Luhmann’s Autopoietic Social System

Reviewed against general system theory concepts

https://bit.ly/2EZzyn4

Copyright 2016 Graham Berrisford. One of more than 100 papers on the System Theory page at http://avancier.website. Last updated 03/05/2019 11:28

 

It is common to draw an analogy between biology and sociology; but the analogy is often questionable or misleading.

This is one of a pair papers looking at the notion of autopoiesis in biology and sociology.

Maturana’s Autopoietic Organism suggests organisations are not well described as either autopoietic or operationally closed.

Luhmann’s Autopoietic Social System shows Luhmann gives radically different meanings to “autopoietic”, “social” and “system” from other sources.

 

Luhmann’s theory is an interesting construction, impressive in some ways.

But this paper questions whether the theory makes sense, and if it does make sense, whether it is useful.
It appears mostly incompatible with the more general system theory that underpins enterprise architecture.

It looks like only two of Luhmann’s core concepts can be seen in enterprise architecture methods.

 

The paper follows the explanation in “Luhmann’s theory of autopoietic social systems” by David Seidl (Munich Business Research).

Seidl’s research looks thorough, and convincing about what Luhmann meant.

If I have misunderstood his explanation, or if my analysis of those concepts is illogical, I will welcome redirection.

Contents

A few normal system concepts. 1

Luhmann’s radical reinterpretations. 2

Mapping Luhmann’s concepts to general system theory concepts. 6

Some discussion. 11

Conclusions and remarks. 13

Footnotes. 16

Seidl’s references. 18

 

A few normal system concepts

The term system is widely used, but loosely, and with a variety of meanings.

At its most vacuous, it means only "a set of things that are related to each other, if only by their relationship to something else.”

The concept was defined more purposefully, in his introduction to cybernetics, by Ross Ashby.

The question is not so much "what is this system?" as ''what does it do?"

Cybernetics and general system theory are mostly about systems that exhibit regular or repeatable behaviors.

 

An abstract system contains the roles and rules that actors and their activities are supposed to adhere to.

It is abstraction from the infinite complexity of any entity that realises it.

In a concrete system, actors realise an abstract system through their actions on objects or variables.

E.g. The roles and rules of the stickleback mating ritual are realised by countless pairs of sticklebacks.

 

These and other system theory concepts are ubiquitous in modern systems analysis and design methods.

This table distinguishes an abstract system from its realisation by the actors in a social network (who can act in other systems)

 

Abstract social system

A set of roles and rules (the logic or laws actors follow)

Concrete social system

Actors playing the roles and acting according to the rules

Social network

Actors who inter-communicate and act as they choose

 

Typically, actors communicate by creating/sending and receiving/interpreting messages.

The normal presumption is that message receivers find the meanings created by message senders.

And that actors remember at least some transient message content in persistent memory.

Luhmann’s radical reinterpretations

Few if any normal presumptions hold in Luhmann’s social system theory.

He gave radically different meanings to the terms “autopoietic”, “social” and “system”.

And Seidl speaks of Luhmann “deontologising” and “detemporalising” system concepts.

Re-interpretation of autopoiesis – as a more abstract idea

Read Maturana’s Autopoietic Organism for an introduction to his concepts of autopoiesis and operational closure.

Luhmann was a radical; he changed the meaning of autopoiesis.

“Luhmann did not apply the original concept directly to the social domain

but tried to abstract from the originally biological concept of autopoiesis.” Seidl

 

In Luhmann’s more abstract view, autopoiesis has the following more general meaning.

In an autopoietic system, the elements of the system are produced entirely by the elements of the system.

He went on to build a castle on the foundation of this abstraction.

Re-interpretation of sociological system – as communication only

“Though it grew out of organismic biology, general system theory soon branched into most of the humanities.” Laszlo and Krippner.

Kenneth Boulding’s essay in the journal of Management Science 1956 may have been the first to apply general system theory to social entities.

Since then, many systems thinkers have looked at a society or social network as a system of actors and actions, or entities and events.

 

The social system’s basic elements?

 The first decision Luhmann as a theoretician had to make for constructing his general sociological theory of autopoiesis is what to treat as the basic elements of the social system.

The sociological tradition suggests two alternatives: either persons or actions.

... he chooses a completely different element… the communicative event; promoting a 'conceptual revolution' (Luhmann 1986: 178).” Seidl

Again, in general system theory, a concrete system features persistent actors and transient activities.

