Ms. Wanzer then asked the students to spend a few minutes writing anything they liked in response to the Lamott excerpt. Lyse Armand, a rising senior at Westbury High School, leaned over her notebook. She was planning to apply to New York University, Columbia and Stony Brook University and already had an idea of the story she would tell in her Common Application essay. It would have something to do, she thought, with her family’s emigration from Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island. But she was struggling with how to get started and what exactly she wanted to say.
“What voice in my head?” she wrote in her response to the Lamott essay. “I don’t have one.”
Lyse needed a sense of “ownership” over her writing, Ms. Wanzer said. Lyse had solid sentence-level skills. But even when Ms. Wanzer encounters juniors and seniors whose essays are filled with incomplete sentences — not an uncommon occurrence — she limits the time she spends covering dull topics like subject-verb agreement. “You hope that by exposing them to great writing, they’ll start to hear what’s going on.”
Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.
Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this. By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational and narrative — the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum. It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.
So far, however, six years after its rollout, the Core hasn’t led to much measurable improvement on the page. Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills.
The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a scan of course syllabuses from 2,400 teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way.
A separate 2016 study of nearly 500 teachers in grades three through eight across the country, conducted by Gary Troia of Michigan State University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University, found that fewer than half had taken a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing, while fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write. Unsurprisingly, given their lack of preparation, only 55 percent of respondents said they enjoyed teaching the subject.
“Most teachers are great readers,” Dr. Troia said. “They’ve been successful in college, maybe even graduate school. But when you ask most teachers about their comfort with writing and their writing experiences, they don’t do very much or feel comfortable with it.”
There is virulent debate about what approach is best. So-called process writing, like the lesson Lyse experienced in Long Island, emphasizes activities like brainstorming, freewriting, journaling about one’s personal experiences and peer-to-peer revision. Adherents worry that focusing too much on grammar or citing sources will stifle the writerly voice and prevent children from falling in love with writing as an activity.
That ideology goes back to the 1930s, when progressive educators began to shift the writing curriculum away from penmanship and spelling and toward diary entries and personal letters as a psychologically liberating activity. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, this movement took on the language of civil rights, with teachers striving to empower nonwhite and poor children by encouraging them to narrate their own lived experiences.
Dr. Hochman’s strategy is radically different: a return to the basics of sentence construction, from combining fragments to fixing punctuation errors to learning how to deploy the powerful conjunctive adverbs that are common in academic writing but uncommon in speech, words like “therefore” and “nevertheless.” After all, the Snapchat generation may produce more writing than any group of teenagers before it, writing copious text messages and social media posts, but when it comes to the formal writing expected at school and work, they struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences.
The Common Core has provided a much-needed “wakeup call” on the importance of rigorous writing, said Lucy M. Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, a leading center for training teachers in process-oriented literacy strategies. But policy makers “blew it in the implementation,” she said. “We need massive teacher education.”
One of the largest efforts is the National Writing Project, whose nearly 200 branches train more than 100,000 teachers each summer. The organization was founded in 1974, at the height of the process-oriented era.
As part of its program at Nassau Community College, in a classroom not far from the one where the teenagers were working on their college essays, a group of teachers — of fifth grade and high school, of English, social studies and science — were honing their own writing skills. They took turns reading out loud the freewriting they had just done in response to “The Lanyard,” a poem by Billy Collins. The poem, which is funny and sad, addresses the futility of trying to repay one’s mother for her love:
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
Most of the teachers’ responses pivoted quickly from praising the poem to memories of their own mothers, working several jobs to make ends meet, or selflessly caring for grandchildren. It wasn’t sophisticated literary criticism, but that wasn’t the point. A major goal of this workshop — the teacher-training component of the Long Island Writing Project — was to get teachers writing and revising their own work over the summer so that in the fall they would be more enthusiastic and comfortable teaching the subject to children.
“I went to Catholic school and we did grammar workbooks and circled the subject and predicate,” said Kathleen Sokolowski, the Long Island program’s co-director and a third-grade teacher. She found it stultifying and believes she developed her writing skill in spite of such lessons, not because of them.
Sometimes, she said, she will reinforce grammar by asking students to copy down a sentence from a favorite book and then discuss how the author uses a tool like commas. But in general, when it comes to assessing student work, she said, “I had to teach myself to look beyond ‘There’s no capital, there’s no period’ to say, ‘By God, you wrote a gorgeous sentence.’ ”
Mrs. Sokolowski is right that formal grammar instruction, like identifying parts of speech, doesn’t work well. In fact, research finds that students exposed to a glut of such instruction perform worse on writing assessments.
A musical notion of writing — the hope that the ear can be trained to “hear” errors and imitate quality prose — has developed as a popular alternative among English teachers. But what about those students, typically low income, with few books at home, who struggle to move from reading a gorgeous sentence to knowing how to write one? Could there be a better, less soul-crushing way to enforce the basics?
In her teacher training sessions, Dr. Hochman of the Writing Revolution shows a slide of a cute little girl, lying contentedly on her stomach as she scrawls on a piece of composition paper. It’s the type of stock photograph that has probably appeared in a hundred educators’ PowerPoint presentations, meant to evoke a warm and relaxed learning environment, perhaps in one of the cozy writing nooks favored by the process-oriented writing gurus.
