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Niklas Luhmann

Niklas Luhmann

A prominent German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann (born 1927) developed a general sociological systems theory, which he applied to a wide range of problems.

Niklas Luhmann was born on December 8, 1927, in Lüneburg, Germany. He studied law at the University of Freiburg/Breisgau in the years 1946-1949 and pursued further legal studies in preparation for the German state exam in 1953. He entered the civil service in 1954 and from 1956 to 1962 worked in the ministry of culture of the state of Lower Saxony, overseeing educational reform. He spent 1960-1961 on leave at Harvard University, studying sociology and administrative science. The teaching of the famous Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons would prove to be an especially important influence on Luhmann's later work.

After returning to Germany, Luhmann decided to turn to social science and an academic career. He held research and teaching positions at institutions in Speyer and Dortmund from 1962 until 1968. Having started to publish at a rapid pace in the early 1960s—mostly on topics in the sociology of organizations and of law—he received the doctorate and the so-called "habilitation" (a standard postdoctoral certificate) in sociology from the University of Münster in 1966. In 1968 he became professor of sociology at the University of Bielefeld, a position he held thereafter, with periodic interludes as a visiting professor at several institutions in Germany and the United States.

Holder of a number of honorary degrees, Luhmann received the prestigious Hegel Prize of the City of Stuttgart in 1988. Articles in German newspapers and numerous speaking engagements at professional meetings enabled him to broaden his audience. Although primarily occupied with his own research after 1968, he served as an occasional political adviser on matters of public policy in Germany.

Largely working independently, Luhmann became one of the most prolific and original sociological theorists in the world. His works, which for the most part were written in a relatively dense and scholarly style, drew on disciplines ranging from philosophy to linguistics to information science. They covered a wide spectrum of subjects, including law and love, politics and religion, education and the environment. Based as they were on a thorough familiarity with the tradition of Western thought, Luhmann's writings were often considered unusually complex and abstract by conventional sociological standards. Yet this complexity and abstractness can be reduced considering the basic themes and methods which ran through Luhmann's work and gave it systematic coherence. The proper starting point was the central idea of a "system," which referred to any entity selecting certain possibilities available in its environment, thus becoming less complex and more stable than the environment. This term can be applied to any number of things, ranging from large organizations to brief conversations. Luhmann's general question, then, was: What makes different systems work? How can they maintain themselves and relate to other systems?

Luhmann was especially interested in systems which operate on the basis of "meaning," in particular, systems of human communication. He regarded society not as a network of individuals united by shared beliefs, but rather as the totality of all communications. But in modern societies many kinds of communication were highly "differentiated," which meant essentially they operated independently according to the specific functions they served. The bulk of Luhmann's work consisted of systematic analyses of these kinds of communication (especially those organized in the form of full-fledged institutions, such as education and law) using a set of basic conceptual tools he developed beginning in the 1960s. Economic communication by means of money (rather than exchange in kind) was a case in point; it made possible interaction between buyers and sellers and laid the foundation for a whole economic system with its own specifically economic functions.

Like money, trust also served as a specific medium in modern societies, for example in interaction between professionals and laypersons: on some issues we had to accept the judgment of competent experts without checking its validity. Without some such trust, many social relationships would break down very quickly. Even love was now a specialized kind of communication, made possible by the passion exchanged between individuals who were supposed to treat each other as lovers without regard to their other social roles.

Like many social theorists before him, Luhmann analyzed the implications of the transition from traditional to modern society. In older, stratified societies the various functions that had to be performed were arranged in a hierarchy, from the aristocracy down to the peasantry. By contrast, modern societies have separated various social tasks in a "horizontal" fashion, a pattern Luhmann called functional differentiation. This had many advantages; for example, institutions handled more complex problems and individuals generally enjoyed greater opportunities. But it also raised new problems. Institutions (such as religious ones) that in the past played a broad role must now redefine and limit that role. Also, since all institutions now focused on their own function and performance, certain societal problems may be neglected because everyone can claim it was "none of their business" according to Luhmann, this was one source of the current environmental crisis.

Although Luhmann suggested various applications of his ideas, he did not think sociological theory should assume a political role. He concentrated on developing a deliberately open-ended way of analyzing the world rather than formulating formal models and easily testable propositions. While his work often seems highly technical, it was usually based on simple empirical observations and existing historical materials that Luhmann "translated" into his own abstract theoretical language. Only by means of abstraction, he suggested, could social scientists grasp the complexity of modern society and reduce that complexity at the same time.

The (translated) titles of Luhmann's main publications in German convey the focus and range of his work: Functions and Consequences of Formal Organization (1964), Fundamental Rights as an Institution: A Contribution to Political Sociology (1965), The Goal Concept and System Rationality: On the Function of Goals in Social Systems (1968), Theory of Society or Social Technology (1971; a famous debate with the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas), Societal Structure and Semantics (3 volumes; 1980, 1981, 1989); Social Systems: Outline of a General Theory (1984; perhaps Luhmann's theoretical masterpiece, in which he developed the concept of "autopoietic" or self-producing systems, to be published in English by Stanford University Press), and four volumes of essays under the general title Sociological Enlightenment.

To his credit, Luhmann's biography listed 377 works he had written; the last as late as 1996; twelve of which have been translated into English. He and his work was cited in The Graduate Journal of the Program in Comparative Literature, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia as late as April 1997. The article includes an interview with his friend and colleague, Friedrich A. Kittler.

Luhmann married Ursula von Walter in 1960; she died in 1977. They had two sons and one daughter. He has been a Professor of Sociololgy, University of Bielefeld since 1968.

Further Reading

Some of Luhmann's key works are now available in English translation: Trust and Power (1979), the essay on trust is a good entry point into Luhmann's work; The Differentiation of Society (1982), an excellent collection of essays with a good introduction; Religious Dogmatics and the Evolution of Societies (1984), contains Luhmann's main ideas on religion and a good introduction; A Sociological Theory of Law (1985), an extended treatment of one field in Luhmannian terms; Love as Passion (1986), an intriguing and readable historical and sociological study of love; Ecological Communication (1989), an application of systems theory to environmental problems; Political Theory in the Welfare State (1990), and Essays on Self-Reference (1990). Other translated works included Soziologie des Risikos. English Risk: A Sociological Theory (1993) and Soziale System, English Social Systems (1995). □

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