 

Luhmann focused instead on the outcomes of communication activities.

His core ideas might be distilled as:

·         Organic/psychic systems make utterances (by speech, writing, waving flags or whatever).

·         A communicative event occurs in the moment when a receiver interprets and uses an utterance (following the “principle of hermeneutics”)

·         A social system is composed of communicative events that relate to one theme or code (such as justice/injustice).

 

Communication is the only genuinely social operation” Seidl.

Then how to bound a social system?  Luhmann suggested a system contains all communicative events related to a central theme or code.

The idea is that a set of communicative events – because they are related to each other by one code - form a system.

 

Hmm... defining a system as a set of things related only by their relationship to something else might be questioned, but let that pass.

This table exemplifies the idea.

 

Social system

Composed of communicative events about this code

Legal system

justice/injustice

Economic system

payment/non-payment

System of science

truth/untruth

Political system

power/non-power

 

What makes Luhmann’s view so radical is that his social system contains nothing but communicative events.

It has no persistent state in the form of actors, objects, data or memory.

It not only depends on communicative events, it is communicative events.

It is the set of communicative events related to one theme or code such as justice/injustice.

 

Who decides or agrees what themes/codes exist, and can be communicated about?

I am not sure Luhmann addresses that.

 

The social system’s actors?

Luhmann deconstructed human society by separating communicative events from the actors who make utterances and hear them.

He distinguished three kinds of system, which interact but do not overlap.

He regarded each system type as autopoeitic in a different way.

 

In an autopoietic system

the elements

are produced entirely by the elements

Organic system

molecules and cells

molecules and cells

Psychic system

thoughts

thoughts

Social system

communicative events

communicative events

 

Aside: maintaining the Cartesian dualist’s separation of mind from body might be questioned, but let that pass.

 

Social, organic and psychic systems are distinct, but interact or “interpenetrate” (as Parsons may have said).

A person is a compound of organic and psychic systems.

Each communicative event in a human social system depends on the existence of at least two people

People have expectations that lead to communications, which in turn tend to re-reinforce the expectations of other people.

 

“The relation between social system and 'human being' is a very controversial aspect of Luhmann's theory;

it is also the most misunderstood aspect.

In Luhmann's theory the 'human being' has to be understood as a conglomerate of organic and psychic systems.”

 

“Although psychic systems trigger communication processes and vice versa - we repeat this point, since it is very important

  the processes of the psychic system and the social system do not overlap in any way.”

 

“Although psychic systems are necessarily involved in bringing about communication,

the communication (as this unit) cannot be understood as the product of any particular psychic system.”

 

“What the ‘involved’ psychic systems think during the communication processes,

i.e. how the psychic systems understand the communication, is (at first) completely irrelevant for the communication.” Seidl

 

When is the meaning of a communication event determined?

Luhmann adhered to what is sometimes called hermeneutic principle, which means as follows.

A communicative event only comes into existence when a receiver attributes an utterance to a theme or code.

That attribution, and the meaning of the utterance, is determined by a receiver in the moment that they interpret and use that utterance.

 

Note this means that one message, on receipt by several recipients, may belong to several systems.

 

The social system’s state?

Luhmann’s social system has no persistent state.

The system holds no persistent record of a communicative event.

The system, if not unbounded, is immaterial/intangible/amorphous.

It is the purest of pure abstractions, it exists only in moments when communicative events happen – when a receiving actor finds a meaning in an utterance and acts on it.

 

Like Parsons’ ideas, Luhmann’s system is questionable on the grounds that it appears metaphysical rather than scientific.

Reinterpretation of organisation - as a social decision system

In Luhmann’s view, in modern society, organisations are social systems that reproduce themselves on the basis of decisions.

A decision is a communication that (explicitly or implicitly) communicates that other alternatives have been not been selected.

So, to say “the sky is blue” is to communicate a conclusion or decision that the sky is not any other colour.

 

In Luhmann’s view of history, social systems have evolved through four forms.

 

Model of society

meaning

Segmentation

division into equal subsystems, tribes, clans or families

Centre and periphery

division between city and country.

Stratification

in the late medieval times a hierarchy of different social strata or classes

Functional subsystems

specialisms in modern society, e.g. law, science, economy, art,

 

Such sociological histories are questionable.

