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Theory of Society, Volume 1

Theory of Society, Volume 1

by Niklas Luhmann

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This first volume of Niklas Luhmann's two-part final work was initially published in German in 1997. The culmination of his thirty-year theoretical project to reconceptualize sociology, it offers a comprehensive description of modern society on a scale not attempted since Talcott Parsons. Beginning with an account of the fluidity of meaning and the accordingly high


This first volume of Niklas Luhmann's two-part final work was initially published in German in 1997. The culmination of his thirty-year theoretical project to reconceptualize sociology, it offers a comprehensive description of modern society on a scale not attempted since Talcott Parsons. Beginning with an account of the fluidity of meaning and the accordingly high improbability of successful communication, Luhmann analyzes a range of communicative media, including language, writing, the printing press, and electronic media as well as "success media," such as money, power, truth, and love, all of which structure this fluidity and make communication possible. An investigation into the ways in which social systems produce and reproduce themselves, the book asks what gives rise to functionally differentiated social systems, how they evolve, and how social movements, organizations, and patterns of interaction emerge. The advent of the computer and its networks, which trigger potentially far-reaching processes of restructuring, receive particular attention. A concluding chapter on the semantics of modern society's self-description bids farewell to the outdated theoretical approaches of "old Europe," that is, to ontological, holistic, ethical, and critical interpretations of society, and argues that concepts such as "the nation," "the subject," and "postmodernity" are vastly overrated. In their stead, "society"—long considered a suspicious term by sociologists, one open to all kinds of reification—is defined in purely operational terms. It is the always uncertain answer to the question of what comes next in all areas of communication.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Luhmann's understanding of society offers critical theology an insightful account of how original sin manifests itself in North Atlantic societies today . . . [I]t is insightful regarding how the particular logics of social systems constrain the views and actions of people involved in them. . . [B]y attending to how social systems function and have become globalized, Luhmann's thoery helps uncover possibilities for collective solidarity."—Don Schweitzer, The Ecumenist

"This work builds on and refines [Luhmann's earlier studies], constructing a relativistic theory that challenges classical sociological theories of action, meaning, and the subject." — C. T. Loader, CHOICE

"One of the masterpieces of social theory written after World War II."—Axel Honneth, Columbia University

"Niklas Luhmann's membership in the canon of genuinely original and comprehensive social theorists is radiantly evident. Together with that of Simmel, Durkheim, Weber, Mead, and Parsons, his work stands as one of the monumental achievements of twentieth-century sociology. With the English publication of Theory of Society, Luhmann's magnum opus is finally available to a global readership. Students who master its supple conceptuality will find it indispensable in understanding the complexity and dynamism of the contemporary world."—David Wellbery, University of Chicago

Product Details

Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Cultural Memory in the Present Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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By Niklas Luhmann


ISBN: 978-0-8047-3950-4

Chapter One

Society as a Social System

1. The Sociological Theory of Society

The investigations that follow address the social system of modern society. Such a project, it should be said at the outset, engages a circular relationship with its subject matter. What this subject matter is cannot be said in advance. The word "society" does not refer to a clear-cut idea. Even the common term "social" has no incontestably objective reference. Nor can the attempt to describe society be made outside of society. It uses communication. It activates social relations. It exposes itself to observation in society. However we define the subject, its definition is itself already one of the latter's functions. What is described performs the description. In so doing it must therefore also describe itself. It must treat its subject as one that describes itself. Borrowing an expression from logical analysis in linguistics, we could say that every theory of society must have an "autological" component. Whoever feels that the theory of science cannot accommodate this must do without a theory of society, linguistics, and much else.

Classical sociology has sought to establish itself as the science of social facts—facts as opposed to mere opinions, value judgments, or ideological prejudices. Within the context of this distinction, this is not to be disputed. The problem, however, is that the ascertainment of facts can enter the world only as fact. Sociology therefore has to take account of its own factuality. This requirement applies throughout its domain of research and is not to be redeemed by a special interest in a "sociology of sociology." This, as we now know, violates the premises of a bivalent, or two-valued, logic. In choosing limited research topics, this can be disregarded on pragmatic grounds. The investigator sees himself as a subject outside his topic. For the purposes of a theory of society, however, this view is untenable, for the work on such a theory necessarily involves self-referential operations. It can be communicated only within the system of society.

