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Communication Theory

Communication Theory/Sociological Systems: Wikis Social Systems

When the second World War ended in Europe, seventeen-year-old Niklas Luhmann had been serving as an anti-aircraft auxillary in the German army. He was briefly detained by the Americans. When asked in 1987 to describe this experience, he replied:

Before 1945, the hope was that after the defeat of the compulsory apparatus everything would be right by itself. Yet the first thing I experienced in American captivity was that my watch was taken off my arm and that I was beaten up. So it was not at all as I had thought it would be. Soon you could see that one could not compare political regimes according to a scheme of `good' versus `bad', but that you had to judge the figures according to a bounded reality. Of course I don't want to say that the time of the Nazi-regime and the time after 1945 are to be judged on equal terms. Yet I was simply disappointed in 1945. Yet is that really important? In any case the experience of the Nazi-regime for me has not been a moral one, but an experience of the arbitrary, of power, of the tactics to avoid the regime used by the man of the people. (Luhmann qtd. in Baecker, 2005)

The realization that human realities were subjective appears to have influenced the famous sociologist throughout the rest of his life. This chapter will introduce Luhmann and a few remarkable aspects of his theory.


The type of communication theory I am trying to advise therefore starts from the premise that communication is improbable, despite the fact that we experience and practice it every day of our lives and would not exist without it. This improbability of which we have become unaware must first be understood, and to do so requires what might be described as a contra-phenomenological effort, viewing communication not as a phenomenon but as a problem; thus, instead of looking for the most appropriate concept to cover the facts, we must first ask how communication is possible at all. (Luhmann 1990, p. 87)

The body of work produced by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann probably represents history’s most comprehensive attempt by one man to explain the whole of social existence. The above quotation hints at the essential nature of Luhmann’s thought – no “accepted wisdom” of the social science tradition could be left unexamined. Through more than 50 books and 400 articles, Luhmann applied his sociological systems theory to areas including law, science, religion, economics, politics, love, and art. Sociological systems have become one of the most popular theoretical models in contemporary German sociology, and are also widely applied in fields such as psychology, management science, and literary studies. A primary distinction of Luhmann’s social systems theory is that its focus of analysis is not individuals, groups, behaviors, or institutions, but the communication that occurs within systems. Dirk Baecker, a student of Luhmann’s explains that the systems theory “does away with the notion of system in all its traditional wording” and can carefully examine “every possible assumption of organism, mechanism, and information” – even, recursively, its own structure (Baecker 2001, p. 72). This realignment towards communication represents a significant break with social science tradition. Although Luhmann’s theory (or for that matter, most systems theories) do not lend themselves well to reduction, this chapter will attempt to present an overview of the subject.

Life in Brief

Niklas Luhmann was born in 1927. Following his teenage stint in the army, he went on to study law at the Universität Freiburg from 1946-1949 (Müller 2005). He trained as a lawyer, but found the intellectual constraints of practicing law not to his liking. He decided to go into public administration, as it promised him more freedom to pursue his own ideas (Hornung 1998). Luhmann became a civil servant for the town of Lüneburg in 1954. Although he enjoyed his work, he accepted the opportunity to take a sabbatical leave to study administrative science at Harvard University in 1960. Here Luhmann became a student of systems theorist Talcott Parsons, a thinker who would have a great impact on the development of Luhmann’s theories. After returning to Germany in 1961, Luhmann transferred to a research institute at the Hochschule für Verwaltungswissenschaften (School of Public Administration) in Speyer. Here he was afforded the freedom to pursue his scientific interests, and began his research of social structure.

In 1965, Luhmann studied Sociology for a single semester at the Universität Münster. He was awarded a PhD and Habilitation (a postdoctoral qualification enabling one to teach at the university level) for two books previously published. After briefly occupying Theodor Adorno ’s former chair at the Universität Frankfurt, (where he taught a poorly-attended seminar on the sociology of love), he accepted a position at the newly-founded Reformuniversität Bielefeld (Baecker, 2005).

