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

In the first chapter of Niklas Luhmann's Die Grenzen Der Verwaltung (The Limits of Administration), Luhmannpresents his theory of public administration and discusses the status and development opportunities of the science of public administration. He notes that the different administrative sciences, including law, economics (business administration), political science, sociology, and psychology, do not align due to their different terms and methods. Luhmann discusses the limitations of each of these fields in relation to public administration and suggests that sociology, specifically the subdiscipline of interaction theory, may provide a better understanding of rational action in organizations. He also discusses the concept of functional differentiation and how it relates to the development of modern society and the role of public administration within it. Luhmann asserts that the science of public administration should not aim to replicate the methods of other disciplines, but should instead develop its own specific methods and concepts in order to better understand the unique problems and challenges facing public administration.


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


Luhmann discusses the concept of a system and its relationship to other substances. He explains that a system is a structure of mutually related terms that are self-contained and only connected to external substances in an accidental, non-essential way. He also discusses the concept of interdependence, which refers to the mutual dependence of the parts of a system and plays a critical role in defining the limits of the system. Luhmann argues that the degree of interdependence in a system can vary in different dimensions and that modern systems theory views this as a variable. He also discusses functional processes in systems, explaining that these processes contribute to the maintenance of invariant structures and system boundaries. Finally, Luhmann discusses the concept of causality and how it relates to the constantly changing and uncontroll environment of open systems. He argues that open systems must selectively engage in both the services they receive and the services they provide in order to maintain themselves.


Luhmann discusses the concept of expectation and its role in systems. He argues that systems can only be formed from individual actions if actors anticipate and can relate to other actions, and he introduces the concept of expectation as a more neutral way of understanding the meaningful future orientation of human action. Luhmann also discusses the importance of expectations in the maintenance of system structure and the inside/outside distinction. He explains that expectations can be used as norms and roles to gain an objective connection with other expectations, and that they can be changed or simplified in order to adapt to new external expectations. Luhmann also introduces the concept of function, which he defines as a comparative method in the social sciences that enables systems to remain indifferent to or compensate for changes in their environment by offering functionally equivalent possibilities. He also discusses the concept of communication and how it relates to the production and maintenance of meaning in systems. Finally, Luhmanndiscusses the role of meaning in the organization of social systems and how it allows systems to differentiate themselves from their environment and to function as autopoietic units.


Chapter three - structure as system performance


Luhmann discusses the generalization of behavioral expectations and their role in the organization of social systems. He argues that classical organizational theory sees system structure as a rational instrument that is unrelated to the environment or the facticity of behavior, and that organizational sociology has treated the outcomes of self-organization as a question of motivation. Luhmann introduces the concept of role formation as a process that takes place in every social system and that is directed towards the future, making every expectation uncertain and in need of reinforcement. He explains that roles are standardized and institutionalized units that are essential to the rationalization of social systems, and that they are multi-dimensional social processes that are constituted by norms and institutionalizations. Luhmann also discusses the problems of structuration in social systems, explaining that they require and enable action on a partly fictional basis and that they rely on the context of actions without providing any security beyond the functioning of the systems. He also discusses the concept of autopoiesis and how it relates to the organization of social systems.



Chapter four - The general constellation


Luhmann discusses the concept of adaptation and its role in the organization of social systems. He explains that adaptation alone is not a viable maxim because it assumes that the environment is rationally ordered, stable, harmonious, and free of contradictions, which is not the case in reality. Luhmannargues that the problem of adaptation can only be posed in a generalized form and that a system is adapted to the environment if it can maintain itself identically and sustainably with a relatively invariant structure. He also discusses the concept of environmental differentiation, explaining that a system differentiates its environment in order to separate and specialize its contacts and to cultivate contradicting behaviors at the same time. Luhmann argues that environmental differentiation is only possible if certain minimum conditions are met, including a guaranteed ability and willingness to specify social relationships, the ability of members to adjust to the recognition of specific role expectations as a membership condition, and the familiarity of non-members with the correspondence roles of bureaucracy. Finally, Luhmann discusses the concept of autopoiesis and how it relates to the organization of social systems.


Chapter five - Audience


Luhmann discusses the relationship between administrative systems and their audience. He explains that administrative systems are distinct from other service areas because they do not require the cooperation of their audience for their success. Instead, they rely on extracting information from their audience and can maintain distance through their competence to make binding decisions. Luhmann also discusses the role of negative system images and their function in pulling down overly high expectations and absorbing protests. He notes that these images must be encapsulated and isolated to avoid disrupting daily contacts. Finally, Luhmann explains that administrative systems can enter into structurally adverse or even illegal ties with their audience, revealing the guiding principle of their rational organization.


Chapter Six - Politics


Despite being empirically refuted, the models of rule and purpose continue to serve as important reference points for definitions and theory development in the field of administration. According to these models, the goals of the administration are determined by political authorities, while the administration has the resources and mandate to implement these decisions.


Chapter Seven - Personnel


Luhmann discusses the role of human agency in systems. He argues that while humans do not willingly constitute themselves as cogs in a machine, their agency remains an uncontroll environment within the administrative system. The system creates an artificially homogenized motivation structure that corresponds to its organizational interests by making membership attractive. This allows the system to coordinate and bring together different types of readiness to act under common denominators that align with the system's interests and demands from other environments. Luhmannalso discusses the concept of membership in the system, in which new members assume a certain role that is recognized as a condition of admission and the implementation of which is a condition for the continuation of membership. The impersonality of the bureaucratic style serves as a symbol for the necessary separation of roles and neutralizes personal peculiarities and sensitivities. Luhmann also discusses deviance within the system, arguing that deviant behavior is often attributed to individuals rather than the system itself, and that deviance serves a functional role within the system by providing a means of communication and a way to maintain boundaries.


Chapter Eight - Environmental Synthesis


Luhmann discusses the mechanisms that allow a system to control and maintain itself, even in the face of complex and changing environments. These mechanisms include the ability to differentiate between actions and behavioral expectations, to identify the limits of the system and to regulate the distribution of resources within the system. Luhmann argues that these mechanisms are essential for the system to be able to enter into meaningful and lasting relationships with multiple, non-coordinated environments, and that they help the system to achieve a degree of autonomy and invariance. The synthesis of requirements from different environments remains problematic in terms of existence and performance.