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Syst. R e s . Behav. Sci. Vol. 14 N o . 2, pp.

83-100 1997
Research Paper
The Autopoiesis of Social Systems:
Assessing Luhmann's Theory of
Kenneth D. Bailey
Department of Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90024, USA
This paper explicates Luhmann's self-referential theory of autopoiesis. Luhmann shows
how sodal systems work in self-reprodudng fashion to define and perpetuate themselves.
This process of autopoiesis depends heavily upon binary coding. Systems which define
themselves in a unitary fashion face the problem of tautology ('legal is legal'). Systems
thus turn to dichotomies or binary coding to define themselves ('legal is not illegal'). This
in ttim can lead to the problem of paradox (when something is defined in terms of what it
is not), so that the systems are seen in Luhmann's theory as utilizing procedures both for
'de-tautologizing' and 'de-paradoxing' themselves. TMs paper shows that Luhmann's
paradigm holds great promise for solving current problems of sodal theory and for
moving theory forward. This is illustrated by applying Luhmann's theory to two
empirical examples: law and ecology.
Keywords Self-reference; autopoiesis; communication; binary coding; paradox; law; ecology
Many systems scholars are familiar with recent
trends in sodal theory, including expository
critiques of the classics, discussion of metatheor-
izing (Ritzer, 1990) and continuing controversy
of the role of positivism (Tixmer, 1990). While
such self-examination is healthy, continuing
attention to 'crises' in sodological theory
(Turner, 1990) belies the fact that in the meantime
a quiet revolution is taking place which promises
to produce some rather startling theoretical
innovations. Critiques of functionalism or con-
flict theory, and continuing focus on the micro-
macro debate (e.g. Alexander et al, 1989), while
valuable, draw attention away from new theore-
tical developments which are now suffidently
mature that they have produced not only large
primary literature but, more recently, a signifi-
cant secondary literature as well.
These new theories defy easy dassification in
terms of old labels. While these theories are
avowedly either non-functional or post-func-
tional (Giddens, 1979; Mingers, 1989) or perhaps
neofunctional (Luhmarm, 1986, 1989, 1990b),
they draw from a number of common traditions,
induding both micro and macro sociology,
hermeneutics, structuralism, functionalism, sys-
tems theory, cybernetics, phenomenology, com-
munications theory, and even ecology
(Luhmann, 1989), to name a few.
These new theories share a general emphasis
on notions of reflexivity and recursiveness
(Giddens, 1979; Maturana and Varela, 1980;
CCC 1092-7026/97/020083-18$17.50
1997 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Received 13 October 1995
Accepted 24 June 1996
Syst Res. Betiav. Sci.
Luhmann, 1986). The three chief representative
strains of this new recursive theory are structura-
tion theory (Giddens, 1979, 1984), biological
autopoietic theory (Maturana and Varela, 1980;
Mingers, 1989), and sodal autopoietic theory
(Luhmann, 1989,1989; 1990a). Despite significant
differences in terminology and in the basic imits
of analysis, these three chief recursive theoretical
approaches share generally common goals, tread
parallel paths, and exhibit some amazing simila-
rities. The purpose of this paper is not to compare
structuration and autopoiesis, but rather to focus
on remaining interpretive and analytical ques-
tions in recursive theory. Here emphasis is on the
recursive theory of Niklas Luhmann (1984a,
1984b, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990a, 1990b,
1992, 1993, 1995a, 1995b; Fuchs, 1988a, 1988b;
Mingers, 1995). Luhmann has written widely
about differentiation (Luhmarm, 1982a, 1990b),
autopoiesis (1986, 1989), and self-reference
(1990a, 1995b).
Unfortunately, many scholars remain largely
unaware of Luhmann's major contributions.
Some that know he studied with Parsons may
view him as largely a Parsonian functionalist,
espedally if they have read his earlier works,
such as his book on the function of religion
(Luhmann, 1977). In reality, he is an extremely
prolific writer whose current work bears little
resemblance to dassic functionalism (save for the
use of the concept of differentiated functional
system), emphasizing instead the notion of self-
reference. In a time when so much theory deals
with the classics rather than with valuable
contemporary theories with empirical content,
it seems that the time is right for a com-
prehensive introduction and commentary on
Luhmann's work on self-reference. The main
motivation for this paper is thus to show how
Luhmann's work helps us to better solve some of
the problems of socid theory. Such explication is
perhaps a large task with a theorist whose work
is so complex and comprehensive, but at least I
can begin the task here, with the hope that others
will continue the effort.
Luhmann is not only a very proUfic writer, but
also deals with a rather exhaustive array of
topics. His recent writings, for example, include
analyses of political systems (1989), religion
(1989), risk, law (1985), differentiation (1992a,
1990b), art (1990a), love (1986), and ecology
(1989). While the Parsonian emphasis on func-
tionaUsm was dear in Luhmann's early work
(1977), it is generally absent in his latest work
(since the mid-1980s). Only rather rarely does
one see reference to Parsons or to his action
theory (Luhmann, 1986, p. 177).
In fact, the only really apparent Parsonian
legacy is a continuing emphasis on systems
theory. However, Luhmann's systems theory is
light years away from Parsons' systems theory.
Where Parsons (1951) emphasized such concepts
as equilibrium and the AGIL framework, Luh-
mann depends heavily on the notion of an
autopoietic or self-reprodudng and self-organiz-
ing system. This recurrent theme is found
throughout virtually all of his recent work (see,
for example, Luhmann, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989,
1990a, 1993). Autopoietic theory is, very gener-
ally, a theory of self-reference, depending upon
concepts such as refiexivity and recursiveness
(Luhmaim, 1986, p. 178). It is based generally on
the biological autopoietic theory of Maturana
and Varela (1980), and incorporates some (but
not all) of their attendant concepts, such as uruty
and structural coupling.
Luhmann's new work is important, not only
for its breadth, but also for its innovative nature.
In fact, according to Fuchs (1988a, p.21), 'At
present, Luhmann's theory of sodal systems is
the only general theory that can claim to
introduce a new paradigm . . . if accepted,
Luhmann's proposal will radically change the
conventional ways of doing sodal theory.'
Exposition and Critique
Luhmann's work has recently generated an
increasing amount of both exposition and cri-
tique. I will focus on the former for the present,
and leave the latter for later. There has been
extensive discussion of Luhmann's writing in the
last three years: 1993, 1994, and 1995.
In 1993, Leydesdorff (1993) presented an exten-
sive analysis of Luhmarui's work Leydesdorff
identified four existing models of 'structure/
acdon contingendes'. These are: the aggregation
K. D. Bailey
Syst Res. Behav. Sci. RESEARCH PAPER
hypothesis; the hypothesis of unintended conse-
quences; symbolic interactionism and the situa-
tional approach; and systems theory. He
characterizes Luhmann's work in terms of the
latter category. Leydesdorff (1993, p. 57) says that
Luhmarm views the individual and sodety in
terms of two different types of systems, eadi of
which operates in each other's environment, over
time. Sodety can then be defined as a commu-
nication system among individuals. Leydesdorff
then uses the parallel and distributed processing
model to operationalize the external cybernetic
relafioriships implied in Luhmann's work. He
then proceeds to an extensive discussion of the
relationships between actors and networks, using
Luhmann's systems theory as a basic framework
The year 1994 saw increased attention to the
work of Luhmann when the journal Theory
Culture and Society (1994), published a spedal
section on Luhmann, devoting almost a fuU
issue to his work. In a feature interview with
Luhmann, Sdulli (1994) asked him about the
relation of his work to that of Parsons, and of
Maturana and Varela. With regard to the latter,
Sdulli questioned whether autopoiesis was a
suitable concept for sodology. Luhmann aggres-
sively defended this usage. While praising the
work of Luhmann, not only Sdulli, but other
writers in the spedal Luhmann section, such as
Miller (1994) and Neckel and Wolf (1994), are
also critical of some aspects of Luhmann's work,
labeling it as 'controversial' (Sciulli, 1994, p. 43).
