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Why Communication?

On the theoretical principles and consequences of Luhmann’s systems theory
Domenico Tosini
p. 191-211


This article analyzes the main theoretical principles underlying Niklas Luhmann’s contribution to social systems theory. First, the reasons behind the attempt to adopt certain developments within the general theory of systems in sociological theory are clarified. Following this approach, social systems are conceptualized as entities differentiated from their environment on the basis of the specific operation of communication. Second, the internal differentiation of social systems is examined, focusing on the functional specifications responsible for the emergence of a plurality of autonomous subsystems such as modern law, modern politics, and modern economy. Finally, an overview of the investigation of the main mechanisms related to social evolution is provided. Relying on a neo-evolutionary perspective, the theory examines processes of variation, selection, and stabilization for functional subsystems of modern society, as well as specific devices, called structural couplings, that reciprocally coordinate those subsystems.

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1. Meaning and Communication in Social Systems
2. Internal Differentiation of Social Systems and Modern Society
3. Evolutionary mechanisms and structural couplings of the functional subsystems

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This paper examines the main theoretical reasons underlying the paradigm shift in social systems theory following Niklas Luhmann’s analysis of society as a system of communications. Generally speaking, a system may be defined as a chain of operations whose dynamics engender a sui generis entity, which should be distinguished from other portions of reality, according to the conceptual distinction between system(s) and environment(s).

As for modern systems theory, three phases should be noted. Between the 1950s and 1960s, the contributions of Ludwig von Bertanlanffy (1968) formed the seminal work in the field. The central interest of this phase was the exchanges between systems and their environment. Systems were conceived of as open processes, which based their continuance on specific resources derived from their environment. The latter provides certain elements (inputs) that are transformed following systems’ internal criteria, the results of which (output) will affect th...

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Electronic reference

Domenico Tosini, « Why Communication? », Revue européenne des sciences sociales [Online], 55-1 | 2017, Online since 15 May 2020, connection on 18 February 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ress.3814

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About the author

Domenico Tosini

University of Trento

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© Librairie Droz

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