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

Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) came from a civilian environment and had a liberal attitude: "I want to be able to do what I want to do and within the legal framework (...), and [defend myself] against political interference in private life." (Hagen, 2004)

Luhmann experienced the Second World War between age 12 and 17:
"I had to go to the Hitler Youth, all those unpleasant things like marching and salutes, and (...) found the self-portrayal of the regime simply disgusting." (Ibidem)

Luhmann was beaten during interrogations in 1945 while he was a prisoner of war. After the war, he studied Roman law, because he desired to create order, having experienced the disorder of war. In Roman law he clearly saw the skill of construction, a consistent assignment of cases to terms. Roman civil law was based on an edict of a magistrate, with positions and orders that were then to decide court cases.

Luhmann was, for German sociology, the founder of the theory of social systems, the sociological branch of general systems theory, based on phenomenology, constructivism, and the sociological systems theory of Talcott Parsons. Luhmann saw modern society as functionally differentiated into subsystems: politics, law, religion, science, the family/private sphere, education and the economy. Each of these subsystems communicates with the psychological system (individual humans) in its own way. The political system speaks in the binary code power/impotence (government/opposition). The legal system spreaks in the binary code right/wrong. The economic system speaks in the binary code pay/don't pay. Finally, the science system speaks in the binary code true/false.


Luhmann was influenced by George Spencer Brown's "Laws of Form" and used it as a foundation for his social systems theory. The central idea of the "Laws of Form" is that all forms can be understood as the result of a process of distinction, in which something is identified as different from its surroundings or context. According to Spencer Brown, this process of distinction is fundamental to the way we understand and perceive the world, and it is the basis for all logical and mathematical reasoning.

According to Luhmann, social systems are self-organizing systems that are characterized by the ability to communicate and make distinctions. He argued that the process of distinction is central to the way social systems operate and that it is the basis for the creation and maintenance of social order.

Luhmann's organizational system science

Luhmann writes that organization, from an evolutionary perspective, is a way to deal with the unpredictable nature of the world. Organizations create decision-making options that are not based on personal interpretations of meaning, and they can even override traditional forms of legitimation (Luhmann, 1975). In modern society, organizations are the functional equivalent of moral integration, because they create a separation between the personal and social systems.

Luhmann's work is of value for organizational science. For example, in 1964 he wrote that goals are only well-chosen if they mean something specific in choice situations. Every organization is committed to a selection of values that it cannot simply deny or ignore without causing problems in environmental relations. Consequences of actions not covered by the goal are either externalized, i.e. attributed to the environment, or they appear as costs of the chosen resources in the system, but are then accepted for the sake of the goal.

One of the problems with a goal like zero accidents is its bold one-sidedness. It may fit in with the low complexity of individual actions, but it does not do justice to the much higher complexity of the system and its environmental relationships.

Luhmann's organizational structures include decision-making programs, fixed communication channels and people who make their body and mind, their reputation and their personal contacts available for decision-making, partly expanding and partly limiting what can be decided. Luhmann saw systems, including organizations, as consisting of actions, which he later called communication. In his view, people belong to the environment of organizations; people themselves are psychological systems. Therefore, they have a certain autonomy with regard to the organization (Ortmann, 2022).

“If one adopts these abstract system-theoretical considerations for the reconstruction of the relationship between personal and social systems, one must view personal systems as interpenetrating systems, while social systems, on the other hand, are systems constituted by interpenetration. It then becomes immediately evident that social systems do not consist of persons and that one must distinguish their subsystems from the interpenetrating systems. A decomposition of social systems into subsystems, partial subsystems or ultimately into functional elements and relations never leads to persons, it decomposes, so to speak, past the persons. Depending on analytical or practical needs, it ends with companies or organizational departments or with roles or communicative acts, but never with concrete people or parts of people (teeth, tongues, etc.)." (Luhmann, 1981, p. 157)

Could Luhmann's work be used for Resilience Engineering?

One aspect of Resilience Engineering is the recognition that formal structures and procedures alone are insufficient to ensure system resilience. Niklas Luhmann's early work aligns with the current thinking that formal structures and procedures are insufficient to ensure system resilience. Luhmann (1964) argued that not all aspects of system functioning can be fully formalized or converted into official tasks. This resonates with the current understanding in Resilience Engineering that organizations need to be adaptable and capable of deviating from formal procedures when necessary to respond effectively to unexpected situations.   Luhmann's concept of formal expectations and their reliance on social consensus is relevant to Resilience Engineering as well. Resilient systems are characterized by a shared understanding of expected behaviors, norms, and values among their members. Luhmann's emphasis on the collective support and recognition of formal expectations within organizations aligns with the importance of shared mental models and a common understanding of system goals and principles in Resilience Engineering.   Resilience Engineering recognizes the importance of distributed decision-making, decentralized control, and flexible coordination in enabling adaptive responses to unexpected events. Luhmann's analysis of hierarchy as a result of inclusive membership and the recognition of the hierarchical structure within organizations can inform discussions on how to balance hierarchical control with distributed decision-making to promote resilience.   Finally, Luhmann's examination of border roles and their function in providing critical information from the system's environment is also relevant to Resilience Engineering. Resilient systems need mechanisms to monitor and detect potential disturbances or changes in their operating context. Luhmann's discussion of the challenges faced by boundary functions in transmitting critical information from the system's borders to the top emphasizes the importance of effective communication and information sharing between blunt end and sharp end operators.

Why does reporting safety issues often not lead to improvement?

Sociologist Niklas Luhmann wrote about this "Unlikelihood of Communication". He argued that communication must be viewed through a counter-phenomenal approach to gain new insights.

Luhmann saw communication as a problem rather than a phenomenon, and suggested that it's fundamentally unlikely due to three obstacles, or "thresholds of discouragement":
1. The receiver may not understand the sender's message due to contextual frameworks;
2. Communication may not reach more people than those present;
3. Even if understood, the receiver may not accept the sender's intention.

Luhmann suggested these three thresholds deter communication, and solving one may make it harder to solve the others.

This perspective has helped me on countless occasions to understand problems in the reporting of safety issues. Examples of thoughts in the mind of a receiver of safety reports:
1. I never heard from anything like this. What the heck does this mean? Does this concern our system or something in the environment?
2. This issue not my responsibility and I don’t know whose responsibility it is.
3. Here we go again with this non-issue! Why don’t they just forget about it?

Hagen, W. (ed., 2004), Warum haben Sie keinen Fernseher, Herr Luhmann? Letzte Gespräche mit Niklas Luhmann, Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos.

Luhmann, N. (1964), Funktionen und Folgen formeler Organisation, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Luhmann, N. (1975), Legitimation durch Verfahren, 2. Auflage, Darmstadt/Neuwied: Luchterhand.

Luhmann, N. (1981), Soziologische Aufklärung 3 - Soziales System, Gesellschaft, Organisation, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.

Ortmann, G. (2022), Luhmann und die Menschen, ihre Zähne und Zungen, in: Versus, Magazin für kritische Organisationspraxis.