Possibly, There Are No Social Systems
The book Soziale Systeme (1984; Engl. transl. 1995) by Niklas Luhmann tried to lead sociology out of its theory crisis. It failed to do so. There are probably several reasons, which explain this fact.
One may be that the book neither with respect to the problems raised by it, viz. operational closure, double contingency, temporalisation of basic elements and dealing with negation, nor with respect to the solutions provided, viz. communication within the medium of second-order observation, emergency of social systems, event-character of all elements and productivity of opposition and conflict, has been received appropriately.
A reason for this might be that sociologists are not used to strong theoretical thinking. They prefer to take concepts as they are introduced by people coming from other disciplines such as economics (Max Weber), philosophy (Georg Simmel), criminology (Gabriel Tarde), education (Emile Durkheim), medicine (Talcott Parsons), ethnology (Pierre Bourdieu), law (Niklas Luhmann) or physics (Harrison C. White) and to apply them to social phenomena without much thinking through of their conceptual architecture.
Another possible reason for the book failing to solve sociology’s theory crisis might be that Luhmann identified problems of the discipline not shared by the discipline. How, if at all, are problems like operational closure, double contingency, temporalisation of basic elements and dealing with negation linked to class struggle, social inequality, the loss of the sacred, modern rationalisation or the deconstruction of authority?
Yet another reason, however, might be that Luhmann overdid his main thesis that “there are systems” (1995, p. 12) in the very moment when he added the assumption that there are also “social systems” (p. 14) as well. What if we keep the main thesis but drop its corollary?
“(…) every social contact is understood as a system (…)” (p. 15), we read further on. Perhaps we should take this as a starting point, leaving out the difficult notion of a social system, and rather conceive of any social contact like Talcott Parsons did in his AGIL-scheme as a complex event, in which body, brain, consciousness and social environment participate, and contribute to, differently and simultaneously. This contact would be a true complexity since it cannot be reduced to any one of these references and yet is indispensable for the constitution and reproduction of all of them.
Social environments with respects to bodies, brains and minds are structured as society, technology and culture, yet do not gain the character of systems. Only the organism-within-its-environment, like in W. Ross Ashby (Mechanisms of Intelligence, 1981), is to be conceived of as a “system”, differentiated as body, equipped with a brain and behaviorally oriented toward a sociality of double contingency.
This change in its basic assumption could maintain the problems raised by Luhmann as much as the solutions provided for them. His sociology could be rewritten as a sociology of social environments. The theory crisis of sociology cannot be solved by this move either, yet it could be addressed more accurately. This change in basic assumptions would get sociology once again into conversation with biology, neurology and psychology.
Proposal submitted to Sektion Soziologische Theorie at 37th Congress of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie, Trier, Germany, October 6–10, 2014 (link).