Sociology has hitherto failed to address this problem with the necessary stringency and consistency. It has hence failed to produce anything approaching an adequate theory of society. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, any integration of a description of society into its object tended to be seen as "ideology" and, as such, rejected. On this basis, the raising of sociology to the academic status of a strict science would have been inconceivable. Some even felt they should make do without the concept of society and limit themselves to the strictly formal analysis of social relations. Concepts concerned with difference such as individualization and differentiation seemed sufficient to mark the research interests of sociology. Others, notably Emile Durkheim, considered a strictly positive science of "social facts" and of society as the condition for their possibility to be feasible. Still others were satisfied with the distinction between the natural sciences and the humanities and with the historical relativization of all descriptions of society. Whatever the details, the distinction between subject and object was considered binding for epistemological reasons, leaving a choice only between a scientistically naïve and a transcendental theoretical position.

Many of the peculiarities of what are now classical sociologies must be attributed to the limitations of this selection schema and to efforts to get by nonetheless. This can be said of the strange links between transcendentalism and social psychology we find in Georg Simmel. And of Max Weber's value theoretical concept of action, a loan from Neo-Kantianism. It is also true of Helmut Schelsky's call for a "transcendental theory of society" beyond the reach of normal empirical methods, which, attaching the concept of "transcendental" to the individual subject, made no headway. These positions are now interesting at best for interpreting the classics. In spite of this unquestioned commitment to the subject/object schema and despite the insoluble problem of its subject matter, classical sociology has produced the only description of society to date. This perhaps best explains the lasting fascination the sociological classics continue to exert, which in a strict sense has made seemingly timeless texts of them. Almost all theoretical endeavors today are concerned with retrospection and reconstruction. It is well worth considering what made this success possible.

Without acknowledging a circular relationship with the subject matter! That much can be said. The solution, which hid the problem from the classics, lay in a historical self-location, in the dissolution of the circle by a historical difference in which the theory could define itself historically (and only historically). Nascent sociology had reacted to the structural and semantic problems that had arisen in the nineteenth century, and was aware of having done so. Even where it expressed concepts in abstract terms, they owed their plausibility to the historical situation. The end of confidence in progress had to be accepted; a belief in the positive nature of development at whatever cost was replaced by structural analysis, above all, by analysis of social differentiation, organizational dependencies, and role structures. The economy-focused ("political economy") concept of society that had held sway since the final decades of the eighteenth century could thus be abandoned. This provoked controversy between those who defined society in material (economic) terms and those who adopted a more intellectual (cultural) approach. At the same time, the position of the individual in modern society became the central problem, a referential problem, so to speak, inviting a skeptical view of society as a whole, which could no longer automatically be considered progressive. Concepts such as socialization and role signaled the need for theoretical mediation between the "individual" and "society." Together with the historical difference, this distinction between "individual" and "society" provided a basis for theory formation. But, as in the case of history, this context could not accommodate the question of the distinction's unity. To ask what history is was ruled out methodologically, and what constituted the unity of the difference between individual and society was not even recognized as a problem, because, in keeping with the entire tradition, society was assumed to be composed of individuals. This was then the basis for a "critical" analysis of society, which was not to be "deconstructed" by questions about the unity of the difference between individual and society. In Max Weber, finally, the skepticism such a theoretical approach permitted went so far as to affect assessment of modern Western rationalism. Nor should it be forgotten that a literature arose at the same time that demonstrated that neither within nor outside society does the modern individual find a secure basis for self-observation, self-realization, or, to use the fashionable term, "identity." It suffices here to mention Flaubert, Mallarmé, Henry Adams, and Antonin Artaud.

