Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, POLITICS ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 29 March 2017

Luhmann and Systems Theory

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: social systems, differentiation, political system, world society, power


Niklas Luhmann is one of the most pre-eminent social theorists of the twentieth century. His inclusion in an encyclopedia on politics is not only warranted by his comprehensive theory of society, which analyzes politics as one among a range of specific function systems of society, but also by his more specific works on that function system and various aspects of political sociology.

The reception of Luhmann’s theory varies between different disciplines and countries. While basically all of his main works were originally written in German, it is remarkable that a range of those were first translated into languages other than English, while translation into English has been a slower moving process. In addition, his main single book on the political system, the posthumously published Die Politik der Gesellschaft (“The Politics of Society”; Luhmann, 2000), has yet to be translated into English. This at least partly explains why much of the reception of Luhmann’s work in the English-speaking world initially occurred in fields other than political science and, most notably, sociology (and quite prominently in legal theory).

The present article seeks to provide an introduction to and an overview of Luhmann’s thoughts on politics. Given both the complexity of his theory and the scope of his work, such an endeavor necessarily entails condensations and omissions. The main aim here is not to accustom the reader with Luhmann’s more detailed studies on, for example, the role and function of administration within the political system. Rather, it is to provide an access to the general conceptualization of politics within a wider theory of society. This, on the one hand, is necessary, as Luhmann’s treatment of politics cannot be understood independently of his theory of society with its main building blocks of a theory of social differentiation, a systems theory, and a theory of social evolution. On the other hand, such an approach allows one to identify why and in what respect Luhmann’s theory provides such a deep challenge for established ways of thinking about politics and for political theory.

The present contribution will proceed in three steps. First, it will provide a brief introduction into the main elements of Luhmann’s theory of society that are necessary for understanding and contextualizing his treatment of specific function systems, including the political system. A second step will more specifically deal with the way in which the political system is conceptualized as a system embedded in a wider social environment. In this context, an introduction into some of the main facets such as the notion of power, the role of government/opposition, the notion of the state, etc., will be provided. This section will roughly follow Luhmann’s exposition of these issues in Die Politik der Gesellschaft, but will by no means do so systematically, as it draws on a wealth of other writings by Luhmann as well. A third step will then argue that it is promising to use, but also to go beyond Luhmann’s own works hen analyzing the contemporary political system. Altough Luhmann understood society as world society, his own analyses of the political system arguably always focused more narrowly on the model of Western European states.

Theory of Society

Luhmann remarks that when the Faculty of Sociology at Bielefeld University, newly established in 1969, asked its professors to report on the research projects they were working on. His reply was “Theory of society; duration: 30 years; costs: none” (Luhmann, 1997, p. 11). Despite the comprehensiveness and complexity of his theory, which almost feels like a self-enclosed universe of Hegelian proportions, Luhmann always retained a healthy dose of irony. His theory is radically post-metaphysical, and, following his inspiration by the Spencer Brownian Calculus of Forms (Spencer Brown, 1969), it is also radically constructivist. It is an open body of theory as much as it is a theory that can be used as a theoretical toolbox, although it is certainly not a theory of a (Feyerabend-style) “anything goes” kind, which Luhmann in his farewell lecture at Bielefeld University characterizes as a “concept for contingency without practice” (Luhmann, 1993, p. 258).1

Whereas Luhmann’s theory would invariably be termed “social theory” in English, it should be noted that in his writings he always refers to it in terms of Gesellschaftstheorie. This is not too remarkable as in the sociological literature “Gesellschaftstheorie” mostly translates into “social theory,” and not into the literally more exact “theory of society.” However, as will be shown below, in the case of Luhmann the term “Gesellschaftstheorie” also carries some substantive importance. For Luhmann, everything social makes up society and there can be no social meaning outside of society—and that society is world society. This notion of society significantly differs from most established uses, particularly in classical sociology. Yet it is still explicitly retained, a feature which ultimately points to Luhmann’s somewhat paradoxical figure of thought, according to which modern society can only be described as such because it is functionally differentiated—rather than being held together by norms, values, or one of the many variations of the Gemeinschaft (community) theme.

