A translation of the original German article by Klaus Eidenschink on Luhmann's system theory
The reason for this three-part article is a posting by Conny D., in which he expresses his unease with Luhmann's system theory and asks me for comment. He refers to an article by W. Lutterer,
which, however, in my opinion is more of a prime example of misunderstandings and allegations to Luhmann. Instead of reviewing a text that everyone would have to read again, I simply try to pick
out the most controversial points in Luhmann's systems theory, which are also particularly important for organizations, and explain them in my words.
My selection consists of the following topics: Part 1 is about communication, system / environment distinction. The second article will then deal with the topics of causality, observer, two-valuedness and the third part will focus on decision, time and theory / practice. My intention is to show the relevance of highly abstract figures of thought on the one hand, and on the other hand to indicate the unfavorable consequences of following the "old European" - so Luhmann's label - thought figures that are mostly used by us. Many consultants and managers are students of Aristotle without knowing or even suspecting this.
1. Understanding Communication
This point is so crucial if you want to understand how people and organization, more precisely psychological and social dynamics, are connected. The difference between cybernetics and social systems is, in fact, that data (some say information) is transmitted between computers, whereas when people talk, signals are transmitted, but never information. No data records, no documents are copied from one "biological hard disk" to the other. When I listen to someone there is no download of their thoughts into my brain. And only then would information be transmitted! Luhmann took this insight radically seriously: I listen to someone and I receive signals that I process (!) into information. So no one can understand another, but always only understands himself (= his own understanding of the other's messages). The classic understanding of communication is different. It relies on the information at the sender and receiver to be the same so that communication can succeed. Apart from the fact that this is neither possible nor verifiable, this creates a normative concept. Communication can then succeed and fail! Unlike Luhmann: With him communication takes place or not. It takes place when the other ties in with what the one has sent out. No matter how, only that. Therefore, "misunderstanding" and arguments and debates is as much communication as unity and consensus. The one-sided preference for consensus is also a legacy of Greek metaphysics. As you can easily see, the constant emergence of communication is largely based on dissent! Without the motive to rectify something, to correct something, to decide something differently, many communications - including this one - would not even see the light of day. Luhmann was therefore very busy how it happens that against the background of infinite possibilities to deny and reject something, acceptance and affirmation of the messages of others occur.
The aspect of this communication theory that is particularly important for the understanding of organizations is that communication is understood as an independent process that cannot be controlled or stirred by any of the people involved. Nobody has power over how he is understood, not even over what he communicates in body language while he makes factual statements. Communication leads a life of its own. It is such an everyday experience that everyone knows that I am always surprised that Luhmann was criticized for this very reason. He once wrote that only communication can communicate and not people. Anyone can tell that whose conversation was ranning out of the rudder, who was wondering what was said about his statements elsewhere, or who was trying to communicate with a stone. For communication to take place, (at least) two people are required. But these two speak or hear! They are not communicating! Because the communication can neither be assigned to one of the two people, but also not to the two together. Even together, they cannot determine the course and development of communication, not even for themselves. Who would not know that he leaves a conversation and thinks and feels differently about it two hours later, as he would think at the end of the conversation? So these effects cannot be controlled either. Nevertheless, people's perceptions are an essential basis for communication. What else should be talked about? This led Luhmann to the often quoted dictum that organizations do not perceive and people cannot communicate. That's why they need each other.
The possibilities to observe, analyze, describe and influence the dynamics (momentum) and patterns of communication in organizations are much broader with such an understanding of communication than with a normative theory that can ultimately only say in an appealing way: "Children, get along finally !! " With Luhmann's understanding it can be investigated how it happens that the same press release has different effects at different locations (and that relatively reliably ...!) Then one can observe patterns and Eigenvalues (inherent values) of communicative processes, examine their function and accordingly as a consultant look for interventions in order to irritate and change these patterns and Eigenvalues and to get them into change. The important thing is that in this theory, misunderstanding is as important and necessary as understanding.
