The Paradox of System Differentiation and the Evolution of society by Nikolas Luhmann

In Alexander (ed) 1990

Notes taken by Erik Empson

For Luhmann we 'require an all encompassing concept of society' because sociology as a discipline or a unified separate domain of research 'can be justified only be means of the unity of its own object of research'. And yet society is a differentiated unity driven by the differentiation of its parts. Totality then, is and yet is not, as 'the unity of the system finds no place within the system'.

"The representation of the system within itself must specify both its necessary position in it and its types of operations and, at the same time, make clear that it is not identical with what it represents...the introduction of the system within itself is therefore a differentiation itself." (p. 410)

This questions the speculative types of totality where the whole is more that its parts. The basic problem or paradox for Luhmann is the generality of the system and the particular actions within that generality not directly reducible to it. We could say ideology arises to attenuate this, in forms like the 'general will' or at the level of scientific explanation. Basically the problem is to reconcile the system and its concrete development.

An example is given of the public private distinction in C18th. The public is held to be the whole (p. 492) made up of private individuals exercising reason (so here a freedom within the private is the possibility of the 'public').

To this domain of inquiry only sociology is appropriate, but one that after Marx, Comte and Spencer has become a 'structural description of society'. But Luhmann knows well the proper complications of the interiority of the sociological observer to his object that makes his conceptions of it necessarily appear as external:

"statements about system have meaning only when systems distinguish themselves from their environment, and reproduce themselves to exclusion of environment" (p. 417)

Luhmann clearly follows Parsons ( the 'midwife of modern sociology' according to Outhwaite) when he says:

"the evolution of differentiation means that each of the subsystems is guided primarily by its own function and thereby more clearly distinguished from others" (p. 415) and it is of "decisive importance for the constitution of complexity..."

1) Unity of whole replaced by differentiation between system and environment

2) System enjoys factual and regulative autonomy from environment

3) Illegible

4) 'the only point of departure for an observation - for the reduction of complexity is the system of its own system reference' (p. 418)

System differentiation is system formation applied to itself.

'The formation of subsystems reconstructs the whole system within systems....thus, every subsystem of society, together with its internal social environment is the whole society."

In the unity of the entire society as the unity of the totality of all systems environments, differences within the system slip from view. (p. 420)

Through subsystems society reflects on itself - 'the system is forced into reflection' (p. 419) and yet there is no 'total plan' to system differentiation.

Subsystems restructure environment as they refer to it as 'society for them' - so for instance for Luhmann it seems a wealthy family have a degree of autonomy.

'a complexity has to be found to compensate for the increase of complexity that accompanies increased differentiation' (p. 421)

For differentiated unity to occur (in Durkheim + Parsons) 'requires relatively simple forms that abstract from details and reduce the complexity accompanying differentiation.' (p. 422)

Integration based around norms leads to the positing of contrapositions - Luhmann undermines the notion that 'normative claims can be addressed to the unity of society' - so must move on from symbolic integration/ common values &c.

Normative integration of society is a dependent variable based on the form of differentiation even though subsystems are interdependent with other subsystems in the environment.

Differentiation is dependent on primary differentiation. Luhmann elaborates an evolutionary schema which involves 'empirical types of social evolution' that progress from equality to inequality (p. 425 - 427):

1) Segmentary difference - equality of subsystems

2) Difference - establishment of centre/ periphery (hierarchy?)

3) Stratificatory Difference - inequality amongst subsystems - strong system meaning?

4) Functional Difference - role inequality - shared meaning breaks down

This evolutionary theory has correspondences with biology and systems theory. What is interesting about it however is that it does not begin from an initial unity but from difference. This is because there is no meta-subject that coordinates the system. Apparently this allows for accounts of accident and contingency not tied to teleology.

It is not capitalism that distinguishes modern society but the form of differentiation (same principle of evolution from segmentary to stratified difference). So not so much the Protestant ethic - but the separation from religion etc to a concern with the economy.

In the unity of the old order 'the continuum of rationality combining being, thought, and action, the unity of religious grounded morality, and the unity of the hierarchical order of social positions promotes the dissolution of the old order" (p. 434) "because the increase of complexity makes unity brought into focus at the boundaries of functional systems which thus provokes crisis or appears as crisis." (p. 435)

Other notes from: The differentiation of Society – Columbia University Press 1982

Luhmann insists that the 'principal achievement of systems theory is to view the system as different from the environment rather than follow other approaches that collapse the two into a whole'. (p. 229)

System differentiation is a 'structural technique for solving the temporal problems of complex systems situated in complex environments'. ( p. 230)

System differentiation is 'a replication, within a system, of the difference between a system and its environment.' Thus differentiation is a 'reflexive form of system building.' (p. 231)

Growth follows internal disjunction through the production of 'diverse internal versions of the entire system, giving increased differentiation, increase in varitation and choice.'

"For highly differentiated societies...the world can be meaningful only as an indeterminate horizon for further elaboration. It cannot be concieved as a finite and bounded set of things and events" (in the classical sense of a universitas rerum or aggregatio corpurum)

little site banner