Hunter-gatherer societies featured specialised roles (hunters, gatherers, food preparers, child rearers, weapon makers, etc.)

And the Domesday book suggests society was strongly stratified before cities.

However, Luhmann allows that each primary form can be combined with the other forms of differentiation on a secondary level.

And the historical sequence is not important here.

 

What does matters here is Luhmann’s focus on the last of the four forms - the functional subsystem.

All the communicative events in one functional system ‘carry’ the same specific code.

Two functional systems cannot ‘exchange’ their communications.

·         An economic communication cannot take part in the scientific system.

·         A political communication cannot take part in the legal system etc.

 

Communications as decisions

In Luhmann’s view, organisations are systems that consist of decisions.

Organisations produce the decisions, of which they consist, through consuming the decisions of which they consist.

Every decision is the product of earlier decisions and gives rise to ensuing decisions.

 

Hmm... social communications do convey relatively passive information, descriptions, opinions and emotions.

If saying “The sky looks blue” or “I’m sad” is to communicate a decision, then every observation of the world is a decision.

It is a decision made by an organic/psychic entity about a perception they have made.

I am unclear if this applies also to asking questions like: “How many orders has this customer placed this year?”

 

Utterances and communicative events

In this paper, physical messages are called utterances.

Luhmann's communicative events are triggered when one organic/psychic system receives an utterance made by another.

An utterance receiver may:

·         accept or reject an utterance

·         interpret it as a communicative event - conveying a decision

·         use it to make a decision

·         respond by making another utterance - to convey a decision to one or more others.

 

How does Luhmann relate the concepts of an utterance and a communicative event?

Different receivers may interpret one utterance as different communicative events (attribute it to different codes).

And then, perceivers of that receiver’s response may interpret it as different communicative events (attribute it to different codes).

Mapping Luhmann’s concepts to general system theory concepts

This section reviews Luhmann’s view of an autopoietic social system against the general system theory that underpins enterprise architecture.

The 12 concepts are presented, for convenience of comparison, in much the same order as Seidl presents them.

You may well find it helpful to print out Seidl’s 2001 paper and read it alongside this section.

http://www.zfog.bwl.uni-muenchen.de/files/mitarbeiter/paper2004_2.pdf

 

Note that there is some overlap between concepts as Seidl presents them.

 

1. An autopoietic system sustains itself at an elementary level

Luhmann’s autopoietic social system reproduces its elements entirely through its own elements.

He distinguishes three kinds of autopoietic system by their different kinds of element.

“Organic systems - reproduce themselves on the basis of life.

Social systems - reproduce themselves on the basis of communication.

Psychic systems - reproduce themselves on the basis of consciousness or thoughts.” Seidl

 

By contrast, in terms of general system theory, a business consumes substantial inputs (energy, information and materials) from its environment.

Furthermore, it imports substantial resources (actors, machines, and role and rule definitions) from its environment.

Some businesses do manufacture some of their own resources, but no business makes all its own resources.

For more on why an enterprise is allopoietic rather than autopoietic, read Autopoietic (Biological) Systems.

 

2 An autopoietic system is operatively closed

Luhmann’s autopoietic social system works alone; it has no understanding of the way other systems work or perceive their environment.

Resources from their environment do not become part of the systems' operation.

No operations can enter or leave the system (though matter, information and energy can).

Maturana and Varela argue that operative closure is a precondition for interactional openness (see trigger causality).

 

By contrast, in terms of general system theory, a business is “operationally open”.

Its actors have at least some awareness of entities and events in the wider environment and other systems.

Also, they may copy the roles and rules of a different business into their own.

 

3. A system cannot know its environment

Luhmann’s autopoietic social system has no knowledge of its environment.

Every cognition (or idea) is a construct of a psychic system; all meaning or knowledge is a human construction.

Moreover, it does not in any way reflect any kind of external reality.

 

This last is the conclusion that radical constructivism and post modernist thinking has led some people to.

But it is misleading; since an animal’s ideas about the wider world must reflect external reality well enough, else it would not survive.

And a business must both contain and maintain a reasonably accurate model of its environment.

To interact successfully with entities in its environment, a business must know its environment, well enough.

It must interpret the meanings of events it detects.

It must maintain a model of those entities and activities in its environment that it seeks to monitor, inform or direct.

All of which is in accord with the classical cybernetics that is embraced within general system theory.