Based on this concept one of Luhmann's main research topics was to investigate how stable communication systems arise at all and how the probability of accepting messages becomes more reliable. If I want to buy Conny D's. used car and offer him a herd of goats for it, the chances are less than if I write a check. So money makes certain communications more likely. If I express my opinion in meetings without a membership card at the O. Group, it is less likely that I will be heard than if I can call myself head of department there. In certain contexts, roles make the acceptance of communication offers more likely. If this role is now linked to influence, this also has an impact on communication. The strict gaze of the chairman of the board is understood differently than the strict gaze of the canteen chef. All of this does not primarily depend on the person concerned, but also on "communication media" - as Luhmanns describes it - such as money, power, membership, etc. Understanding communication as a performance or activity of people does not do justice to the complexity of what is happening. For Luhmann, this - and not truth - was the criterion for successful theoretical work: How powerful is a theoretical concept and does it do justice to the complexity of its field of observation?
Therefore, critical allegations that Luhmann's theory would forget the human or even is inhumane are completely irrelevant in my view. Just because a biologist says that the air we breathe is not part of a human body doesn't mean that it is unimportant or even superfluous. Instead, he points out that certain biophysiological processes require oxygen from the air. Luhmann points out that social systems have a describable dynamic that cannot be reduced to psychological states. For this reason, the separation between organization and people is in no way artificial, as Conny D. puts it. (Incidentally, the distinction natural / artificial is a focus of observation that goes back to Aristotle and his metaphysical positions, which among other things presupposes his theory of creation, which no one believes to be correct today). The separation of organization and people helps a lot more to do justice to both (!) dynamics. Because it is of no help to people at all if organizations should orient themselves towards people and for reasons that can be stated they neither can nor want to. If organizations were there for people, they would no longer be able to perform the tasks that they perform for society. This leads us to the second point of this first part.
2. To Differentiate Between System and Evironment
When you say that people should be part of organizations, you use a 2000 year old model of part and whole. The idea that the world is a collection of tiny parts (atoms) that was initially put together by a super-engineer is one of the most common narratives. Luhmann broke with this too. No wonder that it is not so easy to understand the consequences or to approve. People don't like to break habits. If you use the distinction between parts and the whole, the most important thing at the action level is that the parts fit well or harmoniously into the whole. Man as part of creation, just like the cylinder head as part of the car. By this little comparison, one or the other reader may already notice and suspect that this distinction hides a mechanism of "interplay" of parts for the whole that can be found problematic. The part usually has to be subordinate to the whole and fit in. Most people don't like that when it comes to organization and people. So it is an obvious solution - if you don't want to break with the paradigm - that you turn the subordinate relationship and charge it morally: Then in that case - Man as the crown of creation? - just align the whole thing with the part and so the organization exists for people. The car then serves its parts ...! Also kind of funny, right? These examples are just a small part of what is problematic about the whole / part scheme. Complex contexts can certainly not be understood because this form of theory reduces too little complexity.
Luhmann's alternative is the distinction between system and environment, at the end of his theoretical development then more medium / form. It is now very important that the system / environment distinction is not understood as a spatial separation of things! But this is exactly what happens quite often and then you are again with parts that this time either assign to the system or the environment. Nothing is gained with this and such a (mis-) understanding of systems theory inevitably leads to results that are wrong, abstruse or senseless. Luhmann defines and uses the distinction very differently. A system differs from its environment in that it can distinguish its own processes from those in its environment (= operational closure). A person differs from other people because he knows that the thoughts that come to him are his and not those of his colleague. If this ability is lost, the psyche disintegrates and becomes psychotic. Nobody can think or feel in someone else's head. The processes, Luhmann calls them operations, are always processes of the system. Luhmann can therefore say that psychological and social systems derive their information from themselves and not from the environment. Colors arise in the head, there are none in the world. Sounds arise in the head, the world is completely silent. The distinction between system and environment is therefore not to be understood spatially at all - then you have lost your mind - but rather in terms of process. It's about whether the process can be attributed to the system or the environment! So which communication event is an event of the organization and which one of the relevant or irrelevant environments. The change from thinking in things that do something towards processes that take form is now anything but easy. However, if you really want to understand change, it almost seems inevitable that you choose a form of thinking that does not operate with parts (= things), but with processes (= changes in form). From thinking about the nature of things to thinking about becoming forms or systems / environments.
