Organizations and functional differentiation

Luhmann identified five kinds of modern social systems—interaction systemsorganizations, function systems, protest movements, and global society itself. I will focus here on organizations, which system theory treats as networks of decisions. In this view, organizations do not consist of people or decision-makers but rather decisions themselves. While human beings, at least for now, are a necessary feature of organizations, the organizations themselves, as social systems, consist of decisions, with decisions being made out of previous decisions and with an eye toward future decisions. Some of the most powerful organizations are governments.

Modern society is unique in the vast number and variety of organizations that are devoted to a single issue. For every kind of suffering or injustice, there seems to be at least one organization devoted to putting an end to it. There are organizations devoted to issues like ending hunger that spread their tentacles into all areas of global society and are irritated by events that would not resonate with the leadership of a centralized or stratified society. Small, efficient organizations can respond to problems long before they ever resonate with a president, prime minister, or parliament.

Organizations only came into their own in the 20th century. The following Google Books ngram for American and British English indicates that interest in organizations or organizing began to build in the 1820s, and there is sharp rise in the attention devoted to organizations in about 1904. The peak was in 1971.


Interest in organizations might arise and society realizes that function systems do a poor job of looking after individuals or alleviating the suffering of human beings and other forms of life. The economy, for instance, doesn’t have a heart. It only recognizes monetary transactions, and in 19th century America human beings were bought and sold like cattle.


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