 

4. Trigger causality

Luhmann’s autopoietic social system does not receive any directions or operations from the environment.

It receives only perturbations (or irritations), which can trigger internal operations in the system.

In other words, external events may trigger internal processes but they cannot determine those processes.

 

Somewhat similarly, in terms of general system theory, the environment will trigger or cause processes in a business system.

The business will react to events in its environment, in a way that can be modelled as a “discrete event dynamic system”.

The organisation’s structures and processes will be designed to respond to events detected at the system boundary.

However, those internal processes are not entirely mysterious to an external observer.

E.g. an invoice or payment event leads to some internal processes of a kind that an external observer would expect.

 

5. Self-organisation

Luhmann’s autopoietic social system is self-organising and its “self-organisation refers to the determination of structures”.

This means the system’s structures are determined by the system, are a product of the system.

 

The meaning of “self-organising” is debatable.

Maturana himself stated he would: "never use the notion of self-organization, because it cannot be the case... it is impossible.

That is, if the organization of a thing changes, the thing changes"

Maturana, H. (1987). Everything is said by an observer. In Gaia, a Way of Knowing, edited by W. Thompson, Lindisfarne Press, Great Barrington, MA, pp. 65-82, p. 71. Quoted in Wikipedia

 

Does Luhmann mean self-sustaining rather than self-organising?

Organisms do sustain their internal structures, but they do not determine or organise those structures (as a business system architect does).

Because organic structures are mostly determined by an organism’s DNA; they cannot be changed at the will of elements within the organism.

By contrast, business components and processes are usually designed and changed by people who act in the business.

The people employed in everyday operational processes may design and change relatively little.

A business may employ specialists, perhaps called enterprise or business architects, to design the structures and processes of a business.

These specialists and their processes may be viewed as a meta system that sits over and above the operational system.

Read complex adaptive systems for more about “self-organisation”.

 

6. Structural coupling

Luhmann’s autopoietic social system is structurally coupled to its environment.

This means the structures of the system are in some way or other ‘adjusted’ to the structures of the environment (or to selected entities and activities in that the environment).

This coupling enables the structures of the system to react to ‘important’ events in the environment.

 

Similarly, in terms of general system theory, structural coupling via information feedback loops is the basis of classical cybernetics.

Structural coupling underpins much systems thinking related to machines, organisms, software and businesses.

Every business monitors, informs and directs entities and activities in its environment.

The structures of the business are in some way or other ‘adjusted’ to entities and activities in the environment.

Events detected at the system boundary trigger internal processes designed to keep the external and internal structures in step.

 

7. The system has no persistent elements

Luhmann’s autopoietic social system elements are transient communicative events that are:

“fixed as points in time… occur only once and only in the briefest period necessary for their appearance.”

 

By contrast, in terms of general system theory, business components and processes are stateful.

If the input event stream stops, then processes stop, the system rests, machines may lie idle and employees may be sent home.

However, the system persists between events in the form of a recorded memory, and in the definitions of its roles and rules (whether documented or remembered).

So, when the next event arrives, the business can be restarted from its resting state.

 

8. The system disappears between events, has no persistent memory structure

“Because the elements of the system have no duration the system is urged to constant production of new elements.

If the autopoiesis stops the system disappears immediately.”

 

Maturana and Varela considered the elements of an organic system to be relatively stable chemical molecules.

Luhmann radicalised the temporal aspect of autopoiesis to the extent that his system contains no stable elements – no organic/psychic systems (people).

There are two interpretations of his meaning; either the system must be continuous, or it evaporates between communicative events.

If I understand correctly, he means the latter.

He does not say that when a social system’s processes stop, it dies, just as an organism dies.

Nor does he say that when a social system’s processes stop, the elements rest, as photocopier, for example, rests between processes.

Rather he says that between communicative events, the system disappears rather than dies or rests.

 

E.g. When people are not communicating about justice/injustice, the justice/injustice system does not die or rest

Rather, in the gaps between communications about that code, the system has no substance or structure.

 

By contrast, in terms of general system theory, a business remembers past events

Or at least, it remembers the current state of entities (in the system and its environment), as they have been updated by past events.

A business system detects events (a transient happening) at the system boundary.

It processes events so as to maintain state data that records external entities and activities.

Any event may trigger a state change inside the system; it may also be logged, replayed or reversed.