What does this mean for the connection between people and organization? Organizations are social systems that communicate through decisions. One could say in wrong terminology they "consist" of communication. People are therefore the environment of the organization, because no one can ever be a communication event (and hopefully no one wants to be!). However, this does not mean that communication "does not need" people to take place. The opposite is true. To assume that Luhmann would delete or divide people out of the organization is simply nonsense. In the sense outlined above, people are a necessary and indispensable environment of a social system. But "in" the organization (the spatial metaphor is, as I said, completely misleading) communication and not human existence takes place. Organizations have no feelings, no digestion, no thoughts or perceptions. All of that has people. Organizations do, however, have patterns of communication that make certain decisions more likely than others, that exclude certain alternatives for decisions early on, and in turn favor others. They predispose certain future developments and interpret certain aspects of the past. Organizations stabilize and thereby exclude or include certain things.
It is difficult for many people to accept that organizations can have a life of their own, that there is something that is beyond our direct access and that in terms of its own dynamics is oriented towards its own stabilization - you can also call it self-organization. Organizations cannot revolve around the employee (which one exactly?) Because they have to process a wide range of communications: customers, suppliers, investors, the public, legislators, competition, etc. Organizations, like humans, have many relevant environments and cannot survive with these environments if they do not pursue many purposes and goals at the same time and permanently. Complex systems cannot be aligned to one environment - for example, the members of the organization.
This leads us to another major misunderstanding of the Luhmann system / environment distinction. This is becoming somewhat abstract, but it is not easier to have: the term system is both the general and the subordinate term. Systems consist of system and environment. That the concept occurs in itself is excluded in the classic Aristotelian logic. Anyone who understands system as something that is spatially separated from the environment misunderstands system theory. The "survival unit" is always system and environment. The social system "organization" "therefore" consists of the organization and its surroundings, e.g. also the members. So if something is located in the environment of a system, then according to Luhmann it is neither less important, nor "only" in the environment, nor less effective in the system. From my point of view, the advantage of this way of thinking is that it makes it difficult on the one hand to make an unfavorable absolutization of individual environments of a system with particular interests (consequently also its employees), and on the other hand to examine exactly how a system with diverse environments copes with its partially completely conflictive interests. Every person knows this at any celebration in which he has to cope with the relevant environment "body", "round of birthday congratulators and birthday wine" and has to decide what is regulated and how: sleep, conversations or enjoyment ...
The system / environment distinction also breaks with the assumption of Greek philosophy that it is possible to decide in such a way that only good effects are achieved. For Plato and Aristotle, this was based on the wisdom of the divine demiurge, who set up the world in such a way that if you think right, you act correctly. This pre-stabilized idea of harmony also appears in a new guise in the discussions about organization and people. If one thinks instead in the system / environment logic, an organization cannot be an employee, profit, customer, supplier, ecobalance and public welfare neutral organization at the same time. It has to serve all environments. Thus systems theory potentially helps everyone - the organization and its environment - to recognize that not everything can be optimized and that the survival of an organization depends on the consideration of all environments. This represents a radical break with all concepts that rely on rationality, overall control, recipes and certainties on how to decide. This leads from the security of Aristotelian metaphysics and modern science to the uncertainty of making decisions in the face of an unknown future. Luhmann made this break. And it takes a hell of a lot of effort to break away from the old traditions and ways of thinking as Luhmann does it. Understanding causality, objectivity and truth is also part of this. My next article will therefore pursue these three foci.
A somewhat more detailed text by me on the subject of metaphysical figures of thought can be downloaded here. References can also be found there.
The link to the original article in German language.
The translation was carried out by means of Google translate, responsible for the translation Jürgen Große-Puppendahl