Such critiques will be discussed in more detail
Another spedal journal section on Luhmann,
containing another interview, appeared in Cyber-
netics and Human Knowing in 1995. Containing a
lead article by Luhmann on 'Why "Systems
theory"?', (Luhmarm, 1995a), this journal issue
featured a personal interview with a somewhat
different focus from the interview of the previous
year. Here Luhmann was asked about why he
emphasizes systems, theory, functionaUsm, self-
reference, and paradoxes, among other concepts.
This journal issue also contains other articles on
Luhmann's work {Cybernetics and Human Know-
ing, 1995).
In retrospect, the year 1995 turned out to be a
barmer year for students of Luhmann's systems
theory. This year witnessed not only the pub-
lication of the spedal section in Cybernetics and
Human Knowing, but also the publication of Social
Systems (Luhmann, 1995), and Self-producing
Systems (Mingers, 1995). Social Systems is the
long-awaited English translation of Luhmann's
(1984b) classic work on systems theory, and
makes this important book accessible to English-
language readers for the first time.
Another notable publication in 1995 was the
work by Mingers (1995). This comprehensive
volume for the first time presented a detailed
discussion of autopoiesis on a wide range of
topics. This book not only provides a solid
introduction to Maturana and Varela's classic
work on autopoiesis, but for the first time
discusses autopoiesis in a wide range of areas,
from physical systems, to mathematical specifi-
cations, to theories of cognition, to applications.
Of particular interest here are the explications of
Luhmann's theory of autopoietic communica-
tion, and also the discussion of law as an
autopoietic system (see Mingers, 1995, pp. 139-
Mingers notes that while Maturana and Varela
stop short of saying that sodety is an autopoietic
system, Luhmann boldly characterizes society as
autopoietic, but in terms of communication as the
basic unit. Mingers rightly notes that Luhmann's
work, like that of Maturana, is not always easy
to interpret, partly due to each author's use of
common words in spedal ways. Mingers covers
a number of issues in Luhmann's work, indud-
ing differentiation, autopoiesis as the production
of communications and the autopoiesis of
society. While characterizing Luhmann's work
as a 'bold attempt to define an autopoietic unity
in the nonphysical domain' (Mingers, 1995,
p. 148), Mingers nevertheless has a number of
reservations about, and critidsms of, Luhmann's
In comparing Minger's approach with the
present exposition, it is clear that Mingers'
treatment of Luhmann is set in a much broader
context. In contrast, the present paper is more
focused on social issues, and is less critical.
Further, while Mingers focuses on the law, this
paper discusses applications of Luhmann's
approach to both the law and ecology. In general,
I would say that Minger's (1995) book and the
present paper are essentially complementary,
and should be read together for maximum effect.
Luhmann's work is so voluminous, ambitious.
The Autopoiesis of Sociai Systems 85
RESEARCH PAPER Syst Res. Behav. Sci.
and complex, that we are only now, espedally in
the English-speaking world, beginning to fully
appredate its value. Continued exposition and
interpretation, combined with more original
work in English, will one day enable systems
scholars to adequately appredate, and realize the
fiiU benefit of, this seminal and important
systems scholarship. The present paper is one
contribution to that larger effort.
Autopoiesis is a concept developed in the 1970s
by Maturana and Varela (Maturana, 1980a 1980b;
Maturana and Varela, 1980). They developed this
concept first for the ceU, establishing with
certainty that cells are autopoiedc. The quesfion
is whether sodeties are autopoietic also.
Luhmann answers this question affirmatively,
using communicafion as the basic unit of
analysis. Maturana and Varela have produced a
large literature, with a large number of terms,
induding autopioesis, unity, organization,
structure, structural coupling, and structural
plastidty. Lack of space precludes discussion of
all these terms here. For further discussion see
Mingers (1995) and Bailey (1994). For our
purposes here it suffices to present the basic
definition of biological autopoiesis, and then to
tum directly to Luhmann's specification for
sodal autopoiesis. A biological definition of an
autopoietic system is:
A dynamic system that is defined as a
composite unity as a network of producdons
of components that (a) through their inter-
acdons recursively regenerate the network of
producdons that produced them, and
(b) realize this network as a unity in the
space in which they exist by consdtuting and
specifying its boundaries as surfaces of
cleavage from the background through their
preferendal interacdons within the network, is
an autopoiedc system. (Maturana, 1980b, p. 29)
In order to adequately understand Luhmann's
theory of sodal autopoiesis, it is necessary to first
consider some basic concepts and cissumptions.
Autopoiedc theory is so complex, and depends
on so much jargon, that a reader who is
unfamiliar with the theory will have great
difficulty without a basic lexicon. The basic
definidon of autopoiesis is rather straightfor-
ward. An autopoiedc system is one which self-
reproduces. That is, it produces the components
that produce it (Mingers, 1989, p. 67). Thus,
simply put, autopoiesis is a coined Greek word
mearung self-reproducing. In Luhmarm's own
words, autopoiesis:
refers to systems that reproduce all the
elementary components out of which they
arise by means of a network of these elements
themselves and in this way distingmsh them-
selves from an environment^whether this
takes the form of life, consdousness or (in the
case of social systems) communicadon. Auto-
poiesis is the mode of reproducdon of these
systems. (Luhmann, 1989, p. 143)
Autopoiesis is an exceedingly important concept
to Luhmarm because he considers it an important
example of the larger nodon of self-reference. The
nodon of self-reference is at the heart of his
contemporary theory. According to Luhmann
(1995b, p. 437), sodal systems are undoubtedly
self-referendal systems. We can observe and
describe them as systems only by acknowledging
that they refer to themselves in every operadon.
However, self-reference, as Luhmann uses the
term, is not corifined only to reference to one's
self. Strictly speaking, if a system referred only to
itself, and never acknowledged an environment,
the term auto-reference would suffice. To the
degree that it is organizadonally closed, it is
accurate to refer to an autopoiedc system as auto-
referendal. However, inasmuch as autopoiedc
systems also interact with their environments,
this autopoiedc self-reference is not limited to
strict auto-reference, but references the environ-
ment as well. Any reference which references
endties other than the system itself (such as the
environment) we call hetero-reference. Thus, the
sophisdcated self-reference of the autopoiedc
system includes two components: pure internal
self-reference (auto-reference), and self-reference
through the environment (hetero-reference).
Hetero-reference is truly a component of the
larger process of self-reference, because by
comparing itself with what it is not the system
gains a clearer concepdon of its essence.
K. D. Bailey
Syst Res. Behav. Sci.
Thus, the autopoiedc system, while organiza-
donally dosed, nevertheless references an environ-
ment, background, or context. This means that
pure auto-referendality is generally lacking,
replaced instead by a broader process of self-
referendality which comprises hetero-referentiality
(reference to an envirorunent), with reference
through this environment bade to the system.
