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)

Luhmann made easy

Niklas Luhmann's Systems Theory

The Self-Referential Nature of Systems

Sociology, as an integral component of society, offers a comprehensive examination of the society it is a part of, resulting in a paradoxical starting point with implications. Niklas Luhmann's systems theory illustrates this self-referential quality, where systems themselves are inherently self-referential. Luhmann’s theory incorporates the presence of observers and their observation instruments within the scope of observation objects. Consequently, systems theory must consistently acknowledge its self-referential nature as one of its own objects. Systems exist within reality, and we can recognize and describe them. But we have to recognize that our statements concerning reality are fundamentally constructions, rather than objective truths.

Foundations of System Operations

A system is a complex entity characterized by organized functionality, primarily consisting of operations, which are the unique, essential activities intrinsic to systems, rather than physical entities. Two guiding principles, autopoiesis and the differentiation between system and environment, underpin the operations of all systems.

Information Processing in Systems: The Role of Selective Transformation

Information is not an inherent quality of the external world but is assigned value by the system. It involves the selective transformation of certain irritations into information, excluding most stimuli as noise. A system's susceptibility to environmental influence depends on its readiness and capability to do so. In essence, systems are self-constructed through autopoiesis, and a system created by external entities is not considered a true system by Luhmann.

Structural Couplings and Boundaries: How Systems Interact with their Environment

Systems maintain a connection to their environment through thermodynamic and other forms of disturbances and influence possibilities. This interaction sustains itself through open boundaries, allowing for resource and exchange of disturbance. This mutual influence and impact between systems and their environment, termed irritations by Luhmann, support structural couplings when relationships form at the boundaries.

Operational Closure and Communication

Systems exhibit operational closure; they’re able to perform operations based on the outcomes of their own operations. Yet, they remain interconnected with the environment through ongoing irritations and influence possibilities. Communication is a vital component of society and differs from the actions of individuals. Luhmann's system theory contends that humans are part of society's environment rather than intrinsic components, and communication, rather than individual actions, forms the smallest unit of a social system.

Interdependence of Social and Psychological Systems - Consciousness as a Bridge

Luhmann opposes the conflation of psychological and social systems, stressing the non-psychological character of social systems. Despite this distinction, social and psychological systems are interdependent, with structural couplings evident in various contexts, such as the mutual adaptation between mass media and media users. The coordination and interdependence between these systems permeate our existence, with psychological systems capable of sensing the world and conveying it to social systems through consciousness, enabling communication to function.

Luhmann's Insights on Communication

Communication - More Than Just Talking

Luhmann's perspective on communication challenges common beliefs. Communication isn't just about individuals talking to each other. Communication plays a central role in society, in which selectivity and uncertainty shape its process. Luhmann fundamentally rethought the sender-receiver dynamic in communication. He stressed that the receiver's interpretation drives successful communication.

Communication isn’t about agreement. It’s about continuity. Communication perpetuates itself through interactions. Ego and alter influence each other's choices in dynamic interactions. Be it psychological systems or social entities like groups or businesses, these systems present themselves to one another as black boxes. Ego and alter engage in interaction, mutually experiencing and observing each other, even though they remain opaque and inscrutable to each other. Nevertheless, they operate under the assumption of mutual influence, calculating meaningful impacts and thereby giving rise to connection operations. Social systems come into existence through double contingency; its temporal asymmetry has to be grasped to understand how social order comes about, despite the initial odds of disparate actions. In such conditions, every act of self-determination, whether random or calculated, carries informational and connective value for subsequent actions. Due to the self-referential nature of systems, where A is determined by B and vice versa, every chance, impulse, or error becomes productive.

Luhmann's Views on Media, Language, and Meaning

Media functions both as a conduit and a boundary for selection possibilities. Luhmann used the game of chess as an analogy: the game sets the parameters and rules, while the moves within the game represent the expansion of possibilities. He argues that every decision made creates an open flank, signifying that each communication form references other potential forms not chosen. Forms are self-referential and indicate the boundaries between various possible forms.

