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Table of contents

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: 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: 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 [15] [16]. 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 [17] , and individual function systems such as the economy, politics, science, love, art, the media, etc. 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 priori cultural or normative consensus or "complimentary purpose" which was common to Durkheim and Parsons' conceptualization of a social function [19]. 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 [20].

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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" [21] is evident when observing "events" [22] 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. 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: 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: 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. 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. 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. The house, which also contained his father's brewery, had been in his family's hands since A certain number of original books and articles are available for download see below: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Niklas Luhmann Niklas Luhmann. Probleme einer theorieeigenen Sprache, in: Soziales System, Gesellschaft, Organisation.

Soziologische Gids 22 3. The World Society as a Social System. International Journal of General Systems, 8: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model". From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. Theory of Society, Vol. Stanford University Press, , pp. Stanford University Press, , p. Stanford University Press, The state is the most important form through which the political system describes itself. While the idea and the semantics of statehood can draw on a long tradition, the functional differentiation of society means that politics is strongly tied to decisions made by the state.

While semantic and conceptual leftovers can be found until the present, this also means that the state and the political system are strongly dissociated from other realms in the sense of the operative autonomy of function system. If there is one main point of reference for the state, it is now the economic system that needs to be controlled and regulated.

Revolutions highlight the extreme degree of contingency of state-based political orders. The stabilization of the state as the most important form through which the political system describes itself, and that solves the problem of channeling the use of violence in society, is achieved through its double specification as nation state and welfare state.

In relation to the former, Luhmann identifies the French Revolution as a decisive move through which authority by the state is transformed from indirect to direct rule. A form of rule as a relation between rulers and subjects mediated by the estates, is replaced by a relation between the state and its citizens: On the other hand, the form of the welfare state that emerges as a powerful self-description in the political systems mostly after the Second World War universalizes politics by defining an increasing part of society and problems originating in other function systems as political problems—meaning problems that politics or the state might not be able to solve, but that are presented as problems that can be solved:.

The welfare state is like the attempt to inflate cows in order to get more milk. The founding paradox now reappears in new shape: It is with this redefinition of insolvable problems into politically solvable problems that the welfare states secures its own autopoiesis. It is guaranteed that there is always something to do. Luhmann, , pp. The political system, like the other function systems, observes its environment and the systems in its environment on the basis of its own code. This observation includes that of decisions made in other function systems, but these can be and will be observed in other function systems in ways that might not correspond to the effect originally expected to go along with that decision.

In short, political steering takes place all the time. Its effects are incalculable, however, which of course defeats most of the rationale of steering ascribed to it in the political system in the first place.

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This is not to say that steering will necessarily be unsuccessful in this sense. It means that it is very difficult if not impossible to say if and under which condition it could and will be successful. These paradoxes cannot be resolved. This unfolding of paradoxality plays an important role in ensuring that communication in the political system can continue although Luhmann remarks that only a relatively small part of political communication deals with this self-description of its unity.

While building on pre-existing semantics, this unfolding of paradoxality in relation to the notion of representation takes place by legitimizing political authority within the political system and not in relation to some source external to that system, for example a monarch with divine authority. The figure of sovereignty serves as a vehicle for interrupting this kind of paradoxical communication.

In an autopoietic political system, the figure of sovereignty ensures that paradoxical communication does not lead to blockades, but that such blockades are interrupted frequently and communication can continue. This also pertains to democracy: However, this is probably the case primarily because it changes a range of quite fundamental parameters of established traditions in political and social thought.

Niklas Luhmann

The basic theoretical design and the overarching question of how communication continues constitutes a first major departure from theories that ask about the relations between people or even the nature of society, and it results in a far more complex theory design than is common in social and political theory. The sheer scope of subjects covered by Luhmann in his writings adds to this complexity. Additionally, the distinction between different orders of observation first-order observation and second-order observation as observation of how observers observe challenges established notions of theory as well as the distinction between theoretical and empirical research.