It is in that sense that everything Luhmann wrote is part of a theory of society. Needless to say, most of these writings are about specific aspects of society, down to minuscule studies of specific historical semantics. But not even studies such as the notable Love as Passion (Luhmann, 1986) are somehow “outside” of his theory of society.

Politics is an important feature of society. The political system is one function system of society, and Luhmann devotes one of his books about individual function systems to the political system, the posthumously published Die Politik der Gesellschaft. This in itself already carries a message: in Luhmann’s theory, politics is one among many of society’s function systems. The fact that it provides society the capacity to arrive at collectively binding decisions does not give it a place somehow “above” other function systems (as, for example, the economic system or the legal system) or a place at the “center” of society. Such a view would be incompatible with the notions of functional differentiation and operative closure (self-referentiality, “autopoiesis”) of function systems. This means that although Luhmann’s theory is a theory that is also a theory about politics, it is not “political theory.” Rather, for Luhmann “political theory” is a form of reflexive self-description of and within the political system.

Without entering into an exegesis of its many individual facets, it needs to be pointed out that the main theoretical strands of Luhmann’s theory of society are a theory of social systems, a theory of social differentiation, and a theory of social evolution. Although Luhmann’s work is often described as “systems theory,” it would wrong be to privilege that theoretical element over the others in Luhmann’s theory of society. Historically, the notion of “systems theory” as a short-hand description is primarily due to the fact that Luhmann’s work received much public attention as being somehow positioned against the work of Jürgen Habermas (see Habermas & Luhmann, 1972) and that the main difference between the two was always far more in relation to the role accorded to social systems in society rather than the theory of social differentiation (let alone social evolution which barely features in Habermas’s work at all).

A basic key to understanding Luhmann’s theory of society is the notion of communication. For Luhmann the social world is constituted through communication and through communication only. It is, in this sense, a world of communication. Only communication relates to communication. While this may sound somewhat trivial at first, it is in fact a quite radical move, as it excludes people from social systems. In a conceptual—if not always practically consequential—move away from sender–receiver models of communication, Luhmann dispenses with the idea that the generation of social meaning is dependent on meaning being generated and understood by people. Psychic systems (“consciousness”) are identified to be systems based on the processing of meaning as well, but the meaning generated in psychic systems is never directly accessible for social systems. Social systems can only observe meaning within themselves, on the basis of specific codes, programs, symbolically generalized media of communication, etc. While ascriptions of meaning to psychic systems can be observed in social systems, what was “really meant” can never be known and thus be of immediate relevance in a social system.

This basic conceptualization of the social world as a world of meaning-processing social systems underpins a shift in the main question underlying social theory: whereas in most classical sociological theories and beyond the main question was a variation of: “what holds society together?,” for Luhmann it is now: “how does communication continue?” More specifically, this leads to the questions of how and under what conditions offers of communication are either accepted or rejected, how they are subsequently observed and related to, and how on this basis complex social structures evolve, which in turn condition the acceptance and connectivity of communication. The answers given to these questions strongly correlate with the types of social systems that characterized (and have emerged as constituting) society. Although at points speculating about forms of social system that do not fit in, basically Luhmann describes three different kinds of social systems, namely interaction systems, organizations, and function systems.

Types of Social Systems

Society is based on innumerable interaction systems. Unlike organizations and function systems, interaction systems require presence. A meeting, a class in school, a conversation, and the like are at one point simply over. Interaction systems cannot be re-created, but they can be remembered and referred to in future communication, although it is quite likely that many, if not most interaction systems will not be referred to by other social systems in the future and will simply be forgotten. Not every interaction system draws on and actualizes function system-specific communication (being about monetary value, legality, political power, etc.). However, if it does and is later referred to and remembered, an interaction system contributes to the continuation of a function system.

Unlike interaction systems, organizations as social systems are characterized by duration and do not rely on presence. Formally distinguishing themselves against their environment by making decisions on decisional premises and membership criteria, organizations are able to co-ordinate huge numbers of interactions. “They achieve the miracle of synchronizing interactions, in spite of the fact that these always and necessarily take place simultaneously, in their pasts and in their futures” (Luhmann, 1997, pp. 836–837; italics in the original).

