The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has provided one of the most elaborate theories of society available, as well as numerous works on specific aspects of society. Commonly labeled as “systems theory,” this is but a shorthand description of Luhmann’s theory. In fact, the theory rests on at least three main theoretical pillars. In addition to systems theory, a theory of social evolution and a theory of social differentiation play important roles. The present article introduces these three pillars and describes Luhmann’s theory of politics in this context. It outlines the crucial difference between a theory of politics as part of a theory of society on the one hand, and political theory as a reflective theory within the political system on the other hand. More specifically, it introduces Luhmann’s accounts of the notions of “political power,” “differentiation,” “the state,” “political steering,” and “the self-description of the political system.” The contribution concludes with some observations on the fact that Luhmann’s theory has tended to overlook the dimension of international politics, but that his theory provides opportunities to account for it in innovative ways.
The literature on political representation is split between research traditions that have remained largely separate: a philosophical normative strand, a behavioralist one focusing mainly on the roles held by representatives, and a third, more distinctly sociological one concerned primarily with issues of representativeness. These classical perspectives have been extended through the introduction of new dimensions into the analysis. The normative tradition has thus been able to formulate novel questions by considering, for instance, issues relating to the representation of nonhuman species or of future generations. Present-day writings on political representation also depart from accepted premises by integrating additional infra-institutional forms of representation. Similarly, a postmodern vein of thought has drawn increased attention to the fluidity of the processes involved and a rather hybrid literature has emerged that combines empirical and normative ambitions. Despite claims by some analysts to have renewed approaches on the topic, there are not so much major theoretical innovations as developments relating to the dynamics of political representation itself in the contemporary era. It is important to realize that much of the analysis of political representation has been couched in very general terms and that the field itself suffers from a lack of serious comparative work. In this respect, more inductive explorations are needed into the perceptions of representation (too often reduced to mere constructivist mechanisms), the concrete logics of accountability, and the “theatrical” dimension of the relationship—in all of which there has been underinvestment by political scientists.
Jan W. van Deth
Vibrant democracies are characterized by a continuous expansion of the available forms of participation. This expansion has confronted many researchers with the dilemma of using either a dated conceptualization of participation excluding many new modes of political action or stretching their concept to cover almost everything. Demarcation problems are especially evident for many newer, “creative,” “personalized,” and “individualized” modes of participation such as political consumption, street parties, or guerrilla gardening, which basically concern nonpolitical activities used for political purposes. Moreover, the use of Internet-based technologies for these activities (“connective action”) makes it almost impossible to recognize political participation at first sight. Because social, societal, and political developments in democratic societies have made the search for a single encompassing definition of political participation obsolete, an alternative approach is to integrate the core features of political participation in a conceptual map. Five modes cover the whole range of political participation systematically and efficiently, based on the locus (polity), targeting (government area or community problems), and circumstance (context or motivations) of these activities. While the rise of expressive modes of participation especially requires the inclusion of contextual information or the aims and goals of participants, attention is paid to the (dis)advantages of including these aspects as defining criteria for political participation. In this way, the map offers a comprehensive answer to the question “what is political participation” without excluding future participatory innovations that are the hallmark of a vibrant democracy.