 

9. Communications only have meaning when interpreted

Seidl says Luhmann’s theory “deontologises” the concept of system element.

An utterance only becomes a social system element, when it is heard and interpreted by a receiver (a psychic/organic system).

 

By contrast, in terms of general system theory, business actors are expected to find the intended meaning in utterances

An utterance is assumed to have the same meaning to all actors create it or use it, and share the same business language.

The meaning of an invoice or payment must be shared between actors in the system and actors in its environment, if they are to cooperate effectively.

 

10. Communications are the elements [of the autopoietic social system]

“The only elements of a social system are communications, which are recursively produced and reproduced by a network of communications, and which cannot exist outside of such a network. (Luhmann 1986: 174).” Seidl

 

By contrast, in terms of general system theory, a concrete business system contains actors, activities and objects that are acted on.

And an abstract business system contains the roles and rules that actors and activities are supposed to adhere to.

 

11. The meaning of a communication follows its use

“Luhmann (1995a: 143) writes: “Communication is made possible, so to speak, from behind, contrary to the temporal course of the process. 

This is also called the principle of hermeneutics: that not the speaker but the listener decides on the meaning of an utterance.

Since it is the latter whose understanding of the set of possibilities constrains the possible meaning of the utterance, no matter what the speaker may have had in mind.” (Baecker 2001: 66)..

 

By contrast, in terms of general system theory, communications are made meaningful through shared data schemas.

Utterance receivers are expected to interpret and process utterances according to the meaning encoded in them.

To achieve this, communications are made use shared data definitions and translation mechanism. 

 

12. Interpenetration: the relation between social and psychic systems

"Although psychic systems trigger communication processes and vice versa - we repeat this point, since it is very important – the processes of the psychic system and the social system do not overlap in any way." Seidl

Communications take place between organic/psychic systems (think people).

Luhmann defines ‘person’ as the ’social identification of a complex of expectations directed toward an individual human being’ (Luhmann 1995a: 210)

The organic, psychic and social systems intersect, but their contents are different.

 

I don’t know how to make sense of this.

If a social system contains only communication events, then how can it contain processes as well?

And what elements perform those processes?

 

By contrast, in terms of general system theory, a concrete business system contains actors, activities and objects that are acted on.

And an abstract business system contains the roles and rules that actors and activities are supposed to adhere to

Some discussion

To summarise the above comparison with enterprise architecture.

Two of Luhmann’s many concepts may plausibly be applied to enterprise architecture.

 

Luhmann’s concepts

Similar conventional enterprise architecture assumptions

Trigger causality

The organisation will react to processes in its environment

Structural coupling

The organisation will be structurally coupled to its environment

 

The next ten concepts do not correspond to the presumptions made in enterprise architecture description.

 

Luhmann’s concepts

Contrasting conventional enterprise architecture assumptions

An autopoietic system sustains itself at an elementary level.

The organisation will import some complex components

An autopoietic system is operatively closed

The organisation will import some processes

A system cannot know its environment

The organisation will contain a model of its environment

Self-organisation

The organisation may employ a meta system to organise itself

The system has no persistent components

The organisation has stateful components

The system has no persistent memory structure

The organisation will exist in operation, in state and in description

Communicative events have no meaning on their own.

The organisation will draw the intended meaning from events

Communications as the elements

The organisation’s architectural entities include roles and processes

The meaning of a communication follows its use

The organisation’s communications are made meaningful through shared data schemas

Interpenetration: the relation between social and psychic systems

The organisation identifies people as actors in roles

 

Seidl speaks of Luhmann “deontologising” and “detemporalising” system concepts.

 

A reader: Organisations exist in time. So they have a history.

 

Graham: Yes. They not only have a life history, they have a persistent state.

While their actors may rest between processes, they still remain actors in the organisation

E.g. The members of choir rest between rehearsals and performances.

And organisations depend on maintaining a shared memory, ledger or transaction history.

By contrast, Luhmann’s social system has no persistent actors or memory.

In any moment of silence between communicative events, there is nothing.

The only persistent thing is a concept, the code of the "functional subsystem" that communicative events relate to.

There are no psychic/organic actors waiting to process the next event, and no record of past events. 

In short, there is no "organisation" as it is more generally understood in organisation theory, management science or systems thinking.

 

A reader: Organisations need to continually recreate themselves by acts of communication.

