Luhmann And Dissertation And Management

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Table of contents


List of Figures

List of abbreviations

1. Introduction

2. Background of social systems theory
2.1. Autopoiesis in general
2.2. Autopoiesis adapted by Luhmann

3. Basic ideas and axioms of Luhmann’s theory of social functional systems
3.1. Communication as central element
3.2. Social Systems: Society, Organizations and Interactions

4. Definition of structural coupling
4.1. Example of structural coupling: Apple’s supply chain problem
4.2. Evaluation of Structural Coupling Example
4.3. Evaluation of Apple’s behavior on basis of ethics and morality

5. Critical Evaluation of Luhmann’s theory

6. Conclusion



This paper introduces the theory of social functional systems by Niklas Luhmann who is a great representative of systems theory in sociology. As his theory is based on the concept of autopoiesis, the original autopoiesis concept of Maturana and Valdera is shortly demonstrated as well as the way of how Luhmann shaped it into a general autopoiesis concept. This general introduction is followed by a detailed explanation of ideas of Luhmann’s social systems theory. As his theory is communication-based rather than action-based, the element of communication is further explored. Additionally, the social systems of society, organization and interaction are defined whereas the main focus is on society as social system. Within this context, several subsystems of society are explicated together with their appropriate coding, program, medium and function. Furthermore, the idea of structural coupling which can be described as relation between systems and their environments is implemented. After having a complete picture of the theory, the paper focuses on the practical example of Apple and the problems within its supply chain. This scandal is analyzed according to Luhmann’s social systems theory. As a last step, the role of ethics and morality within social systems theory are evaluated on basis of the Apple case. The paper finishes with a critical evaluation of Luhmann’s whole theory which also includes important criticism.

Author Note

This paper was prepared for the lecture ‘Business Ethics’. The task is to explore the basic ideas and axioms of Luhmann’s theory of social functional systems and to further explain what ‘structural coupling’ means in addition to giving an example for structural coupling.

Keywords: Social functional systems; Niklas Luhmann; structural coupling; Apple; autopoiesis; communication; binary coding; mass media, business.

List of Figures

Figure 1: Types of autopoietic systems. Source: Seidl, D. (2004). Luhmann’s theory of autopoietic social systems. Munich School of Management, p.5.

Figure 2: Overview of communication according to Luhmann. Source: Buchinger, E. (2006). The sociological concept of autopoiesis: Biological and philosophical basics and governance relevance. Kybernetes, 35, 3/4, pp.360 – 374

Figure 3: Overview of functional systems. Source: Reese-Schäfer, W. (2001). Niklas Luhmann zur Einführung. (4th ed.). Hamburg: Junius Verlag GmbH, pp. 176-177.

Figure 4: Overview of Apple and the New York Times. Source: Reese-Schäfer, W. (2001). Niklas Luhmann zur Einführung. (4th ed.). Hamburg: Junius Verlag GmbH, pp. 176-177.

Figure 5: Overview of Ethics and Morality. Source: Reese-Schäfer, W. (2001). Niklas Luhmann zur Einführung. (4th ed.). Hamburg: Junius Verlag GmbH, pp. 176-177.

List of abbreviations

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1. Introduction

Niklas Luhmann was born on 8 December 1927 in Lüneburg, Germany as son of middle-class parents. After studying law, working as lawyer for another ten years and receiving a scholarship for Harvard, he became professor of sociology at the University of Bielefeld in 1968. Luhmann worked on the theory of modern society and approached this topic dually. During his principal, fundamental work of modern systems society, he also analyzed individual functional systems, for example ‘The Economy of Society’ and ‘The Art of Society’ (Bechmann and Stehr, 2002, p.67). After his famous main work ‘Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft’ which was published in 1997 after 30 years of research, he died one year later on 6 November 1998 (Reese-Schäfer, 2001, p.179). Luhmann is known as very popular sociologists of the 20th century whereas he is almost unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world which is mainly due to language (Bechmann et al., 2002, p.67). Luhmann intended to implement a communication-based theory rather than an action-based social systems theory (Vanderstraeten, 2012, p.378). However, his theory is known to be very complex which he even admits himself: “The theory’s design resembles a labyrinth more than a freeway off into the sunset” (Luhmann 1995, p. lii). This is mainly due to developing his work on basis of numerous file-cards which was of such great importance to him that he actually refused several overseas professorships because of the fear of losing his cards whilst moving (Baecker, 2008). Luhmann wrote about many different topics like political systems, law, love, differentiation etc (Bailey, 1997, p.84).

The main motivation for this paper is to explain Luhmann’s general theory of social systems and apply the principle of structural coupling to a real-life example. This example also shows the importance and the applicability that his theory still has nowadays. The paper first of all introduces autopoiesis as general concept and explains in a next step how Luhmann converted autopoiesis into a general concept with then applying it afterwards to social systems. The second part of the paper concentrates on communication as main element as well as society including the introduction of different subsystems with their binary code, program, medium and function. This is followed by explaining the concept of structural coupling and applying it to a real scenario. With the help of this scenario, structural coupling and further ideas of Luhman such as ethics and morality are analyzed. The paper finishes with a critical evaluation of Luhmann’s whole theory.