Modern society is a society of (formal) organizations (“Organisationsgesellschaft”). Particularly under the condition of functional differentiation, an increasing amount of synchronization is required. Organizations fulfill this demand throughout society. However, organizations are not “parts” of function systems. Communication by organizations is to a large degree communication which is functionally specific and, as such, part of a specific function system. For example, a political party may use quite a lot of political communication. Yet, as an organization it will invariably also utilize legal communication (it enters contracts, can be sued in a labour dispute, etc.) or economic communication (it buys equipment, sells books, etc.), and so on. In doing so it contributes to the continuation of the political system, the legal system, the economic system, and so forth. But it is not a “part” of these systems; rather it is itself one of these systems.

This latter observation already emphasizes that function systems indeed are a different “type” of social system. Characteristic of modern society as a society primarily differentiated functionally, they distinguish themselves on the basis of specific systemic codes and specific symbolically generalized media of communication—such as, for example, power and having power/not having power in the political system, law and legal/illegal in the legal system, etc. Function systems being autopoietic systems, they produce all their elements within themselves. This means that there can be no political communication outside of the political system, no economic communication outside the economic system, and so forth. (However, it does not mean that for example the political system could not observe any system in its environment in terms of political communication.)

Although it would be tempting to read them in this way, it would also be at least partially misleading to read the relation between interaction systems, organizations, and function systems through some kind of “levels” metaphor. Even without going into the very difficult Luhmannian concept of “structural coupling,” which seeks to denote established relations of mutual observation of autopoietic systems, in figurative terms it might be more appropriate to think of function systems as columns on one imaginary axis in a coordinate system, with organizations being located on a different axis, and interaction systems forming a kind of “background noise” most often within, but often also outside of function systems and organizations.

Social Differentiation and Society

While modern society is characterized by functional differentiation, this does not mean that historically antecedent forms of social differentiation—segmentation and stratification—would not be present as well. The diagnosis of a “primacy” of functional differentiation merely means that usually ordering principles that go along with functional differentiation trump those that go along with, for example, stratification (thus, for example, even the rich and privileged cannot avoid the law). For Luhmann, this seems to primarily mean that in relation to society, segmentation and stratification mostly play an important role within specific function systems. Most notably, he proceeds on the assumption that internally both the political and the legal system are primarily differentiated into segments (that is, territorial states and national legal systems). However, there seems little in Luhmann’s work to disallow for seeing segmentation, stratification, and functional differentiation being present and at work on the scale of (world) society in its entirety (although with the caveat that modern society cannot be thought of independently of functional differentiation, which is the main form of differentiation on the uppermost level of abstraction).

A key point for understanding Luhmann’s conceptualization of society is the basic question underlying his theory mentioned above already. Luhmann radically breaks with the overarching question of classical sociological theory that was primarily concerned with the question of how society is held together despite the centrifugal tendencies of functional differentiation (usually answering this question with some variation of the “Gemeinschaft” theme). For Luhmann, this question makes little sense as it relies on the figure of a pre-existing integrated society that then is somehow decomposed in modernity. However, if the main question is how communication can continue, then the point is not some kind of decomposition of a stylized unity, but rather the observation that modern society only emerges through functional differentiation. The important historical transition to be explained then is the transformation from a primacy of stratification to functional differentiation, and the important question for social theory then is how the processing of meaning is stabilized over time. Put differently, functional differentiation is not something that somehow befalls and decomposes a pre-existing and somehow ahistorical unity of society, but it marks the emergence of modern society out of a decline of stratification as the primary mode of social differentiation in favour of functional differentiation.

This basic design of the theory directly leads to two consequences that set Luhmann’s theory quite radically apart from other social theories: Firstly, the diagnosis that society is primarily differentiated functionally and that function systems are operatively closed systems that process communication, also means that there is no hierarchical relation between the function systems. It is difficult to imagine society without any of the established function systems of law, the economy, politics, religion, art, etc. Yet it makes little sense to see one function system as being somehow more “important” than others. Most particularly, this means that while for society the political system fulfills the important function of providing capacities for arriving at collectively binding decisions, this does not mean that politics somehow occupies a higher position or is more important (or, for that matter: less important) than other function systems. Secondly, if society is seen as constituted by communication, and only by communication, and if there can be no communication outside of society, then it is almost a logical conclusion that at least since the full discovery of the globe, society can only be seen as “world society,” as every communication could in principle be related to every other communication.

Social Evolution

Given that the basic question of Luhmann’s theory of society is how communication continues, it should hardly come as a surprise that a theory of social evolution forms an integral part of his theory of society. The theory of social differentiation and systems theory are complemented by an account of social evolution that says something about more specific developments through which specific systems and forms of differentiation emerged in the first place, while on the other hand they constitute important boundary conditions for social evolution. As social evolution is evolution in the form of the connectivity of communication, it has nothing to do with natural evolution. Social evolution happens in and through communication as the three-step process of variation, selection, and restabilization. “Variation” means all new communication that introduces variation into a system state. “Selection” means the (positive or negative) selection of specific variations. “Restabilization” refers to the state of the evolving system after a selection has taken place.

Integrating a theory of social evolution into a theory of society has two main implications for the latter. On the one hand, it provides it with a powerful analytical tool to account for historical change and contingency, without relying on reductionist ideas about “driving forces” or a teleological approach. On the other hand, by allowing for radical contingency (selection can always be positive or negative), the theory of social evolution provides a safeguard against mistaking a theory of society as an analytical device that can be used for making predictions (in Luhmann’s terms, in the temporal structure of society and social evolution there is always a fundamental gap between present futures and future presents).

Systemic Signatures of Politics: Code and Programs

While Luhmann’s work generally contains a wealth of references to the political system in society, only a few book-length publications deal directly with the political system. The first of these is Political Theory in the Welfare State, originally published in 1981 (Luhmann, 1981; a revised and expanded version was published in English as Luhmann, 1990). Out of his eight books that each deal with one function system of society, the treatment of the political system in Die Politik der Gesellschaft (“The Politics of Society,” not translated into English thus far; Luhmann, 2000) was one of the three books on individual function systems published posthumously. A much older manuscript on the political system was published as Politische Soziologie (“Political Sociology” in 2010, edited by André Kieserling).

Political Power

While Luhmann in his writings deals a lot with power as a medium in general, it is important to note that while the medium of power is not specific to the function system of politics, it is only in that system that power becomes political power and serves as the symbolically generalized medium of communication. Borrowing the term form Parsons, yet re-specifying it in his own theoretical context, Luhmann conceptualizes symbolically generalized media of communication as media that condition the likelihood of an otherwise improbable acceptance of communication. However, the fact that each function system is characterized by one symbolically generalized medium of communication, and that these media therefore are functionally similar, must not lead to the conclusion that different symbolically generalized media of communication are similar in all other respects. Thus, most notably, it would be wrong to assume that power works in the same way in the political system as money does in the economic system. Both money and power condition the likelihood of the acceptance of communication, yet in the political system the medium addresses the specific problem of how “to bring others to accept decisions on their decisions, although the world offers different possibilities” (Luhmann, 2000, p. 59).

Symbolically generalized media communication typically work through coupling conditioning and motivation. An acceptance that is in and for itself unlikely is achieved “by making the medium only available under highly specific conditions . . . in the case of the medium of power, for example, under the condition of it being exercised through offices of the state” (Luhmann, 2000, p. 60).

Although the actual exercise of physical force (at least in most regions of the world) is more the exception than the rule in modern society, power as a symbolically generalized medium of communication to a large degree relies on a built-in reference to the threat of using physical force. This connection is a historically specific one. The propensity of the use of physical force being organized (in the military, in the police) played a major role in the evolutionary process in which power is established as a symbolically generalized medium of communication together with the differentiation of a political system (and the latter most notably in the form of the state).


Functional differentiation, including the emergence of a functionally differentiated political system, does not happen overnight or through the instantaneous creation of completely new structures. Rather, it builds on, connects to, continues, and transforms established structures. In the case of the political system, this first and foremost refers to the observation that from early on in the history of society specialized political structures and roles are established (already in segmented societies in the form of chiefs and tribal leaders, for example). However, the emergence of a function system of politics and its operative closure depends on the clear designation of political power as a specific form of power (particularly through locating it in, and binding it to public office). And it depends on power-serving as a medium in relation to a specific function in society. This function is not defined in a normative sense, but lies in the provision of capacities to supply collectively binding decisions. The function itself entails no necessary pre-disposition as to the content of these decisions. But it requires allowing for a high level of contingency of decisions, including the possibility to endure and process conflicts in the symbolically generalized medium of communication. For this purpose, the system specifies its code of having power/not having power as the scheme of “government/opposition,” with auxiliary schemes like most notably “left–right” or “conservative–progressive.” It institutes specific systemic programs for the processing of meaning (“legitimacy”). The operative closure of the political system, after which it evolves not through differentiation from its environment, but through internal differentiation, can be discerned in “the establishment of a specific order of offices that is not a copy of an order in [the system’s] environment, such as for example as a copy of the important courts of nobility or as a copy of a stratified system” (Luhmann, 2000, p. 115).

The State

The state is the most important form through which the political system describes itself. While the idea and the semantics of statehood can draw on a long tradition, the functional differentiation of society means that politics is strongly tied to decisions made by the state. While semantic and conceptual leftovers can be found until the present, this also means that the state and the political system are strongly dissociated from other realms (in the sense of the operative autonomy of function system). While traditional political thought up until and including Hegel was already unable to identify the unity of the difference between “state” and “society,” the latter’s functional differentiation makes it impossible to describe such a unity, including a privileged position of politics. If there is one main point of reference for the state, it is now the economic system that needs to be controlled and regulated. Revolutions highlight the extreme degree of contingency of state-based political orders.

The stabilization of the state as the most important form through which the political system describes itself, and that solves the problem of channeling the use of violence in society, is achieved through its double specification as nation state and welfare state. In relation to the former, Luhmann identifies the French Revolution as a decisive move through which authority by the state is transformed from indirect to direct rule. A form of rule as a relation between rulers and subjects mediated by the estates, is replaced by a relation between the state and its citizens: “The state now gets a constitution. It transforms itself into a liberal and constitutional state” (Luhmann, 2000, p. 213).

Only the emergence of political parties that are member-based organizations (and thus continue to exist even after changes in government) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries provides the specific combination of variability and stability that is necessary to stabilize the state as a democratic state—while at the same time “de-centering” it, as political parties become important organizations in the political system that are not part of the state. On the other hand, the form of the welfare state that emerges as a powerful self-description in the political systems mostly after the Second World War universalizes politics by defining an increasing part of society and problems originating in other function systems as political problems—meaning problems that politics (or the state) might not be able to solve, but that are presented as problems that can be solved:

The welfare state is like the attempt to inflate cows in order to get more milk. The founding paradox now reappears in new shape: the problems to be solved are insolvable as they reflect the functional-structural differentiation of society within the political systems, but at the same time they are based on the fact that a political system is only a specific system of precisely this functional differentiation of society. It is with this redefinition of insolvable problems into politically solvable problems that the welfare states secures its own autopoiesis. It is guaranteed that there is always something to do.

(Luhmann, 2000, pp. 215–216)

Political Steering

The point addressed in the quotation at the end of the preceding paragraph points to an issue that has instilled a tremendous body of work on and derived from Luhmann’s contributions, namely the possibility of political steering under the condition of functional differentiation and autopoiesis. The basic problem here emerges from the fact that while the modern state, in its form as a welfare state, might have “universalizing” tendencies in claiming to be able to offer political solutions to all kinds of problems, these problems are often problems that originate in other function systems. Because of the operative autonomy of function systems, no direct “intervention” of the political system is possible, however. The political system, like the other function systems, observes its environment and the systems in its environment on the basis of its own code. This observation includes that of decisions made in other function systems, but these can be and will be observed in other function systems in ways that might not correspond to the effect originally expected to go along with that decision. In short, political steering takes place all the time. Its effects are incalculable, however, which of course defeats most of the rationale of steering ascribed to it in the political system in the first place. This is not to say that steering will necessarily be unsuccessful in this sense. It means that it is very difficult if not impossible to say if and under which condition it could and will be successful. While it is not the point here to go into the extensive debates on how a systems theoretical approach can be put to practical use for steering attempts in society or organizations, suffice it to say at this point that Luhmann’s theory does not lead to fatalism about political steering, but to a high degree of skepticism in this regard (“Steuerungsskeptizismus”).

The Self-Description of the Political System

While public opinion provides a basic reflective scheme for the self-observation of the political system that is highly flexible in accommodating contingency, the self-description of the political system relies on a range of basic semantic figures that have been “frozen” since the late eighteenth century. Luhmann’s diagnosis in this respect does not deny variation and evolution, but emphasizes continuity in the three basic figures of representation, sovereignty, and democracy. All three figures provide related solutions to the problem of communicating about the system’s unity within the system, which inevitably leads to paradoxical communication, as communication within the system about its unity in fact itself perpetuates the system (it is not an observation from the outside). Put differently, the system needs to deal with the paradox inherent in the scheme of parts/whole, that is the paradox inherent in a unity that is supposed to mark a difference (of the system and its environment).

These paradoxes cannot be resolved. What happens is that in replacement of the scheme of parts/whole with the scheme of system/environment they unfold in historically (semantically) specific ways. This unfolding of paradoxality plays an important role in ensuring that communication in the political system can continue (although Luhmann remarks that only a relatively small part of political communication deals with this self-description of its unity). While building on pre-existing semantics, this unfolding of paradoxality in relation to the notion of representation takes place by legitimizing political authority within the political system (and not in relation to some source external to that system, for example a monarch with divine authority). This gives rise to the notion of “the people” (in contrast to “subjects”) that forms the necessary corollary to the notion of representation. The figure of sovereignty serves as a vehicle for interrupting this kind of paradoxical communication. In an autopoietic political system, the figure of sovereignty ensures that paradoxical communication does not lead to blockades, but that such blockades are interrupted frequently and communication can continue. This also pertains to democracy: “The new paradox of democracy pertains to the structure of authority itself – the simultaneous commanding-and-obeying oneself thus far only thought possible by theologists. Democracy means: the people itself rules. On whom? On the people of course” (Luhmann, 2000, p. 353).

Theory of Politics/Political Theory

Luhmann’s theory of politics, as much as his theory of society, may sound highly abstract to many students of political theory. However, this is probably the case primarily because it changes a range of quite fundamental parameters of established traditions in political and social thought. The basic theoretical design and the overarching question of how communication continues constitutes a first major departure from theories that ask about the relations between people or even the nature of society, and it results in a far more complex theory design than is common in social and political theory. The sheer scope of subjects covered by Luhmann in his writings adds to this complexity. Additionally, the distinction between different orders of observation (first-order observation and second-order observation as observation of how observers observe) challenges established notions of theory as well as the distinction between theoretical and empirical research. This becomes particularly visible when it comes to the issue of political theory that is seen to operate on a completely different plane than a theory of society. While a theory of society includes a conceptualization of the political system, political theory is primarily an abstract form through which the political system observes itself. In so doing, modern political theory is part of the formation of an operatively closed function system of politics. One could argue at length about whether and to what degree such a distinction holds for a range of political science contributions that could be seen to serve both functions, but that is a reflection upon politics in a wider social environment as well as being political theory. However, regarding a long tradition of political theory this observation is probably correct, and political theories serve a reflective function in the political system comparable to, for example, legal theory in the legal system, or theory of science in the scientific system.

Needless to say, Luhmann’s contribution is firmly on the side of a theory of politics, as a specific instantiation of his theory of society. The former in fact would be unthinkable without the latter. This, incidentally, also pertains to his treatments of function systems other than politics. And while each of these treatments says a lot about links (“structural couplings”) between different function systems, it is the insight into their operative autonomy as systems of code-based communication that underpins addressing them individually.

