I am very pleased to welcome back to Transition Consciousness my good friend Alice who I have not seen in a while due to her move from São Paulo to Santiago, Chile.
In this article, Alice writes about and explains the social autopoiesis theory of Niklas Luhmman. As she discusses, this is still quite a controversial theory, and one that Maria and I and friends discussed recently with Fritjof Capra when he came to São Paulo, since Fritjof covers the work of Luhmman extensively in his new book The Systems View of Life.
Not only has the general theory of autopoiesis (self-making) developed by Maturana and Varela has not yet been taken up by the majority of biologists, but as Alice explains, the extension of autopoiesis into social theory remains more controversial still.
The interesting observation for me is that while the biological basis of the theory remains largely ignored, the ideas have proven to be of great interest to organisational theorists, which leads to a rather great co-incidence in that the book I am currently reading and have been writing about – Tor Hernes’ A Process Theory of Organization, is one such example, citing am extremely interesting 2003 study by Hendry and Seidell on how social autopoiesis can be used as a theoretical framework to explain the manner in which organisational meetings connect temporally:
In Luhmann’s theory, espisodes serve as events at which autopoietic reproduction is continued, while opening up the possibility that meaning can be changed during the episode. During episodes, consciousness may be disturbed and lead to re-interpretation of meaning structures.
Tor Hernes, A Process Theory of Organization, p89
Alice is currently studying Applied Systemic Analysis for Society in Chile, and so as someone with a deep interest in complexity and social systems theory I am delighted to share this reflection from not only a good friend but also a fellow systems thinker.
Complexity, Systems Thinking and Sociology
When it comes to complexity and sustainability we often come across names such as Bertalanffy, Ilya Prigogine, Donella Meadows, Fritof Capra, and others, but we rarely come across complexity and systems theories through the “eyes” of Sociology.
How would we observe society if Sociology saw it as a system? This was one of the questions a German sociologist tried to answer. His name is Niklas Luhmman and he started where many of others started, precisely in one of those names we often hear when studying and discussing sustainability: in Bertalanffy. He also read and incorporated ideas of other renowned authors from many areas of knowledge.
He is known to have read thousands of books from Philosophy to Cybernetics, Sociology to Biology, Phenomenology to Psychology and more.
Sounds interesting? It is. And it is also controversial. Many authors criticize Luhmann, including Humberto Maturana who created along with Francisco Varela the concept of autopoiesis, one of the main concepts in the luhmannian theory. Maturana claims Luhmman’s theory changed its meaning and it excludes “we”, humans beings.
I’ll explain. For Niklas Luhmman society is not made of people as traditional Sociology postulates. It is a system made by communications.
So we don’t study people? We don’t observe people to understand society? No. We study and observe communication, more specifically social systems’ communications.
So criticism’s allegations are right? No. Luhmann does not exclude humans from society, what he does is to define that the most essential component of society is communication. Why? Because a group of people itself doesn’t make society exist, it starts existing when there is communication. Also, because in society not only people communicate, but systems itself communicate too. When we see a protest, for example, it is not someone communicating it is a system communicating.
The logic he uses is that the world is made out of systems and society is the biggest social system. The “all-encompassing” social system. It’s worth noting the use of the word “social”; Luhmann uses it on purpose meaning social system is not the only “type” of systems the world is made out. He defines four types of systems: social systems, psychological systems, biological systems and ecological/natural systems. All of them operate in its own way and have its own dynamic and characteristics. The key thing to understand why Luhmann does not “exclude humans” is to understand that postulating they are different systems does not mean they do not depend on each other and/or are presupposition for the other to exist.
This “dependency” comes, firstly, from the two concepts that are fundamental to his theory: system and surrounding. There is no system without surrounding. In other words, to limit what is inside a system you need to define what is not. After, come the concepts of autopoeisis and operational closure. Autopoieseis means the system auto-produces itself by its own elements and it sustains itself in its own operations; operational closure means it operates only with his own elements. And finally, there is the concept of structural coupling, which is how systems “relate”. And when we think about the four types of systems we understand although they operate differently, they do depend on each other.
Thus, Luhmann constructs a theory based in systems thinking and complexity applied to the observation of society, including Sociology and the theory itself (something to discuss further).
With this, he sets the ground to his General Systems Theory that claims universality, integrality and applicability to produce explanations to all social subjects we want or need to observe, be they structures, movements, organizations, programs or even daily actions. You choose it.
Reference: Luhmann is particularly noteworthy by the book “Theroy of Society” (Die Gesellschaft der GesellschaftI).
Alice is an independent consultant, working with social, cultural and environmental projects, as well as working in the areas of youth policy, gender and social participation. She graduated in Social Communication from Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing – ESPM-SP, with a post-graduation in Globalization and Culture from Fundação Escola de Sociologia e Política – FESP-SP. She is currently studying the masters degree in Applied Systemic Analysis in Society at The University of Chile.