Thus, the auto-referendal autopoiedc process
depends on an ongoing process of the distincdon
between itself and its environment. As Luhmarm
(1986, p. 175) says, if an autopoiedc system did not
have an environment, it would be forced to invent
one as the horizon of its hetero-referentiality.
Another crudal nodon is that of unity. It is the
whole (the organized autopoiedc system) distin-
guished from its environment or background. In
the process of distinguishing the unity from its
environment, properdes which consdtute the
unity are specified. As an example, the legal
system is an autopoiedc system. But it carmot
exist in and of itself, alone by itself. It needs a
contrast, context, or background. That is, a totally
autoreferendal legal system would be defined by
'what is legal is legal'. Such a single valued
system is not contradictory, but it tautologous.
In order to be properly self-referendal (as
distinguished from auto-referendal), the hetero-
referendal system of legal/illegal must be
defined. Now we can define the legal system
self-referendally and non-tautologically as that
which is legal, but contrasted with that which is
illegal. In other words, by proceeding from the
concept of legal, through the concept of illegal,
back to legal, we can clearly see what legal is.
Purely self-referendal systems which do not take
this detour through the external are tautologous.
By referencing themselves through the external,
autopoiedc systems can 'de-tautologize' this
tautology (Luhmann, 1989, p. 145).
Thus, the concept of an autopoiedc system
transcends the old open/closed distincdon. As
Luhmann (1986, p.l74) notes, autopoiedc sys-
tems must exist within an environment, and
cannot exist on their own. Autopoiedc systems
do have interacdons with the environment. They
are organizadonally closed but interacdvely
open. They interact with the environment
through their structure (Mingers, 1995, p. 33).
Further, the term 'organizadonal dosure' can be
used to:
refer to systems whose organizadon is closed
but whose structure is open in order to
highlight the fact that I am talking of their
orgariizadon and not their structure. (Krull et
al, 1989, p. 91)
Thus, we can say of autopoiedc systems that their
organizadonal autopoiesis is self-contained in
the sense that unity is not derived from the
environment. As Luhmann (1986, p. 174, empha-
sis in the original) says "There is no input and no
output of unity'.
How can an autopoiedc system be organiza-
donally closed while interacdng with its envir-
onment? This is eluddated by considering the
nodon of structural coupling. As noted by Mingers
(1995, p. 35), an autopoiedc system is realized by
a specific structure, and the changes the system
can imdergo are determined by the structure so
long as autopoiesis is maintained. While the
environment does not determine the changes in
the autopoiedc system, it can select outcomes
from those made possible by the system's
structure. Thus, continued autopoiesis can lead
to a structure in the organism which is suitable
for its environment.
This point can be illuminated further by
exanuning Luhmarm's (1989, p. 143) nodon of
complexity. To Luhmann, a system can be
defined as complex when it comprises so many
elements that it is impossible to relate them all
thus necessitating some selecdvity or reducdon.
As a simple illustradon, when combirung binary
properdes (coded 0 or 1), and disregarding
permutadons, the number of combinadons is
2^, where N is the number of enddes. As we shall
see, Luhmarm's theory relies heavily on binary
coding (to avoid tautological auto-reference).
Thus, for example, we could compile a large
number of binary sodal enddes such as legal/
illegal, economic/non-economic, educadonal/
non-educadonal, radal/non-radal, and so forth.
We might easily list 100 or more of these enddes
relevant to a theory of complex sodety. We
would quickly find, as Luhmann notes, that
some reducdon or selecdon is necessary.
For example, when only 25 dichotomous
attributes are combined, they yield 2^ or 16,
756, 736 categories, and the number increases
rapidly when more enddes are added.
Obviously, some reducdon is needed for sheer
The Autopoiesis of Social Systems 87
RESEARCH PAPER Syst Res. Behav. Sci.
manageability. Thus, complexity usually
assumes some reducdon procedure whereby
new sodal reladons are screened to see which
will be included. The remaining reladons are
excluded from the analysis of complexity, but are
recognized as possibilides or potendalides. One
of the chief merits of the systems approach, with
its emphasis on reladons among enddes, is the
ability to manage, analyze, and even reduce
A companion concept to complexity is the
nodon of differentiation, a common theme in
Luhmann's (1982a, 1989, 1990b) recent work. In
one of the rare instances where his funcdonal
roots are apparent, Luhmann (1989) uses the
nodon of funcdonal differendadon or differen-
dated funcdon system. This refers to the forma-
don of systems within systems. Thus, a sodety
increasingly contains differendated subsystems
as complexity increases over time. A subsystem
is said to be funcdonal in that it achieves its
idendty through the fulfillment of a funcdon of
the entire system. Funcdonal differendadon may
or may not result in the decomposidon of an
entire system into subsystems. Rather, emphasis
is on the establishment of the system/environ-
ment differences within systems.
To Luhmann, meaning is a central concept in
sodology, and is central to the reducdon of
complexity. A meaningful experience, according
to Luhmann (1990, p.29), achieves both reduction
and preservation of complexity by providing
immediate experience with other (altemadve)
possibilides. This is accomplished through the
process of negadon, which is at the heart of
binary coding. The power of negadon stems from
its spedal combinadon of reflexivity and general-
izadon. Negadon is reflexive, as it does not block
access to what has been negated. That is, the
negadon can itself be negated, thus returning to
the positive.
Meaning is very important to a contingent
world, and Luhmann certainly sees the social
system as contingent. In fact, he stresses the
notion of double contingency. An action or
experience is doubly condngent when it does
not depend solely on me, but also on you (the
other). The expectations that I have for the other
occur only if we both do what is necessary for
this fulfillment, thus the double condngency.
Luhmann is also careful to differentiate
between meaning and informadon. The distinc-
don can be clarified by examining a simple
message. One the message is repeated, it loses
its informadon value, but not its meaning. The
function of meaning is different for psychic and
social systems. In psychic systems, meaning
structures and regulates the process of con-
sciousness. In contrast, in social systems, mean-
ing structures and regulates communication.
Self-referendal systems deal with complexity
through reduction, differendation, and other
processes such as coding. Coding, particularly
binary coding, has a central role in Luhmann's
recent theory. In a sense, coding is the heart of
self-reference, as it allows for differences.
Binary coding consists of the specification of a
posidve and negadve value allowing the trans-
formation of one into the other (e.g. of legal into
illegal). In a sense, binary codes duplicate
reality by dichotomizing it. That is, reality has
two sides, obverse/reverse, left/right, posi-
tive/negative, etc. The importance of this for
the observer, and thus for self-referential
systems, is that everything which is observed
appears as condngent, or as possibly different
(Luhmann, 1989, p. 143). For example, an act
that we observe may have to be evaluated in
terms of legality. It may appear to be legal, but
since the code in effect duplicates it, also has the
potendal for being illegal. The idea of binary
coding derives from the logical forms of the
mathematician Spencer-Brown (see Spencer-
Brown, 1969).
This duality is at the heart of self-reference. We
said earlier that single-value systems uldmately
are tautologous (legal is legal). Two-valued self-
referendal systems escape tautology by referen-
cing themselves to what they are not (legal is not
illegal). The problem here is that by avoiding a
tautology, one enters a paradox, in that self-
referendal systems can determine themselves
only in reference to what they are not (Luhmann,
1989, p. 144).
According to Luhmann, a paradox will occur
whenever the condidons which make an operadon
possible are the same condidons which make it
impossible. This is the case in binary coding, when
the self-reference depends not only on the posidve
(existence) but also on the negadve (non-existence).
