The German sociologist Ulrich Beck, who has died aged 70 of a heart attack, wanted to know how we can make sense of a world that appears to be unhinged. In his book The Metamorphosis of the World, to be published later this year, he uses the metaphor of a caterpillar undergoing a profound transformation in its cocoon, yet with no idea of what is taking place. Because of the environmental crisis, far-reaching technological changes and the inadequacy of modern national institutions, something similar is happening to us, but we are hardly, if at all, aware of what it consists of.

Beck held that our current state can no longer be captured through established conceptions of society or through the existing language of the social sciences. In his introduction to his new book he confesses: “I was at a loss for an answer to the simple but necessary question: ‘What is the meaning of the global events unfolding before our eyes?’’’ He addresses it with a social theory of a world that is not changing or transforming, but “metamorphosing”.

In arriving at this approach he drew on earlier ideas. His concept of “reflexive modernisation”, outlined in Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1986), refers to how modern living has to examine itself, by confronting the unintended side-effects of the success of industrialisation. Global risks are not simply problems that threaten the planet, but possible consequences of “industrial, techno-economic decisions” that must be understood as potentially untameable; examples include climate change, financial upheaval and the terror attacks of 9/11.

The “cosmopolitanisation” alluded to in his book Cosmopolitan Vision (2004) does not refer to the ideal of becoming a global citizen, but to the reality of enmeshed worlds. The societies of modern nations rely on what Beck called the risk contract, in which the state is supposed to protect its citizens. But the challenges of our time are such that retaining a purely national outlook results in “organised irresponsibility”.

He was not arguing against the nation state, but against a view that identifies society with national society as the unquestioned frame of reference. He argued that in order to understand the world, it is not enough to explore it differently but that we must explore a different kind of world altogether; and that to construct institutions that actually work, it is not enough to reconfigure them but that we need to design them from within a different world – a “metamorphosed” world. The book due to appear was the first of many steps in which he planned to further develop this idea.

Beck was a lateral thinker, a Querdenker in German, who was at home within and committed to the discipline of sociology but refused to be confined by conventional parameters. For that he was willing to endure criticism from colleagues.
Ulrich Beck’s lecture Living in and Coping With World Risk Society at the St Gallen Symposium, Switzerland, in May 2012

Born in the Pomeranian city of Stolp, in Germany, now Słupsk, in Poland, south of the Baltic coast, Ulrich was the youngest of five, with four older sisters. His father, Wilhelm, was a naval officer and his mother, Magarete (nee Von Schulz-Hausmann), a nurse. At the end of the second world war his family left for what became West Germany, and he grew up in Hanover.

In 1966 he abandoned law studies at Freiburg for sociology, philosophy, psychology and political sciences at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, supported by a public grant for gifted students. Six years later he received his doctorate degree under the supervision of Karl Martin Bolte. After professorships at Münster (1979-81) and Bamberg (1981-92) he returned to LMU, where he remained professor for the rest of his life. Among many international posts and distinctions, he was a visiting professor at the University of Wales, Cardiff (1995-97); the London School of Economics (from 1997); and the Fondation Maison de Sciences de l’Homme, Paris (from 2011).

While he was a student in Munich he met Elisabeth Gernsheim, and they married in 1975. Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, a renowned sociologist herself, came from a part-Jewish family, and following the Holocaust her relatives were scattered all over the world, in stark contrast to Beck’s provincial German family background. He described himself as the “beneficiary of her thoughts … with Elisabeth, I am forced to live the ‘cosmopolitan’ reality I am writing about”. On their regular hikes through the Bavarian Alps they developed big ideas and fine-tuned the nuances of their theories: Elisabeth was his most valued critic. They co-authored two books, The Normal Chaos of Love (1990) and Distant Love (2014), the latter about the cosmopolitanisation of relationships.

Having been born during the war and the Nazi era, Beck spent much of his life dealing with an impossibly difficult past, and this made him a committed European public intellectual. His book German Europe (2013) gave a warning about Angela Merkel, whom he characterised as Merkiavelli, the uncrowned queen, and he issued an appeal for a bottom-up emancipatory Europe.

A generous, warm and witty man, Beck once successfully lobbied for a change in the name of a square in Munich from Max Weber Platz – to Max Weber Platz. It had been originally named after a prominent citizen of Munich other than the father of sociology. Beck argued that the name of the square had to be changed to honour the sociologist; the municipality eventually agreed and a ceremony was performed so that the title Max Weber Platz now honours both men.

He is survived by Elisabeth.

• Ulrich Beck, sociologist, born 15 May 1944; died 1 January 2015