No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Niklas Luhmann (2021), Die Grenzen der Verwaltung (The Limits of Administration), Berlin: Suhrkamp.


Niklas Luhmann presents his theory of public administration (originally written in 1963/1964, though not published until 2021) and mentions in the foreword that its degree of abstraction can put off practitioners.

"In truth, however, the terms theory and practice in the occidental tradition do not denote a factual contrast of perspectives, but only a difference in the detours and complexity of thinking. Detours of thinking save detours of action."

Chapter one - Status and development opportunities in the science of public administration

The different kinds of administrative sciences - law, economics (business administration), political science, sociology and psychology -, all with their different terms and methods, do not match up.

For instance:

  • Law:
    • deals with the correctness of administrative decisions from a legal point of view and the striving for consistency of norm interpretations;
    • does not specifically research the practical consequences of the selected problem solutions;
    • assumes that there should be law; therefore it does not ask about the function of law for administration.
  • Economic methods and terms have led to a complex of statements about organization and management; "classical organizational theory". Business administration:
    • recognizes only the point of view of the entrepreneur as a basis for rationalization. The points of view of participants like working members of the organization, suppliers and customers only appear in the entrepreneur’s perspective in a specific functional character, as data, means or obstacles;
    • understands the organization as rational action: the end of the entrepreneur is strived for with the parts of the enterprise as means to this end;
    • has a normative character. It copes with organizational difficulties, with a lack of motivation and the empirical limits of rationalization, by counter-principles (e.g. centralization / decentralization; sovereign / cooperative structure; specialization / coordination; stability / flexibility), or the weaknesses of human nature are blamed. In the field of tension between ideal principles and human nature, administrative action appears as an art;
    • sees administrative processes as closely intertwined with other types of enforcement, such as production or sales;
    • initially saw its task simply in the application of the principles of scientific organization. The overestimation of these principles led to an underestimation of the administrative problems. In the absence of a starting point for empirical or functional research, this administrative theory ends with conceptual lists and definitions, such as: Management is planning, organization, leadership and control.

Law, economics and political science remain in the imaginary space of the pre-scientific experience of action, even if they try to rationalize it. Legal norms, purposes and political institutions are their units of analysis.

  • Sociology:
    • understands action through relation to structures that are and can remain alien to the sense of action. Because of this, there is an irreverent, alienating, disappointing and at times comical style to sociological analyses;
    • from Marx’ point of view started from certain secretly acting causes, corresponding to the historical interests of the 19th century; that approach has now been hopelessly discredited;
    • productively starts with unconsidered consequences of action, which raises the question of the manifest and latent functions of action (Merton, 1968); this approach at bottom involves the idea of ​​the social system. The maintenance of a social system requires very complicated, mutually colliding achievements, so that every action in a system triggers positive and negative, considered and unconsidered consequences that lead to problems for further actions. This idea is very suitable as an analytical scheme for administrative situations.
    • has a subdiscipline ‘Interaction theory’ that might give better access to the problem of rational action in organizations. It seeks out factual interpersonal behavior in order to measure it in important quantifiable variables such as duration, direction, frequency of initiative and priority, etc. and then suggests better distributions. The weakness of this approach lies in the fact that, for the sake of quantifiability, it uses all too simple basic psychological concepts of human experience processing and motivation. Up to now it has mainly been tried out in production organizations and a few in thought-heavy administrations.


  • Psychology has given insight into the complexity and the indeterminacy of human experience processing and motivation. While the older organizational theories believed that they only had to study the human being in his capacity as a source of performance, more recent research tries to account for people as a self-controlled system of experience and action. They themselves process suggestions in contact with the environment and can therefore not be built into an organization with simple means of motivation. Thus, real integration appears to be a highly problematic process that can only be achieved through very complicated structural adjustments and by foregoing maximum performance.

Just culture?

It is not uncommon to find the optimistic idea that the problems of organized cooperation can be solved by talking about them freely (eg. through psychological safety, MF); and that the organizational structure is therefore in the establishment of communication networks, in the avoidance of authority relationships and in joint (instead of individual) responsibility, that the maintenance of the working atmosphere and the behavioral skills in dealing with others would have to be geared towards this goal. This overlooks the fact that there are other problem-causing factors besides the members of the organization - a typical one-sidedness of organizational psychology. Granted, concrete behavior is always individual, personal behavior; its factuality is best dealt with in terms of psychology. This is where the steep career of the decision-making concept began. Attempts to examine organizational structures for their fear-generating or fear-relieving functions cast highly one-sided highlights on the subject that is of interest to administrative science in all its aspects instead of only one aspect.



