God is dangerous” in Die Zeit, 2007 No. 52.
”The error of the caterpillar”, in: Frankfurt general newspaper 14 June 2011
”Fainting, but legitimate”, in: the daily newspaper (taz) 28 October 2011
”Machiavellis power”, in: Der Spiegel, October 8, 2012
”For a European Spring!”, in: the daily newspaper (taz), November 23, 2012
“Freedom or capitalism”. Ulrich Beck in an interview with Johannes Willms, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2000
”Interview, Telepolis”, November 28, 1997
"Choice will not save the country," interview in New Window
”An encounter” (Memento of 6 July 2007 at the Internet Archive) with Beck on Lake Starnberg, Tagesspiegel September 23, 2005
"Unemployment is a victory": Interview with Constantine Sakkas, in: Der Tagesspiegel on 30 November of 2006.
"Anyone can create their own God," in the Tagesspiegel of 20 July 2008
”Questions of faith. A new enthusiasm”, talk with Arno Widmann, in:. Frankfurter Rundschau, 15. August 2008
”Action in the state of not knowing”. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society theorists, on the turncoats of the financial crisis and the importance of Europe. in: Frankfurter Rundschau, November 5, 2008
”Merkel engages in the dressing up box in”: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 12. February 2010
”A strategically staged mistake”, talk with Andreas Zielcke in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 14. March 2011
”In bed with the others”, Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim in conversation with Ulrich Gutmair, in: the daily newspaper (taz) 12 October 2011 at
”The common identity should first be identified”, Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim in conversation with Jeanette Villa Chica, in: Tages-Anzeiger, November 9, 2011
”Love across national borders”, Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, in: Time Campus 22 November 2011
”About the Merkiavellismus”, talk with Nils Minkmar, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 16, 2013
”More Willy Brandt dare Ulrich Beck and Martin Schulz on the future of Europe”, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 24, 2013
Literature on Beck
Richard Albrecht, Differentiation - pluralization - individualization: make-up process in the German society, in: Trade union Monatshefte, Vol 41 (1990), No. 8, S.503-512 (PDF, 137 kB)
Klaus Dörre. Reflexive modernization - a transition theory.
For analytical potential of a popular sociological time diagnosis, Ruhr-University Bochum, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, mediocrity and madness. A proposal to goodness, trans, mediocrity and madness.. Collected distractions, SuhrkampFrankfurt am Main 1988, pp 250-276
Monika E. Fischer: Space and time. The forms of adult learning of modernization theory point of view, publishing Schneider Hohengehren, Baltmannsweiler 2007 ISBN978-3-8340-0266-2
Ronald Hitzler: Ulrich Beck, in: Current theories of sociology. Shmuel N. Eisenstadt to Postmodernism, Dirk Kaesler, CH Beck editors, Munich, 2005, pp 267-285, ISBN3-406-52822-8
Karl Otto Hondrich. The dialectic of collectivization and individualization - the example of couple relationships, in: From Politics and History, H. 53, 1998 [25th December 1998], pp 3-8
Thomas Kron (ed.): Individualization and sociological theory, Leske + Budrich, Opladen 2000 ISBN3-8100-2505-4
Angelika Poferl: Ulrich Beck, in: Stephan Moebius / Dirk Quad Fly ( ed.): Culture. Theories of the present, VS Verlag für Social Sciences, Wiesbaden 2006, ISBN3-531-14519-3
Angelika Poferl / Natan Sznaider (ed.): Ulrich Beck's cosmopolitan project. On the way to another sociology, Nomos, Baden-Baden 2004
Armin Pongs: Ulrich Beck - The Risk Society, trans .: What kind of society are we living in?  dilemma Verlag, Munich 2007, pp 47-66
Gisela Riescher: Political Theory in the presence of individual representations of Adorno Young, Kröner, Stuttgart 2004, pp 43–46, ISBN3-520-34301-0
Volker Stork: The "second modernity" - a brand? To Antiquiertheit and negativity of social utopia of Ulrich Beck, UVK Verl.-Ges., Konstanz 2001, ISBN3-89669-802-8
^Collaborative Reflexive Modetnization Research Centre 536
^Ulrich Beck and Wolfgang Bonß (ed.): The modernization of modernity. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2001; Ulrich Beck and Christoph Lau (ed.): Delimitation and Decision. Frankfurt 2004 special issue of the journal Social World: theory and empirical reflexive modernization, 2005