Luhmannian Theory and Network Society Theory

This is an excerpt of a paper I am working on.

There are many versions of systems theory and, obviously, not all systems theorists follow the Luhmannian approach. Many systems theorists study the linkages between people and information and communication technology (ICT) and argue that informational control is incompatible with global ICT.  Two important early texts in this vein are Harrison C. White’s Identity and Control: A Structural Theory of Social Action (1992) and Manual Castells’ The Rise of Networked Society (1996). More recently, in Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, Castells (2012) takes up the subject of networked social movements with reference to the Arab Spring and other movements.  We shall refer to this broad theoretical perspective as network society theory, or NST. Two researchers in this field, Livingston and Asmolov (2010), argue that the global information network is unsettling traditional International Relations theory that focuses on state actors. Livingston and Asmolov further argue that global ICT poses severe challenges to Chinese state censorship. We concur. Global ICT does indeed pose severe challenges to state censorship, but for different reasons than those put forward by network society theorists.

The main difference between NST and Luhmannian social systems theory is that Luhmannian theory begins with communication, or social systems, rather than human or state actors. Being a sociologist, Luhmann takes society, rather than human beings, as his point of departure. While network society theorists look at linkages between human actors and ICT, or how ICT connects human actors in a global communication network, potentially empowering human actors and undermining authoritarian politics, Luhmannian theory looks at autonomous, self-reproducing social systems that are not restricted by or founded on human cognition. The theoretical fault line runs between those who maintain that global ICT naturally or inevitably empowers human agents and social movements (e.g., Cassels, Clay Shirky) and, of course, the skeptics (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell, Evgeny Morozov). The skeptics point to the many ways authoritarian regimes have found to adapt to the changing media landscape. We will not repeat the optimistic or pessimistic arguments on NST. Rather, we seek to take the issue to another level by arguing that both views, even those that claim to be post-humanist, are ultimately anthropocentric and, therefore, have limited explanatory power.

Although NST, of course, focuses on technology or nonhuman systems, from the Luhmannian perspective, it is still anthropocentric. For Luhmannian theory, “human beings are the environment of social systems” (1995, p. 240). Social systems have evolved with their own cognitive capacity that is qualitatively different from the cognition of human beings. In other words, social systems, including the function systems of the economy, the law, politics, the mass media, science, education, and art, each have their own intelligences. Human beings are a necessary precondition for these social systems, but once the systems have emerged they are autonomous and not dependent on human beings or human intelligence. We are certainly not arguing that the NST is misguided or does not yield important knowledge. But we wish to turn attention away from human agents and toward social systems and ask a different set of questions.

When we say that social systems have their own cognitive capacity that is qualitatively different from the cognition of human beings, we mean social systems carry out operations that do not arise directly from human actions or human motives. For instance, the legal system’s only function is to draw distinctions between the legal and the illegal. A law firm, in contrast, is an organization (not a function system) with a particular purpose or purposes, which may be to make a profit or to make the world a more just place. Similarly, an attorney working for a law firm may have motives such as promoting justice, getting rich, becoming famous, advancing human rights, or something else. But the motives of the law firm and those of the attorney are not the motives of the legal system. And, in fact, the legal system does not have any motives per se. It simply draws and redraws the legal/illegal distinction and thereby reproduces itself (its difference from everything else). The moment it stops drawing that distinction, is ceases to exist.

To take another example, the mass media system’s only function is to distinguish between new information and what is already known (or non-information). A journalist working for a mass media organization might have motives similar to the attorney, but those aren’t the motives of the mass media system. A newspaper, television network, website, or movie studio will also have motives for existing; typically, it is make money. A person can be expelled (fired, excommunicated, kicked out, etc.) from an organization if she doesn’t contribute to the organization’s purpose. But the motives of organizations and people do not drive a social system’s operations. In other words, a social system is not the extension or product of human or organizational goals or purposes. People may attempt to use the mass media to promote democracy or some kind of emancipation, but the mass media system is not cognizant of these goals and may not cooperate


  1. “social systems that are not restricted by or founded on human cognition.”

    I see it a bit differently:
    (1) Yes, Luhmann focuses on emergent social systems, but this is a simplification for didactic reasons. According to Peter Fuchs, we have to deal with the “conditioned co-production” of three systems:
    * the psyche (psychic system) processing non-meaning-based and meaning-based perceptions
    * social systems processing communications while acting as behavioral coordination mechanisms disseminating meaning
    * consciousness systems emerging from the interplay of perceptions in social situations where there´s a certain pressure for coordinating behavior. And without the meaning-processing of consciousness systems (based on the generalization of perceptions), communication wouldn´t be possible at all.

    So, communication depends “completely” on the functions of psychic and consciousness systems. But the emergence of the social and its dynamics can´t be reduced to these systems.
    In other words: Whatever happens in communication, “human minds” (esp. their psychic and their consciousness systems) have to be involved in the conditioned co-production process.
    So, the social dimension is less “the point of departure” of N. Luhmann, but just a sort of “sociological simplification”.

    Apropos “human actors / beings / individuals” as “point of departure”:
    Irrespective of the approach (common sense, social scientific, etc.), this is a pop-sociological “short-cut” or “fiction”.

    Why? When it comes to actions, interactions, communications, discourses, social practices, etc., the full complexity of the body (brain and other body cells, bacteria in our gut, etc.),
    the myriad of perceptions and thoughts (including memories, emotions, associations, etc.) have to be abstracted away.
    If organisms (insects, fish, birds, mammals / humans) had to deal with the full complexity of their bodies, life (as we know it) would be impossible.
    So, “human actors / beings / individuals” are always abstractions or simplistic products of (communicative) attribution processes.


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