Sociological Theorists: Niklas Luhmann

What to my mind Luhmann exposes, after the manner of Parsons’ structural functionalism and the American neofunctionalists who walked and still walk in his footsteps, is that key mechanisms at the level of social strata impact beneath-the-surface or behind-our-backs. As absent presences, they can escape reflexive interrogation. In his The Differentiation of Society he argued that human action becomes organized into systems. Whenever the actions of a number of people become interrelated, a social system exists. All social systems exist in manifold and complex environments. To exist in such environments they must devise mechanisms for reducing complexity (or they would simply merge with them). These mechanisms involve selecting means to reduce complexity, and these proceses of selection create boundaries between systems and their environments. This allows systems to sustain patterns of interrelated actions.

The complexity of the environment is reduced by mechanisms along three dimension: temporal, material and symbolic. The nature of a social system – its size, form and differentiation – is reflected in the mechanisms deployed to reduce complexity along this trio of dimensions. So a social system exists ‘any time the actions of individuals are meaningfully interrelated and interconnected, thereby setting them off from the temporal, material and symbolic environment by virtue of the selection of functional mehanisms.

Three types of social systems emerge from such processes: interaction, organization and societal. Interaction systems occur when individuals are co-present and are elaborated by the use of language in face-to-face interaction. They are relatively simple, limited and open to conflict and tension. If systems are more complex they require organizing principles beyond the likes of co-presence and sequential talk. Oragnizational systems coordinate individuals’actions in relation to specific conditions (e.g. specific work for specific pay). They ‘stabilize highly ‘artificial’ modes of behaviour over time. Complex social orders do not in Luhmann’s view require consensus on values, beliefs or norms to be sustainable or sustained, nor do they require motivational commitments on the part of actors. Rather, their strength – flexibility and adaptability to changing environmental conditions – rests on delimited and situational commitments of actors, along with neutral media of communication, such as money. Societal systems cut across interaction and organization systems. They deploy very generalized communication codes, like money and power, to reduce the complexity of the environment and, by so doing, set broad limits on how and where actions are to be interrelated into interaction and organization systems.

As societies expand and become more complex, the three types of system become more clearly differentiated. Problems of integration arise, as do conditions conducive to conflict. But differentiation also produces countervailing forces for integration, for example, the ‘nesting of system types inside each other. Greater social differentiation sees a multiplication of interaction and organization systems. At the same time the societal system is split into functional domains, like economy, polity, law, religion, family, science and education. This functional differentiation is associated with the enhanced use of distinctive media of communication. For instance: organization systems in the economy employ money, those in the polity exercise power, those in science depend on truth and those in the family use love. Luhmann terms the mechanism for selection underpinning ‘communicative success’. His thesis is that only those emergent media of communication – like money – that best facilitate increased adjustment to an environment by reducing its complexity are retained.

Societal evolution, according to Luhmann, has witnessed movement through three distinct forms of differentiation: segmentation, stratification and functional differentiation. The simplest societies differentiate segmentally: in other words they create subsystems similar to the ones from which they emerged (e.g. new lineages and villages duplicate old lineages and villages). Segmentation limits a society’s complexity and, hence, its capacity to adapt to its environment. Furhter differentiation leads to stratified subsystems characterised, and limited, by hierarchies. These limitiations lead to pressures accumulating for a third, functional, form of differentiation. Communication processes are in this case organized around the specific function to be performed for the societal system.

In Social Systems Luhmann advances the notion of the societal system differentiated into functional domains which are: (a) self-referential, and (b) autopoietic. The closure of these functional domains, Luhmann contends, makes openness possible. The domains themselves produce and reproduce the elements of which they consist. Understanding them in this way, as constructing all information internally, including the system/environment distinction itself, implies that steering can only ever be self-steering. Even if that steering is directed at the environment, it is still self-steering because it can be aimed only at a functional domains’s own environment, which is of course internally constructed. Luhman’s analysis challenges the notion that we can devise effective intervention strategies. It is possible, he argues, for one functional domain, by its own self-steering, to attempt to influence another by creating appropriate conditions (having first observed – in accordance with its own distinctions – how the other domain operates). Autopoetic society is thus ‘problematic from the point of view of steering but failing to problematize society appropriately may produce expectations that cannot be fulfilled and political allocations of resources which may entirely fail to address the nature of the problem at hand’.


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