Social structures are expectations

Social structures are typically thought of as “patterned social arrangements in society” or “the most basic, enduring, and determinative patterns in social life” (Dictionary of the Social Sciences). But in Luhmannian theory, social structures are not things like family relations, friendships, organizational chains of command, etc. They are expectations. Social structures are expectational structures. We can reduce it to one question: What comes next?

What does this fact suggest for the concept of structural coupling? A simple example of structural coupling is when a physician is paid for treating a patient. Here the medical system and the economy structurally couple.  The doctor expects to be paid, and the patient expects to be charged (or expects her insurance company to be charged). But neither doctor nor patient expects to discuss the doctor’s while in the examining room. That is left to nonmedical office staff. The medical function system only distinguishes between illness and non-illness (or normal health).  Yet, the medical system could not function without payment–unless everything else in the society was free.

The reason, according to this view, that social structures do not consist of patterned social arrangements is that society does not consist of people; it consists of communication.

All of this reflects the Luhmannian emphasis on time. For instance, he reframed the study of law in terms of time, arguing that the function of the legal system is the stabilization of normative expectations.


  1. Great post, short and straight to the point.

    I tend to think about structures as the non-random, extremely selective way that social systems reproduce themselves. The structures exist as expectations because there’s a very limited number of possible events that can follow the previous one that happened. Following your medical appointment example, both the doctor and the patient (which are already identities that emerge from social system) know what they’re supposed to say and do in that situation. Their behaviours appear as a “patterned social arrangement”, but it only because the socially structured expectations direct them there.

    I’m very impressed by this blog, and as a sociology scholar and systems theory enthusiast, I’m very interested in contacting the author. If that’s possible, let me know


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