More on structural coupling

Here’s an example of structural coupling between the science and health function systems.

Consider cancer research, which we can call a subsystem of the science system. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for localized pancreatic cancer is 34% (2019). Because of structural coupling, this information may be used by the health system; however, the health system doesn’t produce the information. The information exists in the environment of the health system, but the health system has resonance capacity for the information because the information can contribute to pancreatic cancer treatment. The health system has no use for science research findings except insofar as the information contributes to diagnosis or treatment.

This means that the health system translates the science system’s information into health-related information. Science knowledge for its own sake has no value for the health system. In a similar way, engineering is sensitive to (has resonance capacity for) information produced by physics, as well as chemistry, geology and other subsystems of science, but only insofar as this information contributes to engineering as a communication system—i.e., as the information contributes to the autopoiesis of engineering communication.

But given the close structural couplings in these examples, one might ask, why split hairs and separate communication into different systems? What good is the theory?

 One answer is that social systems theory, as a subsystem of science, produces a particular kind of communication—social systems theory—that contributes to the autopoiesis of social systems theory and might or might not be of use to (or resonate with) other kinds of communication systems. The theory has no obligations to any other communication system.

This being said, there may well be “practical uses” for social systems theory. For example, the theory may account for why a physician and a cancer researcher, an engineer and a physicist, or a professor and a university president might have difficulty talking to one another, or might even seem to speak completely different languages. Nonetheless, theory only has to contribute to theory.

The medium that facilitates the structural coupling of the science and health function systems is meaning.

Where meaning is concerned, there is always a surplus, which implies selection. Systems have to select from a surplus of possible meanings. The selection is a form.


  1. Very good and concise description. It also somewhat explains the relation between two kinds of knowledge mentioned by Jürgen Mittelstraß: Verfügungswissen (knowledge that you can apply to control a practical issue) and Orientierungswissen (knowledge “used” for reflection, not meant for direct practical application). Structural coupling can be an interface between the two. One of the problems in current relations between politics, society and science is that the other two expect science to mainly produce Verfügungswissen and not waste their time and money with too much reflection/Orientierungswissen.


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