In 1973 he engaged in a debate with theorist Jürgen Habermas about the role of social theory. This debate was later published as a series of essays in Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie: Was leistet die Systemforschung? (Theory of Society or Social Technology: What can Systems Research Accomplish? ) (1973). The debate with Habermas (whose theory receives a much wider acceptance outside of Germany) served as the Anglophonic world’s major introduction to Luhmann’s thought.

Luhmann published profusely throughout his career, with each book and essay building a foundation for his final theory of society. He retired from this position in 1993, but continued to publish. His magnum opus, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (The Society of the Society ) was published a year before his death in 1997.

Early Influences

By the end of the 19th century, industrialization had profoundly changed the Western world. Sociology had come into its own as a science: Karl Marx published profusely throughout the mid-1800s. Ferdinand Tönnies (1887) described social flows from Gemeinschaft (community, relationship oriented association) toward Gesellschaft (self interest oriented society) in 1887. Emile Durkheim (1893) explored the division of labor a few years later, and opened the first European sociology department in 1896. Max Weber developed new methodological approaches and also founded a sociology department by 1920. While these fathers of the discipline differed greatly in their research and philosophy of society, they all recognized that the function and dysfunction of society is linked to the function and dysfunction of different social components such as classes, institutions, technologies, or individuals.

Durkheim’s Functionalism

Durkheim’s theory of functionalism, in particular, had a lasting impact upon the social sciences. Durkheim argued that “social facts” existed independent of individuals and institutions, and that these facts were the most productive subject for empirical sociological research. Social facts (such as suicide rates (Durkheim 1951), policies, or church attendance) can be measured, interpreted, and tested. Social theories derived from these analyses can then be used to explain social functioning.

The determination of function is. necessary for the complete explanation of the phenomena. To explain a social fact it is not enough to show the cause on which it depends; we must also, at least in most cases, show its function in the establishment of social order. (1950, p. 97)

Durkheim’s functionalism measured social effects within the context of a larger social environment. Durkheim’s 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society focused on labor division in an attempt to describe and explain social order. He elaborated on the manner in which increasing labor division affects the evolution of societies.

Parsonian Social Systems

Talcott Parsons, who would become America’s preeminent social theorist throughout the mid-20th century, drew on Durkheim’s functionalism in the development of his theory of social action. He was also able to integrate concepts from the burgeoning fields of general systems theory (von Bertalanffy, 1950; 1976), information theory (Shannon & Weaver, 1949), and social cybernetics (Wiener, 1948; 1950). Whereas Durkheim was content to develop sociology as a discipline alongside the other social sciences, Parsons became the advocate of a “grand theory” that could subsume the other social sciences. Drawing heavily from Weber’s writings on action (which Parsons translated himself), Parsons’ functionalism was developed as a theory of action. Individuals were understood as acting of their own volition, influenced in their behavior by external forces. As a component of this larger theory, Parsons developed the theory of the social system. His “social system” is generally synonymous with the term “society” and emerges from the interaction of individuals (Parsons, 1951). For the purposes of this chapter only a few features of Parson’s theory can be discussed. These will include his conceptions of the functional imperatives of action and the notion of equilibrium.


Parsons’ social equilibrium is the orderly, smoothly functioning society. It is the result of individuals' acting according to the norms and values that have been provided in their social environment (Parsons, 1951). Parsonian social systems tended towards equilibrium, because “the actions of the members of a society are to a significant degree oriented to a single integrated system of ultimate ends common to these members” (Parsons qtd. in Heyl, 1968). The understanding of equilibrium within different societies was the primary goal of social systems theory, and (as Parsons would have it) sociology as a whole.

Functional imperatives of action

Parsons’ functional imperatives of action were developed as a way to classify the goals that “action systems” (be it individuals, institutions, or groups) would pursue to reach equilibrium. His AGIL model (adaptation, goal-attainment, integration, latent pattern maintenance) remains one of his most famous formulations.