2. Background of social systems theory

Following influences from Parson’s work about systems theory in the 1950s and 1960s (Vanderstraeten, 2012, p.382), Niklas Luhmann’s concept of social functional systems is based on the idea of autopoiesis. This is why this paper introduces autopoiesis as original biological and cybernetic concept in a first step. In the next step, Luhmann’s derivation from the original concept is explained.

2.1. Autopoiesis in general

The original concept of autopoiesis was developed by H. Marturana and F. Varela who were two biologists from Chile. They consider autopoiesis as self-reproduction and consequently autopoietic systems are reproducing systems that produce all processes within themselves (Vanderstraeten, 2012, p.379). A plant for example will die if it does not continue producing cells. This means, these systems will not survive if they stop producing elements. As no operation can leave or come into the system, autopoietic systems are called operatively closed. However, Marturana and Varela argue that these systems are open in relation to the environment. Although externalities from the environment cannot dictate any internal processes, they can very well lead to irritations of internal operations within the system (Seidl, 2004, chapter 1). Machines for example are not autpoietic systems because they are rather geared to produce a product than to reproduce themselves (Reese-Schäfer, 2001, p.43).

2.2. Autopoiesis adapted by Luhmann

Niklas Luhmann adapted the original idea from Marturana and Varela and translated it to a general concept of autopoiesis contrary to many other sociologists who tried to adapt autopoiesis immediately to sociology. Luhmann’s general concept of autopoietic system is thus not only transferable to sociology but also to other areas of life which is shown in figure 1.

Figure 1: Types of autopoietic systems. Source: Seidl, D. (2004). Luhmann’s theory of autopoietic social systems. Munich School of Management, p.5.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Luhmann argues that besides Marturana and Varela’s living systems which reproduce themselves on basis of the element life; psychic systems with consciousness as reproduction element; as well as social systems exist. Social systems reproduce themselves on basis of communication and can be further sub-divided into societies, organizations and interactions (see chapter 3.2. for further details). This means that Luhmann adapts his firstly generally described autopoietic model on the four research areas social systems, societies, organizations and interactions. However, two significant changes to the original biological concept can be drawn: temporalisation and deontologising. Instead of a system’s need to reproduce its elements from time to time, Luhmann regards elements within autopoietic system as non-durable. This has the consequence that systems need to constantly produce elements in order to survive. The second radical shift takes place in how Luhmann conceptualizes elements. An element can only be regarded as element if it is related to other elements and thus the system is making use of it (Seidl, 2004, chapter 1). “The element is produced as a result of being used” (Luhmann, 1997, pp. 65-66).

3. Basic ideas and axioms of Luhmann’s theory of social functional systems

After having understood the derivation of Luhmann’s autpoietic social systems, it is inevitable to explore communication as reproduction element. Furthermore, the distinction between three different kinds of social systems is another central idea of Luhmann’s theory.

3.1. Communication as central element

Which element is the basis for social systems to reproduce themselves? This was one of the questions Luhmann needed to think about and answer. At the end of the 1970s, he defined communication as the element instead of persons or actions like Max Weber or Talcott Parsons did (Vanderstraeten, 2012, pp. 381-382). He had to face criticism because of not taking persons as element and stating that individuals are not part of the system although he argued that social systems could not exist without persons (Bechmann et al., 2002, p.71). Luhmann perceives communication differently from the traditional purpose. Communication for him exists of a three-part structure: information, utterance and understanding. Information in this context means contrary to its traditional meaning a process of selction, i.e. what is being communicated. Utterance means why and how something is communicated, i.e. the reasons for saying something and which words are used. Understanding, the third component of communication, only applies if the information can be distinguished from the utterance. Consequently, the listener instead of the speaker decides on the meaning of a message and understanding decides about the transfer of the meaning in further communication. The meaning can, however, only be determined retroperspectively. This means just after knowing the reaction of the previous communication, the meaning can be appointed. This leads to another element of communication which already belongs to the next communication: rejection or acceptance of the meaning. The fundamental communication medium is language with the binary code rejection/acceptance (Reese-Schäfer, 2001, p.21; Seidl, 2004, chapter 2a). Figure 2 summarizes communication according to Luhmann consisting of information, utterance and understanding.

Figure 2: Overview of communication according to Luhmann. Source: Buchinger, E. (2006). The sociological concept of autopoiesis: Biological and philosophical basics and governance relevance. Kybernetes, 35, 3/4, pp.360 – 374

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The following important consequences can be drawn regarding communication as operation. Firstly, communication can be read both forward and backwards: as processing forwards in time and after having observed the system. Secondly, communication involves at least two systems (Vanderstraeten, 2012, p.383). And lastly, a system reproduces and keeps itself alive through its operation which is communication (Luhmann, 1992, p.531).

3.2. Social Systems: Society, Organizations and Interactions

As described in chapter 2.2., Luhmann distinguishes three different types of social systems, namely society, interaction and organization.