Simon’s administrative theory

Herbert Simon's administrative theory does not place action under absolute, but only under statistical causal laws and thus it only postpones and complicates the problem, without solving it. Science can never predict with a certain probability whether certain value propositions will be chosen or not. Organized systems characteristically gain their identity in a differentiated environment and through differentiation of their environment. The persons who tax systemically relevant actions are divided into members and non-members and are treated differently accordingly. An organized system is constituted and sustained by the fact that it can satisfy the requirements of these two environments and bring them into equilibrium.

The falling short of the rational and empirical administrative sciences

The rational and the empirical basic conception of organizational research do not adequately capture the systemic condition of existence. Instead, they are oriented one-sidedly towards the relationships to an environment to which they attach primary importance. The rational sciences (law, economics) are based on the requirements of the service consumers. Sociology and psychology have turned to the working members of the organization; their attitudes, needs and motivational structures are the focus for them - supposedly as internal problems of the organization, but actually also belonging to the environment like the willingness to act of the non-members; the members appear as "roles", but not as concrete persons in the organization. The discovery of the concrete person in the organization was in truth the discovery of a new environment. Only the contradiction of requirements creates the problem. The other environment is seen as not a decisive, but only a limiting date, a constant; and the organization is therefore only required to adapt to the variations in its preferred environment. The organization is understood as a dependent variable of a certain environment - and not actually as a relatively invariant, autonomous system between the two environments.

For the rational scientific point of view, the needs of the working members are definitely there, but they are not given priority, have no influence on the determination of the goal, but are only billed as a cost factor. Monetary reward and strict supervision were therefore the only system strategies on this front.

In the opposite view, interested in the empirical behavior of the members, which arose from the shortcomings of that classic view, one commits the opposite error: The requirements of the service users, the market, and public opinion appear only as limiting constants. They are expressly taken into account in such a way that one accepts a "formal organization" that has formulated a system purpose, less explicitly also by researching the membership problem from the point of view of work ethic and the right motivation, assuming that it is left to the respective determination by the management. However, the organization should primarily be modeled from the point of view that it would be attractive for the members and would attract a maximum of spontaneous work performance. Every organized system must balance itself out against (at least) two environments, both of which are variable independently of the system. There may be primacy decisions (value decisions) for practical system control, but not for scientific analysis. Scientific theory must keep itself open to every empirical possibility.

Towards a systems theoretical administrative science

For administrative science, which because of its subject matter cannot do without models of rational action and, as a science, cannot do without empirical control, the current separation of the two perspectives amounts to a start-up ban. Systems theory enables the two perspectives to be confronted in an environmentally relative manner. This does not remove the contrast between the possibilities for orientation, but shifts it from the level of principles or values ​​to that of tactics and makes it itself an object of scientific research. Empirical and decision-making statements must be carefully separated. Luhmann wants to find the reference points for the construction of decision models with the help of a science that does not simply evaluate values, but deals with the possibilities of empirical system formation. Its basic methodological idea is comparison. The causal idea is not given up, but expanded: the limits of its purely linear use are broken: "From the point of view of X, A and B are functionally equivalent possibilities”. It seeks to determine which alternative courses of action, which possible strategies are available when a system is to be preserved.

The question of whether a system is to be preserved can only be decided rationally with reference to its function for another system. The choice of a system reference forms the basis as the last decision that can no longer be rationalized. It cannot be fully implemented or justified by values, because systems analysis makes it clear that in order to maintain a system one has to carry out actions that contradict the values ​​for which the system was chosen. The theoretical model uses four central terms that have to be coordinated: the system concept , the decision term, the expectation term and the function term.

Chapter two - basic concepts of a systems-theoretical administrative science

The system concept

Through their mutual relationships, the terms form a structure, the inner cohesion of which is made clear here. The system is itself and can only relate to other substances which, as externally attached relations, do not affect its identity. These relationships are accidental, not essential, to the substance. The old scheme ‘part-relationships-whole’ has no place for differentiating between changes. There is no reference to the environment. The system is intended to be limited. But the limits result simply from the table of contents, from the affiliation of the parts; as such they have no function in maintaining the system.


The concept of "interdependence", the mutual dependence of the parts, has a critical meaning for the ontological concept of system. It gives a conceptual definition of the limits of the system (and leaves it at that). Full interdependence only exists when each part varies with each other, that is: when no one can be changed without all the others having to change. Strict interdependence excludes internal elasticity that could absorb influences. Well-organized systems are not characterized by the exclusion of internal elasticity, but rather by the ingenious establishment of mechanisms that absorb the effects of the environment.