A - The function of adaptation addresses the fact that resources in the environment are scarce, and the system must secure and distribute these resources. For social systems, social institutions are employed to meet these needs. The economy is generally identified as the primary institution that meets this need. G - The function of goal-attainment deals with the system’s desire to use resources to achieve specific situational ends. Political institutions generally fulfill this role for social systems. I – Integration is the most complex and problematic of the functional imperatives. It addresses the need for a system to coordinate and regulate the various subunits within a system. Integration of social systems is often associated with laws and norms, and judicial institutions. L – Finally, the function of pattern maintenance refers to a system’s ability to maintain its own stability, and consists of two distinct components. For social systems, the first component deals with the ability of the system to motivate normative behavior of actors. The second component is involved with the transmission of social values. This imperative might be institutionally satisfied by education and religion (Wallace & Wolf, 1991).

The actions of an individual, for example, could then be compared to the actions of an institution within this framework. The social system, also subject to these imperatives, is in equilibrium because all of its constituent actors are morally impelled to perform socially-expected functions. As might be expected, Parsons’ early work was frequently criticized for failing to account for social change, the opposite of social equilibrium. Parsons eventually developed an evolutionary model of social change that described incremental adjustments occurring through slight disruptions of the social system’s equilibrium.

Luhmann and Social Systems

Sociology is stuck in a theory crisis. (Luhmann, 1995, p. xlv)

Luhmann criticized the sociology of his time as being irredeemably subjective and unable to usefully describe reality. “Action theory is reconstructed as structural theory, structural theory as linguistic theory, linguistic theory as textual theory, and textual theory as action theory” (Luhmann, 1995, p. xlvi). The acquisition of new knowledge, Luhmann argued, was derived from some recombination of the work of classical theorists. Social theory spiraled into higher and higher levels of complexity, each refocusing and realignment of classical theory laying the foundation for ever more complex theoretical iterations. Luhmann set his personal task as no less than the complete theoretical reconceptualization of the discipline within a wholly consistent framework.

Luhmann’s sociological systems theory makes only two fundamental assumptions: that reality exists, and that systems exist (Luhmann, 1995, p. 12). The theory contains a constructivist epistemology, as it claims that knowledge can only exist as a construction of human consciousness. Luhmann does not claim that there is no external reality, but that our knowledge of it will always be subject to the symbolic system we use to represent it.

From these simple assumptions, Luhmann attempts to build a universal social theory:

Theory… claims neither to reflect the complete reality of its object, nor to exhaust all the possibilities of knowing its object. Therefore it does not demand exclusivity for its truth claims in relation to other, competing endeavors. But it does claim universality for its grasp of its object in the sense that it deals with everything social and not just sections. (Luhmann, 1995, p. xlv)

The theory is universal because it seeks to describe and explain itself, along with all other social phenomena. The theory is self-referential.

Luhmann proceeds to clarify three fundamental differences between his theory and previous social theories. First, his theory is universal and can be applied to all social phenomena. Second, his theory is self-referential, and capable of examining itself in its own terms. Third, his theory is both complex and abstract enough to accomplish the previous two goals (Luhmann, 1995, xlviii).

There is no default entry point to Luhmann’s sociological systems theory. The structure of the theory is systemic. This means that the integration of its components is not linear and additive, but circular. The components of the theory do not build upon each other but produce each other. This introduction will attempt to show some of Luhmann’s most innovative developments, including his break from previous social systems theory.

A theory of communication

Luhmann found Parsons’ systems approach inspiring, but noticed several inconsistencies and problems. Stichweh (2000), a student of Luhmann’s, explains that there are two major strands of reasoning that led Luhmann to base his theory on communication rather than action. The first issue was that the actions of psychic systems (minds) and of social systems is difficult to distinguish using action theory. The interaction of the actor and his environment can only be described when the actor and environment are placed on the same analytic level. In Luhmann’s theory, the social system emerges from the communication between psychic systems (minds), and cannot be understood as a separate system “acting” on the individual. The second issue is that action theory cannot differentiate between action and experience. Selection (one of the components of Luhmann’s definition of communication, to be outlined below) can be viewed as either an action on the part of the selecting system, or as information about the state of the selecting system’s environment. The classification of information, Luhmann reasons, is not causally related to actors, and should be classified as experience, not action.

