Stratification, functional differentiation, and double contingency

I’ve written a lot about expectations on this blog because they are central to Luhmann’s theoretical work. For instance, memory is not some kind of storage container device. Memory is an expectational structure. In this sense, memory is forward-looking; it tells us what to expect as we live our lives. It’s a sort of continually running consistency test. Here I want to think about social stratification and functional differentiation.

An advantage of social stratification (advantage not in any kind of moral sense but in the sense of facilitating the reproduction of a system) is that people (or beings engaged in communication) know more or less what to expect from other people. A nobleman expects the commoner to be subservient and deferential. A commoner expects a nobleman to take responsibility for large social issues; he should be responsible, authoritative, and competent. A nobleman expects his son to behave as a nobleman, and so on. In terms of gender stratification, there are expectations for how men and women should act or the responsibilities they should take on, and it’s easy to recognize deviation from expectations.  In other words, expectations are stable.  A king was expected to live like a king, a lord was expected to live as a lord, and a peasant was expected to live like a peasant. This was a society organized around duties and obligations, not rights or individuality or the pursuit of happiness. Actual life might not be stable, but the expectations for life are stable. To learn is to do adjust expectations.

In the Jim Crow American south, there were clear expectations for how blacks and whites should act (blacks, in general, were not to look a white person in the eye, etc.), and deviations on the part of blacks were punished with beatings, rape, lynching, and other sorts of terrorism. Obviously, the whites wanted the blacks to do the hard, dirty work just like the slaves had done. But on a more abstract level, the whites wanted to (or expected to) live in a society with clear social expectations. So the reason the average white person flipped out when Jim Crow was challenged through school desegregation, etc., was that they knew the old world of stable expectations was being dismantled.


These people probably realized that they would not only have to start doing some of the hard work (cleaning their own homes, etc.), but they would also have to start thinking more, which may have been the bigger threat. If you’re white and no longer know what to expect from blacks, you have to actually start thinking about how to interact with them. Cognitive work is called for. The same is true for men when faced with feminism; they no longer know what to expect from women. Who should drive the car, the man or the woman? Who should do the housework and childcare, the mother or the father?

In other words, more kinds of communication become probable. For example, it becomes more probable for a black man to communicate of the basis of equality with a white man. The increased variety makes selections more difficult, just as a greater variety of shoes makes buying a new pair of shoes more difficult.

When one person becomes aware that another person may act in unexpected ways, the sense of double contingency dawns. Each participant in communication is free (or at least has a horizon of possibilities) to respond in unpredictable ways. The black person cannot be relied upon assume a subservient role. Luhmann speaks of the two participants in communication as ego and alter, or self and other, and these don’t have to be two human beings; they can be any two systems.

But society, as the comprehensive social system, can learn. And one way of learning is the through the differentiation of new subsystems. In a functionally differentiated society, all sorts of stratification gets undermined. If you have money to spend, the economy doesn’t care or even notice if you are black or white, male, or female, Protestant or Catholic. Certainly, particular human beings selling things might still care and, therefore, refuse to seat an African American at a lunch counter or sell them a home in a white neighborhood, but the economy as a function system doesn’t care. The education system also doesn’t notice identity markers having to do with race, gender, or social class. All the education system really registers is mastery and non-mastery (or knowing/not knowing, competence/incompetence, literate/illiterate, educated/uneducated). This is how the education system codes its reality.

We can look at all of the function systems in this way. For instance, the healthcare system (or medicine or whatever you want to call it) only differentiates between between illness and absence of illness. The science system only knows evidence-based, verifiable truth and non-truth. Obviously particular teachers, doctors, and scientists can remain racists, sexists, etc., but the communication of the system cannot have these traits. We are not talking about people, but various communication media.

Expectations, clearly, are still important, but each system has its own expectations. The healthcare system, for instance, knows what do expect when a doctor sets a broken bone; it know how long the bone should take to heal. It knows what to expect when a patient’s temperature or pulse is tested, and so on. The education system knows what  to expect in terms of reading competence from a six year old; it doesn’t matter whether the student is white, black, male, female, or carries some other identity marker that might be used within some other context.


  1. Very interesting way to use system’s theory to understand the social (and even psychological) reaction to a change in society’s structure.

    I really like this: “So the reason the average white person flipped out when Jim Crow was challenged through school desegregation, etc., was that they knew the old world of stable expectations was being dismantled.”
    Social systems go a long way in reducing the complexities of the world for the individuals. Profound social changes means the way you understand, perceive and act in the world are challenged, which often leads to anxiety and resistance. This theoretical model opens up ways to connect these ‘micro’ experiences (mediated through the coupling between biological and psychic systems as emotions, for instance) with ‘macro’ social events.


    1. “This theoretical model opens up ways to connect these ‘micro’ experiences (mediated through the coupling between biological and psychic systems as emotions, for instance) with ‘macro’ social events.”

      Yes, I think there’s great potential for interdisciplinary work from a Luhmannian framework. That’s why I find it is fascinating. I am co-editing a book on affect theory and rhetorical persuasion, and one of the contributors (Paul Stenner) has a strong background in Luhmann.


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