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John Mingers: Can social systems be

autopoietic?
Assessing Luhmann’s social theory.

Notes
Mingers, J., 2002. Can social systems be autopoietic? Assessing Luhmanns social theory.
Sociological Review 50, 278-299.

Overview of the structure of the article:

Background – system theory and autopoiesis......................................................................................................1
Autopoietic theory and social theory....................................................................................................................2
Nomic – an autopoietic game...............................................................................................................................3
Luhmann’s theory.................................................................................................................................................3
Problems with autopoiesis in Luhmann’s theory .................................................................................................5

Background – system theory and autopoiesis
Pre-autopoiesis view of systems: open systems.

Problems with the open-systems approach from a social theoretical point of view:
It gives primacy to the environment – the environment is seen to specify or determine the
structure of the social system, which has to adapt to it.
What is the environment of social systems or a society? The physical world, or other
societies?
How can you demarcate a social system with a well-defined boundary?
What could be the inputs and the outputs of a social system?

But in autopoietic systems theory...

i. A continuous, circular process of self-production: For autopoietic systems, both input and
output are itself – while of course it requires elements from the environment and produces
waste.
ii. autonomy, contingent on the environment (Maturana: structural coupling),
iii. Distinction between structure and organization:
Organization is abstract, structure is concrete. Structure is the actual components and their
relationships. The structure “may change dramatically over time, or may by realised in many
ways, so long as the organisation maintains its relations of self-production. It can be said to be
organisationally closed but structurally open.” p. 280.
(BK: See also Maturana and Varela, 87, p. 47.)
iv. Structural determinism: Changes are determined by the structure at each point in time,
the environment is only a trigger for them.
v. structural coupling is a mutual process, it is not like adaptation to an environment
vi. embodied cognition, which does not separate cognition and action – anti-Cartesian, non-
representationalist
Also incorporates language, the observer and self-representation in a coherent manner.
Autopoietic theory and social theory

Why is autopoietic theory attractive to sociologists?

Based on the above, several reasons why the theory may be attractive to sociologists:
i. “The distinction between organisation and structure allows for radical change and
development in a system without loss of its identity. This is very common in the social
world…” p. 281.
ii. no functionalism, no external dependence, no input-output –only self-definition of system
iii. “the idea of structural determinism places the origin of change and development firmly
within the system rather than from the environment, whilst the concept of structural coupling
shows how, nevertheless, the systems and their environments can mutually shape each other”
iv. fits in well with the ideas of Giddens and Bhaskar, who emphasise how structures are
continually (re)produced and transformed through the social activities that they govern;
in Luhmann: functional differentiation of sub-systems
v. fits in with the linguistic and communicative turn – Habermas, Luhmann; and the
recognition of the importance of the body: Turner, Featherstone, Shilling, Shinott, Grosz
vi. resonates with social constructivism (c.f. Gergen)
“Maturana (1988) emphasises the extent to which we ‘bring forth’ the world we experience
through our own linguistic distinctions.” p. 281.

Difficulties for application

“if the concept is only to be used metaphorically, as Morgan (1986) suggests, to generate
interesting insight then no great problems emerge”
To go beyond metaphor raises ontological claims which are difficult to substantiate
This is already present “in autopoiesis at the physical level where a clear distinction is drawn
between the observer’s descriptions and the operational autopoietic system.” p. 282.

The challenge for social systems:

i. Autopoiesis is concerned with the processes of production of the components which
constitute the system – the components and the processes should be specified
Humans cannot be components as they are produced by physical and biological processes.
There could be non-physical but conceptual autopoietic systems
“Maturana defines a unity as ‘… an entity, concrete or conceptual, defined by an operation of
distinction’ (Maturana, 1975)” which opens the possibility of non-physical systems, i.e. of
concepts, descriptions, rules, or communications.

ii. “The autopoietic organisation is constituted in terms of temporal and spatial relations, and
the components involved must create a boundary defining the entity as a unity” – can we
identify boundaries for social systems?
iii. This is an abstract theory which does not specify anything beyond processes of self-
production –if it has to be modified for social systems, can it still be called autopoietic?
Varela (1979) suggests organisational closure instead of processes of production.

BK: We see meaning everywhere, even there where there is no meaning. Gestalt theory
tradition.
Nomic – an autopoietic game

The game Nomic as an ideal type for assessing the possibility of autopoiesis in social systems.
Invented by Peter Suber in 1990 (1982?) to show that ‘only laws can produce laws’

There exist meta-laws: rules for changing the laws and meta-meta-laws, rules for changing
meta-laws. In the game there are immutable and mutable rules, though even the first may be
changed over time. The object of the game is to make changes to rules.

In each turn either a mutable rule can be changed, deleted or created, or an immutable one
turned mutable, by vote upon the suggestion of the player.
“It would be possible to begin playing Nomic and end up playing chess.” p. 283.

It is a good example of a non-physical autopoietic system. The components are the rules
[players are bracketed]: they are conceptual, but they may be represented in writing, speech or
thought. It is capable of self-production of its components, the rules, which then may produce
further rules.