Modern systems theory, in Luhmann’s view, deals with the question of contact density and interdependence in a system as a variable (see also: Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents, MF). The degree of mutual dependency in the system can vary in different dimensions:

  • the number and change of people on whom one is dependent;
  • the number of issues;
  • the dependency;
  • the length and indirectness of the causal chains;
  • the degree of caution and consideration required;

At each level of compression, other forms of stabilization of expectations, control, mutual commitment, rationalization and self-discipline may be appropriate and different types of power constellations may result.

Functional processes in systems

Attention must now be directed to the functional processes that contribute to the maintenance of invariant structures and system boundaries. Functional thinking no longer understands identity as substance, but as, always relative, invariance.

If services are not left to chance, but are united to form a self-preservation community in which each specific contribution serves directly or indirectly to preserve the whole and is in turn preserved for the sake of this function, one can speak of a system in the functional sense. In such a system, the conditions themselves are created to a large extent, which make it possible to continue those services which contribute to the maintenance of the entire complex, including the conditions mentioned. It is therefore the inside/outside difference, the ability to understand and maintain what is one's own in contrast to the environment, that defines the meaning and function of a system.

Not all of the services that a system needs can be brought under the control of the system. Even where the system controls the fulfillment of its existing conditions, these make contradicting requirements, so that each use of funds in a specific direction does away with other system interests.

Causality differently

The problem of causal relationships to the constantly changing and uncontrollable environment form the actual core of systems theory. Every environmentally open system is entangled in a network of causal relationships with its environment: it influences and is influenced; that is inevitable. Its continued existence depends on the type and extent of the services provided in these relationships. Therefore, if the system wants to maintain itself, it must proceed selectively both in the services it receives and in the services it provides. It will do well to put the services it provides at the service of its self-preservation and through them to ensure the continuation of the special conditions and services of the environment on which it is dependent. A well-organized system therefore lives in a kind of exchange relationship with its environment. The internal organization must consist of a combination of latent causes that only become effective under certain conditions, but then reliably.

The relative independence of a system from its environment is based on the assurance of the system's own stock of potentially effective causes and the associated selection rules. The human memory, the files of an administration, the information memory of a data processing system serve as the potential for self-information. Its updating on given occasions according to certain rules, enables the system to behave critically and consistently in the long term towards its environment. With the help of a skillful combination of such causes and their triggering conditions, the system can remain indifferent to many environmental changes that are relevant in itself and concentrate its reactions on specific problems in each case. And it can get big effects out of small but critical changes. The sense of such organization can be reduced to the simple formula of keeping system states and system performances constant.

Most of the time, a system will need a meaningful combination of both functions. Environmentally open systems do not correspond to the classic ideal of the determined system. Environmentally open systems only have the special performance style of a system: to ensure invariance (“On target, with minimum variance”; MF), even where the environment is dynamic and uncontrollable.


Systems are no machines

From the point of view of functional systems theory, the machine metaphor is not fitting for a system because it does not even come close to doing justice to the problems of environmentally open action systems. Administrations must be managed and rationalized according to completely different ideas.

The peculiar stability and adaptability of social systems are based on the flexibility of having several equivalent problem solutions available. If one tries to fix them to certain, albeit complicated, causal series, one misses the orderly performance peculiar to them, which must be the starting point for all rationalization considerations. In reality, there often elapses a long time until a system adapts to an environmental change, and during this time the environment does not stand still, so that when the system believes it has achieved the adaptation, it can be unadjusted again. Slowness is often a preferred solution to problems, but it is also difficult. Social systems rely on processing their environmental impressions in the form of internal communications, and communications take time.

We see what is special about administration in the fact that its actions consist of making binding decisions. The system performance of obsolescence, however, is to process information into decisions. One reason for this choice can be made clear if one combines decision theory and systems theory.


Management systems are connected to their environment by receiving information and communicating decisions. The functional method examines concrete actions in their function for certain systems. Choosing the functional method enables us to work out a strictly system-relative, administrative decision theory, which does not deny that psychological processes are involved in decision-making, but which only makes their function for the social system of administration an issue.

The concept of decision must correspond to this objective. Decisions cannot become an object of social cooperation as intra-psychological processes, but only through the fact that they are alienated and labeled as actions of a special kind. The externalization of the decision to a peculiar act, namely a communication to others, about which one can advise, discuss, decide, influence, promote or prevent, is the basis of all administration, the prerequisite for a social system specialized in decision-making and, through a division of labor, it gains respect, recognition and support in their environment.