Since the classics, sociology has made no progress worth mentioning toward a theory of society in the course of the past 100 years or so. Following the unwelcome ideology dispute of the nineteenth century, the paradox of communication about society in society was addressed in theoretical controversy by such oppositions as structuralist/processualist, domination/ conflict, affirmative/critical, and even conservative/progressive. However, since maintaining a position within such "frames" required confrontation with the contrary position and thus the inclusion of exclusion, opting for one side rather than the other was always infected with paradox, and to unfold paradox through controversy was convincing only where it made political sense. Given the inherent dynamism of the political system, this has proved less and less convincing, even though intellectuals have continued to play such games. There is no denying that sociology has achieved much in other fields, both methodologically and theoretically and especially in the collection of empirical knowledge; but it has, so to speak, omitted to describe society as a whole. This presumably has to do with its commitment to the subject/object distinction. There has indeed been specific research into a "sociology of sociology," and a sort of "reflexive" sociology of science has recently emerged. Problems of self-reference arise in such contexts, but they are, as it were, isolated as special phenomena and treated as peculiarities or methodological difficulties. The same can be said of the "self-fulfilling prophecy" trope.

The only systematic sociological theory currently available was elaborated by Talcott Parsons as a general theory of the action system. It provides a codification of classical sociological knowledge and a treatment of the conceptual understanding of action with the aid of cross-tabulation. But it fails to answer the question of cognitive self-implication, because it has nothing to say about the degree of congruence between analytical conceptualization and actual system formation. It merely postulates an "analytical realism," thus reducing the problem of self-implication to a paradoxical formula. What it leaves out of account is that the cognition of social systems depends on social conditions, not only on account of its object, but also as cognition; indeed, the cognition (or definition or analysis) of actions are themselves actions. Parsons consequently does not himself occur in any of the many boxes of his own theory. And this is ultimately why the theory cannot distinguish systematically between social system and society; it only offers impressionistic, more or less feuilletonistic views of modern society.

In the long course of history, the description of human social life (for more ancient times, we can speak of "society" only with reservations) was guided by ideas insufficiently congruent with existing reality. This was true of the old European tradition, with its characteristic sense of the natural perfectibility of humankind and its pursuit of education and the forgiveness of sins. But it still holds true for modern Europe, for the Enlightenment and its double deity Reason and Critique. Even in the present century, this awareness of inadequacy has been kept alive (see Husserl or Habermas) and associated with the notion of modernity. Richard Münch still considers this focus on the tension between reason and reality to be a basic characteristic of modernity and an explanation for its distinctive dynamics. However, the sense of problem has now shifted from ideas to reality itself; and only now is sociology called upon. First, we have to under stand why society causes itself so many problems, even if we forgo any proposals for improvement (more solidarity, emancipation, reasoned agreement, social integration, etc.). Sociology must understand its relationship with society as one of learning, not instruction. It must analyze the problems it discovers, possibly postpone tackling them, possibly declare them insoluble, albeit without knowing how to proffer "scientifically proven" solutions. All this requires a theoretically grounded description of modern society.

If sociology has to admit to not having produced a theory of society in this format, how can it explain this failure to perform a task so clearly within its purview and of such importance for its standing in society?

It can obviously be argued that society is immensely complex, and that a practicable methodology for dealing with highly complex and differentiated systems (so-called organized complexity) is lacking. This argument is all the more weighty if we point out that the description of the system is part of the system, and that there can be a plurality of such descriptions. The conventional methodology, which operates on a very small scale or under conditions appropriate for statistical analysis, is particularly unsuited for "hypercomplex" systems of this sort. But this argument necessarily prompts renunciation of a theory of society and restricts efforts to develop methods for dealing with highly complex or even hypercomplex systems. But this has been done anyway, although with little success, since the discovery of the methodological problem some fifty years ago.