Individuals and the social system

One aspect of Luhmann’s theory that is significantly different from most social theories is that the human individual is not seen as focal to understanding society. In fact, Luhmann’s theory states unequivocally that the individual is not a constituent part of society. This counterintuitive claim begins to make sense if one recalls that Luhmann’s basic social element is communication. An individual is only relevant to society to the extent that they communicate. Whatever does not communicate within the society – such as biological and psychic systems – is not a part of the society. Psychic systems, or individual minds, can think but cannot communicate. In the social systems view, individuals are only loci for social communication.

Autopoietic systems

We will return to the issue of the individual within the social system after further discussion of Luhmann’s notion of “system”. A system is emergent, in that it comes into existence as soon as a border can be drawn between a set of communications and the context of the communication, or the systems environment. A system is always less complex than its environment – if a system does not reduce the complexity in its environment, then it cannot perform any function. A system effectively defines itself by creating and maintaining a border between itself and the environment. In the case of biological systems, this concept of systemic self-generation was first identified and examined by Maturana and Varela (1980). They termed the self-generation of biological systems “autopoietic”. Luhmann believed that autopoiesis could be usefully applied to social systems as well. Luhmann’s autopoietic systems do more than just define their own borders. They also produce their own components and organizational structures. The major benefit of the autopoietic perspective on social systems is that it presents them without ambiguity, and not as something that can be reduced to anything other than itself, such as “consciousness” or a sum of actions (Anderson, 2003). Returning to the issue of the individual, it is again possible to see why individuals cannot be components of social systems – social systems are comprised of communications and therefore produce communications, not people (“Niklas Luhmann,” 2005).

Communication as selection

Another Luhmannian conception that might seem counterintuitive is his subjectless, actionless definition of communication. “Communication is coordinated selectivity. It comes about only if ego fixes his own state on the basis of uttered information” (Luhmann, 1995, p. 154). Luhmann criticizes the “transmission” metaphor of communication because “it implies too much ontology” and that “the entire metaphor or possessing, having, giving, and receiving” is unsuitable (1995, p. 139). For Luhmann, communication is not an “action” performed by an “actor” but a selection performed by a system. This "selection" that results in communication is more similar to Darwin’s “natural selection” than to the everyday usage of the term. A social system generates communication much as a natural environment generates biological traits.

The selection process that Luhmann terms communication is actually a synthesis of three separate selections: the selection of information, the selection of a form, and the selection of an understanding (Anderson, 2003). Following Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) theory of information, Luhmann identifies information as a selection from a “repertoire of possibilities” (1995, p.140). The form of a communication is how the message is communicated. The selection of understanding refers to what should be understood about the message. A critical note here is that understanding does not refer to the message’s reception by a psychic system, but rather the linkage of the message to subsequent communications (Anderson, 2003). The result of this selection process is the creation of meaning, which is the medium of communication in social systems (Luhmann, 1995, p. 140).

Social (and psychic) systems construct and sustain themselves in this way through communication. Communications can only exist as a product of social (and psychic) systems. Society is then a self-descriptive system that contains its own description. Luhmann recognizes that this definition is recursive and antithetical to classical scientific theory (“Soziologische Systemtheorie”, 2005).

Contemporary research

A variety of scholars today employ sociological systems analysis in fields ranging from law to literary theory. The theory is one of the most popular in German sociology, and has a significant following in continental Europe, Japan, and elsewhere (“Soziologische Systemtheorie,” 2005). Many of Luhmann’s former students and colleagues, such as Dirk Baecker, Peter Fuchs, Armin Nassehi, and Rudolf Stichweh, continue to develop the theory.


The preceding can only serve as the briefest of introductions to an enormous body of original thought. A lifetime’s work of thousands of pages of published text cannot be condensed into a few thousand words. This chapter has attempted to trace some of the major theoretical threads which led to the development of Luhmann’s universal theory of sociological systems. It presents some of Luhmann’s most engaging and innovative conceptual formulations. Because Luhmann’s theory represents a major break from the classical social sciences in structure and content, its comprehension requires a significant investment of intellectual effort. This effort is worthwhile, as Luhmann’s meticulous theoretical paradigm provides a useful alternative to other social science traditions.

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More Information
  • Radio Bremen :Radio programs related to Luhmann, including an interview (in German).


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