Such self-referential systems have to foresee the
possibility of eliminating the paradox, while
88 K. D. Bailey
Syst Res. Behav. Sci.
simultaneously disguising the operador neces-
sary for this. As Fuchs (1988a, p. 25) says 'Pure self-
reference, however, does not lead to meaningful
and concrete sodetal self-desoripdons. Tautologies
must be "de-tautologized", paradoxes must be
"de-paradoxized"' (see also Luhmann, 1988).
In other words, let us consider a self-referendal
system such as the legal system. If it is single-
valued it will be tautologous, thus it must be
double-valued (legal-illegal). But escape from
tautology leads to paradox. Are we doomed?
How can we escape the paradox without retreat
back into tautology? According to Luhmann
(1989, p. 145), we simply treat the recursive
symmetry of our self-reference as asymmetrical
either temporally or heirarchically without
admitting to ourselves that an operadon of the
system is required for this transformadon.
Notice that binary coding is not the limit of
such coding, but is merely the minimum needed
to establish a difference, and thus to effectuate
non-tautological self-reference. For example, I
cannot readily convey the concept of 'legal' to
you, imtil I contrast it with what is not 'legal'
('illegal'). The nodon of legality becomes clear
it is what you do when you are not doing what
you are not supposed to do (act illegally).
Obviously, concepts can take on far more than
merely two values. But in general, the differ-
endated funcdon system wants the values to be
limited to two (to be binary) rather than having
more possibilides, as these other possibilides
consdtute altemadves to the system and thus
possible compeddon for it. Further, binary
coding is immensely popular since it is really
all that is needed to avoid the tautology thus,
often, further categories are eschewed.
A salient example of the effects of coding is the
concept of bisexuality. Heterosexuality and
homosexuality are both made clear in terms of
the other^I understand that homosexuality is
not heterosexuality and vice versathe recursive
symmetry of self-reference that Luhmann writes
of. But what am I to make of the nodon of
bisexuality? If it is not heterosexuality, then it is
supposed to be homosexuality; but if it is not
homosexuality, then it is supposed to be hetero-
sexuality. In reality, bisexuality is also deter-
mined in terms of what it is notit is not
heterosexuality and it is not homosexualityit is
a third category. The number of categories is
limitless in coding, and thus in recursive self-
reference. However, the resulting complexity is
quickly overwhelming, leading to a strong
tendency to rely solely on binary coding as a
reducdon process for redudng complexity. Thus,
third concepts such as bisexuality wiU, in my
view, continue to be much rarer than dualides
such as heterosexual/homosexual, or legal/
Luhmann's nodon of self-reference as an
operadon that refers to something beyond itself
and back to itself can be seen as something of a
'negadve looking-glass self', in which the system
sees itself not merely as others see it, but rather
sees itself in terms of what it is not; or sees itself
as not being what the other is. Thus, as long as
homosexuals and heterosexuals define them-
selves solely in contrast to each other, bisexuality
remains invisible, with some in the categories
(heterosexuals and homosexuals) even doubting
that it exists. However, bisexuality can become
visible, and viable as a sodal category, through
the same self-referendng operadon that hetero-
sexuals and homosexuals use; with bisexuals
simply defining themselves as not heterosexual,
and also not homosexual. The only difference is
that the addidon of the third code (bisexuality)
necessitates two self-referendal comparisons
instead of only one (as with a binary code).
Thus, to reiterate, coding is not logically
limited to binary codes. However, as Luhmann
(1989, p. 36) notes, most important insdtudons
('funcdonal systems') such as sdence, educadon,
the law, economy or religion, limit their codes to
two values, and further claim universal validity
for this code and exclude further possibilides.
This limits complexity, while serving the chief
purpose for self-reference, namely the resoludon
of tautologies and paradoxes for the system that
uses the binary code. That is, the code conceals
those aspects of self-reference that would reveal
the tautology and paradox of the operadonal
bases (Luhmann, 1989, p. 37).
A code is a duplicadon rule. While reality is
singular, when coded it is possible for every
value to find its complement and to be refiected
in it. Thus, an obverse is refiected not in some
other obverse, but its reverse (what it is not). For
further discussion of coding, including a discus-
sion of why three-fold codes generally do not
exist, see Luhmann (1989, pp. 36-50).
The Autopoiesis of Social Systems 89
RESEARCH PAPER Syst Res. Behav. Sci.
Ha'ving discussed the basic nature of autopoiesis
and Luhmann's concept of self-reference, we can
tum now to examination of the types of self-
referential autopoietic systems. To Luhmann,
these include psychic systems, living or biologi-
cal systems, and social systems (see Luhmann,
1990a, p, 2).
The basic distinction for autopoietic theory is
between societies and interactions, as these are
very different types of social systems. In order to
distinguish these, we need to begin our analysis
of communication. Communication is a central
concept in Luhmann's autopoietic theory. As we
shall see, Luhmann (1989, p. 177) considers only
communication to be the elementary unit of the
social system. To Luhmann, a 'communication' is
not merely an utterance, but an independent
autopoietic operation which coniprises three
different components: information, utterance,
and understanding. These three are combined
into an emergent entity that serves as a founda-
tion for additional communication (Luhmann,
1989, p. 143).
Societies and interactions are both social systems,
but they differ in their degree of closure . To
Luhmann, societies include all communications,
in a closed sense. That is, societies do not
communicate with their environment. If they
did, then in effect the environment would
become part of the system. Thus, the society is
a closed system in which communications take
place only within the society. The system is
designed to reproduce itself by submitting itself
to self-referential selectivity.
In contrast to societies, interactions take envir-
onmental communication into account. Parties
to the interaction must acknowledge the fact
that persons participating in the interaction also
have other roles and obligations within systems
that cannot be controlled within the interaction.
This is not to say that interactions are totally
open. They are closed in the sense that their
communications can only be understood in the
context of the interaction system. However,
inasmuch as they take into account environ-
mental communication, they are more open
than societies, which do not do this.
In a sense, societies and interactions can be
viewed as the polar types, or the opposite
extremes, of social systems. Thus, though
Luhmann (1986, p. 173) distinguishes societies,
organizations, and interactions as the distinct
t5^es of social systems, he spends less time
discussing the intermediate type^the organiza-
tion. In terms of closure, organizations and
groups would seem to be definitely intermediate
to the relative closure of societies and the relative
openness of interactions. Which pole a particular
organization is closest to would be seem to be an
empirical matter, with some small organizations
taking environmental communications into
account, as do interactions, and v^th some
large organizations being closer to encompassing
systems which do not communicate with the
environment, as is the case with societies.
In biological autopoietic theory, the terms
organization and structure have specific mean-
ings, which are almost the opposite of the way
these terms are generally used in sociology. This
can be seen in the autopoietic distinction
between the organization of a unity and its
structure (Mingers, 1989). The organization is the
generalized model showing relations between
components and the properties which define the
imity as a member of a general class. Structure, in
contrast, refers to the specific components and
relations of an actual empirical example or case.
