Die belang van Niklas Luhmann vir kommunikasieteorie. 'n Inleidende interpretasie

Translated title of the contribution: An introduction and interpretation of Niklas Luhmann's theorising from within communication theory as afield

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An introduction and interpretation of Niklas Luhmann' s theorising from within communication theory as afield Niklas Luhmann has been hailed one of the most fascinating social theorists of the 20th century. His theorising encompasses a broad range of disciplines such as sociology, law, mass media, religion, love, administration, and several others. Most of his approximately 400 journal publications and 50 books have not yet been translated from German into English. Although his work has been discussed extensively by key German-speaking sociologists, his theorising has only recently been applied in other social scientific fields, such as organisational communication, philosophy, and journalism. While the central debate in communication theory has revolved around communication theory not yet being a unified field (Craig 1999; 2007; Russill 2005), Luhmann (1981; 2002) shifts the focus towards the definition of communication itself. Yet his theory of social autopoiesis with communication at its core has not yet been discussed even by the leading communication theorists such as Craig (1999; 2007), Griffin (2011), or Littlejohn and Foss (2011). It may not be surprising that communication scholars seem to ignore Luhmann s theorising when he makes a statement such as: "Human beings cannot communicate; not even their brains can communicate: not even their conscious minds can communicate. Only communication can communicate" (Luhmann 2002:169). This paper presents a brief introduction to and interpretation of Luhmann s theorising about communication in an attempt to clarify some of the confusion that seems to surround his work. It provides a short overview of his intellectual background and focuses on two particular theoretical challenges in his theorising: 1) that communication systems are completely closed, and 2) that only communication can communicate. Operational closure is described as a concept that was developed within second-order cybernetics by Von Foerster (1970) within a constructivist epistemologicalframework. Luhmann's social system theory describes society as differentiated by autopoietic operationally closed systems that have evolved over time. He draws a clear distinction between structural functionalism and functional differentiation and offers an explanation for why, in his opinion, social theory has been unable to resolve society's problems. Luhmann s social system theory, based on the biological theory of autopoiesis developed by Maturana and Varela (1980), explains that social systems create themselves through communication and nothing but communication. Luhmann (1986; 1995; 2002) argues that communication comes about through the unity of the synthesis of three selections: information, utterance, and understanding, driven by expectation as a fourth selection. He contends that since there is no explanation for how individuals create communication, and no evidence that understanding is accomplished, communication is an autopoietic process that, in other words, creates itself, and creates social systems in such a process. His exclusion of human action in his theory of communication is controversial and contentious. A closer analysis of his theorising reveals that it resonates well with the theory of the coordinated management of meaning1 and also with Cilliers's (1998) theorising on complexity. According to Luhmann (1981; 1995) language creates the illusion that people understand each other; he argues that communication itself can be the only unit of analysis. The article concludes that Luhmann's theorising should not be dismissed by communication scholars, and that some of his provocative claims should be explored. While it remains unlikely that communication theory will become a unified field, Luhmann's approach may spark some fruitful conversation.

Translated title of the contributionAn introduction and interpretation of Niklas Luhmann's theorising from within communication theory as afield
Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Pages (from-to)76-88
Number of pages13
JournalTydskrift vir Geesteswetenskappe
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2013


  • Communication theory
  • Functional differentiation
  • Niklas Luhmann
  • Operational closure
  • Social autopoiesis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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