Society as Communication: Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann

Society as Communication: Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann


From Luhmann Reconsidered: Steps Towards an Empirical Research Programme in the Sociology of Communication?

Although Luhmann formulated with modesty and precaution, for example in Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft (1990a, at pp. 412f.), that his theory claims to be a universal one because it is self-referential, the “operational closure” that follows from this assumption easily generates a problem for empirical research. Can a theory which considers society— and science as one of its subsystems—operationally closed, nevertheless contribute to the project of Enlightenment which Popper (1945) so vigorously identified as the driver of an open society? How can a theory which proclaims itself to be circular and universal nevertheless claim to celebrate “the triumph of the Enlightenment” (Luhmann, 1990a, at p. 548)? Is the lack of an empirical program of research building on Luhmann’s theory fortuitous or does it indicate that this theory should be considered as a philosophy rather than a heuristic for the explanation of operations in social systems?

In my opinion, Luhmann’s sociological theory of communications contains important elements which have hitherto not sufficiently been appreciated in the empirical traditions of sociology and communication studies (Leydesdorff, 1996; Seidl & Becker, 2006; Grant, 2007). Anthony Giddens (1984, at p. xxxvii), for example, had no doubt that “these newer versions of Parsonianism, particularly Luhmann and Habermas, were to be repudiated despite the sophistication and importance of these authors.” However, Giddens focused on explaining action; social structure was black-boxed in his “structuration theory” as a “duality” which precedes action as “rules and resources,” and follows from the aggregation of human actions, for example, as institutions (Leydesdorff, 1993). According to Giddens (1984), social structures exist in social reality only by implication, i.e., in their “instantiation” in the knowledgeable activities of situated actors. This duality of social structure cannot be specified empirically without reference to actions and institutions because structure is considered “outside of time-space” (Giddens, 1981, at pp. 171f.) and as an “absent set of differences” (Giddens, 1979, at p. 64).

Giddens’s “virtuality” of structure can also be considered as a dynamic extension of the sociological concept of latency (Lazersfeld & Henry, 1968): the structural dimensions of a social network system are not manifest to participating agents. The agents may be able to conjecture these dimensions reflexively, but predictably to a variable extent. However, Luhmann (1984) theorized about social systems of communication as structural, yet not directly observable dynamics;1 human agents (“consciousness”) were defined as the (structurally coupled and therefore necessary) environment of systems of social coordination (Luhmann, 1984, 1986a, 2002). Nevertheless, the communicative competencies of the agents and their knowledge base can be expected to set limits to their capacity to (a) understand the signals in the network and also the situational meaning in which the network structure resounds, (b) decompose these two dimensions (that is, the information contents of messages and their meaning), and (c) participate in further communication by reflexive restructuration of this relation—between the information contents of messages and their meaning—in follow-up communications. The two systems layers (“consciousness” and “communication”) can be considered as reflexively co-evolving (or not!). This is appreciated by Luhmann (1977)—following Parsons (1968, at p. 437)—as “interpenetration.”


Key Ideas:

  • Society as Communication
  • Self Referentiality
  • Meaning and Language
  • Social Autopoiesis
  • Society as Social System


Key People:

  • Dirk Baecker
  • Niklas Luhmann
  • Loet Leydesdorff
  • Klaus Krippendorff



Key Sources of Research:


Systemic Theories of Communication

Dirk Baecker


Niklas Luhmann and Cybernetics

Michael Paetau



Communication and Language in Niklas Luhmann’s Systems-Theory

Kathrin Maurer

Click to access a02n16.pdf


Rewriting Theory: From Autopoiesis to Communication

Raf Vanderstraeten




How Recursive is Communication

Heinz Von Foerster

Click to access Luhmann.pdf


Luhmann, Habermas, and the Theory of Communication

Loet Leydesdorff


Luhmann Reconsidered:
Steps Towards an Empirical Research Programme in the Sociology of Communication?

Loet Leydesdorff

Click to access 0911.1041.pdf



Loet Leydesdorff



Loet Leydesdorff


Information, Meaning, and Intellectual Organization in Networks of Inter-Human Communication 

Loet Leydesdorff

Click to access 1406.5688.pdf


Radical Constructivism and Radical Constructedness: Luhmann’s Sociology and the Non-linear Dynamics of Expectations

Loet Leydesdorff


Click to access v13Feb12.pdf


Communication, Music, and Speech about Music

Steven Feld

Click to access 1984+Comm%2C+Music%2C+Sp.pdf


A Recursive Theory of Communication

Klaus Krippendorff


Author: Mayank Chaturvedi

You can contact me using this email mchatur at the rate of AOL.COM. My professional profile is on

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