Friday, April 20, 2012

Battle of the Continental Titans: Harrison White takes on Niklas Luhman

In the 1960's, faced with a dramatic period of social change and a dominant Parsonian structural-functionalist view of social systems that emphasized stability, American sociology went through a theoretical crisis. Simplistically speaking, there were three major consequences: a rejection of functionalism (and, for the most part, systems theorizing), a re-emergence of Marxist political-economy, and an enhanced emphasis on the importance of meaning (evident in both symbolic interactionism and Garfinkel's ethnomethodology).

Percolating under the radar of these larger and more evident changes, was the work of Harrison White, a sociologist initially trained in physics, who combined a) Simmel's insight that social structure is based on patterns of relations instead of the attributes and attitudes of individuals with b) his ability to analyze those structural networks using highly sophisticated maths. Opaque to much of the discipline, White's work achieved cultish admiration among the cognoscenti and was, until comparatively recently, ignored by the bulk of American sociology.

Meanwhile, over in Europe,  Parson's student Niklas Luhmann continued the tradition of grand systems theorizing. His approach has been summarized as follows:
Luhmann's systems theory focuses on three topics, which are interconnected in his entire work.
  1. Systems theory as societal theory
  2. Communication theory and
  3. Evolution theory
The core element of Luhmann's theory is communication. Social systems are systems of communication, and society is the most encompassing social system. Being the social system that comprises all (and only) communication, today's society is a world society. A system is defined by a boundary between itself and its environment, dividing it from an infinitely complex, or (colloquially) chaotic, exterior. The interior of the system is thus a zone of reduced complexity: Communication within a system operates by selecting only a limited amount of all information available outside. This process is also called "reduction of complexity." The criterion according to which information is selected and processed is meaning (in German, Sinn). Both social systems and psychical or personal systems operate by processing meaning.
Thus, Luhmann not only kept alive the grand tradition of social system theorizing, he did so in a manner that incorporated the emerging emphasis on meaning. In the recent "Order at the Edge of Chaos: Meanings from Netdom Switchings Across Functional Systems" (Sociological Theory, September 2011, 29(3): 178-198), White and his co-authors take direct aim at Luhmann's theory, arguing that it fails to recognize the indexical character of meaning identified by Garfinkel.

Here is the abstract:
The great German theorist Niklas Luhmann argued long ago that meaning is the central construct of sociology. We agree, but our scheme of stochastic processes—evolved over many years as identity and control—argues for switchings of intercalated bits of social network and interpretive domain (i.e., netdom switchings) as the core of meaning processes. We thus challenge Luhmann’s central claim that modern society’s subsystems are based on communicative self-closure. We assert that there is refuting evidence from sociolinguistics, from how languages are put together and how languages’ indexical and reflexive devices (e.g., metapragmatics, heteroglossia, genres) are used in social action. Communication is about managing indexicalities, which entail great ambiguity and openness as they are anchored in myriad netdom switchings across social times and spreads. In contrast, Luhmann’s concept of communication revolves around binary codes governed recursively and algorithmically within systems in efforts to reduce complexity from the environment. We conclude that systems closure does not solve the problem of uncertainty in social life. In fact, lack of uncertainty is itself a problem. Order is necessary, but order at the edge of chaos.


  1. 'Meaning' is particularly fascinating as a concept in physics, as much as in sociology. The quantum physicist David Bohm linked together energy + matter + meaning. From the point of view of physics, the universe is essentially meaningful. I don't pretend to fully understand Bohm's theories. But since I started studying Luhmann--and physics--I have been struggling to understand the link between energy and information. We know from Einstein that E = mc2, that is, energy and matter are the same thing. Bohm says that energy/matter is information. Another physicist said that energy/matter is arranged in particular patterns--those patterns are information. Matter is energy in a certain formation. Matter/Energy is in formation. Energy = Information. We know from entaglement theory that particles "know" about each other; they communicate (somehow) across the vast expanse of the universe, at unimaginable speeds. Bohm said that energy/information takes shape (matter/information) in the most etherial forms, and evolves into denser, heavier, more solid masses. Luhmann said that society begins in a quite chaotic (by chance) etherial form as communication/meaning. Communications are then 'reduced to actions', physical actions requiring energy, and actions are executed on the material world, and thus the whole material structure of civilization comes into reality as solid mass. Furthermore, systems are always systems of energy, governed by entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. If there is information in Luhmann's social system, then there is also matter/energy. They cannot be separated.

    The reason why I struggle to understand the link between energy and information is because I want to re-enter a quality into the analysis that Luhmann seems to have left out: power. Energy is power, and there are different sources and levels of power in a system. Human systems, in particular, are shaped by power relations and here I am invoking Foucault and other conflict theorists.

  2. Of course, the 'meaning' of any phenomena in the universe is always 'meaning' from the point of view of the observer. Thus, meaning always involves 'reading' or symbolic interpretation or communication.

    We can think of the various subsystems in Luhmann's schema as having a measurable "quanta" (amount) of information. Thus is also has a measurable quanta of energy and power. Subsystems differ in the amount of information/energy/power they contain. Power is the ability to have an effect on another object or system. Some kinds of information/energy have more power (effect) than others, and it varies over time, historically.

  3. So we can also think of information/energy as active or potential energy, or stored energy. For example, the Federal Budget is thousands of pages of stored information/energy/power that will have active power when pieces of it are activated, that is when the Prime Minister issues a policy or Parliament passes a law that stored information/energy into an active form. Corporations and other large, complex organizations are nexuses of stored/potential and active information/energy/power, tightly woven into the fabric of its material systems. Information/energy/material systems are tightly integrated, and at the level of smaller particles, are inseparable.

  4. The combination of physics and philosophy always brings remarkable results. I especially like its ability to find clear models in complex situations. If it is merged with sociology it becomes no less interesting. Although each individual is unique (this is at least what we like to think), it is possible to find clear patterns in society. I believe that if physics was used more often we would be able to create better theories and more realistic models.