“This is not good writing posture!” Dr. Hochman exclaimed. Small children should write at desks, she believes. And while she isn’t arguing for a return to the grammar lessons of yesteryear — she knows sentence diagramming leaves most students confused and disengaged — she does believe that children should spend time filling out worksheets with exercises like the one below, which demonstrates how simple conjunctions like “but,” “because” and “so” add complexity to a thought. Students are given the root clause, and must complete the sentence with a new clause following each conjunction:
Fractions are like decimals because they are all parts of wholes.
Fractions are like decimals, but they are written differently.
Fractions are like decimals, so they can be used interchangeably.
Along the way, students are learning to recall meaningful content from math, social studies, science and literature. By middle school, teachers should be crafting essay questions that prompt sophisticated writing; not “What were the events leading up to the Civil War?” — which could result in a list — but “Trace the events leading up to the Civil War,” which requires a historical narrative of cause and effect.
“Freewriting, hoping that children will learn or gain a love of writing, hasn’t worked,” Dr. Hochman told the teachers, many of whom work in low-income neighborhoods. She doesn’t believe that children learn to write well through plumbing their own experiences in a journal, and she applauds the fact that the Common Core asks students to do more writing about what they’ve read, and less about their own lives.
“I call it a move away from child-centered writing,” she said approvingly, and away from what she considers facile assignments, like writing a poem “about a particular something they may have observed 10 minutes ago out of the window.”
“I don’t mean to be dismissive,” she continued, “but every instructional minute has its purpose.”
Her training session lacks the fun and interactivity of the Long Island Writing Project, because it is less about prompting teachers to write and chat with colleagues and more about the sometimes dry work of preparing worksheets and writing assignments that reinforce basic concepts. Nevertheless, many teachers who learn Dr. Hochman’s strategies become devotees.
Molly Cudahy, who teaches fifth-grade special education at the Truesdell Education Campus, a public school in Washington, D.C., said she appreciates Dr. Hochman’s explicit and technical approach. She thought it would free her students’ voices, not constrain them. At her school, 100 percent of students come from low-income families. “When we try to do creative and journal writing,” she said, “students don’t have the tools to put their ideas on paper.”
There is a notable shortage of high-quality research on the teaching of writing, but studies that do exist point toward a few concrete strategies that help students perform better on writing tests. First, children need to learn how to transcribe both by hand and through typing on a computer. Teachers report that many students who can produce reams of text on their cellphones are unable to work effectively at a laptop, desktop or even in a paper notebook because they’ve become so anchored to the small mobile screen. Quick communication on a smartphone almost requires writers to eschew rules of grammar and punctuation, exactly the opposite of what is wanted on the page.
Before writing paragraphs — which is often now part of the kindergarten curriculum — children do need to practice writing great sentences. At every level, students benefit from clear feedback on their writing, and from seeing and trying to imitate what successful writing looks like, the so-called text models. Some of the touchy-feel stuff matters, too. Students with higher confidence in their writing ability perform better.
All of this points toward a synthesis of the two approaches. In classrooms where practices like freewriting are used without any focus on transcription or punctuation, “the students who struggled didn’t make any progress,” Dr. Troia, the Michigan State professor, said. But when grammar instruction is divorced from the writing process and from rich ideas in literature or science, it becomes “superficial,” he warned.
Considering the lack of adequate teacher training, Lyse may be among a minority of students exposed to explicit instruction about writing.
In Ms. Wanzer’s workshop, Lyse and her classmates went on to analyze real students’ college essays to determine their strengths and weaknesses. They also read “Where I’m From,” a poem by George Ella Lyon, and used it as a text model for their work. Lyse drafted her own version of “Where I’m From,” which helped her recall details from her childhood in Haiti.
Lyse wrote: “I am from the rusty little tin roof house, from washing by hand and line drying.” It was a gorgeous sentence, and she was well on her way to a moving college application essay.Continue reading the main story
Communication Theory has one universal law, written by S. F. Scudder in the early 1900s, and later published in 1980. The Universal Communication Law states that, "All living entities, beings and creatures communicate." In a an unpublished interview, Scudder clarified the concept - "All of "The Living" communicate through movements, sounds, reactions, physical changes, gestures, languages, breath, color transformations, etc. Communication is a means of survival, existence and being and does not need another to acknowledge its presence. Examples - the cry of a child (communication that it is hungry, hurt, cold, etc.); the browning of a leaf (communication that it is dehydrated, thirsty per se, dying); the cry of an animal (communicating that it is injured, hungry, angry, etc.). Henceforth, Everything living communicates."
