Ulrich Beck was born in Stolp, Germany (now Slupsk in Poland) on 15 May 1944, although the family soon moved to Hanover. A passionate lover of literature from an early age, which often led to conflict with his naval officer father, he started to study law at the University of Freiburg but, in 1966, secured a grant for gifted students and moved on to the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich to pursue a far wider curriculum in sociology, politics, philosophy and psychology.
After completing his PhD in 1972, Professor Beck continued to teach at Munich before taking up professorships at the University of Münster (1979-81) and the University of Bamberg (1981-92). He then returned to Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich for the rest of his life, although he also took up a series of visiting professorships at the University of Wales, Cardiff, the London School of Economics and the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris.
The proximity of the Alps in Munich, Professor Beck once told Times Higher Education, allowed him to go walking, “escape everyday life” and so “forget about the problems of the world”. Coming to London to teach at the LSE, by contrast, provided a way of engaging with just such problems. From the time of Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1986; English edition: 1992), he established himself as a leading analyst of a confusing era in which global upheavals such as terrorism, climate change and financial disasters are a constant and unpredictable danger. What Is Globalization? (1997; English edition: 1999) and Cosmopolitan Vision (2004; English edition: 2006) took the argument further. Although major work remains to be published, Professor Beck’s most recent solo-authored book is German Europe (2012; English edition: 2013), which develops the case for a united Europe and offers a notably sharp picture of Angela “Merkiavelli” Merkel.
Equally important were the books he published with his wife, the distinguished sociologist Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, whom he married in 1975. Living with someone from a partly Jewish family that had been scattered across Europe, Professor Beck explained, forced him “to live the ‘cosmopolitan’ reality that I am writing about”. It was also she who made him “understand the sociology of love, family and gender relations”. Their close intellectual collaboration led to a number of ambitious and influential works, including The Normal Chaos of Love (1990) and Distant Love (2014).
Professor Beck died of a heart attack on 1 January and is survived by his wife.