Niklas Luhmann’s system building, revising Parsons’ analogies

Giddens was not the only contemporary European theorist to find ideas from Parsons useful; at least two other theorists beat a path to Parsons’ intellectual door. The first of these we shall consider was a German, Niklas Luhmann, another grand theorist with a desire to create a total system of thought. He does so successfully – but with a high degree of opacity. To pierce the opaque veil of Luhmann’s thought through erudite knowledge is, for some scholars, a life’s work. We have less time available but shall seek to be as pointed as we can by concentrating on his view of power. Luhmann begins his analysis of power with a fairly conventional point of view: ‘power involves causing outcomes despite possible resistance, or, in other words, is causality in unfavorable circumstances’. But he immediately urges that the important questions are to be found not in the specification of these causal relations but in what makes them possible. Hence, attention switches to the macro-social sys- tem and the functions of power formation at this level. Much as Parsons, his analy- sis commences with an analogy: power is a communication, rather than a circulatory, medium. Thus, it is closer to language and meaning than capital and money.

Social theory has two elements according to Luhmann (1979: 109): on the one hand, a theory of social differentiation into strata and into functional subsystems; on the other hand, a theory of social and cultural evolution leading to increasing sophistication. The bearer of this differentiation and evolution is writing and the possibilities for extended communication that it prepares. These are carried by communication media, defined as ‘a code of generalized symbols which guides the transmission of symbols’ (1979: 111). For people to interact successfully in an infi- nite world of possibilities they must choose to relate through activities which will be mutually beneficial. Mechanisms need to exist that induce others to accept the basis for selections made. Communications media are formulated whenever the manner of one partner’s selection serves simultaneously as the motivating struc- ture for the other. It serves to bind both partners. Think of a sexual relationship: physical attractiveness, empathy and good sex may be the initial media of communi- cation, but they can spin out into contracts of marriage, children, and mortgages – the whole package. However, there is always an irreducible element of uncertainty, according to Luhmann. Once again, think of a sexual relationship: is she cheating, does he love me, can I trust her? The power holder always has at their discretion more than one alternative. At the same time, they act to remove uncertainty from their partners. The one subject to the power also has other alternatives. Power is greater when it can shape action in the face of attractive alternatives. Unlike power, coercion removes all choices from the subject. Power requires agency and requires choice. Coercion indicates a weakness of power, not strength; in many cases it is what one has recourse to when there is a lack of power.

Power functions as an alternative medium of communication to trust through which dominant and subordinate groups can coordinate and control their social interaction. Trust is easier to use but harder to rely on; I may be able to deploy power but might not need to because I have a relation with you that creates a bind- ing obligation. Where obligations already bind the other then power over them need not be exercised. Trust is of more value, as Bachmann (2001) and Lane and Bachmann (1998) argue. Reed (2001) proposes that it is the combination of lim- ited and rule-bound trust relations with focused and sanction-based power rela- tions that institutionalizes binding social arrangements where uncertainty and risk are high. Trust and power provide alternative functional mechanisms for coordi- nating social interaction by reducing complexity and uncertainty. By providing generalized media of communication and coordination that reduce complexity, power mechanisms facilitate more effective system management of uncertainty, consequent upon increasing structural differentiation, which undercuts the inti- mate face-to-face basis on which trust is established.

Figure 7.3 Luhmann’s Power

The parallels with Parsons are evident, although Luhmann explicitly rejects Parsons’ use of norms as underlying actions. Norms may evolve, according to Luhmann, but they do not form a priori’s to social life. As Luhmann put it: ‘[Norms] come into demand and are developed to the extent that generalizations that must be retained counterfactually become necessary’ (1995: 326). We provide a diagram of Luhmann’s power in Figure 7.3.

Power is inextricably connected with the ability to impose sanctions, not neces- sarily those that are prohibitory. Luhmann proposes that positive sanctions can be an instrument of power to the extent that they change the preferences of another actor such that they perceive losing the reward as a threat. In his later work, self- referential or autopoietic systems are central; these systems come to exist when (1) they reproduce themselves, by (2) following an internal logic driven by a system- specific binary code.

Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1980), Chilean cognitive scientists, developed the theory of ‘autopoiesis’. An autopoietic system is organized to respond to the world while preserving its integrity. The system has a memory that organizes the parts even while those parts may be adding up to produce the functioning whole. The opposite of an autopoietic system, which is found in living organisms, is one which is allopoietic and found in machines, such as an assembly line, where each of the assembled parts has a different mechanism to the one in which it eventually serves. An autopoietic system builds up certain expectations about its environment which it then sees confirmed or not, in a binary way. There is a single binary code steering ‘understanding’ from within the system. In this sense the system is closed because it can only make sense of external stimuli in relation to its own internal oper- ations, lodged in memory. On the other hand, the system is open and not determin- istic, since the feedback from the environment, deciphered in the binary way of the code, influences its reproduction. The system is not deterministic but is contingent over time, meaning that choices made lay the basis for later choices. Earlier choices are not determinate of later ones, but they help form contingencies.

Thus, power becomes restricted in Luhmann’s later work to the political system rather than being a generalized medium of communication. Also, the individual subject who came clearly into focus in his work on power now disappears: in their place are social systems as systems of communication. By defining power and pol- itics narrowly as system attributes, Luhmann places power outside agency. It is not clear how such a theory, ultimately, can be of much use, given the Weberian expo- sition of power as a social action, enacted by agents, within an essentially interpre- tive frame: it reduces authority to a property of systems as an a priori rather than as something contingent on how human action reproduces structures of domi- nancy. The subject disappears from focus in favor of the system of communication. The system is still contingent: it continually emerges through distinctions that are drawn with other systems – which is how it keeps reproducing.

Within Luhmann’s ‘social semantics’, power is that ‘language’ that is prevalent within the political system and that cannot easily be ‘translated’ into the language of another subsystem (e.g. money). Hierarchy, on the other hand, appears as one possi- ble steering medium of complex social systems, one that is suboptimal to what Luhmann calls ‘contextual steering’. For Luhmann, order is possible without reference to hierarchy: it can emerge spontaneously in much the same way as it does as an emergent property of the market in neoclassical theories of economic liberalism. While power is a special ‘language’, hierarchy is a special ‘principle’ to generate social order – and not a very effective one either (contemporary systems, according to Luhmann, are not stratified but are functional and thus polycentric in nature). Luhmann’s conceptualization strips power of the centrality that it plays in many other social theories. Luhmann is more interested in understanding how a hierarchi- cal system, for example, becomes established. After all, power is no longer the prime medium for securing social order but only one among several media, and it is not the most effective medium either (to that extent, Luhmann seems to echo Parsons) In fact, the more power becomes ‘visible’, the less effective it is. Contemporary social systems can no longer be steered by power alone. So, the gradual ‘erosion’ of power does not pose a problem to social order because other media have taken over. For Luhmann, power is compartmentalized within the political system and, as system complexity and sophistication increase, it is becoming devalued.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *