Critical Theory and Communicative Action: The Challenge of Legitimation in a World at Risk

  • Elaine Desmond


This chapter explores the critical theory concept of legitimation in relation to Ulrich Beck’s theorisation of risk society. The process of legitimation involves the provision and consideration of reasons as the basis for evaluating and justifying practices and beliefs. This chapter adopts the three dimensions of justice developed by Fraser—redistribution, recognition and representation—and Forst's right to justification to explore the legitimation process involved in the negotiation of risk.

The chapter examines how the demands of social justice and the right to justification of the vulnerable worldwide often compete with concerns for preservation of both the self and the state in a world at risk. This tension gives rise to significant ethical conflicts and a questioning of where the boundaries for justice should legitimately be drawn. Such questions are often resolved through the moral learning facilitated by communicative action within the process of legitimation.

The chapter argues that the negotiation of risk society entails legitimation struggles at local, national and global levels. These struggles raise questions about the justice of the framing of the state even as they make increasing demands on state governments to protect their citizens from risk. The latter is often achieved by a state through securing access to resources for its citizens as the basis for its democratic legitimacy, often to the detriment of other states' attempts to do the same. The potential for injustice associated with state efforts to self-preserve is challenged by the communicative action arising from mass mobilisations as part of an emergent global legitimation process.

The chapter concludes that the evolution of communicative action and the increasingly globalised process of legitimation through which such evolution occurs represent sources of risk, but also of opportunity. This is due to the heightened reliance on the development of communicative competence within the multi-level legitimation process associated with reconciling the demands for justice and preservation in a world at risk.


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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elaine Desmond
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity College CorkCorkIreland

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