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October 2021

Systems theory as an alternative to action theory? The rise of 'communication' as a theoretical option

Journal/Book: Acta Sociol. 2000; 43: PO Box 2959 Toyen, Journal Division Customer Service, N-0608 Oslo, Norway. Scandinavian University Press. 5-13.

Abstract: The argument of the essay has two main parts. First, it reflects on the presumed conflict between action theories and systems theories in sociology Looking at authors such as James Coleman, Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann, the essay tries to show that there is a natural complementarity of action and systems theories, and therefore the presumed disjunction of 'action' and 'system' is not based on the empirical reality of theory-building ventures. But then another line of conflict becomes visible. Since the information theories of the late 1940s, 'communication theory' has become a viable and universalistic option in social theory, one that indeed conflicts with action theory. In its second part, the essay first gives a brief sketch of the conceptual career of communication theory since Shannon and Weaver. It then presents the sociological theory of Niklas Luhmann as the first major sociological theory that opts for communication as the constitutive element of society and other social systems. Causes and reasons for this theoretical decision are reconstructed, first in terms of problems internal to Niklas Luhmann's social theory (the distinction of psychic and social systems; the distinction of action and experience; formal properties of the concept of communication; the implications of autopoiesis) and secondly in terms of processes of societal change (the rise of the information society; the genesis of world society), which favour the switch towards a communication-based (instead of action-based) systems theory.

Note: Article Stichweh R, Univ Bielefeld, Dept Sociol, PE 100131, D-33501 Bielefeld, GERMANY

Keyword(s): SOCIETY

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