The psychological decision-making concept

With this, a number of features of the psychological decision-making concept, which has also determined the everyday language of everyday life, are booted out. This applies in particular to the inner/outer distinction related to the consciousness of the individual. It has led to the fact that decision-making - as opposed to action - is understood as an internal psychological process, as a balancing of possibilities in the mind's eye or as a kind of internal jolt (decision). The decision was then seen as an internal aspect of the action, the action as the external view of the decision. With this distinction one could take into account the fact that mostly more possibilities are considered than implemented. Such mute considerations and decisions only have a social function if and to the extent that they are expressed, presented or communicated in action.

With the psychological concept of decision there is also an axiom that is useless for our purposes: the axiom of the fixed correlation between decision and action. The purpose of this axiom was to facilitate the causal explanation of action. Action was traced back to a decision and thus to a good or bad intention or to the character or experience of the person making the decision and left it at that. For Luhmann, this recourse is useless because his insistence of preferring the functional method above the causal one.

Decisions as communication of information processing

For administrative science, which deals with the rationalization of decision-making, the opposite thesis is fundamental. One can also make decisions that:

  • are not carried out by the agent himself but by others;
  • will not be carried out immediately;
  • should apply over the long term;
  • should have meaning for many identical or different actions without having to be worked out again each time;
  • only fix decision premises for other decisions, but are themselves so abstract that they are not suitable for immediate execution;
  • are decisions to not decide at the moment or to decide at another point in time.

Luhmann views decisions as actions of a special kind: as communication of information processing. Classical organizational theory treated communication merely as a means to an end. The purpose of informing the recipient seemed to be fulfilled when a message arrived safely and completely and was understood. However, setting up and rationalizing large information processing organizations asks for something different than viewing changes in content on the communication path simply as distortions and combatting them. The information processed in the system is changed by passing it on from hand to hand, in accordance with decision programs. One has to build on the behavioral tendencies that can actually be observed. Communication is not merely the delivery of finished messages by messengers or mechanical systems. Communication is always also the self-portrayal of the communicator, who reveals himself to be the owner and processor of information in the message and thus assumes responsibility. All real thought work presupposes presented possibilities of expression, and is formed in interaction with them.

The end/means-scheme understood communication as a means to transfer information, not also to express feelings or motivation. This, according to Luhmann, is a very unrealistic conception of human behavior and also a concept that implies a rational order, which in reality first has to be laboriously derived from the facticity of human behavior. Seeing the communication process as the actual bearer of the decision-making process comes closer to the actual behavior of people in large organizations. Transferring and changing, teaching and influencing components are closely intertwined and difficult to separate.


Systems can only be formed from individual actions if the actors anticipate other actions and can relate their own actions accordingly. Where traditional systems theory looked at purpose instead of expectation, only a few privileged expectations can be identified as purposes. The selection relates to the presented effects of one's own actions. It assigns other expectations:

  • as the suitability of means;
  • as strategically relevant obstacles
  • as side effects to be accepted;
  • as an irrelevant, constant backdrop for action.

The ends/means-scheme does not express the true essence of action, certainly not the essence of action in systems. It does not always make sense to think about the ends and means before acting. It was invented for the rationalization of retail, but is not as suitable for the rationalization of social systems. In order to express the meaningful future orientation of human action, Luhmann chooses the more neutral concept of expectation, which implies a manageable number of experience options.

The expectation concept allows a detailed explanation of the two most important features of Luhmann’s system concept: the invariance of the system structure and the inside/outside difference. Concrete action is a fleeting occurrence which is, even when repeated, never invariant. However, invariant general behavioral expectations be used in the long run as norms, as roles they can gain an objective connection with other expectations and as institutions they can gain consensus.

A system must be able to form appropriate expectations not only with regard to its own actions, but also with regard to its environment. The topic and selection of environmental expectations, their degree of security or the degree of schematization and simplification that a system can afford in terms of its expectations, are a major factor in the internal organization. To coordinate this, one can change the internal organization in order to adapt it to new external expectations. Expectations can also be changed, simplified for instance. A system is therefore not constituted on the level of action, but on the level of expectation. Its boundaries are strengthened by differentiating behavioral expectations. Environmental behavior is always uncertain. Decisions presuppose expected information and expected effects. Because a system does not have complete information, but instead depends on self-made expectations, it has to decide while overcoming a risk. The system, decision, and expectation mutually condition and confirm each other and thus form a conceptual frame of reference for administrative research.


Practical behavior in administration must be based on functional relationships if it is to be rational, Luhmann writes. The function concept in the social sciences is usually defined as a cause that effects the maintenance of a system. However, there is no evidence of causal laws in the social sciences. The functional method is a comparative method. Viewed in terms of a function, an object is treated as comparable, detachable, interchangeable, replaceable. Within specific systems, reference points condense into problems that the system has to solve if the system wants to survive in a difficult environment. By abstracting specific system interests and needs, an area of ​​functionally equivalent performance possibilities can be created, which enables the system to keep itself invariant through selection and substitution processes. It is not the case that the same, constant environmental causes always cause the same system states. A multitude of functionally equivalent possibilities are available that allow the system to remain indifferent to numerous changes in the environment or to compensate for them by similar replacement services.