This becomes particularly visible when it comes to the issue of political theory that is seen to operate on a completely different plane than a theory of society. While a theory of society includes a conceptualization of the political system, political theory is primarily an abstract form through which the political system observes itself. In so doing, modern political theory is part of the formation of an operatively closed function system of politics.

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One could argue at length about whether and to what degree such a distinction holds for a range of political science contributions that could be seen to serve both functions, but that is a reflection upon politics in a wider social environment as well as being political theory. However, regarding a long tradition of political theory this observation is probably correct, and political theories serve a reflective function in the political system comparable to, for example, legal theory in the legal system, or theory of science in the scientific system.

The former in fact would be unthinkable without the latter.

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This, incidentally, also pertains to his treatments of function systems other than politics. He limits himself to observing that world society is primarily differentiated functionally, and that internally in particular the political system and the legal system remain differentiated into segments territorial states and national legal systems. The only marginal attention that Luhmann has paid to non-Western regions of the world has inspired a debate on whether functional differentiation applies equally throughout world society see Japp, The consequences would be of a quite fundamental nature for the entire theory if an argument could be made that there are regions on the globe in which particularly stratification still or: Scholars thus far have reacted to this issue primarily by pointing out that functional differentiation can absorb an extremely high degree of structural rigidity, without this challenging the primacy of functional differentiation see, notably, Stetter, His main observation in this matter is that the political system is primarily differentiated into segments that is, territorial states.

This observation is fully consistent with the conceptualization of the political system of world society being primarily differentiated into segments. However, it also leads to the somewhat counterintuitive view of a political system of world society without world politics save in the form of semantics. As with the issue of a regional variation mentioned above, however, it can be suspected that on the one hand this oversight is not due to systematic theoretical reasons, but probably more due to his very limited exposure to the subject of international politics and the corresponding literature.

On the other hand, this is one of the points at which important connections to other fields of study in this case: International Relations can be established. In his work Niklas Luhmann offers a theory and a perspective on politics that is firmly set within his theory of society. The difficulty that some find in relating to his works most likely primarily stems from the fact that he offers a theory that prima facie looks radically different from most ways of thinking about society in the tradition of classical sociology.

The sharp distinction between a theoretical perspective on politics and political theory provides a challenge for most students of politics, and particularly political scientists. It provides a wealth of innovative ways to think about politics in the terms of his theory and to reflect upon basic terms associated with politics in a theoretically and historically rich fashion. The wealth of literature that critically deals with and builds on his thoughts about politics attests to that. A Theory of World Politics. Niklas Luhmann and World Politics. Niklas Luhmanns politische Soziologie.

The Differentiation of Society. The Paradoxes of Differentiation.

Key Sociologists

Bringing Sociology to International Relations. World Politics as Differentiation Theory. Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie: Was leistet die Systemforschung? Soziale Systeme , 13 , — Politische Theorie im Wohlfahrtsstaat. The Codification of Intimacy. Political Theory in the Welfare State. Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft 2 vols. Published in translation as Theory of Society 2 vols. Stanford University Press and Die Politik der Gesellschaft. World Society and the Middle East: Reconstructions in Regional Politics. All translations in this text are my own.

Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Publications Pages Publications Pages. Oxford Research Encyclopedias Politics. Luhmann and Systems Theory. Don't have an account? Introduction Niklas Luhmann is one of the most pre-eminent social theorists of the twentieth century.

In This Article

Theory of Society Luhmann remarks that when the Faculty of Sociology at Bielefeld University, newly established in , asked its professors to report on the research projects they were working on. Types of Social Systems Society is based on innumerable interaction systems. Social Differentiation and Society While modern society is characterized by functional differentiation, this does not mean that historically antecedent forms of social differentiation—segmentation and stratification—would not be present as well.

Systemic Signatures of Politics: Political Power While Luhmann in his writings deals a lot with power as a medium in general, it is important to note that while the medium of power is not specific to the function system of politics, it is only in that system that power becomes political power and serves as the symbolically generalized medium of communication.