with “the social” we tend to take its definition and mutual
understanding for granted. However, this is far from being reasonable.
problem is given by the fact that the use of the term is first and foremost
dealing with two dimension,
the one of witch is the perspective on relations between people = be it
on an individual, the group or a wider level. As such the term is somewhat
qualified in further orientation. For example we may analyse the economic
relation, however as such this would be very much as well a social relationship
– and as such the term is a generic one.
This strand of the meaning gets for example clear when we look at Marx characterisation of the mode of production – basically concerned with the material and economic dimension of the living together he states:
the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are
indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which
correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive
forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic
structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political
superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.
The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and
intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that
determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines
Going on to the second meaning we can say that social relations in
the first meaning can in some cases be very "unsocial" in the second meaning. This
means that the second dimension of the term social is very normative and
actually underdetermined. Here, the notion is vary vague, positive in character
and generally oriented along solidarity, mutuality, support and the like.
despite the problem that we have to be aware already of the two general
dimensions of “the social” the next consideration brings us to
another difficulty when we look at the second meaning and try to specify this.
Luhmann sees the social – in this dimension – as a “matter between pity
and sympathy respectively on the one hand and a political-ideological
programme” on the other hand. This can be flanked from the interpretation as
it is given by Baudrillard who defines it as an “invention of history”.
I want to go a little bit into detail in looking at Luhmann’s approach. It is,
however, not so much the substantial side which will be clarified – actually Luhmann had basically not been interested in this dimension, instead this had
been for him more a concomitant feature, not specifically determined by what he
was interested in – even, of course, his elaboration pointed on many features
that finally determined the real processes and thus the substantial side.
view is characterised by taking actually the first meaning of the social as a
matter going through all his work. What he actually was interested in was the
constitution of social systems. And as such the basic principle of defining
social systems was based on the idea that he took communication as modus
operandi of social systems. We can say that any communication constitutes a
social system and a social system only exists if and as long as communication
takes place. Even if it is only in later years, Luhmann consequently transfers
the mainly in biology – by Maturana – developed concept of autopoiesis into sociology. This is based on the fact that communication is
developed as pure operation of self-producing and self-reproducing systems –
and this is nothing else than autopoiesis.
regard of the constitution of the social this means that it is defined without
substance, i.e. solely as formal procedure.
the system of society is not characterised by a specific “character”
(Wesen), let alone by a morale but solely by the operation that produces and
reproduces society. This is communication.’ (Luhmann)
here we can categorise Luhmann’s systems theory as constructivist rather than
functionalist. This is underlined by a brief review of the principle of
differentiation we know already from the notes on the Principles of Society
Building. The principles of differentiation as they had been introduced and as
they are largely based on the systems theory as it had been elaborated by
differentiation on grounds of stratification
in particular the functional differentiation are distinct from the principle of
the division of labour.
division of labour, implying a certain pattern of division of power constitutes
society in the view of other social theories, not least of Marxism. We know
already the view on soci(et)al formations. It is the mode of production that
provides a kind of threat running through all other relations – determining
them, even if it leaves space for “independent” action. However, it is here
where the definition of “freedom as insight in the necessities” gains its
meaning. Freedom is not gaining independence, not the voluntary determination of
action and development. Rather it is the active appropriation of the natural and
of society, if we want to refer to communication as founding and shaping
principle follows the social laws of production, and as such society building is
substantially focussed. In other words, a specific form of living together,
focuses in particular around individual interests that are “communicated” by
means of exchange of commodities. Here it has to be emphasised that this
individualisation is enforced by the market principle as this requires
individual production which is only ex post “socially” realised, namely
realised by selling the product on the market. “Communication” is thus not
formally determined. Instead the private interests and the private labour are
mutually related on the market via money. Power, and even violence are means to
generalise these private interests. This factor is fundamentally contradicting
Luhmann’s approach who does not accept violence as “communication”, i.e.
as part of social systems, as these are only constituted by communication.
Accepting violence as a matter of concern of societies, even more: as
constitutive (remember: Weber: The power of the state as only legitimate power)
opens the view on the formation of classes – social dividing lines that are
typically not accepted by the main stream traditional and contemporary
the problem with Luhmann’s approach there remains an important factor, which
can up to a certain point well be utilised for a critical theory of society.
if Luhmann suggests that systems are “open” he actually describes them as
closed systems. In particular in late elaborations – above all after
introducing the concept of autopiesis – external factors are reduced on
“noise”, more confirming than disturbing the internal processes of
self-production and self-reproduction. By this, (sub-)systems are basically
getting independent from each other – again we see what systems theory
understands as “society without top and without centre”. He replaces the
control and analysis of power relationships by `formal structures of
communications, and what he calls “Anschlussfaehigkeit”, i.e. the
“possibility to connect/to link”.