Because a system lives in a ruthless environment, not all requirements can be reduced to a single purpose. Every specification of action, every one-sided force in one direction comes at the expense of other needs, so that subsequent problems are triggered and compensatory services are necessary. The choice between individual alternatives, necessitates looking at these subsequent problems, i.e. at the expense. The decision is then made in favor of the solution whose follow-up problems one believes can be best dealt with in a given system.

Using a comparative method gives the concept of expectation the central position that makes it possible to compare concrete experience and action in its function for maintaining a generalized structure of norms, roles and institutions. Decisions depend on information and strive for certain effects, but they fulfill their function by processing this information, which excludes a strictly causal determination of the result. Functional comparison helps discovering new relationships and new performance possibilities, whereas in practice it is a strategic method of determining useful problem solutions. The function concept forms the pivotal point for the relationship between theory and practice, between scientific knowledge and the behavior to be recognized in the real world of life.

Chapter three - structure as system performance

The generalization of behavioral expectations

Classical organizational theory sees system structure as a rational instrument, with no relation to the environment and no relation to the facticity of behavior. Organizational sociology treated the outcomes of a system’s self-organization simply as a question of motivation. However, in administrations, work motivation is much less problematic than in production organizations. Every concrete action transcends the system to which it is assigned. The structure-forming factor lies in the generalization of behavioral expectations, which is purposefully indifferent to circumstances and changes. An expectation of behavior can and should be stabilized more or less independently of whether it is fulfilled or disappointed. Tasks or affiliations, status or attitude, they can be standardized even for very heterogeneous complexes of action: by role formation. If a normatively conceived role is to endure, it must be socially generalized, i.e. institutionalized. It has to find so much consensus that it can normally be expected and carried out spontaneously, without having to be certain of the current consensus. The factual expectations of behavior must be identical, even if they are experienced from ­different perspectives, so that meaningful interlocking action is possible.

Role formation

According to their substrate, system organization and rationalization relate to roles that are standardized and institutionalized. Roles are the subject of formalization, the units from which organizations are built. The older organizational theories always only had this role structure in mind as an arrangement of positions and tasks and overlooked the complicated, multi-dimensional social processes that constitute this order. Role formation is a process that takes place in every social system. Since it is directed towards the future, every expectation is uncertain and therefore needs to be strengthened. Behavior is not only uncertain because of its future direction, but also because it relates to agency: free behavior by people.

Role formation is an essential element of reassurance. Norms and institutionalizations relate to a generalizing core of meaning, a principle of the role which can consist in:

  • a general purpose, a long-term goal, to which the role with all its execution acts serves as a means;
  • an inner attitude that is expected to be the bearer of all role actions and that gains social reality in them, e.g. loyalty to a cause or an association, a person or a home;
  • a social rank, a status that is symbolized in the most varied of contexts and with a series of coordinated expressive actions.

Typically, one principle dominates the others and the choice of this order is of decisive importance for:

  • the overall climate of an administration;
  • its adaptation to the environment;
  • the type of staff it attracts;
  • the style of its actions;
  • its efficiency.


Problems of structuration

Norms, roles and institutions receive fictions as essential components that support each other. Boundaries of expectation, validity, content, and the obligation to consent are drawn, and have to be clearer the more abstract and fictitious the structure of expectations. The system must define its area of ​​action and the actions expected of it in relation to the environment in a normative and factually complex manner. To a certain extent, consensus has to be achieved for this conception. Any structuring of social systems remains problematic, because it demands and enables action on a partly fictional basis. It relies on the context of actions without providing any other security than the functioning of the systems. The effort implies long-term foresight, advance payments, postponement of needs and thus: trust. All social systems therefore have a structural tension that can take on very different forms. This tension grows to the extent that the actual system performance is intensified through specification of the requirements, abstraction of the relevant meaning references and organizational planning of the communications.

Organized systems such as administrations therefore increasingly require problem-related compensation facilities and overall a greater problem awareness. Every solution to a problem remains problematic and gives rise to subsequent problems, which in turn require a solution. Efforts are made to reshape the problem until the initial problem is expressed in a way that can be tolerated by the people involved in the action. Every functional achievement has dysfunctional consequences. A system adapts to its shortcomings, isolates the dangerous problems, gets used to certain behavioral difficulties that arise as a result of structural decisions. Under certain circumstances the system gains its stability from the fact that those involved in the action learn to see problems as a downside of the advantages of the system and then no longer rebel against them.

