Observing International Relations: Niklas Luhmann and World Politics

By Mathias Albert; Lena Hilkermeier | Go to book overview

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Introduction

Mathias Albert


Why Modern Systems Theory and International Relations?

The field of International Relations already seems to be characterized by a bewildering variety of theories, both in terms of specific disciplinary approaches as well as in terms of theoretical imports from neighboring disciplines. So why, with the sociological body of theory conceived by and following Niklas Luhmann, bring another theory to the purview of IR? The chapters in this volume are an attempt to provide possible answers to this question, particularly also giving room to answers which in the end conclude that Modern Systems Theory (MST) and International Relations make uneasy bedfellows. The preliminary answer given in these introductory remarks is of a more superficial kind and pertains to the legitimacy of starting with the entire exercise in the first place. Arguably, the study of international relations has always benefited from taking insights from theories of society into account: be it in the more direct connections between realist understandings of international relations on the one and sociological thought on the other hand as in the work of Raymond Aron, for example; be it in the impact which Parsonian theory had on the work of Karl Deutsch and others; or be it, of more recent origin, in the form in which Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration has been put to use by Alexander Wendt in order to conceptualize the international system, or in the way in which Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action has been employed to understand the generation and impact of norms by Thomas Risse and others. Given that notions of an “international society” or indeed a “world society” feature increasingly prominently in attempts to provide comprehensive conceptual frameworks to understand the contours and the dynamics of what can no longer satisfactorily be described as a (“Westphalian”) “international system, ” IR thus seems well prepared to thoroughly think through these notions of a society beyond the state, utilizing its well-established links to sociological theory. Against this background, it comes all the more as a surprise that up to now Luhmann’s work has received scant attention by IR scholars only. Although probably one of the most fervently supported and most polemically opposed contemporary theories of society, not even its most enthusiastic opponents deny that it is one of the (if

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