For example, a car may be defined as an
organization by having wheels, steering, trans-
mission, etc. A specific car has a structure of an
engine of a certain size, an actual kind of wheel,
We have been discussing autopoiesis as a general
process necessary for self-referential social
90 K. D. Bailey
Syst Res. Behav. Sci. RESEARCH PAPER
systems. However, the chief question regarding
sodal autopoiesis remains unanswered. This
question is 'if autopoietic sodal systems are self-
reprodudng, exactly what is being reproduced in
the sodety?' Stated another way , this question
becomes the question of exactly what is the proper
unit of analysis, or chief component, of the social
system. There are many possibilities. The vmit
could be the individual, the unit act, the role, or
countless other possibilities. Luhmann chooses
the communication as his basic unit. This is not
surprising given our discussion of the importance
of coding, and our condusion that binary coding
provides the basis for self-reference. Thus, com-
munication using binary coding becomes all
important for Luhmann's theory.
Luhmann (1982b, 1984a, 1984b, 1986, 1990a,
1995a, 1995b) is convinced that sodal systems are
autopoietic, and that communication is the basic
unit of the social system. Luhmann says that:
sodal systems use communication as their
particular mode or autopoietic reproduction.
Their elements are commvmications which are
recursively produced and reproduced by a
network of communications and which carmot
exist outside of such a network. (Luhmann,
1986, p. 174).
He say further:
for a theory of autopoietic systems, only
communication is a serious candidate for the
position of the elementary unit of the basic
self-referential process of sodal systems. Only
communication is necessarily and inherently
sodal. Action is not. Moreover, sodal action
implies communication . . . Therefore the
theory of autopoietic sodal systems requires
a conceptual revolution within sodology; the
replacement of action theory by communica-
tion theory as the characterization of the
elementary operative level of the system.
(Luhmann, 1986, pp. 177-178)
Elsewhere (1986, p. 177) Luhmann says that action
is generally considered the basic imit of analysis,
although the role or the individual can be so
considered, but communication is a kind of action.
However, having arrived at this point (which
is perhaps a breakthrough given the apparent
dissensus over sodal autopoiesis), there is still a
major obstacle in the form of the debate over the
proper unit of analysis: individual, role, action,
event or communication. Mingers (1989) would
choose the individual as the basic unit of the
sodal systems, as would Miller (1978). Luhmann
(1986, p. 177) says that most sodologists would
choose action, but that sometimes roles or human
individuals are preferred. He would choose
communications. He said earlier (Luhmarm,
1982, p. 131) that sodal systems use communica-
tion to constitute the interconnect events (actions)
which build up the system, with events being
reproduced and serving as components of the
Using communication as the basic element of
the social system, Luhmann (1986, p. 172) says
that if sodal systems are living systems, it could
seem to follow that they are autopoietic, but
problems immediately arise in predsely defining
the components. He prefers to use general
autopoietic theory as merely a foundation for
deriving an autopoietic sodal theory, with the
concept of social autopoiesis abstracted from
biological cormotations (Luhmarm, 1986, p. 173).
In Luhmann's theory, the network of events
(communications) reproduces itself, and struc-
tures are required for the reproduction of events
by events. This is accomplished by the synthesis
of information, utterance, and understanding
(Luhmann, 1986, p. 174) and requires self-refer-
ence. Commurucation cannot use the environ-
ment, but requires references to previous and
future communications. Information, utterance,
and understanding are co-created within the
process of communication and cannot exist
independently of the system. Information is not
something external (in the environment) to be
picked up by the system, but is produced in the
system. TTie synthesis of information, utterance,
and understanding is an undecomposable unit,
engaged in autopoiesis only as an element of the
Reflexive communication is not an occasional
event, but an ongoing process that is co-repro-
duced by autopoiesis, with each communication
undergoing recursive elaboration (questiorung,
derual or correction) as well as adaptation to
future events (Luhmann, 1986, p. 178). Societies
also form and use their own boundaries. The
sodal system is a self-referentiated system
The Autopoiesis of Social Systems 91
RESEARCH PAPER Syst Res. Behav. Sci.
operating within its own world, and constituting
a world of its own. Sodeties, as autopoietic sodal
systems, communicate about themselves, and this
entails distinguishing themselves from the envir-
onment. Communication can never exist outside
the sodal system's ov^m boundaries, which are
components of the system and formed by the
system (Luhmarm, 1986, p. 179).
Luhmann's (1986, pp. 180-181) discussion
clearly shows one fundamental difference
between biological autopoiesis and sodal auto-
poiesis. While biological autopoiesis reproduces
elements (e.g. molecules in cells) in order to stave
off decay (an increase in internal entropy
according to the second law of thermodynamics),
sodal systems produce their own decay. Their
thought and communications are events which
vanish as soon as they occur. If a sodal system
were to store all its communications, it would
soon be drowned in complexity, so that commu-
rucation patterns could not be established and
chaos would result (Luhmann, 1986^this is
similar to Miller's, 1978, concept of information-
input overload).
Luhmann says:
The solution is to renounce all stability at the
operative level of elements and to use events
only. Thereby the continuing dissolution of the
system becomes a necessary cause of its
autopoietic reduction. The system becomes a
dynamic in a very basic sense. It becomes
iriherentiy restiess. The instability of its ele-
ments is a condition of its duration
All structures of social systems have to be
based on this fundamental fact of vanishing
events, disappearing gestures or words that
are dying away. Memory, then writing, have
their function in preserving not the events,
but their structure-generating power. The
events themselves cannot be saved, but their
loss is the condition of their regeneration.
Thus, time and irreversibility are build into
the system not only at the structural level, but
also at the level of its elements (Luhmann,
1986, p. 180).
Luhmann says that autopoiesis involves an
important shift from self-referential structural
integration to self-referential constitution of ele-
ments. Maintenance is not simply replication.
cultural transmission, or reproduction of patterns.
It is processing the production of next elements
which are different from previous ones (or else
they cannot be recognized as new events (Luh-
marm 1986, p. 181)). Thus, the system maintains
itself not through the storing of patterns but by
producing elements. Information is an internal
aspect and not something to be derived from the
envirorunent. In describing sodal autopoiesis two
dichotomies are necessary: system/environment,
and event/situation.
It is clear from this brief summary that
Luhmann's social autopoietic theory is far
from a literal and inappropriate transportation
of biological autopoiesis to social systems. To
the contrary, it differs markedly from biological
autopoiesis (when Luhmann notes that social
systems produce decay while biological sys-
tems do not) and goes well beyond biological
autopoiesis in many ways (see his discussion of
reentry in Luhmann 1986, p. 183). Luhmann
presents a viable theory of social autopoiesis
which uses the general theory or biological
autopoiesis only as a foundation on which to
build, in the best Comtean tradition
One goal of this paper, as stated previously, is
to show how Luhmann's theory of self-refer-
ence helps us to better solve some of the
problems of social theory. It is clear that
Luhmann's theory is innovative, and that it is
able to deal with complex social systems. These
are both positive features. However, if it
remains at the level of pure abstraction, the
theory will be of less value to us than if it can be
applied to some substantive situations. Fortu-
nately, it turns out that not only is Luhmann's
theory logically and analytically sophisticated,
but that it can be (or already has been) applied
to a number of different types of social systems
as well. Some of the areas to which Luhmann
has applied his theory of self-reference include:
ecology, the economy, law, science, politics,
religion, education, and art (Luhmann, 1989,
1990a) Obviously we cannot deal with all of
these areas in a single article. Thus, I will
arbitrarily select law and ecology as two
examples of how the theory of self-reference
92 K. D. Bailey
Syst Res. Behav. Sci. RESEARCH PAPER
may be applied, necessarily leaving the analysis
of other areas for the future.
The law
The law seems a good choice to illustrate the
efficacy of Luhmann's theory in empirical areas
because it is relatively easy to observe the dual
open/closed nature of the law, as well as its
symmetrical self-referencing operations. More-
over, study of the law shows the power of
Luhmann's theory, because it illustrates that
this theory allows us to solve several problems
confronting the sociological theory of law. This
discussion follows Luhmann (1985, pp. 281-
For Luhmann, the law is a differentiated
function system. This means that it is a sub-
system of society, and has a function of the larger
sodety. As a sodal system, the law, according to
Luhmann, is an autopoietic, self-referendng
system, which produces every kind of unity
that it requires. TTus includes unity of the system,
as well as the unity of actions within the system.
The law thus produces and delimits the opera-
tive unity of its elements, which in this case
means legally relevant events and dedsions.
These events are produced through the operation
of its elements, and thus it is self-reprodudng
(autopoietic). That is, the law reproduces the
elements which produce it. Like other autopoie-
tic systems, the law has functions which reduce
its complexity, but cannot be taken from the
environment. Simultaneously, this recursive,
self-referential operation assumes the existence
of an environment (the larger society).
As noted above, of all social systems, only
society is an operationally closed system,
having no communication with its environ-
ment. Society can communicate about its envir-
onment, but not with it. As soon as something
becomes a communication, it becomes therefore
an internal societal process, even though it may
have external conditions and effects. Society is
an open system, but with recursive commu-
nicative closedness.
As a 'part-system' (subsystem, or part of the
whole society), the legal system is differen-
tiated within the socially ordered environment
(the society). The legal system is a normatively
closed system, while being simultaneously a
cognitively open system. In this case, autopoietic
(normative) closedness means that law can
carry out its function for the larger society
'without exposing its reproduction to the envir-
onment' (Luhmann, 1985, p. 283). That is, the
normative validity of the law derives solely
from the law's reproductive elements (or its
production of the elements that produce it). The
law maintains its closedness by its normative
reproduction; it maintains its openness by
adapting the semantics of this reproduction to
environmental conditions.
According to Luhmann (1985, P. 284), these
conditions lead to six consequences (if not
solutions) for long-standing problems in legal
(1) The legal system is closed from the importa-
tion of norms from its environment. This
means that it alone is able to produce and
reproduce (autopoietically) all legal norms.
This does not mean that the law cannot
adopt extra-legal norms, but only that extra-
legal entities cannot imbue such norms with
legal qualities.
(2) The combination of closedness/openness
can be seen as concurrent self-reference and
adaptation to the environment, in the con-
text of the functional differentiation of
(3) The unity of the legal system is not a given,
nor does it derive from an observer or
creator. Neither does it stem from some
general norm dictating that law should
exist. Rather, the unity of the law stems
solely from its autopoietic reproduction.
That is, the legal system exists because of
its own closed, self-referential reproduction.
It follows, then, that the validity of the law
is nothing more than the self-reference of the
law, as evidenced in the continuing repro-
duction from case to case. Thus, the validity
of the law does not stem from belief in the
law, nor from adherence to it, but only from
its self-reproduction.
(4) The autopoiesis of the law is strictly
symmetrical and recursive. This means, for
example, that one cannot make asym-
metrical statements such as 'legal decisions
are valid on the basis of legal rules', or
The Autopoiesis of Social Systems 93
RESEARCH PAPER Syst Res. Behav. Sci.
'regulation depends on implementation'.
Rather, both are instances of symmetrical
relationships. That is, legal dedsions are
valid on the basis of legal rules, but also
legal rules are valid on the basis of legal
decisions. Similarly, regulation depends
upon implementation, but implementation
depends upon regulation.
(5) The continuing combination of normative
dosedness and cognitive openness requires,
over time, increasing complexity, sharper
differentiation and a higher degree of
autonomy of the legal system. The focus
here is on conditionality, and on the binary
coding of justice/injustice. In complex
systems, conditioning occurs so that certain
events (such as relations between certain
elements) only occur under certain condi-
tions. This gives conditionality the added
function of combining closed and openness
for the system (under certain conditions the
system is dosed; under certain conditions it
is open).
(6) It is time now to re-examine the effect of
coding on the legal-system. We noted
earlier that things are understood as legal
in contrast to illegal. Thus, the decision or
evaluation possibilities are doubled with
binary coding as contrasted with single-
valued coding. The legal system is con-
tinually confronting possibilities, such as
legal or illegal, just or unjust, lawful or
unlawful. One might suppose that the
deciding of lawful or unlawful would
end the argument, and would achieve the
purposes of the legal system. However,
according to Luhmann (1985, pp. 285-286),
the allocation of lawfulness or unlawful-
ness transcends the regulation of indivi-
dual cases, and in so doing establishes 'the
eternally recursive autopoiesis of law'.
Thus, both lawful and unlawful events
are produced as 'legally qualified elements
by the legal system itself (Luhmann, 1985,
pp. 285-286).
A distinction can be made between legal theory
or dogma, and sociological theory of the law.
The former are forms of self-description of the
legal system. As such, they represent the basic
normative positions of the legal system, and are
seen to be reflexive theories, as they always
refer to the unity of the legal system. Socio-
logical theories of the law, in contrast, are not
self-referential or non-reflexive, but can be seen
as extra-legal, or theories which describe the
legal system from the outside.
This distinction is important for sociological
theory. Sociological theory of the law is not part
of the self-referential legal system, and does not
participate in legal autopoiesis as legal theory
does. However, it is nevertheless a sociological
theory of self-referential systems, allowing us
to understand the autopoiesis of the legal
system and other differentiated function sys-
tems of modem complex societies. Complex,
modern societies have many differentiated
functional systems, but the legal system seems
a good candidate for being one of the most, if
not the most, autonomous, thus providing a
clearer view of the nature of self-reproducing
(autopoietic) unity.
In summary, the legal system is a good forum
for illustrating the merits and complexities of
Luhmann's theory. Some features should be
noted about the legal system. It is clearly a
unity. Although the environment such as the
larger system may impact upon it, it generally
manages its own affairs without outside inter-
ference or supervision. Further, the legal
system has clear mechanisms for reproduction.
As examples, court cases are decided upon the
basis of existing laws, and existing laws are
modified by court cases (precedents). Old cases
affect new cases, and new cases become
precedents. Thus, the chain is symmetrical,
recursive, and apparently endless. The law
was the law, is the law, and will be the law. It
lets considerations from the outside affect
it in certain ways (e.g., changes in the budget),
but not in ways that would affect its
internal (and eternal) autopoiesis, or recursive
Thus, for example, whether the budget
allocated to the legal system by the larger
society increases or decreases may have some
noticeable effects on the legal system, such as
the length of time it takes for a case to be settled
in court. However, budgeting considerations
will not affect the basic autopoiesis of the law,
and will not hinder the law from reproducing
and perpetuating itself. Any elements from the
94 K. D. Bailey
Syst Res. Behav. Sci. RESEARCH PAPER
environment that would interrupt the autopoi-
esis are not allowed into the legal system. This
exemplifies both the notion of structural
coupling and the closed/open nature of autop-
oietic systems.
Ecology, or the relation of sodety to its environ-
ment, presents a somewhat different illustration
of the application of Luhmann's theory of self-
reference. Luhmann eschews the task of describ-
ing the manner in which sodety should deal with
environmental problems. He says that in reality
it is not difficult to outline strategies for dealing
v^th such problems: use fewer resources, pollute
less, have fewer children, etc. However, this is
not the way that sodety acts. Thus, Luhmann
sees his task not as that of showing how these
ecological problems should be dealt with, but of
showing how sodety actually does react to
environmental problems, and why it reacts this
We said earlier that society is closed in terms of
communication with its environment. It can
communicate about its environment, but not
directly with it. As an autopoietic system, we
stressed that society is organizationally dosed,
and in this sense its communication is internal. It
cannot communicate with the environment. It
remains physically open, however, in the sense
that it is still inputting food and other sustenance
from the environment. We introduced the notion
of structural coupling to refer to the particular
symmetrical physical relationship between
sodety and its envirorunent, in which sodety
allows in inputs, but only those which aid rather
than hinder its communicative autopoiesis.
In dealing v^th ecological matters, Luhmann
introduces a new term: resonance (Luhmarui,
1986). The basic notion is that the recursive
closed autopoietic system is physically open to
environmental 'irritability', or as we would say,
ecological problems (as opposed to sodal pro-
blems). These examples of 'environmental irrit-
ability' could be anything from humanly caused
problems such as polluted rivers or nudear
leaks, to natural disasters such as earthquakes
or floods. Luhmann's concept of resonance is
designed to subsume a host of relevant concepts
such as complexity, reduction, self-reference,
autopoiesis, and 'recursively closed reproduc-
tion with envirorunentally open irritability'
(Luhmarm, 1986, p. 15). Simply put, resonance
signifies the manner in which systems react to
environmental events.
Resonance can be viewed as a continuum, A
lot of resonance means a strong reaction to an
environmental problem, while little resonance
signifies a weak reaction. When discussing
resonance, we must always remember that any
sodetal reaction must be in accordance with
sodety's standard. Spedfically, the resonance
must always maintain autopoiesis. The chief
difference between the notion of resonance and
the notion of structxiral coupling seems to be that
resonance cormotes asymmetry, while coupling
cormotes symmetry. While structural coupling
refers to the symmetrical interaction between
society and its environment, resonance refers to
how society reacts to environmental 'irritabil-
According to Luhmarm's theory, sodety as a
whole (because of its closed nature) reacts to
environmental problems only in exceptional cases.
An instance where the whole society deals
directly wdth an envirormiental problem is rare.
Thus, sodety as a whole generally has too Uttie
resonance (reaction) when faced vdth environ-
mental damages. While too little resonance
indicates an insuffident societal response to
environmental problems, too much resonance is
also possible. If this were to occur society would
not be destroyed from external damages, but
would first be torn apart internally from internal
demands (Luhmann, 1986, p. 116).
But if there is no guarantee that society as a
whole will respond to environmental dangers,
how v^ll such dangers be dealt with? The answer
is that the differentiated function systems such as
law, education, sdence, politics, and the econ-
omy have more resonance (potential to respond)
than sodety as a whole. This is because their
coding is more specific than that of society as a
The differentiated function systems have
'internal boundaries' within the larger system
(Luhmann, 1986, p.l7). The external boundary
(between the whole society and its environment)
is, as stated previously, communicationally
closed. Commurucation is allowed about the
The Autopoiesis of Social Systems 95
RESEARCH PAPER Syst Res. Behav. Sci.
environment, but not with it. However, the
internal boundaries of the sodety are where the
myriad differentiated function systems that are
necessary in a complex society meet, each with
its own binary code and programs.
Despite the fact that each subsystem has its
own code and program, it is much more open to
disturbances from other subsystems than sodety
as a whole is to disturbances from the environ-
ment. Thus, for example, if environmental
irritabilities were to reach the point where the
legal system (operating with its own internal
code and programs) made legal dedsions which
prohibited use of a certain pestidde in agricul-
ture, or prohibited the use of animals in sdentific
experiments, the impact on the agricultural and
sdentific subsystems respectively could be great.
Every differentiated functional system can
create resonance only within its own code.
Thus, for example, the resonance (reaction) of
the legal system depends on how the information
from the internal environment (directions from
the whole sodety or from other function systems)
can be handled by its own code, which insures its
internal autopoiesis (self-reproduction). If agri-
cultural resonance is too little, then the agricul-
tural system might be changed irreparably by
such environmental irritants. However, if the
resonance of the agricultural subsystem is great,
then it can preserve its own autopoiesis, even at
the potential harm of some other part of the
whole system.
As an example, the agricultural subsystem in
Caiifomia currently feels threatened by an
'environmental irritant' in the form of the
Mediterranean fruit fly, which is potentially
very destructive to CaUfomia dtrus. Blaming
'tourists' or 'the public' for bringing the pest into
the state, the agricultural subsystem is currently
benefiting from legal dedsions allowing it to
spray malathion in residential neighborhoods,
despite protests from the public and from some
health professionals. In tWs case, the resonance
of the agricultural subsystem is greater than that
of the public health system, so that agricultural
autopoiesis fends off danger to its autopoiesis at
the expense of danger to the autopoiesis of the
public health subsystem.
Thus, the general situation is that environ-
mental irritants (such as fruit flies) penetrate the
boundary of society as a whole, where they are
generally not dealt with (there is little societal
resonance). Such problems fall instead into the
province of one or more subsystems, which have
more resonance. Thus, before an environmental
problem is dealt with, it has generally already
penetrated a 'double boundary': the external
boundary to the whole sodety, and an internal
boundary into a spedalized subsystem.
Each of the spedalized subsystems (agricul-
ture, law, medicine, education, sdence, politics,
economy, etc) have more resonance because their
binary codes are more specific. Any resonance
which is created within the subsystems occurs
solely within its spedfic internal binary code.
That is, the legal subsystem deals with environ-
mental incursions in terms of the legal code; the
sdentific subsystem in terms of its sdentific
binary code ('sdentific or unsdentific', etc). Since
each function system is solely responsible for its
own functions, there is a possibility for greater
resonance (reaction to envirorunental issues)
from the differentiated function system than
from sodety as a whole. Thus, a greater
amount of resonance will occur within sodety
(internally) than externally (subsystems are more
resonant than the whole system). But while each
function subsystem can control its resonance, it
cannot control the environmental irritabilities
which trigger this resonance.
Luhmaim's concept of resonance assumes what
he calls 'second-order cybernetics' (Luhmann,
1986, p. 25; Fuchs, 1988a). We noted earlier that a
system often has difficulty differentiating itself
from its environment, and so depends upon
an external observer to do this. But while a
system cannot observe itself, it can observe
some other system. This leads to second-order
The concept of resonance assumes such
second-order cybernetics. Only this second-
order cybernetics explains why there is often
little or no resonance in sodety as a whole when
it is faced with environmental problems. This is
because only second-order cybernetics explains
that 'what cannot be seen (by a system) cannot be
seen.' Sodety displays no reaction to environ-
mental problems not because such problems are
unimportant, but because, having no direct
communication with the environment (only
about it), sodety simply does not see the
problems. Better knowledge, different values.
K. D. Bailey
Syst Res. Behav. Sci.
or 'improved scientific understanding' will not
help this situation at the societal level.
The best guess, then, is that increasingly the
reaction to environmental problems will fall
upon the differentiated function systems. These
subsystems are dealing v^dth environmental
problems that have passed through a double
filter of the external boundary (environment to
society) and intemal boundary (society to sub-
system, or subsystem to subsystem). They deal
with these environmental problems through a
dual strategy: coding and programming. As
noted, each subsystem has its own unique
binary code which perpetuates it: autopoiesis .
In addition to coding, each subsystem uses
programming in dealing with environmental
issues. While coding is purely binary and
closed, programming designates the conditions
under which the positive or negative value of the
code can be ascribed to a solution. By determin-
ing the conditions (open) for coding (closed), the
combination of coding and programming pro-
vides the dual open/closed nature discussed
previously. This, according to Luhmann (1986, p.
45), is the key to subsystem resonance when
exposed to environmental dangers.
Thus, there are at least two good reasons why a
particular subsystem may be more responsive
(resonant) in dealing with environmental pro-
blems than sodety as a whole. One is that its
coding is more specific, and the other is that its
programming gives it the simultaneous dual
open/closed nature, which provides a respon-
sive potential that is lacking in the more complex,
and relatively closed, whole sodety.
An interesting question at this point becomes,
given that the subsystems are more responsive to
the environment than the whole sodety, is there
any specific subsystem which will tum out to be
most capable of dealing with envirorunental
problems? Luhmann's current feeling is that
neither the whole sodety nor any of its sub-
systems currently do a very good job of
responding to environmental problems, but
that the political subsystem will probably
emerge as the most responsive in the future
(Luhmann, 1986, p. 119). The political subsystem
has a spedal position in modem complex sodety
relative to ecological problems. Specifically, the
political system's production of collectively
binding decisions is most helpful. While these
decisions may not be directly ecological, and
may not be binding on other subsystems, they
nevertheless influence other subsystems.
Further, the system reacts very sensitively.
Luhmann's (1986) reasoning is in line with his
continuing emphasis on paradoxes. It is predsely
because the political subsystem cannot do any-
thing about ecological problems that ecological
communication will originate within the political
subsystem. If it were to originate in some more
practical subsystem such as the law, economy, or
sdence, communication would be very con-
strained by the intemal codes and would focus
on the practical and positive. Politidans do not
have such practical constraints, and so nothing
prohibits them from promising any number of
solutions to environmental problems. Politidans
need not think economically, but are at some
point bound by the law and economy, because
their actions are judged by voters.
However the chief goal of the political sub-
system is to maintain its intemal autopoiesis (to
retain power). Thus, Luhmann sees politics as
the initial forum for ecological ideas entering
societal commurucation. But while politics is a
good medium for the incubation of environ-
mental ideas, too much resonance in the political
subsystem may result in politically convenient or
popular reactions to environmental problems,
which in tum cause disturbances in other
subsystems (e.g., they are too costly (the econ-
omy) or are unconstitutional (the law)). The best
solution will then be political resonance which
takes the needs of other subsystems (such as the
law or economy or sdence) into account, as well
as the needs of the larger sodety.
While Luhmann's approach is clearly the best
attempt at defining social autopoiesis, some
scholars feel that there are some problems v^th
it, and there have been some critidsms of the
theory. One problematic area is that while other
writers such as Maturana and Varela (1980) and
Mingers (1995) stop short of labeling society as
an autopoietic system, Luhmann has no such
reservations, even though some may feel that this
position is difficult to prove. Another issue is that
Luhmann chooses communication as the basic
The Autopoiesis of Social Systems 97
Syst Res. Behav. Sci.
systems unit, rather than more familiar units
such as the individual or the sodal act or role,
and some may remain imcertain as to whether
this is the best choice.
Mingers (1995) presents six basic critiques of
Luhmann's work. First, boundary problems are
unresolved. Second, Luhmarm does not empha-
size the distinction between boundary and struc-
ture. Third, there is a question of whether there
can be self-differentiation into autopoietic sys-
tems. Fourth, the manner in which communica-
tion emerges from interaction is not shown. Fifth,
functionalism is used by Luhmann, while being
rejected by Maturana and Varela and others.
Sixth, Mingers questions the reliance on com-
munication, and the separation of the subsystems.
In addition to these general critiques, there
have also been critidsms of applications. MiUer
(1994) critiqued the concept of ecological com-
munication. His basic critidsm is that Luhmann
underestimates the power of sodal communica-
tion, both for coordinating the different function
systems, and for developing a critique of moder-
nity. In addition to this critique of ecology, there
have also been critiques of other applications,
particularly Luhmann's approach to the law.
Some of these criticisms are roughly the same as
the general critidsms listed by Mingers. As
summarized by Mingers (1995, pp. 164-167),
there are four major criticisms of Luhmann's
analysis of the law: the question of boundaries,
the production of communications, the focus on
pure communication, and the omission of people.
These have been discussed here already to some
extent. For further discussion see Kennealy (1987),
Wolfe (1992), Van Zandt (1992), and Mingers
This paper has attempted to illustrate the breadth
and value of Luhmarm's very contemporary and
rather unique approach to sodal systems theory,
and also to demonstrate its relevance for real,
empirical topics such as the law and ecology. In
retrospect, it should now be clear to even the most
casual student of contemporary sodal theory that
Luhmann's theory of self-reference truly con-
stitutes a paradigm shift, as Fuchs (1988a, 1988b)
The reasons that Luhmarm's approach consti-
tutes a new paradigm are many. His paradigm is
not new simply because he uses a radically
different language, such as self-reference, autop-
oiesis, recursive, reflexive, structural coupling,
tautology, paradox, second-order cybemetics
and so forth. The difference between Luhmarm's
theory and most contemporary sociological
theory is far more fundamental than mere
terminological difference. It should be dear
from our review that Luhmann looks at sodety
in a fundamentally different way from many (if
not most) contemporary sodal theorists. VVhile
many approach sociological theory and the
'micro-macro gap' from a relatively individua-
listic viev^rpoint, such as an interactionist or
interpretive stance (see Knorr-Cetina and
Cicourel, 1981; Bailey, 1992; Fuchs, 1988a,
1988b; Rawls, 1988), Luhmann's view of sodal
systems is one of emergent, non-redudble
For example, orgaruzations, sodeties, and
interactions are all emergent, irredudble forms
of sodal systems (Luhmarm, 1982a; Fuchs,
1988a). While others see sodal systems as
groups of interacting individuals, Luhmann
sees sodal systems as communication systems.
Thus, while sodal systems utilize incUvidual
characteristics such as consdousness, just as
individuals use physiological processes, sodeties
are not to be seen merely as collections of
individuals, any more than individuals are seen
as merely collections of physiological processes
(or as collections of cells, for example). As we
have seen, the individual is not the basic vmit of
the social system for Luhmann (the communica-
tion is).
In my mind, Luhmann's work is not only
exceedingly valuable, fresh and irmovative, it is
indeed revolutionary in providing us with a very
new and different way to view sodety. Further-
more, Luhmarm provides a truly systematic
approach to social theory. While his theory is
truly a systems theory, it does not preclude,
subsume, or supplant the more individualistic
approaches to social theory (as, for example,
Collins', 1981, 'radical microtheory'), but rather
complements (and I thirJc strengthens) them. The
relatively Durkheimian nature of Luhmann's
theory is also clear, as Luhmann, like Durkheim,
sees sodal systems as existing sui generis.
98 K. D. Bailey
Syst Res. Behav. Sci. RESEARCH PAPER
Further, while Luhmann's theory is dearly a
systems theory, and retains some functionalist
language, it is certainly not the old systems
theory of classical functionalism, and thus gen-
erally escapes the flaws of the latter (such as
overreliance on equilibrium, teleology, deter-
minism, etc.; see Bailey, 1990,1994). Luhmann's
new paradigm holds great promise for breaking
sodal theory out of its current malaise and
moving it forward in a great new stride.
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