While specific meanings may be subject to denial, the medium of meaning itself remains intact. Meaning permeates every aspect of human experience. Language forms a bridge between psychological and social systems. It connects consciousness and communication. In language, sound and meaning are entirely distinct entities. While nonverbal behavior can constitute communication when it can be interpreted as a message, this interpretation necessitates prior knowledge of the distinction between information and communication, a development facilitated by the emergence of language. Language introduces a duplication element, enabling the formulation of both positive and negative statements. The language structure operates through a binary code, assigning a positive and negative statement to every utterance.

Writing and the printing press reconfigured time, culture, and communication. It became possible to reach a broader audience over extended periods. The printing press encourages clear thinking, helps find errors in old ways of doing things, and makes it easier to understand contradictions.

Modern society is marked by the act of observation, which involves scrutinizing events, situations, operations, objects, and systems based on specific distinctions, such as new/old, good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, or other recognizable patterns. This isn't direct observation of the world and its components (first-order observation) but rather observing what others have investigated, distinguished, and described (second-order observation). The advent of writing and printing allows society to disentangle action from observation, permitting the employment of differentiation schemes tailored exclusively for observation. In this context, schemas like manifest/latent and functional comparison serve as observation tools. Notably, the printing of texts describing the system facilitates communication about society, rather than with society, as society lacks a direct communication address and cannot be reached through conventional communication means.

Film, Television, and the Illusion of Synchronicity

Film and TV make things look real as they happen, making them seem like they're really taking place at the same time, which feels more genuine. Editing techniques can manipulate the perception of time in film. Movies and TV create a different world that makes us trust what we see, making us believe that everything can be shared with the world.

Luhmann's comparison of images and language in communication

Images and words are different in communication. Images are easy to understand, but sometimes we still need to figure out what they mean. Movies and TV use technology to seem like they're speaking to us, and they bring back a feeling of how people used to communicate before words. Computers and digital media also change how we communicate. We need to understand all the ways we communicate with computers, through computers, and by computers.

The Societal Function of Mass Media

Mass media is like its own separate system in society. It plays a big role in showing us what's happening in the world. We mostly learn about society and the world from mass media, but the way it works is through things like printing and recording. This mediation is very important because it helps create a whole system for mass media to work in. It doesn't rely on people talking to each other directly anymore, which means that what we see in mass media isn't just one person's idea of what's real, but it's kind of made up of lots of different things. The organizations that make mass media have to make sure that what they put out there is acceptable to the public, so they often have to standardize things and figure out how to keep people interested. Mass media doesn't show us reality as it really is, because there's no one true version of reality. Instead, it creates its own version of reality, which is kind of like a copy but not exactly the same. People don't expect mass media to always tell the absolute truth, so we should look at what it shows us more carefully.

Temporal Dynamics in Mass Media

Different ways of communication, like talking, writing, printing, and electronic media, all have their own sense of time. Mass media, which deals a lot with information, makes time even more important. It's like a time machine that affects both the media and society in general. The big thing in mass media is telling the difference between what's information and what's not. But just this idea isn't enough to understand everything media does. They have to organize information into categories like sports, politics, or disasters. It's important to remember that not everything counts as important information in the eyes of the mass media.

Media Manipulation Suspicions and the Complex Dynamics of Mass Media

There's a concern that media outlets might not always show the whole truth. They might choose news that supports their interests or goals. Even in news that's supposed to be truthful, like video reports, there's a chance they could be misleading. When media organizations create news, they go through a careful process. They take information from the world and remove it from its original context. This is like the first step in a three-step process: picking what information to use. Then, they turn that raw information into a coherent news story, making sense of it. Interestingly, mass media not only reports on events but also creates new ideas and concepts, sometimes different from what's happening in reality. This happens through condensation, confirmation, generalization, and simplification. It's important to understand that all choices, whether in everyday conversations or mass media, follow these steps, and they don't always perfectly match what's happening in the real world. These steps create meanings that stay consistent across different situations. For example, when talking about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, media uses these steps to create concepts like "oil spill" and "environmental catastrophe".

