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.
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.
- Systems theory as societal theory
- Communication theory and
- Evolution theory
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.
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.