Another consideration might be headed "epistemological obstacles" ("obstacles épistémologiques," a term coined by Gaston Bachelard), referring to burdens of tradition that prevent adequate scientific analysis and raise expectations that can neither be met nor, despite these evident weaknesses, replaced. Tradition might be said to have responded to natural questions, and therefore to have provided largely convincing answers. As science evolved, however, these natural questions gave way to theory-dependent scientific problems whose solution could be judged only in the scientific context. In retrospect, the guiding principles of these obstacles épistémologiques are insufficiently complex; they overestimate themselves and result in a uniformization of the object matter that is finally no longer convincing. Not only have the answers we now require become more difficult (more contingent, more improbable, less convincing); extant questions and answers obstruct further development, which has to detour via implausible evidence.

Such epistemological obstacles are to be found in the prevailing understanding of society in the form of four interconnected, mutually reinforcing assumptions:

(1) that society consists of actual people and relations between people ( 2) that society is constituted or at least integrated by consensus among human beings, by concordant opinion and complementary purpose

(3) that societies are regional, territorially defined entities, so that Brazil as a society differs from Thailand, and the united States from Russia, as does Uruguay from Paraguay

(4) that societies, like groups of people and like territories, can be observed from outside

Assumptions 1 to 3 prevent precise conceptual definition of the subject "society." The "human being" (as opposed to animals) was traditionally described on the basis of distinctions (such as reason, intelligence, will, imagination, emotion, morality), received ideas that, although revised, were specified neither empirically nor in their mode of operation. These distinctions seemed to suffice for mutual clarification, but their neurophysiological basis remained unclear. In particular, these "anthropological" concepts offer no possibility for connecting with the psychic/ social distinction. The difficulties grow if we abandon these distinctions in favor of scientific and empirical denotability. The problematization of human individuality with regard to the nature of the individual's associations and affective development began in about the mid-eighteenth century, long before the industrial revolution. This exploded the traditional positioning of the human being in an order that gave him status and a way of life. Instead, the relationship between the individual and society became a problem. However traditional concepts, especially "reason" are maintained, it is clear that not everything that individuates the human being (if anything at all about him) belongs to society. Society does not weigh exactly as much as all human beings taken together, nor does its weight change with every birth and death. It is not reproduced, for example, by an exchange of macro molecules in the individual cells of a person or by the exchange of cells in the organisms of individual human beings. It is therefore not alive. Nor would anyone seriously regard neurophysiological processes in the brain inaccessible to consciousness as societal processes, and the same is true of all perceptions and trains of thought occupying the attention of the individual consciousness at a given time. Georg Simmel, who attributed this problem to modern individualism, preferred in the circumstances to sacrifice the concept of society rather than his sociological interest in individuals. Aggregate concepts, as he saw the problem, were questionable and should be replaced by relational theories. After all, he pointed out, astronomy was not a theory of the "starry sky."

If it is no longer obvious that society by its nature comprises actual human beings whose solidarity is prescribed as ordinata concordia [well-ordered concord] and in particular as ordinata caritas [well-ordered love], a theory of consensus can step in with a substitute concept. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this led to the resuscitation and radicalization of the theory of social contract. At least in Hobbes, the concept of nature is reduced to the extrasocial domain, in other authors (such as Pufendorf) to an inclination for contract formation. However, this theory soon had to be abandoned. It was a legally circular construction and thus unable to explain the absolute and permanent binding force of the contract; and, in the light of rapidly growing historical knowledge, it could be handled historically only as a fiction without explanatory value. It was superseded in the nineteenth century by consensus theories and by a notion of solidarity and integration on the basis of consensus. Finally, in still weaker dilution, "legitimacy" was demanded for institutions able to impose order even in the absence of consensus, and therefore against resistance. Thus, with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, sociology begins. Despite all concessions to reality, integration on the basis of consensus has remained the principle by which society is identified as an entity—one might say as an "individual."


Excerpted from THEORY OF SOCIETY by Niklas Luhmann Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), Professor of Sociology at the University of Bielefeld, was one of the most eminent social theorists of the last decades of the twentieth century. Stanford University Press has published a number of his books: Social Systems (1995), Observations on Modernity (1998), Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (1998), Art as a Social System (2000), The Reality of the Mass Media (2000), Theories of Distinction: Redescribing the Descriptions of Modernity (2002), and A Systems Theory of Religion (2012).

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