It should be clear from the exposition of some of the basic features of Luhmann’s thoughts on society and politics thus far that a theory of such richness and complexity lends itself to be taken up, modified, and addressed in many ways, a depiction of which is beyond the purview of this article. This observation also holds true for Luhmann’s observations about politics, with the notable exception that unlike his work on, for example, law, his work on politics has thus far only received relatively scant attention in the English-speaking world. The following section points to a weakness that might partly explain this circumstance, while setting it in the context of a wider and more general possible weakness of Luhmann’s theory of politics, even if seen in its own terms, namely the oversight that the political system is the political system of society conceived as world society.

The Political System of World Society

Luhmann’s theory of society is decidedly a theory of world society. If society is conceived as being constituted by communication, then there can be nothing social or a society outside of world society (at least since historically different “world societies” learned of each other’s existence and came into contact with each other).

However, this basic design of Luhmann’s theory has only very limited consequences throughout his work, and particularly in the description of the political system. On the “large scale” of world society, Luhmann limits his observations to general issues that pertain to world society qua being the society analyzed in his theory. He limits himself to observing that world society is primarily differentiated functionally, and that internally in particular the political system and the legal system remain differentiated into segments (territorial states and national legal systems).

Almost without exception and then only in the form of scant references, Luhmann’s work regarding the political system deals with issues that are largely conceived in view of Western, democratic political systems. While this does not per se invalidate these observations (and while particularly domestic political systems within segments organized as territorial states could be described as only being different to Western political systems in degree, but not in kind), this situation leads to two significant gaps in Luhmann’s account of the political system of world society: firstly, a relative ignorance regarding the interplay between different forms of social differentiation and particularly regional differentiation; and secondly, the neglect of any realm of “world politics” or “international relations.” These two gaps will be briefly addressed in the following. They are conceived less as a criticism of Luhmann’s work, than as an indicator of possible avenues for further using and expanding his theory not only within, but also beyond the more narrow confines of systems theory orthodoxy.

Differentiation and regional variation

The only marginal attention that Luhmann has paid to non-Western regions of the world has inspired a debate on whether functional differentiation applies equally throughout world society (see Japp, 2007). If, as in Luhmann’s conceptualization, world society only exists as functionally differentiated, then significant regional variations of functional differentiation might have far-reaching consequences for this kind of thought about world society and an autonomous function system of politics. The consequences would be of a quite fundamental nature for the entire theory if an argument could be made that there are regions on the globe in which particularly stratification still (or: again) trumps functional differentiation as the main ordering principle of society. Scholars thus far have reacted to this issue primarily by pointing out that functional differentiation can absorb an extremely high degree of structural rigidity, without this challenging the primacy of functional differentiation (see, notably, Stetter, 2007). What has become clear in this context is that there is still considerable scope for probing Luhmann’s theory about world society and the political system in relation to various regions of the world and, in turn, for drawing theoretical conclusions from this. However, it might actually seem as if debates about a “primacy” of one form of social differentiation relative to others might be more of a hindrance rather than an inspiration in this respect, and that in fact an open approach as to the empirical relation between these forms might be able to provide a useful bridge between Luhmann’s theory and research agendas in a range of disciplines (see Albert, Buzan, & Zürn, 2013).

The Void of International Politics

Partly following from the previous conclusion, it is noteworthy that Luhmann in his work basically completely avoids dealing with the realm usually known as “international politics” (or, for that matter, “world politics” or “international relations”). His main observation in this matter is that the political system is primarily differentiated into segments (that is, territorial states). This implies that communication within the political system always also observes and describes itself through the scheme of segmentary differentiation, and that this description is reflected in a rich (historical) semantics of “international politics” and related terms. However, this also means that there is no specific or separate place for international politics in Luhmann’s account of the political system. In fact, his only remark on this issue can be found in a note where he criticizes the notion of an “international system” as it is not clear to him “how an ‘inter’ could be a system. It is more useful to talk about a ‘system of states.’ . . . It then becomes clear that this can only mean the political system of world society” (Luhmann, 1997, p. 160, fn218). This observation is fully consistent with the conceptualization of the political system of world society being primarily differentiated into segments. However, it also leads to the somewhat counterintuitive view of a political system of world society without world politics (save in the form of semantics). The point here is that throughout his work he never even considers the possibility of “international” or “world politics” forming a distinct sub-system of the political system of world society. As with the issue of a regional variation mentioned above, however, it can be suspected that on the one hand this oversight is not due to systematic theoretical reasons, but probably more due to his very limited exposure to the subject of international politics (and the corresponding literature). On the other hand, this is one of the points at which important connections to other fields of study (in this case: International Relations) can be established.