Society is the system that covers the other two systems and thus all communication from the other two systems. Luhmann describes society as being “composed of communications among human beings” (Luhmann, 1993, p.531). Consequently, everything besides communication needs to be banished from society including persons who remain parts of the environment. This means that all communications reproduce society because they are part of it and communications cannot get out of society. No communication exists outside of the social system ‘society’. In plain language this implies that society requires communication and vice versa which shows their circular relationship (Reese-Schäfer, 2001, pp.12-13).

After society was structured into equal subsystems in archaic times and into cities and countries later on, the structure was replaced by classes in medieval times. This organization of society was also called hierarchic structure where persons were born into a specific layer. However, since the 18th century, societal communications are structured according to functional differentiation with subsystems consisting of various functions like economy, art or religion with each having their own world view. In contrast to the hierarchic organization of society, persons can now live in several subsystems simultaneously (Seidl, 2004, pp.13-14).

All of the functional communication systems are operatively closed according to the principle of autopoiesis described above (see chapter 2.1. and 2.2.) with each carrying a binary coding. A binary code is “a rule of attribution and connection (…). [The system] identif[ies] itself by its binary code and distinguishes itself from its environment (…)” (Luhmann, 1992, p. 1428). The binary code serves as reduction of complexity and is based on the theory of the mathematician Spencer-Brown. Most functional systems reduce their coding to two values and exclude further possibilities (Bailey, 1997, pp. 88-89). Besides their binary code, systems need a program that helps them to assign code values by observation and a medium which has the function of communication. Another element of these social subsystems of society is their functions. These answer the fundamental question of why each specific subsystem exists and what their task is. Figure 2 shows examples for functional systems, their respective binary code to reduce complexity together with the program, medium and actual function.

Figure 3: Overview of functional systems. Source: Reese-Schäfer, W. (2001). Niklas Luhmann zur Einführung. (4th ed.). Hamburg: Junius Verlag GmbH, pp. 176-177.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Consider for example the political system which has the function to generalize power. This generalization is done by exercising the power. The binary code is consequently government / opposition which has the implication for the political system that something is either powerful or does not have any power at all or it does not even have any relevance for the system. It is irrelevant for the political system if something is legal or non-legal which is the binary code of the legal system. In this context, operatively closed means that communications carrying a code other than government/opposition cannot lead to a reproduction of the political system. Only political communications reproduce the political system. These systems have a broad reach as they concern the whole society. However, they are narrow in relation to only being able to handle one specific function without exchanging communications with other subsystems. Communications from other subsystem are regarded as irritations. For instance, the political system would just register communications from other functional systems according to the consequences for its own binary code (Reese-Schäfer, 2001, p.30; Seidl, 2004, chapter 3). The reaction to each system’s operation is called structural coupling and is discussed in detail in chapter 4. According to Luhmann, systems are thus formed by separating themselves from operations that cannot be integrated in the system. Therefore, he defines systems as chain of events or communications that have relations to each other. It does not make any sense to talk about society and economy or society and arts because arts and economy are part of society without any subsystem being dominant (Bechmann et al., 2002, p.74). Although each subsystem is a self-determined system with its own operations and its own boundaries, the subsystems of society and society itself cannot be regarded as two separate objects. They belong inseparably together and these subsystems build a network that reproduces society (Luhmann, 1992, p.1425).

Luhmann regards society as one world society because of the worldwide interest in common topics like organizing states (pp.538-539). Generally speaking, societies are closed systems as they do not communicate with the environment because otherwise the environment would be a part of it. Communication does only take place inside the society (Bailey, 1997, p.90).

Interactions are another social system besides society that reproduce themselves on basis of communications. The binary code can be described as presence/absence which means that only present communications can reproduce the interaction system. The communication at another table in a restaurant for example is not considered as present thus not being part of the same interaction system (Seidl, 2004, pp.14-15). Contrary to society, interactions realize environmental communication and thus are more open than the social system of society (Bailey, 1997, p.90).

Organizations are the last of three social systems defined by Luhmann. In his view organizations reproduce themselves through decisions. He regards the latter as particular kind of communication which involve alternatives that could have been selected and which are produced by organizations instead of human beings (Seidl, 2004, pp.15-16).

4. Definition of structural coupling

Structural coupling is a concept which Luhmann again derived from Maturana’s work. Consciousness is part of the environment as solely communication happens within a system. However, consciousness can make problems for a system or irritate it which leads to the consequence that consciousness and communication are structurally coupled (Luhmann, 1993, p.533). If a system permits for reactions to externalities from the environment, it is considered to be structurally coupled to its environment or respectively other systems in its environment. Therefore, structural coupling corresponds to the connection of systems and their environments. Environmental events are just determined as irritations by the system (Seidl, 2004, p.4, p.8, p.10) because systems do not understand other systems as their coding differs. Each system has another perception of reality and these assumptions about reality are represented and constructed in their communication (Nobles and Schiff, 2009, p.1). The subsystems do not change their binary code as reaction to other systems, however, they can change their way of communication due to differences experienced in other systems. This means that operatively closed systems can react to the environment without being directly connected with it. It rather leads to a ‘minimal fit’ of system and environment than an ‘optimal fit’ (König, 2012, pp.33-34). Moreover, structural couplings develop with the system, they are not existent before (Luhmann, 1992, p. 1433).

In his book “the reality of mass media”, Luhmann (2000) states that for example the subsystems mass media and politics have a great influence on each other’s’ communication. The reason for this phenomenon is that mass media will always show a great deal of political news and politicians will oftentimes respond to this immediately.


Niklas Luhmann

Niklas Luhmann

Born(1927-12-08)December 8, 1927
Lüneburg, Germany
DiedNovember 6, 1998(1998-11-06) (aged 70)
Oerlinghausen, Germany
Alma materHarvard University
University of Freiburg
Known forFunctional differentiation, Double contingency
Scientific career
FieldsSocial theory
Systems theory
Communication theory
InstitutionsUniversity of Bielefeld
Academic advisorsTalcott Parsons
Notable studentsDirk Baecker, Peter Fuchs, Rudolph Stichweh
InfluencesTalcott Parsons, Gregory Bateson, Heinz von Foerster, Gotthard Günther, Humberto Maturana, G. Spencer-Brown,[1]Edmund Husserl, Reinhart Koselleck[2]
InfluencedJürgen Habermas, Ole Thyssen, Harrison White, Armin Nassehi, Dirk Baecker

Niklas Luhmann (December 8, 1927 – November 6, 1998) was a Germansociologist, philosopher of social science, and a prominent thinker in systems theory, who is increasingly recognized as one of the most important social theorists of the 20th century.[3]


Luhmann was born in Lüneburg, Lower Saxony, where his father's family had been running a brewery for several generations. After graduating from the Johanneum school in 1943, he was conscripted as a Luftwaffenhelfer in World War II and served for two years until, at the age of 17, he was taken prisoner of war by American troops in 1945.[4] After the war Luhmann studied law at the University of Freiburg from 1946 to 1949, when he obtained a law degree, and then began a career in Lüneburg's public administration. During a sabbatical in 1961, he went to Harvard, where he met and studied under Talcott Parsons, then the world's most influential social systems theorist.

In later years, Luhmann dismissed Parsons' theory, developing a rival approach of his own. Leaving the civil service in 1962, he lectured at the national Deutsche Hochschule für Verwaltungswissenschaften (University for Administrative Sciences) in Speyer, Germany, until 1965, when he was offered a position at the Sozialforschungsstelle (Social Research Centre) of the University of Münster, led by Helmut Schelsky. 1965/66 he studied one semester of sociology at the University of Münster.

Two earlier books were retroactively accepted as a PhD thesis and habilitation at the University of Münster in 1966, qualifying him for a university professorship. In 1968/1969, he briefly served as a lecturer at Theodor Adorno's former chair at the University of Frankfurt and then was appointed full professor of sociology at the newly founded University of Bielefeld, Germany (until 1993). He continued to publish after his retirement, when he finally found the time to complete his magnum opus, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (literally, "The Society of Society"), which was published in 1997, and translated subsequently in English, under the title "Theory of Society" (volume I in 2012 and volume II in 2013).


Luhmann wrote prolifically, with more than 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles published on a variety of subjects, including law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love. While his theories have yet to make a major mark in American sociology, his theory is currently well known and popular in German sociology,[5] and has also been rather intensively received in Japan and Eastern Europe, including Russia. His relatively low profile elsewhere is partly due to the fact that translating his work is a difficult task, since his writing presents a challenge even to readers of German, including many sociologists. (p. xxvii Social Systems 1995)

Much of Luhmann's work directly deals with the operations of the legal system and his autopoietic theory of law is regarded as one of the more influential contributions to the sociology of law and socio-legal studies.[6]

Luhmann is probably best known to North Americans for his debate with the critical theoristJürgen Habermas over the potential of social systems theory. Like his one-time mentor Talcott Parsons, Luhmann is an advocate of "grand theory," although neither in the sense of philosophical foundationalism nor in the sense of "meta-narrative" as often invoked in the critical works of post-modernist writers. Rather, Luhmann's work tracks closer to complexity theory broadly speaking, in that it aims to address any aspect of social life within a universal theoretical framework - of which the diversity of subjects he wrote about is an indication. Luhmann's theory is sometimes dismissed as highly abstract and complex, particularly within the Anglophone world, whereas his work has had a more lasting influence on scholars from German-speaking countries, Scandinavia and Italy.[5]

Luhmann himself described his theory as "labyrinth-like" or "non-linear" and claimed he was deliberately keeping his prose enigmatic to prevent it from being understood "too quickly", which would only produce simplistic misunderstandings.[7]

Systems theory[edit]

Luhmann's systems theory focuses on three topics, which are interconnected in his entire work.[8]

  1. Systems theory as societal theory
  2. Communication theory and
  3. Evolution theory

The core element of Luhmann's theory, pivots around the problem of the contingency of the meaning and thereby it becomes a theory of communication. Social systems are systems of communication, and society is the most encompassing social system. Being the social system that comprises all (and only) communication, today's society is a world society.[9] A system is defined by a boundary between itself and its environment, dividing it from an infinitely complex, or (colloquially) chaotic, exterior. The interior of the system is thus a zone of reduced complexity: Communication within a system operates by selecting only a limited amount of all information available outside. This process is also called "reduction of complexity". The criterion according to which information is selected and processed is meaning (in German, Sinn). Both social systems and psychic systems (see below for an explanation of this distinction) operate by processing meaning.