The structuring of a social system can never be tailored so specifically to individual system problems that they can be completely solved. A subsystem has to be created. All system problems reappear on a smaller scale in the subsystems. Rational strategies transform the problem, convert purposes into costs and uncover previously latent functions to include in the performance planning. The structuring behavioral expectations have to be stabilized in a social, objective and temporal direction. The stability of an administrative system in terms of environmental relations, organization, changes is problematic for various reasons. The various sources of instability are confronted by different institutions, which must be compatible.

The three problem areas can only be separated analytically, not in concrete terms: Every concrete expectation and behavior is challenged in all three directions at the same time. Every realistic planning and every scientific appraisal of concrete situations and events must draw the three perspectives together. The discussions remain distorted by abstraction, even where they deal with concrete results of previous research.

Chapter four - The general constellation


Luhmann explains that adaptation cannot just be warmly recommended. From adaptation alone no standards follow, no guiding points of view for rational behavior and structure formation in the administration. Unresisting obedience or the dissolution of every individuality would result in the abandonment of the systemic character of the order of action. Adaptation alone is not a viable maxim. It assumes the environment as rationally ordered, stable, harmonious and free of contradictions, i.e. it reckons with an environment that has clear expectations of the system. Such an environment could, however, be adapted to simply by following its behavioral expectations. In reality, however, no environment is so ordered. Every system of action is exposed to a fluctuating, ruthless, mutually exclusive, contradicting environment to which it cannot fully adapt because:

  • good adaptation in one respect means bad adaptation in another;
  • a reaction accepted today will be treated as wrong tomorrow;
  • one partner offends what is good for the other.

In such an environment there is no correct adaptation by directly following specific behavioral expectations. The problem of adaptation cannot be posed at the level of individual expectations and individual actions, but only in a generalized form. A system is adapted to the environment if it can take account of these problems of contradicting existential conditions, if it is able to maintain itself identically and sustainably with a relatively invariant structure. The adaptation is thus mediated through the long-term and identical aspect of self-preservation.

Environmental differentiation

The problem of self-preservation in a difficult, changeable and contradicting environment is solved by a system by differentiating its environment into several environments, in relation to which a specific and expected behavior of some consistency is possible. Bureaucratic organization is only possible when the social order exceeds a certain threshold of differentiation, in particular the division of labor. A system itself differentiates its environment by treating parts of it differently.

Chester I. Barnard first consistently viewed the persons who are members of a cooperative system as part of the system's environment. Through environmental differentiation, a system gains the chance to separate and specialize its contacts and to cultivate contradicting behaviors at the same time, e.g. fighting and exchanging, asking and threatening, but on different fronts. The system can promise one environment that it will treat another in a certain sense or not - and get paid for this. The identity of the system and its structure not only serves the purpose of temporal constancy despite changing circumstances, but also the absorption of contradictions and the specialization of behavior.

The problem of environmental differentiation cannot be solved by rationalizing the system structure alone. The environment must be suitable for this. It must meet certain expectations and have a certain level of development that allows differentiation by the system. Such a differentiated environmental treatment is only possible if certain minimum conditions are met:

  1. A guaranteed ability and willingness to specify social relationships. The functional differentiation is expressed through structural differentiation. The cohesion of the system is no longer ensured through the combination of roles in the individual, but through coordination, i.e. through the fact that special roles of different people are factually coordinated with one another.
  2. Members or potential members must have learned to adjust to the recognition of specific role expectations as a membership condition in certain systems. They must be able to differentiate between professional and personal and always know what is necessary to maintain membership (and what they can therefore expect from other members under all circumstances) and what is not.
  3. Non-members must be familiar with the correspondence roles of the bureaucracy in the environment. Where this knowledge of roles is lacking, the organized system also lacks the response it needs to continue its work.
  4. There must be effective means of communication in and with the environment, because with the specification of the expectation and behavior, the number of options and thus the communication burden increases. Above all, the following are essential:
  5. a highly developed communication technology for fast and correct transmission of information;
  6. the institutionalization of motivational means of communication such as money and legitimate power.
  7. Every sustained one-sided use of people disturbs their body budget and therefore requires compensatory facilities that compensate for this burden. These can be, partly for each other:
  8. Inner psychological mechanisms of fear reduction. Indifference, shifting of interests or identification increase the human capacity to endure the typical organizational role tensions;
  9. Social institutions with counter-structural functions, e.g. the modern nuclear family or different leisure organizations.
  10. The conditions mentioned can be met most effectively by other organizations which, wherever communication is the main issue, even assume a bureaucratic, if not administrative, character. This leads to:
  11. every system must and can reckon with a high degree of articulation of interests outside its limits;
  12. In addition to the system's own status order, there are other options for competing status acquisition and other aspects of status legitimation, so that the hierarchy of external contacts can neither be controlled from the system nor foreseen with certainty;
  13. There are other centers of power outside the system. The system can typically only increase its influence on the environment in the long term by opening itself to outside influences. In the entire social order, power can only be increased at the same time with interdependence. The type of environmental differentiation depends on:

- the structure of the system;

- the particular type of its preferred behavior;

- the models of rationalization that are suitable for this system.

Administrations receive their means of livelihood neither from the personal motivation of the active members nor directly from their customers, but rather from a political center. The purpose is to make the administrative service independent of the personal motives of the members and of the personal motives of the recipients. A decision-making process is brought about that is not personally attractive to anyone, but nevertheless makes sense in the overall interest. It prevents personal motives from distorting the decision-making process.

Chapter five - Audience

Each administrative unit has its own special audience, whose relations are regulated by its decisions.

Distance between administration and audience

The administrative activity differs from that of typical service areas such as schools, orchestras, hospitals, prisons, transport companies in that the cooperation of an audience present is usually not necessary for its success. Administrations are dependent on information from their audience; but the contact can usually be limited to extracting the required information; written communication is sufficient.

The administration is distanced from its audience by the competence to make binding decisions. The administration can limit its authority to its decision-making authority. It is not dependent on the superiority of its members in relation to the public. Higher-ranking people, peers and ordinary people can enter the office. It is part of the ideal position of the system ("equality before the law") that these people all are dealt with regardless of their rank. The style of behavior is purely factual, impersonal, based on general points of view. Such an institution has valves for legitimate aggressiveness, possibilities of reacting to tension, harmless forms of absorption of protests or tolerated opportunities for small illegal acts, through which overly sharp edges of the official structure are worn out.

Functions of negative system images

Negative images of the system in its environment can also have a positive function:

  • they pull down overly high expectations on a realistic level and thereby relax or prepare for disappointment;
  • they serve to absorb protests.

It is important that these negative images are encapsulated, that they are isolated and rendered harmless on a verbal level and that they do not disrupt daily contacts.

An administration cannot tolerate or even use interwoven roles across borders without partially sacrificing the gain of relative distancing that it owes to its right to make binding decisions. As part of its contact systems, it enters into new, structurally adverse, if not illegal, ties. In doing so, it reveals its guiding principle, the model of rational organization, as which it appears.

Chapter Six - Politics

Although their validity claim is empirically refuted, the model of rule and the model of purpose continue to serve as indispensable reference terms for definitions and the formation of theories. According to this, the purposes of administration are decided in politics, while the administration has the means to carry out the political decision and is instructed to do so by political authorities.

Chapter Seven - Personnel

Human agency in the system

Humans do not voluntarily constitute their personality as cogs in a machine. Human agency remains a never fully controllable environment of the administrative system. The organized system does not make use of the motives for action that differ from person to person and that are close to their respective personality. It creates an artificially homogenized motivation structure that corresponds to the organizational interests by making membership in the organization attractive (or, in rare cases, disadvantaging non-membership). This overcomes a first obstacle, the colorful variety of natural motifs. New types of readiness to act are created and can be coordinated with one another and brought to a common denominator with the system interests of the organization and their respective demands from other environments.


This insight contradicts some of the tendencies of today's organizational research towards a humanization of organized coexistence. Its essential components are:

  • abstraction of the role of a member based on both specific and generalized behavioral expectations;
  • separation of this role from expectations of social behavior that are justified outside the system;
  • fulfilling this role with artificial behavioral motives that can be varied through decision-making.

By establishing memberships under these conditions, a relatively free potential for action, detached from personal and social considerations can be obtained, which can be used by decision. By joining an administrative system, the new member assumes a certain role, the recognition of which is a condition of admission, the implementation of which is a condition of the continuation of membership.

The membership role, the elements of which Luhmann calls formal behavioral expectations connected with membership, is only an excerpt from the totality of social behavioral expectations that are directed towards a person inside and outside the organization. It contains constant and variable, general and specific elements. Due to the way in which these elements are linked in a role and secured against external factors, the administrative system remains invariant to its members at this boundary: independent of personal whims and needs.