 

Graham: Yes. Organisations are social networks in which actors both repeat actions, and change the action they perform.

By contrast, Luhmann’s system never changes, since all its communicative events relate to an unchanging abstract code, and it has no persistent state.

The code (e.g. justice/injustice) is relevant to a "functional subsystem" (e.g. the judicial system).

 

Ton van Reehan: Luhmann says that communication is what creates social systems.

 

Graham: Yes. And Luhmann then takes that idea to a logical extreme by saying that:

·         A functional subsystem comprises nothing else but communicative events about a code (concept 10 above). 

·         “If the autopoiesis stops the system disappears immediately.” (concept 7 above).

 

Ton van Reehan: Every utterance must be followed by another utterance as a reply in order to maintain the social system.

This second utterance shows how the former utterance is understood/interpreted/giving meaning. (See concept 11 above).

 

Graham: Hmm... Who does it show this understanding to?

Luhmann ignores an utterance sender’s intended meaning in favour of the receiver’s interpreted meaning and response.

But then, perceivers of that receiver’s response may interpret it as a different communicative event (attribute it to a different code).

 

The specific challenge here is to understand a system made of nothing but communicative events that have no meaning until they are heard.

The system is in abeyance until an utterance has been heard,

A “functional sub system” lives only in those moments when an utterance is heard and interpreted to be about a code.

The more general challenge here is to make sense of “the principle of hermeneutics” – as discussed in the conclusions below.

 

Ton van Reehan: Luhmann’s theory of society starts from assumptions that differ fundamentally from other theories of society and organisations.

A basic difference in my view is the one between:

·         actor-based /person based theories (Talcott Parsons may be the most prominent) and

·         communication-based theories (Luhmann may be the most prominent representative).

 

These two families of social theory are incompatible; and present day management science, mostly belongs to the actor-based family.

 

Graham: While much management science takes an actor-oriented view, some (as in business process reengineering) takes an activity-oriented view.

And Luhmann’s theory is not the only or most convincing theory of communication.

Try the papers on description and communication on the System Theory page at http://avancier.website .

Conclusions and remarks

Luhmann’s theory is an interesting construction, impressive in some ways.

But this paper questions whether the theory makes sense, and if it does make sense, whether it is useful.

It stands the conventional concept of a system on its head, and illustrates how far some social systems thinkers have departed from general system theory.
It appears mostly incompatible with the more general system theory that underpins enterprise architecture.

 

This table lists three views of human society.

 

Viewpoint

Human society

which are related by

Legal system example

Common man

Actors in a social network

family, authority, employment

or other structural relationships

Law makers, lawyers, judges and juries

Ashby

Roles in a social system

cooperation in regular

or repeatable processes.

The concrete system is stateful

It contains actors, activities and acted on objects

It maintains laws in statutes

It processes legal cases

It records cases and judgements

Luhmann

Communication events

reference to the same code

Momentary communicative events

about the binary code of justice/injustice.

 

Seidl speaks of Luhmann “deontologising” and “detemporalising” system concepts.

Seidl means Luhmann’s social system cannot be located in space and time

It has no persistent state, no actors, objects or data records.

It is hard to imagine a kind of system that is further removed from Ashby’s more general system theory.

It is immaterial/intangible/amorphous; it is the purest of pure abstractions

The “hermeneutic principle” makes Luhmann’s social system undetectable

In this context, I understand the hermeneutic principle to means as follows.

A communicative event only comes into existence when a receiver attributes an utterance to a theme or code.

That attribution, and the meaning of the utterance, is determined by a receiver in the moment that they interpret and use that utterance.

The system holds no persistent record of this communicative event; there is no persistent system state.

 

This principle leads to a paradoxical conclusion.

There is no time or place at which you, an observer, can inspect the contents of Luhmann’s social system.

You cannot recognise communicative events that utterance X will lead to, when it is made.

The, suppose you could detect all responses made by all receivers when they hear and interpret utterance X.

You cannot know what the receivers think, because the hermeneutic principle means you gives your own meaning to any response they make.

 

Different receivers may interpret utterance X as different communicative events (attribute it to different codes) and respond differently.

Then, perceivers of each response may interpret it as different communicative events (attribute it to different codes), and so on.

It is not only that Luhmann’s system does not exist in time and space.