Furthermore, each system has a distinctive identity that is constantly reproduced in its communication and depends on what is considered meaningful and what is not. If a system fails to maintain that identity, it ceases to exist as a system and dissolves back into the environment it emerged from. Luhmann called this process of reproduction from elements previously filtered from an over-complex environment autopoiesis (pronounced "auto-poy-E-sis"; literally: self-creation), using a term coined in cognitive biology by Chilean thinkers Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Social systems are operationally closed in that while they use and rely on resources from their environment, those resources do not become part of the systems' operation. Both thought and digestion are important preconditions for communication, but neither appears in communication as such. Note, however, that Maturana argued very vocally that this appropriation of autopoietic theory was conceptually unsound, as it presupposes the autonomy of communications from actual persons. That is, by describing social systems as operationally closed networks of communications, Luhmann (according to Maturana) ignores the fact that communications presuppose human communicators. Autopoiesis only applies to networks of processes that reproduce themselves,[10] but communications are reproduced by humans. For this reason, the analogy from biology to sociology does not, in this case, hold.[11] On the other hand, Luhmann explicitly stressed that he does not refer to a "society without humans", but to the fact that communication is autopoietic. Communication is made possible by human bodies and consciousness[12], but this does not make communication operationally open. To "participate" in communication, one must be able to render one's thoughts and perceptions into elements of communication. This can only ever occur as a communicative operation (thoughts and perceptions cannot be directly transmitted) and must therefore satisfy internal system conditions that are specific to communication: intelligibility, reaching and addressee and gaining acceptance[13].

Luhmann likens the operation of autopoiesis (the filtering and processing of information from the environment) to a program, making a series of logical distinctions (in German, Unterscheidungen). Here, Luhmann refers to the British mathematician G. Spencer-Brown's logic of distinctions that Maturana and Varela had earlier identified as a model for the functioning of any cognitive process. The supreme criterion guiding the "self-creation" of any given system is a defining binary code. This binary code is not to be confused with the computers operation: Luhmann (following Spencer-Brown and Gregory Bateson) assumes that auto-referential systems are continuously confronted with the dilemma of disintegration/continuation. This dilemma is framed with an ever-changing set of available choices; everyone of those potential choices can be the system's selection or not (a binary state, selected/rejected). The influence of Spencer-Brown's book, Laws of Form, on Luhmann can hardly be overestimated.

Although Luhmann first developed his understanding of social systems theory under Parsons' influence, he soon moved away from the Parsonian concept. The most important difference is that Parsons framed systems as forms of action, in accordance with the AGIL paradigm. Parsons' systems theory treats systems as operationally open, and interactive through an input and output schema. Influenced by second-order cybernetics, Luhmann instead treats systems as autopoietic and operationally closed[14][15]. Systems must continually construct themselves and their perspective of reality through processing the distinction between system and environment, and self-reproduce themselves as the product of their own elements. Social systems are defined by Luhmann not as action but as recursive communication. Modern society is defined as a world system consisting of the sum total of all communication happening at once[16], and individual function systems (such as the economy, politics, science, love, art, the media, etc.) are described as social subsystems which have "outdifferentiated" from the social system and achieved their own operational closure and autopoiesis[17].

Another difference is that Parsons asks how certain subsystems contribute to the functioning of overall society. Luhmann starts with the differentiation of the systems themselves out of a nondescript environment. While he does observe how certain systems fulfill functions that contribute to "society" as a whole, he dispenses with the assumption of a prioricultural or normative consensus or "complimentary purpose" which was common to Durkheim and Parsons' conceptualization of a social function[18]. For Luhmann, functional differentiation is a consequence of selective pressure under temporalized complexity, and it occurs as function systems independently establish their own ecological niches by performing a function[19]. Functions are therefore not the coordinated components of the organic social whole, but rather contingent and selective responses to reference problems which obey no higher principle of order and could have been responded to in other ways.

Finally, the systems' autopoietic closure is another fundamental difference from Parsons' concept. Each system works strictly according to its very own code and can observe other systems only by applying its code to their operations. For example, the code of the economy involves the application of the distinction between payment and non-payment. Other system operations appear within the economic field of references only insofar as this economic code can be applied to them. Hence, a political decision becomes an economic operation when it is observed as a government spending money or not. Likewise, a legal judgement may also be an economic operation when settlement of a contractual dispute obliges one party to pay for the goods or services they had acquired. The codes of the economy, politics and law operate autonomously, but their "interpenetration"[20] is evident when observing "events"[21] which simultaneously involve the participation of more than one system.