Permanent membership is only possible with a certain vagueness of the membership obligations, because not all events and situations can be foreseen. The vagueness of a role can be achieved in different ways: by centering the role around an expected attitude which, depending on the circumstances, makes very different, even contradicting actions appear appropriate. Each and every formal expectation of behavior must be suitable as a test for membership continuation. The member's obligation is much more than submission to a generalized administrative authority of the superior. When a subordinate asks him to make a decision on a question of doubt, a superior must also submit to this formal expectation. All external expectations are filtered through the process of formalization at the responsible body before they become binding in the system as expectations for all members. The administration needs such an information control in order to be able to exist between the public and politics and to be able to give well-considered communications across both borders.

Impersonal bureaucratic style

The impersonality of the bureaucratic style serves as an important symbol for the necessary separation of roles. It bypasses and neutralizes personal peculiarities and sensitivities. It creates a space for the more or less covert discussion of formal interaction, power struggles, the gap between expressible and inexpressible principles of action, the tactical difference between knowledge and ignorance and a place for relaxation and reaction from the tensions of organizational life.

Deviance and its attribution

A general consequence of the relief of human experience through the formation of institutions is that an action that corresponds exactly to socially predetermined roles is not experienced as problematic and does not require explanation. No questions are asked about its causes. On the other hand, those who disappoint institutionalized expectations stand out as a person. Although of course social and personal factors always interact, the behavior is initially attributed to the person alone: “Their true character appears in deviant action”.

There are a number of reasons for this trait towards personal attribution of deviant behavior:

  • The person of the doer is an obvious cause, a plausible, visible, indisputable reason for behavior, beyond which normally one does not need to research in order to understand the action: The person explains enough.
  • The person is also a suitable target for disappointment reactions of a symbolic, aggressive or re-motivating nature.
  • The personal attribution of actions allows the social causes of disappointment - and above all: contradicting behavioral expectations, multiple group memberships, diverging sources of legitimacy and loyalties - to remain in the dark. The latency of social contradictions protects the fiction of a uniform norm structure of the social system against corrosive consciousness.

Even if they are largely due to unsolved organizational problems, behavioral difficulties come to mind as personal characteristics and are processed in this form. The personification of system problems as characteristics of the agents is rather a process of illustration, of concretization, the implementation of which stimulates ideas and suggests adequate counter-reactions. After all, behavior towards people is easier than behavior towards organizational problems.

It can be that someone whose position contains more responsibility than authority appears indecisive to others, that the lawyer appears in the administration as formalist and pedant, that contradictions in the work-sharing scheme surface as incompatibility of a department head and those involved with him. They are fooled by their imagination and try to find useful ways out.

Messy problems

Not all problems of a social system are solved once and for all through “correct organization” and “correct individual instructions”. Every system has to grapple with permanent internal problems due to its difficult environmental situation. Organization can only solve some of the system problems, but otherwise only a decision can be made about the form and subject matter in which the problems are overtly treated and as behavioral burdens passed on to the system members.

Passing on organizationally unsolved problems to the individual in the form of unreasonable behavior

Like organizations, personalities are structures for information processing processes. However, unlike organizational programs, their functioning does not require any inter-subjective understanding. They can therefore be used largely unconsciously, so they can be built much more complex than an organization. This difference in the functional conditions of personality and organization enables a general, structural relationship in the relationship between the social system and the individual. Problem solutions of one or the other system are functionally equivalent: they can stand up for one another. Social institutions can relieve the consciousness of the individual. Role conflict exists, because the social system cannot eliminate all contradictions. It sometimes makes conflicting demands on the behavior of the individual. Role strain is understood to be the type and extent of the burden on the individual due to unsolved problems of social order.

Chapter Eight - Environmental Synthesis

A system is controlled by relatively reliable behavioral expectations, to the extent that it develops the autonomy and invariance necessary to be able to enter into meaningful and lasting relationships to several, non-coordinated environments. Because this synthesis goes beyond what happens in the environment by itself, it remains problematic in terms of existence and performance.

In summary, we bring into view those system facilities that bring about this interweaving of requirements of different environments and thus carry the actual system performance. The main principle of these institutions is the ability to differentiate between actions and behavioral expectations and to treat both forms of expression of human existence separately with regard to content, extent of generalization and enforcement, so that in the area of ​​tension between norm and action a certain independent variability and elasticity is achieved. Another important factor is the identification of the system and its limits in the consciousness, which accordingly runs in two directions as the attribution of people and actions to the system and as identification with a complex of norms that must be respected and represented in behavior. On both levels, what belongs to the system is deliberately differentiated from the environment. With the distinction between action and behavioral expectations, the opportunity is gained to specify expectation-orientations to a high degree and to vary them as required. Finally, there must be internal system institutions that regulate the retention of the surplus achieved through system formation and its distribution.

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