Even its elements are undetectable, since it is impossible to agree which utterances relate to one social system and which do not.

 

Moreover, there is the meta level question: Who decides or agrees what themes/codes exist, and can be communicated about?

Drawing an analogy with science does not amount to science

“The “paradigm” mode has its dangers.

Attempts to understand (pieces of) the world often start with metaphor: one studies a … system which “looks like” the real object of interest,

but one does not insist on fundamental connections or derivations “from first principles”. Philip Holmes

 

Biology doesn’t shed light on Luhmann's social systems, because he deliberately and radically reinterpreted biological terms.

He gave radically different meanings to the terms drawn from other sources.

·         His “autopoiesis” is unlike Maturana’s biological autopoiesis.

·         His “social system” is unlike the social organisations considered in conventional management science.

·         His “system” is radically different from that in general systems theory.

Luhmann’s systems are not “levels”

A biological or software entity can be viewed hierarchically.

It can be described and tested - at different levels of abstraction - as different systems.

A higher level system may be viewed as delegating subordinate work to a lower level system, which is taken for granted.

 

“The pattern of organic bases in DNA which functions as a genetic code is a boundary condition irreducible to physics and chemistry.

Further controlling principles of life may be represented as a hierarchy of boundary conditions extending, in the case of man, to consciousness and responsibility.”

From “Life's Irreducible Structure" by Michael Polanyi.

 

But this doesn’t shed light on Luhmann's systems.

His division into organic, psychic and social systems is not a hierarchy.

His social system is not higher or more complex than psychic or organic systems

It neither contains nor delegates to psychic or organic systems.

Rather, they are parallel “structurally coupled” or “interpenetrating” systems.

Luhmann's human actor is not a part of a social system; and to the contrary, the actor is part of the environment of all social systems.

 

There is no presumption that biology or sociology provides a model or metaphor for enterprise architecture.

Rather, enterprise architecture employs general system theory ideas in the description and design of business systems.

 

(By the way, a business entity can be viewed hierarchically.

It can be described and tested as systems at several levels of abstraction; and at each level, the lower levels are taken for granted.

But note that the systems of one business sometimes undermine or compete with each other.

And each individual human actor lives mostly outside any business that employs it to play a role.)

 

Luhmann’s social system is metaphysical rather than scientific

Luhmann's theory (like Parsons’ theories before him) is metaphysical.

His social system cannot be located in space and time; its elements cannot be detected or tested by an external observer.

I cannot conceive of a test that could confirm or disprove its existence in the world. Can you?

 

Read The science of philosophy of systems for more scientific explanation of now communication evolved and worked.

That paper emphasises the importance of a shared domain-specific language to successful communication

For sure, business systems are designed on the presumption that actors exchange meaningful utterances with each other and with external entities.

Consider the process that runs Sale > Delivery > Invoice > Payment.

It is presumed that the utterance makers and receivers share an understanding of each utterance made during that process.

They must both understand terms like order item description, delivery date, payment due amount and payment due date.

Enterprise architects might record shared meanings in some kind of a data dictionary or canonical data model.

Footnotes

Footnote 1: more quotes from Seidl

Below are more quotes from “Luhmann’s theory of autopoietic social systems” by David Seidl (Munich Business Research).

His research looks thorough, and convincing about what Luhmann meant, but some of it is difficult to understand.

Interpenetration: the relation between social and psychic systems

The relation between social system and 'human being' is a very controversial aspect of Luhmann's theory; it is also the most misunderstood.

The 'human being' is not conceptualised as forming a systemic unity.

Instead it has to be understood as a conglomerate of organic and psychic systems.

The former consists of biochemical elements, the latter of thoughts.

 

Both systems are operatively closed against each other: neither can contribute elements to the other.

The systems are however structurally coupled; i.e. their respective structures are adjusted to each other in such a way as to allow mutual irritations.

 

Although the ‘human being’ does not constitute a systemic unity, the social system treats it as such: it constructs it as a person.

In other words, ‘persons’ do not exist as such – they are no systems – but they are a construct of the social system with which it refers to the conglomerate of organic and psychic systems.

 

Particularly important for the social system is the psychic system.

[Both] systems are meaning-constituted systems.

However, in contrast to social systems, the meaning events do not materialise as communications but as thoughts.

Psychic systems are not only closed with regard to other types of systems but also with regard to each other.