based on communication in autopoitic processes (sub-)systems are paradoxically
getting as well independent from the individuals – it is communication and
individuals are only relevant as carrying out the communication as it is given
by the system requirements. Consequently, for Luhmann the individual is not part
of the social system. And: Appropriation of the natural and social environment
does not take place.
we than would have to say with Luhmann
ORDER DOES NOT DERIVE FROM THE ORDER OF THINGS THEMSELVES. INSTEAD IT DERIVES
FROM THE ORDER OF SIGNS.
questionable order of signs is given by generalised media, means of communication that steer
the communication in certain areas of social life – we can name money, law,
truth and love as examples. As generalised media they provide binary codes –
and it is here that the marguerite comes into play: the counting of the leaves
of the blossom by the potential lover, the admirer who does this to establish
weather s/he loves him/her or not: she loves me – she does not love me – …
And it is only this alternative, the binary pattern that characterises the
communication. The question, as it is answered by the number of the leaves has
to be clarified before the admirer comes to the core. In other words this means:
there is nothing between the Yes and the No. And thus there is no development.
means as well, that there cannot be any “true” or “untrue” love; there
cannot be any “lawful” or “unlawful money” … ; and that finally
there can be no true development.
; and that finally there can be no true development.
here, Luhmann arrives, indeed, at a kind of “open systems” as there are in
the view of his systems theory no limitations for anyone to participate in any
one system. As he states:
wants to participate in any of the different systems of communication is free to
do so. The only condition is to accept the specific medium and to follow the
codes and programmes of the communication. In other words not to buy in the
legal system or to politicise in the system of fine arts.
in consequence the space for action is – paradoxically and drastically –
limited. With the limitation on the binary code of communication – and thus
action – Luhmann arrives consequently at the statement:
could be different, but I cannot change anything.
other words: Nothing can and should be
changed as long as it is not possible to replace all functions that are
inherent. The extremely high degree of contingency, of individual freedom in a
the suggested open society that is supposedly without top and without centre is
from behind closed again, individual freedom is being reduced on individual
action without any consequences – social action is becoming solely individual
action, caught in what Max Weber – referring to bureaucracy – would have
called an iron cage.
other words and with a view on exclusion and inclusion: Autopoiesis constitutes
as communicative processes and the structures of meaning – thus the patterns
of inclusion and exclusion – change completely. The a-centric, functionally
differentiated society cannot avail of a mechanism that socially defines
positions according generally accepted decisions and standards. Inclusion and
Exclusion follows the specific rules of the individual system; each system has
its own criteria, following the own, system specific codes and programmes. What
is mentioned here on the level of the system has as consequence the
individualisation of the actors, supposedly constituting contingency. Exclusion,
if it can be found, is not based on structural mechanism of the society – and
it is latest here that systems theory – as any other theory based on
“communication” as constitutive for society building – is highly
contestable. What actually happens is that social processes as appropriation of
the real world are being faded out. As Marx claimed that he put idealist
dialectics, namely Hegel, back on the feet it is the debatable merit of
“communication theory” of any line of thought that it turned social
relationships back into the old position – head down.
is feared that the Marguerite will be wither before all leaves are picked –
the bud won’t open at all, knowing that the only perspective is to get lost in
a society that is too complex to be changed, too fuzzy and borderless to provide
a way out of or protecting against risks, too wide to allow individuals to avail
of any social meaning. Social problems are reduced and seen as negligible
narratives of individuals. Social solutions are replaced by aiming at the
individual – and nolens volens the victim is blamed as being
responsible for not communicating in accordance with the given standards.
In consequence, Luhmann would accept deviance as stabilising difference. Non-conformism in which ever form is not threatening. Rather it closes a system by providing “meaning”, the sense and understanding of belonging. The "noise" of deviant behaviour is actually necessary to enhance integration of s social system. Actually and besides all criticism in connection with Luhmann's systems theory this can clearly be seen in reaction to "catastrophies" of different kind. The supposed target of attacking a political system and weakening its power by the attacs of September 2001 actually resulted in a renewal of American nationalism and the building of "solidarity" within several groups of the American people.
To reject this position of systems theory is, however, in no way the rejection of fundamental changes. On the contrary, the position taken here is that systems theory systematically fails to analyse connections and, in particular, those that go beyond the phenomenological level, that elaborate essential “structures”. Rather, Luhmann – as communication theory in general – disguises these and claims that increasing complexity is the problem of social development and the main challenge for action. As already said: The appropriation of the real world is being faded out. But this means nothing else than the elimination of opportunities of action – the paradox is that the increasing complexity leads to an artificial under-complexity by focusing on – individual and systemic – self-reproduction.