Advertising affects us too. It doesn't necessarily change our opinions but influences our attention and memory. For example, some people who don’t have a taste of style, might rely on ads to make “stylish” choices.

Entertainment is a big part of mass media too. Fictional entertainment, like movies and TV shows, creates its own made-up worlds. They are like a second reality that exists within media. Staged entertainment, like reality TV, presents a believable but not agreed-upon reality. People can choose to accept or reject it, which gives them freedom. This mix of a second reality with the real world is what makes entertainment appealing.

In contrast, news and reports in mass media have a strong commitment to showing what's really happening. They aim to reflect real reality as accurately as possible. This second reality, like in entertainment, doesn't have the same obligation to be exactly like the real world. People can choose to believe it or not, striking a balance between freedom and constraint that can be interesting. Engaging with fiction and staged entertainment teaches us about the idea of putting on a show and not always telling the whole truth.

Entertainment gives us a reality that seems believable but doesn't force everyone to agree on it. In things like movies and TV shows, they can use real stuff, but they don't have to. It's kind of like a balance between being believable and letting people make up their minds about it. People decide if they like it or not, and this helps them figure out their own place in the real world. It's a choice they make, sort of like how they interact with other people.

Schemes and themes

To explain how our minds and society work, scheme (Schema) is like the machinery that makes our thoughts and society work, and theme (Thema) is what we think about using this machinery. Mass media, people, and society all work with these themes; the links between them. Themes are how mass media connects with other parts of society, and their success depends on people accepting them. Themes can be about individuals or groups, and they make communication easier by simplifying things. Mass media uses its own ways, like condensation, confirmation, generalization, and simplification, to create themes. These themes are things that mass media create, and they wouldn't exist without mass media. Nowadays, we can't always communicate directly, so we need these created objects to talk about.

Mass media has two sides. It can make us feel safe and certain, but it can also make us feel uneasy and uncertain. It gives us knowledge but also shows the problems in the world. It often highlights what's new or different, which reminds us that the world isn't perfect. It's not just in news; even ads and entertainment often focus on issues and challenges. Our understanding of reality doesn't come from just seeing things but is something we create. We compare what we think with other ideas rather than proving it against the real world.

Mass media don't shape what we think; they represent what people already think. Other forms of public opinion can come from citizens themselves. The public is like a mirror that reflects what's going on inside different parts of society. Mass media watches what's happening in things like politics, economics, and medicine, and turns that into news and messages. Public opinion became more important in the past as people stopped believing in fixed truths. The printing press played a big role in this change. Society is now guided by public opinion. Communication needs certain things like a common language and shared themes to work. These themes trigger different opinions from people. Public opinion isn't about everyone agreeing; it's about society having shared themes with many possible individual opinions.

The Future of Communication

As technology gets better, space matters less, and time matters more. Things like TV and the internet make it possible to communicate across the world instantly. Mass media is always making new information, which makes everything feel fast and always changing. The present becomes just a small part between the past and the future, and the focus shifts to what's happening in the future. The future of communication is expected to have even more ways to communicate. The idea of having too much information isn't seen as a problem. Communication has evolved from speaking to writing, mass media, and electronic media, and it will keep evolving. Information can be both certain and uncertain at the same time.

Nonverbal communication, like body language, is still important, even in the modern age. When we talk face-to-face, we use nonverbal cues to understand what someone is saying and how they feel. Nonverbal signals can sometimes be more trustworthy than words. As our communication has become more complex, we've had to find ways to choose what's important. Nonverbal communication has been around for a long time and helps us control and understand our verbal communication. The shift from talking directly to using media like writing has made communication more complicated, and we've had to figure out how to choose what to pay attention to. Direct communication is where our social evolution and individual growth start, and it sets the standards for what's important in communication.


Berghaus, M. (2011), Luhmann leicht gemacht: Eine Einführung in die Systemtheorie, 3rd enlarged edition, Stuttgart: UTB verlag.

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