It seems, however, that there is no boundary in the game, there are no boundary rules.
“it may be that with self-producing conceptual systems it is only necessary for the system to
be able to clearly demarcate inside from the outside. In this case to be able to distinguish
‘genuine’ rules that apply at a particular time from ‘false’ ones that have not been
incorporated correctly, or indeed from everything else, eg. the players.” p. 284.

“The players participating in a game are an example of Giddens’ social system, while the rules
of the game are equivalent to his social structure. The rules both enable and constrain the
actions of the players, while the playing of the game directly reproduces and transforms the
structure (rules)” p. 284.
“A question arising here is: could the same be said of any game, or only a reflexive game like
Nomic? Consider chess: while the rules govern the possible moves and actions there is no
feedback from moves to rules. Nothing in the play of the game can alter the rules. However, if
we consider not the formal rules of chess but the informal knowledge of tactics and strategy
then the same situation does seem to apply. For a knowledgeable player moves are governed
by informal (as much as formal) rules while the history of past chess games generates the
informal knowledge. Thus ordinary games have a degree of self-production within externally
fixed constraints but Nomic is radically autonomous by incorporating its constitutive rules
within its own domain of possible changes.” pp. 284-84

Luhmann’s theory

In many ways, Luhmann’s is a good attempt at an autopoietic social theory.

Luhmann’s work up to autopoiesis is well covered by the Differentiation of Society, 1982
Theory with autopoiesis: Social Systems, 1984/1995

He adopts Varela’s conceptual systems, the psychic and the social system, but unlike Varela,
who restricts autopoiesis to living systems, considers these autopoietic.
Components of his social systems are communications or communicative events, which
consist of the indissoluble elements of information, utterance and understanding.
“Broadly speaking, information is what the message is about, utterance is the form in which it
is produced together with the intentions of its sender, and understanding is the meaning that it
generates (which can include misunderstanding) in the receiver.” p. 286.
They are selections from a range of possibilities, and it is the system which makes the
selections.
We can “see how [social systems] can be separated from the particular people involved. The
people will come and go, and their individual subjective motivations will disappear, but the
communicative dynamic will remain.” p. 287.
This results in a temporal network of communications, where communications refer back to
past communications and lead to new ones.
Communications are different from physical components because they are events, and they
disappear in time. Autopoiesis depends on the continuation, and the production of new
communicative events, which have to be different from previous ones.
Communicative autopoiesis is “a network of differentiated events” (Mingers’ description).
Communicative events refer to many events and make available many possibilities for
connection. Meaning is all these possibilities, it is exactly the openness residing in them, and
a particular communication closes this off, by making a distinction.
Autopoietic communication is a meaning-processing, generating distinctions to convert the
open field of meaning into the particular information/utterances which thereby constitute a
society.

Society differentiates itself into subsystems, which are also autopoietic systems of
communications. Society includes these, as well as communications of the lifeworld, which is
outside of these systems. p. 288.

Society is operationally closed but interactively open. The environment of society is
everything that is not communication. “Society is a closed system in that it cannot
communicate directly with its environment since the environment, by definition, does not
communicate. Events happen in the physical world (eg. pollution) but this does not affect
society until it becomes the subject of a communication …”p. 288.

“The environment (especially people) can trigger or irritate society and society may then
generate a communication but its nature and form will be determined by society or a
particular subsystem, not by the environmental disturbance.” p. 289.

Types of structural couplings:
1. the coupling of communication to sense-systems i.e. individual consciousnesses – so there
is no direct link to the physical world
2. the coupling of subsystems to society
3. coupling between subsystems.
p. 290.
Problems with autopoiesis in Luhmann’s theory

1. Components and their production.
“That components are events does not seem a particular difficulty – ultimately it is just a
matter of time scale. Given long enough, all production processes become events since the
produced component will exist and disintegrate. Equally, with a short enough time horizon all
events themselves become processes as we observe their unfolding.” p. 290.

But there is a problem with the claim that communications produce communications, because
Luhmann does not show how this happens.
In other words, “there is little attempt to show how societal communication, as an
independent phenomenal domain, emerges from the interactions of the human beings who
ultimately underpin it. Without human activity there would be no communication.” p. 290.

Also, Luhmann’s idea of the psychic system pays little attention to the fact that its meaning is
underpinned by an a priori structure generating an intersubjective domain of interactions. The
concept interpenetration does not help to clarify how this happens.

In summary:
“there are problems in accepting that communications are produced by other communications
alone rather than by people within social interaction. This is part of the problem of the
totalising nature of the definition of society as communications and only communication,
leaving the mutual interaction between people and society undertheorised.” p. 291.

2. Boundary
That there is boundary to communications in general may accepted in an intuitive way, but the
boundary of social subsystems is a problem: “In the economic sphere, it may be that ultimate
operations underlying it are monetary payments, but if we seek to explain particular
happenings we immediately find that social, political and legal factors are at work. This is
because it is people who make economic decisions … and people form a nexus between all
the different subsystems.” p. 291.
“Moreover, communications can often be said to belong to more than one domain.” p. 291.