Structural Insecurities/Instabilities

The use of conflicts in communication leads to expectable, that is, structural, insecurities. A society that constructs greater complexity must therefore find forms for creating and tolerating structural insecurity.

(Luhmann, Social Systems, p. 378)

A structural insecurity is a predictable insecurity. Another term Luhmann uses is structural instability. Structural instability/insecurity is caused by contradictions, and it can be reduced or increased in the factual, social, or temporal dimensions.

One can begin with the fact that an increase in communicative possibilities also increases the probability of conflict. (376)

In a social context such as classroom or family, as opportunities for communication increase, the probability of conflict increases. In a classroom where open discussion and debate are encouraged, conflicts will arise. The pedagogy intentionally reproduces instability, but these conflicts also have to be managed. Since the conflict is expected (it is a structural insecurity), there must be rules in place to manage the conflict. Otherwise, the classroom social system spins out of control. Alternatively, in a classroom where the students are not allowed to discuss or debate, or where the teacher/professor is the law, there is a low probability that anything new or surprising will ever happen–or will ever be communicated. Conflict can simply be repressed, which means not communicated. In this case, there may be psychic conflict but no actual social (communicated) conflict.

The rules that deal with expected conflict are a kind of immune system.

Technologies such as the printing press and Internet also increase opportunities for communication, conflict, and surprise. A reader might disagree with something in a book, and write a critical response. But as an audience member in a lecture hall, the person would be less likely to criticize a lecturer. Codes of politeness would prevent face-to-face criticism. As Luhmann writes,

Means of dissemination like writing and printing switch off the repression of conflict typical of interaction systems.

(Luhmann, Social Systems, p. 376)

Thus, the printing press radically increased the probability for open conflict–and potential social self-destruction. Consider the battles and great polemicists of the early modern period–e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke. As this kind of conflict became expected, measures such as libel laws were created to manage the conflict. In other words, the legal system stepped in, offering structural instability (expected instability) rather than random instability.

The legal system works as an immune system; it handles conflicts and prevents the social system from destroying itself. In cases that the law ignores, rules of etiquette and politeness–and organizational codes of conduct–reduce potential open conflict.

But the immune system does not protect a system from environmental factors; it protects itself from itself–i.e., from its own contractions and conflicts.


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