Luhmann’s systems theory

Modern society [1] Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) was a German sociologist who developed a general systems theory of modern society. The American social systems theorist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was a major influence – for the idea of social systems -, but so were the Chileans Humberto Maturana (1928-2021) and his student Francisco Varela (1946-2001) – for the idea of autopoiesis. Steffen Roth (1976) is a very active Luhmann scholar. According to Luhmann modern society evolved from the 16th to 18th century by differentiating largely independent function systems such as law, politics, science, economy, religion, and media. The function systems were not so much human designs as globally emerging patterns of social differentiation in a historically evolving environment, which to a large extent was shaped by those same emerging function systems. ‘Social systems theory does not describe reality as it “essentially” is, but as what it has actually become – and it could have come out otherwise’ (Moeller 2006, x). This environment of function systems provides worldwide the conditions/environment for the effectiveness of other social systems such as organizations and institutions (businesses, nations etc.).

Concept map of Luhmann’s social systems theory

Social differentiation [2] Luhmann distinguishes 4 main types of social differentiation and 1 intermediate type. The main types are segmentation, stratification, center/periphery differentiation, and functional differentiation. The intermediate type is hybrid differentiation, which combines elements of the main types.

Function systems [3] One of the first function systems Luhmann chose to deal with in detail was law, closely followed by politics and economy. The function systems steer humans to generate programs to carry out functions that help decide binary codes (opposing dichotomies) and further expand or differentiate function systems. In the case of law, the binary choice is between lawful and unlawful, the program is the whole collection of laws, and the medium is the sense of justice as expressed as individual or societal norms. Efficacy in the case of law points to the successful regulation of conflicts. A great many function systems can be distinguished. The descriptors of the main defining elements of the systems concerned differ slightly among scholars. Below is a shortlist of 10 major function systems by Roth (2015), who also discusses arguments in favour or against some of the descriptors used.

Self-referential autopoiesis [4] Luhmann uses the cell (of living organisms) as a model for his function systems. Social systems theory borrows not only the concept of autopoiesis from biological systems theory, but also the concept of operational closure. Autopoiesis literally means “self-production” (the Greek poiesis, as in poetry, means “production”) or, by extension, “self-reproduction”, which suggests the need for a process of self-reference, i.e. distinction between the self and the environment. ‘All systems continue their autopoiesis, and thus they all “develop”. It is the dynamic version of sustainability.

Operational closure [5] means that systems can be open to one another, but not operationally so. It refers to the observation that within a boundary of their own making (the membrane) cells have self-organization. Their systemicity derives from the fact that cells as systems have components or subsystems, which produce components, which produce further components, and so on, but rather in a circular than in an hierarchical order. Operational closure depends on complex coherence.

Humans [6] Luhmann distinguishes three types of systems: biological, psychic, and social. Humans are living organisms/biological systems with a brain organ, from which a psychic system emerged, generally referred to as the human mind. Consciousness evolves from psychic activity in the mind and enables people to consciously communicate in the form of interactions or basic social operations or micro-systems or communication events. These interactions can be rearranged and harnessed in the form of purposeful organizations or they can contribute to the emergence – or rather ‘blind’ evolution, of function systems. The evolution model suggest a survival or expansion of the fittest mechanism. The function systems of economics and politics have a tendency as primi inter pares to dominate the others. The mass media strengthen this trend, the last 20 years more than ever, due to the Internet.

Structural coupling [7] There are non-autopoietic inter-relationships between the various function systems. These involve so-called structural couplings. “Structural coupling means that systems shape each others’ environments such that they both depend on the other for the continuation of their autopoiesis and this results in an increase of their structural complexity. The structural coupling between the brain as a living system, the mind as a psychic system, and society as a communication system seems to be of a specific structure. [..] It seems that the mind is some kind of filter between the brain, on the one hand, and communication, on the other.” They become increasingly complex in tandem with each other. Instead of speaking of cause-effect relationships, Luhmann prefers to think of structural couplings in terms of irritation-response linkages. Language is one of the mediums for the structural coupling between individual minds and society, but certainly not the only one. “The jargon of both academic and common speech are expressions of the semantics of a society. Both represent the “sense” a society ascribes to itself and to the issues it deals with. Obviously these semantics change.”

Inquiring systems [8] It is best to think of social systems theory as an elaborate schema for the inquiry of social reality. In that sense social systems theory may also be used as an inquiring system for enhancing our understanding of a particular situation of interest. Organizations are decision-making systems requiring a particular environment of function systems. Churchman has developed an inquiring system specifically for organizational design(s). In its most common formats it has 9 or 12 categories and a large number of subcategories (9 category version here). An inquiring system based on the systems theory of Luhmann could supplement the inquiring system of Churchman especially where the categories of environment and guarantor are concerned and for the sub-category of the ‘human condition’. Arguably, the collection of global function systems has to a large extent taken over the unifying role of god or nature in understanding the human condition.

Social systems theory The main purpose of Luhmann’s social systems theory is speculative scientific inquiry into the unifying notion of an evolving global superstructure of function systems. This may be considered successful if it leads to insightful speculations about this structure, its history, and its present state. One day it may become relevant to understanding geopolitics and shaping world governance or the determination of its limitations. Luhmann is convinced that the design options are very limited due to the autonomy of the process (and luckily so!). I have a professional interest in international development and Luhmann’s theory seems to have potential for enabling a better understanding of non-economic center/periphery phenomena to complement theories inspired by Wallenstein’s world-systems theory (1974). See e.g. Neves (2001) ‘ ‘From the Autopoiesis to the Allopoiesis of Law’ (here). From an education point of view Luhmann is interesting because of the application of the notion of autopoiesis to social systems. It makes one wonder what Churchman and other organizational systems approachers would have thought of it.

References This post is mostly based on
– Luhmann Explained (from Souls to Systems) . Hans-Georg Moeller . Open Court Publishing Company (Carus Publishing) . 2006 . ISBN13 978-0-8126-9598-4 . ISBN10 0-8126-9598-4
– A discussion/summary of the same book by D.P. Bruin, PhD Candidate, The Firm as an Emergent Phenomenon (here).
– Roth and Schutz (2015) Ten Systems: Toward a Canon of Function Systems (here).

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