One seemingly peculiar, but within the overall framework strictly logical, axiom of Luhmann's theory is the human being's position outside any social system, initially developed by Parsons. Consisting of "pure communicative actions" (a reference to Jürgen Habermas) any social system requires human consciousnesses (personal or psychical systems) as an obviously necessary, but nevertheless environmental resource. In Luhmann's terms, human beings are neither part of society nor of any specific systems, just as they are not part of a conversation. Luhmann himself once said concisely that he was "not interested in people". That is not to say that people were not a matter for Luhmann, but rather, the communicative actions of people are constituted (but not defined) by society, and society is constituted (but not defined) by the communicative actions of people: society is people's environment, and people are society's environment. Thus, sociology can explain how persons can change society; the influence of the environment (the people) on the system (the society), the so-called "structural coupling". In fact Luhmann himself replied to the relevant criticism by stating that "In fact the theory of autopoietic systems could bear the title Taking Individuals Seriously, certainly more seriously than our humanistic tradition" (Niklas Luhmann, Operational Closure and Structural Coupling: The Differentiation of the Legal System, Cardozo Law Review, vol. 13: 1422). This approach has attracted criticism from those who argue that Luhmann has at no point demonstrated the operational closure of social systems, or in fact that autopoietic social systems actually exist. He has instead taken this as a premise or presupposition, resulting in the logical need to exclude humans from social systems, which prevents the social systems view from accounting for the individual behavior, action, motives, or indeed existence of any individual person.[22]

Luhmann was devoted to the ideal of non-normative science introduced to sociology in the early 20th century by Max Weber and later re-defined and defended against its critics by Karl Popper. However, in an academic environment that never strictly separated descriptive and normative theories of society, Luhmann's sociology has widely attracted criticism from various intellectuals, including Jürgen Habermas.[citation needed]

Luhmann's reception[edit]

Luhmann's systems theory is not without its critics; his definitions of "autopoietic" and "social system" differ from others. At the same time his theory is being applied or used worldwide by sociologists and other scholars. It is often used in analyses dealing with corporate social responsibility, organisational legitimacy, governance structures as well as with sociology of law and of course general sociology.


Luhmann also appears as a character in Paul Wühr's work of literature Das falsche Buch, together with - among others - Ulrich Sonnemann, Johann Georg Hamann and Richard Buckminster Fuller.

Luhmann owned a pub ("Pons") in his parents' house in his native town of Lüneburg. The house, which also contained his father's brewery, had been in his family's hands since 1857.


A certain number of original books and articles are available for download (see below: External Links).

