Theory of Society - Vol. 2

Theory of Society - Vol. 2

Theory of Society - Vol. 2

Theory of Society - Vol. 2

Synopsis

This second volume of Niklas Luhmann's two-part final work was first published in German in 1997. The culmination of his thirty-year theoretical project to reconceptualize sociology, it offers a comprehensive description of modern society. 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. 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 triggered potentially far-reaching processes of restructuring, receives 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 A concluding chapter on the semantics of modern society's self-description bids farewell to the outdated theoretical approaches of "old Europe"-that is, to ontological, holistic, ethical, and critical interpretations of society-and argues that concepts such as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

1. System Differentiation

Since its inception, sociology has been concerned with differentiation. The term alone deserves attention. It stands for the unity (or establishment of the unity) of difference. Older societies, too, had naturally observed differences; they distinguished between town dwellers and country dwellers, between nobles and peasants, between the members of one family and those of another. But they were satisfied to note the differing qualities of beings and ways of life and to form corresponding expectations, as they also did in dealing with things. The concept of differentiation allowed a more abstract approach, and this step toward abstraction is likely to have been caused by the nineteenth-century tendency to see unities and differences as the outcome of processes—whether of evolutionary developments or (as in the case of politically united “nations”) of purposive action.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, this concept of differentiation made it possible to switch from theories of progress to structural analysis, while nevertheless adopting the economist’s belief in the productiveness of the division of labor. Talcott Parsons’s general theory of the action system still built on this concept, which offered a key formula both for analyzing development (increasing differentiation) and for explaining modern individualism as the result of role differentiation. It led Georg Simmel to analyze money, Émile Durkheim to reflect on changes in the forms of moral solidarity, and Max Weber to develop his concept of the rationalization of different orders of life such as religion, the economy, poli-

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