No psychic system has direct access to another psychic system; my thoughts can never enter your psychic system.

As operatively closed systems psychic and social systems constitute environment for each other: thoughts cannot become communications and communications cannot become thoughts.

 

Mutual influences are restricted to the structural level.

Both types of systems are structurally adapted to each other in a way which allows for mutual irritation.

Luhmann calls the specific structural coupling - interpenetration.

 

Without psychic systems social systems are impossible – and probably vice versa.

Every communicative event presupposes 'parallel' events in the psychic systems.

Because of their structural coupling social systems can expect their communications to cause irritations in the psychic systems and to receive irritations from the psychic systems.

They can, for example, count on psychic systems to trigger further communications after every communication.

Although psychic systems trigger communication processes and vice versa - we repeat this point, since it is very important - the processes of the psychic system and the social system do not overlap in any way.

 

The most important evolutionary achievement for the coupling of social and psychic systems is language [which] ensures that psychic systems are irritated through the communication processes.

Language is a purely social phenomenon (psychic systems do not think in language) but thought processes can be structured in a complementary way to language; particularly during communication processes: thoughts are broken down into equivalent chunks to those of sentences and words.

 

In other words, psychic processes are synchronised with communication processes and, in this way, they 'know' when to contribute irritations to the communication process in order to make the reproduction of the social system possible.

Although Luhmann's strict distinction between social and psychic systems runs counter to our everyday beliefs and almost all social and psychological theories, it has one important theoretical advantage.

It allows for a concept of the social which is clearly distinguished from the psychological.

Consequently, social and psychic phenomena can be analysed in their own right.

 

The treatment of human beings as environment of the social system (and not as part of it), as Luhmann writes, does not mean that the human being is estimated as less important than traditionally.

Anyone who thinks so has not understood the paradigm change in systems theory.

 

I much prefer and promote the universal usefulness of general system theory.

Communication and action

I do find the explanation below rather baffling.

 

While Luhmann suggests treating communications - and not actions - as the elements of social systems, the concept of action does not become completely irrelevant. .

Often communication is treated as some kind of action; in this sense Habermas (1987), for example, speaks of 'communicative action'.

But Luhmann’s communication - and this is very important - is not a kind of action.

As explained above, communication is constituted as a synthesis of a threefold selection of utterance, information and understanding.

The concept of action cannot account for all three selections.

It might capture the first two selections but certainly not the third: understanding.

[T]he perfection of communication implies understanding and understanding is not part of the activity of the communicator and cannot be attributed to him. (Luhmann 1986: 178)

Thus, a central element of Luhmann’s concept of communication would be missing if interpreted as action.

Apart from that, the original intention of an action is not important for the communication.

For example, looking at one's watch might be understood as communicating one's boredom, although one only wants to know what time it is.

Luhmann suggests treating action as a (fictive) construct of social systems for observing, and communicating about, their communications: social systems observe their communications not as communications but as actions, which they causally attribute to ‘persons’ (‘actors’).

Seidl’s references

Most of this paper depends on my reading of Seidl’s translation and explanation of the following of Luhmann’s works, mostly published in German.

 

(2000) Organisation und Entscheidung. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.

(1986) "The Autopoiesis of Social Systems." Pp. 172-92 in Sociocybernetic Paradoxes: Observation, Control and Evolution of Self-Steering Systems, eds. F. Geyer and J. Van d. Zeuwen. London: Sage.

(1992b). "Organisation." Pp. 165-85 in Rationalität, Macht Und Spiele in Organisationen, eds. W. Küpper and G. Ortmann. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.

(1993a). Soziologische Aufklärung 3: Soziales System, Gesellschaft, Organisation. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.

(1993b). Soziologische Aufklärung 5: Konstruktivistische Perspektiven. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.

(1993c). "Die Paradoxie des Entscheidens." Verwaltungs-Archiv: Zeitschrift für Verwaltungslehre, Verwaltungsrecht und Verwaltungspolitik 84:287-310.

(1995a) Social Systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

(1995b). Soziologische Aufklärung 6: Die Soziologie Und Der Mensch. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.

(1997). Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.

(2003) “Organization”. In Bakken, T./Hernes, T. (eds.) Autopoietic Organization Theory. Drawing on Niklas Luhmann’s Social Systems Perspective. Copenhagen et al.: Copenhagen Business School Press, pp. 31-52.

 

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