  • 1963: (with Franz Becker): Verwaltungsfehler und Vertrauensschutz: Möglichkeiten gesetzlicher Regelung der Rücknehmbarkeit von Verwaltungsakten, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot
  • 1964: Funktionen und Folgen formaler Organisation, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot
  • 1965: Öffentlich-rechtliche Entschädigung rechtspolitisch betrachtet, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot
  • 1965: Grundrechte als Institution: Ein Beitrag zur politischen Soziologie, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot
  • 1966: Recht und Automation in der öffentlichen Verwaltung: Eine verwaltungswissenschaftliche Untersuchung, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot
  • 1966: Theorie der Verwaltungswissenschaft: Bestandsaufnahme und Entwurf, Köln-Berlin
  • 1968: Vertrauen: Ein Mechanismus der Reduktion sozialer Komplexität, Stuttgart: Enke
    (English translation: Trust and Power, Chichester: Wiley, 1979.)
  • 1968: Zweckbegriff und Systemrationalität: Über die Funktion von Zwecken in sozialen Systemen, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, Paul Siebeck
  • 1969: Legitimation durch Verfahren, Neuwied/Berlin: Luchterhand
  • 1970: Soziologische Aufklärung: Aufsätze zur Theorie sozialer Systeme, Köln/Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag
    (English translation of some of the articles:
    The Differentiation of Society, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)
  • 1971 (with Jürgen Habermas): Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie - Was leistet die Systemforschung? Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
  • 1971: Politische Planung: Aufsätze zur Soziologie von Politik und Verwaltung, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag
  • 1972: Rechtssoziologie, 2 volumes, Reinbek: Rowohlt
    (English translation: A Sociological Theory of Law, London: Routledge, 1985)
  • 1973: (with Renate Mayntz): Personal im öffentlichen Dienst: Eintritt und Karrieren, Baden-Baden: Nomos
  • 1974: Rechtssystem und Rechtsdogmatik, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer
  • 1975: Macht, Stuttgart: Enke
    (English translation: Trust and Power, Chichester: Wiley, 1979.)
  • 1975: Soziologische Aufklärung 2: Aufsätze zur Theorie der Gesellschaft, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, ISBN 978-3-531-61281-2
    (English translation of some of the articles:
    The Differentiation of Society, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)
  • 1977: Funktion der Religion, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
    (English translation of pp. 72–181: Religious Dogmatics and the Evolution of Societies, New York/Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press)
  • 1978: Organisation und Entscheidung (= Rheinisch-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vorträge G 232), Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag
  • 1979 (with Karl Eberhard Schorr): Reflexionsprobleme im Erziehungssystem, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta
  • 1980: Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik: Studien zur Wissenssoziologie der modernen Gesellschaft I, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
  • 1981: Politische Theorie im Wohlfahrtsstaat, München: Olzog
    (English translation with essays from Soziologische Aufklärung 4: Political Theory in the Welfare State, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1990)
  • 1981: Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik: Studien zur Wissenssoziologie der modernen Gesellschaft II, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
  • 1981: Ausdifferenzierung des Rechts: Beiträge zur Rechtssoziologie und Rechtstheorie, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
  • 1981: Soziologische Aufklärung 3: Soziales System, Gesellschaft, Organisation, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag
  • 1982: Liebe als Passion: Zur Codierung von Intimität, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
    (English translation: Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986, ISBN 978-0-8047-3253-6)
  • 1984: Soziale Systeme: Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
    (English translation: Social Systems, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995)
  • 1985: Kann die moderne Gesellschaft sich auf ökologische Gefährdungen einstellen? (= Rheinisch-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vorträge G 278), Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag
  • 1986: Die soziologische Beobachtung des Rechts, Frankfurt: Metzner
  • 1986: Ökologische Kommunikation: Kann die moderne Gesellschaft sich auf ökologische Gefährdungen einstellen? Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag
    (English translation: Ecological communication, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989)
  • 1987: Soziologische Aufklärung 4: Beiträge zur funktionalen Differenzierung der Gesellschaft, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag
  • 1987 (edited by Dirk Baecker and Georg Stanitzek): Archimedes und wir: Interviews, Berlin: Merve
  • 1988: Die Wirtschaft der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
  • 1988: Erkenntnis als Konstruktion, Bern: Benteli
  • 1989: Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik: Studien zur Wissenssoziologie der modernen Gesellschaft 3, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
  • 1989 (with Peter Fuchs): Reden und Schweigen, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
    (partial English translation: "Speaking and Silence", New German Critique 61 (1994), pp. 25–37)
  • 1990: Risiko und Gefahr (= Aulavorträge 48), St. Gallen
  • 1990: Paradigm lost: Über die ethische Reflexion der Moral, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
    (partial English translation: "Paradigm Lost: On the Ethical Reflection of Morality: Speech on the Occasion of the Award of the Hegel Prize 1988", Thesis Eleven 29 (1991), pp. 82–94)
  • 1990: Essays on Self-Reference, New York: Columbia University Press
  • 1990: Soziologische Aufklärung 5: Konstruktivistische Perspektiven, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag
  • 1990: Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
    (English translation of chapter 10: "The Modernity of Science", New German Critique 61 (1994), pp. 9–23)
  • 1991: Soziologie des Risikos, Berlin: de Gruyter
    (English translation: Risk: A Sociological Theory, Berlin: de Gruyter)
  • 1992 (with Raffaele De Giorgi): Teoria della società, Milano: Franco Angeli
  • 1992: Beobachtungen der Moderne, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag
  • 1992 (edited by André Kieserling): Universität als Milieu, Bielefeld: Haux
  • 1993: Gibt es in unserer Gesellschaft noch unverzichtbare Normen?, Heidelberg: C.F. Müller
  • 1993: Das Recht der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
    (English translation: Law as a Social System, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-19-826238-8)
  • 1994: Die Ausdifferenzierung des Kunstsystems, Bern: Benteli
  • 1995: Die Realität der Massenmedien (= Nordrhein-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vorträge G 333), Opladen 1995; second, extended edition 1996.)
    (English translation: The Reality of the Mass Media, Stanford: Stanford University Press, ISBN 978-0-8047-4077-7)
  • 1995: Soziologische Aufklärung 6: Die Soziologie und der Mensch, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag
  • 1995: Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik: Studien zur Wissenssoziologie der modernen Gesellschaft 4, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
  • 1995: Die Kunst der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
    (English translation: Art as a Social System, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.)
  • 1996: Die neuzeitlichen Wissenschaften und die Phänomenologie, Wien: Picus
  • 1996 (edited by Kai-Uwe Hellmann: Protest: Systemtheorie und soziale Bewegungen, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
  • 1996: Modern Society Shocked by its Risks (= University of Hong Kong, Department of Sociology Occasional Papers 17), Hong Kong, available via HKU Scholars HUB
  • 1997: Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
    (English translation: Theory of Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press)
  • 1998: Die Politik der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp (Herausgegeben von André Kieserling, 2000)
  • 1998: Die Religion der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp (Herausgegeben von André Kieserling, 2000)
  • 1998: Das Erziehungssystem der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp (Herausgegeben von Dieter Lenzen, 2002)
  • 2006, "System as Difference". Organization, Volume 13 (1) (January 2006), pp. 37–57


