The Theory of Social Functional Systems by Niklas Luhmann


Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014
19 Pages, Grade: 1,2

Excerpt

Table of contents

ABSTRACT

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

References

ABSTRACT

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.

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Details

Title
The Theory of Social Functional Systems by Niklas Luhmann
College
Reutlingen University  (ESB Business School)
Grade
1,2
Author
Year
2014
Pages
19
Catalog Number
V300280
ISBN (eBook)
9783656967521
ISBN (Book)
9783656967538
File size
642 KB
Language
English
Series
Aus der Reihe: e-fellows.net stipendiaten-wissen
Tags
Social functional systems, Niklas Luhmann, structural coupling, communication, binary coding, mass media, Apple, ethics, business ethics, autopoiesis
Quote paper
Ramona Mayer (Author), 2014, The Theory of Social Functional Systems by Niklas Luhmann, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/300280

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