In his work Niklas Luhmann offers a theory and a perspective on politics that is firmly set within his theory of society. The difficulty that some find in relating to his works most likely primarily stems from the fact that he offers a theory that prima facie looks radically different from most ways of thinking about society in the tradition of classical sociology. The sharp distinction between a theoretical perspective on politics and political theory provides a challenge for most students of politics, and particularly political scientists. Most social sciences tend to universalize their (functionally defined) particular view on the social world more than reflect on the context of its particularism, and Luhmann’s work provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on that. It provides a wealth of innovative ways to think about politics in the terms of his theory and to reflect upon basic terms associated with politics in a theoretically and historically rich fashion. That said, staying completely within the confines of Luhmann’s theory and advancing it in an orthodox fashion is certainly not the only way to productively engage with it. The wealth of literature that critically deals with and builds on his thoughts about politics attests to that. It also shows, reinforcing the points made above about international politics, that the possibilities of such productive engagement with, and on the basis of, Luhmann’s work in the study of politics are far from exhausted yet.

Further Reading

Albert, M. (2016). A Theory of World Politics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Albert, M., & Hilkermeier, L. (Eds.). (2004). Observing International Relations: Niklas Luhmann and World Politics. London: Roudledge.Find this resource:

Hellmann, K.-U., & Schmalz-Bruns, R. (Eds.). (2002). Niklas Luhmanns politische Soziologie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.Find this resource:

King, M., & Thornhill, C. (2003). Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Politics and Law. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

La Cours, A., & Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, A. (Eds.). (2013). Luhmann Observed: Radical Theoretical Encounters. Basingstoke: Palgrave.Find this resource:

Luhmann, N. (1982). The Differentiation of Society. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Luhmann, N. (1990). Essays on Self-Reference. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Luhmann, N. (1995). Social Systems. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:

Luhmann, N. (1998). Observations on Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:

Moeller, H.-G. (2012). The Radical Luhmann. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Rasch, W. (2000). Niklas Luhmann’s Modernity: The Paradoxes of Differentiation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:


Albert, M., Buzan, B., & Zürn, M. (Eds.). (2013). Bringing Sociology to International Relations. World Politics as Differentiation Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Habermas, J., & Luhmann, N. (1972). Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie: Was leistet die Systemforschung? Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.Find this resource:

Japp, K. P. (2007). Regionen und Differenzierung. Soziale Systeme, 13, 185–195.Find this resource:

Luhmann, N. (1981). Politische Theorie im Wohlfahrtsstaat. Munich: Olzog.Find this resource:

Luhmann, N. (1986). Love as Passion. The Codification of Intimacy. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.Find this resource:

Luhmann, N. (1990). Political Theory in the Welfare State. Berlin: de Gruyter.Find this resource:

Luhmann, N. (1993). “Was ist der Fall?” und “Was steckt dahinter?” Die zwei Soziologien und die Gesellschaftstheorie. Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 22, 245–260.Find this resource:

Luhmann, N. (1997). Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (2 vols). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. Published in translation as Theory of Society (2 vols.), Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2012 and 2013.Find this resource:

Luhmann, N. (2000). Die Politik der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.Find this resource:

Luhmann, N. (2010). Politische Soziologie. Edited by André Kieserling. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.Find this resource:

Spencer Brown, G. (1969). Laws of Form. London: Allen & Unwin.Find this resource:

Stetter, S. (2007). World Society and the Middle East: Reconstructions in Regional Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:


(1.) All translations in this text are my own.