  1. ^Journal of Sociocybernetics 4, 2 - Universidad de Zaragoza
  2. ^Ziemann, Benjamin (2007). "The Theory of Functional Differentiation and the History of Modern Society. Reflections on the Reception of Systems Theory in Recent Historiography". Soziale System, 13 (1+2). pp. 220–229.
  3. ^Bechmann and Stehr, 'The Legacy of Niklas Luhmann' Society (2002).
  4. ^In an interview Luhmann once said: "... die Behandlung war – gelinde gesagt – nicht nach den Regeln der internationalen Konventionen". Source: Detlef Horster (1997), Niklas Luhmann, München, p.28.
  5. ^ abRoth, S. (2011) Les deux angleterres et le continent. Anglophone sociology as the guardian of Old European semantics, Journal of Sociocybernetics, Vol. 9, No. 1-2, available for download at SSRN
  6. ^Luhmann, N, A Sociological Theory of Law (1985) and Law As a Social System, translated by Klaus A. Ziegert (Oxford University Press, 2003)
  7. ^"Niklas Luhmann: Unverständliche Wissenschaft: Probleme einer theorieeigenen Sprache, in: Luhmann, Soziologische Aufklärung 3: Soziales System, Gesellschaft, Organisation. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, 4th. ed. 2005, pp. 193-205, quote on p. 199.
  8. ^Niklas Luhmann (1975), "Systemtheorie, Evolutionstheorie und Kommunikationstheorie", in: Soziologische Gids 22 3. pp.154–168
  9. ^Niklas Luhmann. (1982). The World Society as a Social System. International Journal of General Systems, 8:3, 131-138.
  10. ^Varela, F., Maturana, H., & Uribe, R. (1974). "Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model". Biosystems. 5: 187–196. doi:10.1016/0303-2647(74)90031-8. 
  11. ^Maturana, H., & Poerkson, B. (2004). From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. Carl Auer International. pp. 105–108. ISBN 3896704486. 
  12. ^Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 2012, pp.56.
  13. ^Luhmann, N. Social Systems. Stanford University Press, 1995, p. 158.
  14. ^Luhmann, N. Social Systems. Stanford University Press, 1995.
  15. ^Luhmann, N. Introduction to Systems Theory. Polity, 2012.
  16. ^Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 2012, pp. 83-99.
  17. ^Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 2. Stanford University Press, 2013, pp. 65ff.
  18. ^Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 2012, p. 6.
  19. ^Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 2012, esp. pp. 336-343.
  20. ^Luhmann, N. Social Systems. Stanford University Press, 1995, Chapter 6.
  21. ^Luhmann, N. Theory of Society, Vol. 2. Stanford University Press, 2013, p. 93.
  22. ^Fuchs, C., & Hofkirchner, W. (2009). "Autopoiesis and Critical Social Systems Theory. In Magalhães, R., Sanchez, R., (Eds.),". Autopoiesis in Organization: Theory and Practice. Bingley, UK: Emerald. pp. 111–129. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Detlef Horster (1997), Niklas Luhmann, München.
  • David Seidl and Kai Helge Becker: Niklas Luhmann and Organization Studies. Copenhagen Business School Press, Copenhagen 2005, ISBN 978-87-630-0162-5.
  • Michele Infante (2012). Teoria sistemica dei media. Luhmann e la comunicazione, p. 1-262, Aracne Editrice, Roma, ISBN 978-88-548-4723-1
  • Michele Infante (2013) : "Codification: signal, canal, noise, encoding and decoding", in New Atlantis. Nature and Human Sciences and Complexity Journal, Year 28th - n° 2 - Jul/Dec. 2013, p. 57-60, ISSN 2281-9495, ISBN 978-88-548-6611-9, DOI: 10.4399/97888548661198
  • Michele Infante (2013), "Information", in New Atlantis, Nature and Human Sciences and Complexity Journal Year 28th - n° 2 - Jul / Dec 2013 p. 61-64, Aracne Editrice, DOI: 10.4399/97888548661199
  • Michele Infante (2013), "Systemic Boundary" in New Atlantis, Nature and Human Sciences and Complexity Journal, Year 28th - n° 2 - Jul/Dec 2013, Aracne Editrice, ISSN 2281-9495, ISBN 978-88-548-6611-9, p. 65-68, DOI: 10.4399/978885486611910
  • Michele Infante (2013). Media Construction of Fair and Social Risk in the Late-2000s Financial Crisis. NEW ATLANTIS, Nature and Human Sciences and Complexity Journal, Year 28th - n° 1- Dec/Jun 2013, Aracne Editrice vol. 1, p. 59-78, ISSN 2281-9495, doi DOI: 10.4399/97888548601559
  • Ilana Gershon (2005) "Seeing Like a System: Luhmann for Anthropologists." Anthropological Theory 5(2): 99-116.
  • Giorgio Manfré, "La società della società", QuattroVenti, Urbino, 2008.
  • Giorgio Manfré, "Eros e società-mondo. Luhmann/Marx Freud", QuattroVenti, Urbino, 2004.
  • Hans-Georg Moeller (2012). The Radical Luhmann, New York.
  • Javier Torres Nafarrete y Darío Rodríguez Mansilla (2008): Introducción a la Teoría de la Sociedad de Niklas Luhmann. México: Editorial Herder.
  • Oliver Jahraus, Armin Nassehi et al. (2012). Luhmann-Handbuch. Leben - Werk - Wirkung, Stuttgart.
  • Georg Kneer and Armin Nassehi (2004). Niklas Luhmann. Eine Einführung, München.
  • Alexander Riegler and Armin Scholl (eds.) (2012) Luhmann's Relation to and Relevance for Constructivist Approaches. Special issue. Constructivist Foundations 8(1): 1-116, freely available at the journal's web site
  • Magdalena Tzaneva (ed.), Nachtflug der Eule. Gedenkbuch zum 15. Todestag von Niklas Luhmann, Berlin 2013.

External links[edit]


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