Encyclopedia > Niklas Luhmann

  Article Content

Niklas Luhmann

Niklas Luhmann (December 8, 1927 - November 6, 1998) was a German sociologist, administration expert, and social systems[?] theorist, as well as the founder of the sociological systems theory[?].

Luhmann was born in Lüneburg, Germany. He studied law at the University of Freiburg[?] from 1946 to 1949, when he obtained a Dr. jur. degree, and then began a career in the public administration. During a sabbatical in 1961, he went to Harvard to study the sociology of Talcott Parsons, then the world's most influential theorist. In later years, Luhmann dismissed Parsons' systems theory, developing a rivaling approach of his own. Leaving the civil service in 1962, he lectured at the renowned Hochschule für Verwaltungswissenschaften[?] (University for Administrative Sciences) in Speyer, Germany, until 1965, when he was offered a position at the Sozialforschungsstelle[?] of the University of Münster, led by Helmut Schelsky[?]. Two earlier books were retroctively accepted as a PhD thesis and "second book" (habilitation) at the University of Münster in 1966, entitling him to bear the title of Professor. In 1968/1969, he briefly served as a lecturer at the former chair Theodor W. Adorno[?] at the University of Frankfurt[?], being appointed full professor of sociology at the then new-founded University of Bielefeld[?], Germany (until 1993). He continued to publish after his retirement, when he finally found the time to complete his opus magnus, "Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft" [The Society of Society] appeared in 1997.

Luhmann wrote prolifically, with more than three dozen books published on a variety of subjects, including law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love. While his theories have yet to make much of a mark in American sociology, his theory is currently regnant in German sociology, 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 his style makes translations a difficult task, being a challenge even to German readers, including many sociologists.

Luhmann is probably best-known to North Americans for his debate with the critical theorist Jurgen Habermas over the potential of social systems theory.

Like his one-time mentor Parsons[?], Luhmann is an advocate of the "grand theory", aiming 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 generally considered highly abstract and presented in a difficult style. This, the somewhat elitist behaviour of some of his disciples, and the supposed political conservatism implicit in his theory has made Luhmann a controversial figure in sociology. 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.

The core element of Luhmann's theory is communication. Social systems, the elements society consists of, are basically systems of communication. A system is defined by a boundary between itself and its environment, dividing it from an infinitely complex, or chaotic, exterior. The interior of the system is thus a zone of reduced complexity: All communication within a system operates by selecting and processing 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"' (Sinn); both social systems and psychical or personal systems (see below for an explanation of this distinction) operate by processing meaning.

Further, 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 (literally: self-creation), using a term coined in cognitive biology by Humberto Maturana[?] and Francisco Varela. Social systems are autopoietically closed in that they do not reproduce themselves using resources from their environment; instead, they appropriate (i.e. make them "their own") environmental resources first, which are thus becoming systemic resources before they contribute to the system's reproduction.

Luhmann likens the operation of autopoiesis (the filtering and processing of information from the environment) to a program, making a series of logical distinctions (Unterscheidungen). Here, Luhmann refers to the British mathematician George Spencer Brown[?]'s logic of distinctions that Humberto Maturana[?] and Francisco 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.


Social systems can be a company, a class, a family, a party, even a casual conversation. Most prominently, however, the term social system is applied to

Although Luhmann first developed his understanding of social systems theory under Talcott Parsons' influence, he soon moved away from the Parsonian concept. The most important difference is that Parsons used systems as a merely analytic tool to understand certain processes going on in society; Luhmann, in contrast, treats his vision of systems ontologically, saying that "systems exist". 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 non-descript environment. He does observe how certain systems fulfil functions that contribute to "society" as a whole, but this is happening more or less by chance, without an overarching vision of society. Finally, the systems autopoietic closure is another fundamental difference from Parsons' concept. Each system works strictly according to its very own code and has no understanding at all for the way other systems perceive their environment. E.g., the economy is all about money, morals etc. have no independent role here.

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. Consisting of "pure communication", 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 like they are not part of a conversation. Luhmann himself once said concisely he was "not interested in people".

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 "anti-humanistic" sociology has widely attracted criticism from "emancipatory" scientists, including, most famously, Jurgen Habermas.

Main works

  • 1984 Soziale Systeme / Social Systems
  • 1988-1997: A book series: Die ... der Gesellschaft (The ... of Society, e.g. Politics, Religion, Science, ...)
  • 1997 Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (The Society of Society)

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article

... domination by the "coffee oligarchs") Coronelismo (reference to machine politics) Integralism (influnential Brazilian fascist movement in the 1930s) Much of th ...

This page was created in 28.6 ms