Theory of Society - Vol. 1

Theory of Society - Vol. 1

Theory of Society - Vol. 1

Theory of Society - Vol. 1

Synopsis

This first volume of Niklas Luhmann's two-part final work was initially published in German in 1997. The culmination of his thirty-year theoretical project to reconceptualize sociology, it offers a comprehensive description of modern society on a scale not attempted since Talcott Parsons. Beginning with an account of the fluidity of meaning and the accordingly high improbability of successful communication, Luhmann analyzes a range of communicative media, including language, writing, the printing press, and electronic media as well as "success media," such as money, power, truth, and love, all of which structure this fluidity and make communication possible. An investigation into the ways in which social systems produce and reproduce themselves, the book asks what gives rise to functionally differentiated social systems, how they evolve, and how social movements, organizations, and patterns of interaction emerge. The advent of the computer and its networks, which trigger potentially far-reaching processes of restructuring, receive particular attention. A concluding chapter on the semantics of modern society's self-description bids farewell to the outdated theoretical approaches of "old Europe," that is, to ontological, holistic, ethical, and critical interpretations of society, and argues that concepts such as "the nation," "the subject," and "postmodernity" are vastly overrated. In their stead, "society"-long considered a suspicious term by sociologists, one open to all kinds of reification-is defined in purely operational terms. It is the always uncertain answer to the question of what comes next in all areas of communication.

Excerpt

On my appointment to the Department of Sociology established at the University of Bielefeld in 1969, I was asked what research projects I had running. My project was, and ever since has been, the theory of society; term: thirty years; costs: none. As far as the time frame was concerned, my estimation of the difficulties was realistic. At that time, the literature in sociology gave little cause to consider such a project possible at all, not least because neo-Marxist precepts blocked any ambition of producing a theory of society. My discussion with Jürgen Habermas was published shortly afterward under the title Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie— Was leistet die Systemforschung? (Theory of Society or Social Technology: What Does Systems Research Accomplish?) [Frankfurt, 1971]. The irony of the title was that neither author wished to stand up for social technology, but we differed on what a theory of society ought to be; and it is symptomatic that the theory of society first came to public attention in the form, not of a theory, but of a controversy.

My initial plan had been to publish the theory of society in three parts: an introductory chapter on systems theory, a treatment of the societal system, and a third part dealing with the most important functional systems of society. The basic concept has remained, but I have had to correct my ideas about the size of the undertaking more than once. In 1984, I brought out the “introductory chapter” in book form under the title Soziale Systeme: Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie (Social Systems: Outline of a General Theory). In essence, my aim was to apply the concept of self-referential operation to the theory of social systems. This aim has not fundamentally changed, although progress in general systems theory and epistemological constructivism has repeatedly offered opportunities to extend it. Some contributions have been published in collections of essays under the title Soziologische Aufklärung (Sociological Enlightenment). Other material is available only in manuscript form or has fed into this book.

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