When the second World War ended in Europe, seventeen-year-old Niklas Luhmann had been serving as an anti-aircraft auxiliary in the German army. He was briefly detained by the Americans. When asked in 1987 to describe this experience, he replied:
Before 1945, the hope was that after the defeat of the compulsory apparatus everything would be right by itself. Yet the first thing I experienced in American captivity was that my watch was taken off my arm and that I was beaten up. So it was not at all as I had thought it would be. Soon you could see that one could not compare political regimes according to a scheme of `good' versus `bad', but that you had to judge the figures according to a bounded reality. Of course I don't want to say that the time of the Nazi-regime and the time after 1945 are to be judged on equal terms. Yet I was simply disappointed in 1945. Yet is that really important? In any case the experience of the Nazi-regime for me has not been a moral one, but an experience of the arbitrary, of power, of the tactics to avoid the regime used by the man of the people. (Luhmann qtd. in Baecker, 2005)
The realization that human realities were subjective appears to have influenced the famous sociologist throughout the rest of his life. This chapter will introduce Luhmann and a few remarkable aspects of his theory.
The type of communication theory I am trying to advise therefore starts from the premise that communication is improbable, despite the fact that we experience and practice it every day of our lives and would not exist without it. This improbability of which we have become unaware must first be understood, and to do so requires what might be described as a contra-phenomenological effort, viewing communication not as a phenomenon but as a problem; thus, instead of looking for the most appropriate concept to cover the facts, we must first ask how communication is possible at all. (Luhmann 1990, p. 87)
The body of work produced by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann probably represents history’s most comprehensive attempt by one man to explain the whole of social existence. The above quotation hints at the essential nature of Luhmann’s thought – no “accepted wisdom” of the social science tradition could be left unexamined. Through more than 50 books and 400 articles, Luhmann applied his sociological systems theory to areas including law, science, religion, economics, politics, love, and art. Sociological systems have become one of the most popular theoretical models in contemporary German sociology, and are also widely applied in fields such as psychology, management science, and literary studies. A primary distinction of Luhmann’s social systems theory is that its focus of analysis is not individuals, groups, behaviors, or institutions, but the communication that occurs within systems. Dirk Baecker, a student of Luhmann’s explains that the systems theory “does away with the notion of system in all its traditional wording” and can carefully examine “every possible assumption of organism, mechanism, and information” – even, recursively, its own structure (Baecker 2001, p. 72). This realignment towards communication represents a significant break with social science tradition. Although Luhmann’s theory (or for that matter, most systems theories) do not lend themselves well to reduction, this chapter will attempt to present an overview of the subject.
Life in Brief
Niklas Luhmann was born in 1927. Following his teenage stint in the army, he went on to study law at the Universität Freiburg from 1946-1949 (Müller 2005). He trained as a lawyer, but found the intellectual constraints of practicing law not to his liking. He decided to go into public administration, as it promised him more freedom to pursue his own ideas (Hornung 1998). Luhmann became a civil servant for the town of Lüneburg in 1954. Although he enjoyed his work, he accepted the opportunity to take a sabbatical leave to study administrative science at Harvard University in 1960. Here Luhmann became a student of systems theorist Talcott Parsons, a thinker who would have a great impact on the development of Luhmann’s theories. After returning to Germany in 1961, Luhmann transferred to a research institute at the Hochschule für Verwaltungswissenschaften (School of Public Administration) in Speyer. Here he was afforded the freedom to pursue his scientific interests, and began his research of social structure.
In 1965, Luhmann studied Sociology for a single semester at the Universität Münster. He was awarded a PhD and Habilitation (a postdoctoral qualification enabling one to teach at the university level) for two books previously published. After briefly occupying Theodor Adorno’s former chair at the Universität Frankfurt, (where he taught a poorly-attended seminar on the sociology of love), he accepted a position at the newly-founded Reformuniversität Bielefeld (Baecker, 2005).
In 1973 he engaged in a debate with theorist Jürgen Habermas about the role of social theory. This debate was later published as a series of essays in Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie: Was leistet die Systemforschung? (Theory of Society or Social Technology: What can Systems Research Accomplish?) (1973). The debate with Habermas (whose theory receives a much wider acceptance outside of Germany) served as the Anglophonic world’s major introduction to Luhmann’s thought.
Luhmann published profusely throughout his career, with each book and essay building a foundation for his final theory of society. He retired from this position in 1993, but continued to publish. His magnum opus, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (The Society of the Society) was published a year before his death in 1997.
By the end of the 19th century, industrialization had profoundly changed the Western world. Sociology had come into its own as a science: Karl Marx published profusely throughout the mid-1800s. Ferdinand Tönnies (1887) described social flows from Gemeinschaft (community, relationship oriented association) toward Gesellschaft (self interest oriented society) in 1887. Emile Durkheim (1893) explored the division of labor a few years later, and opened the first European sociology department in 1896. Max Weber developed new methodological approaches and also founded a sociology department by 1920. While these fathers of the discipline differed greatly in their research and philosophy of society, they all recognized that the function and dysfunction of society is linked to the function and dysfunction of different social components such as classes, institutions, technologies, or individuals.
Durkheim’s theory of functionalism, in particular, had a lasting impact upon the social sciences. Durkheim argued that “social facts” existed independent of individuals and institutions, and that these facts were the most productive subject for empirical sociological research. Social facts (such as suicide rates (Durkheim 1951), policies, or church attendance) can be measured, interpreted, and tested. Social theories derived from these analyses can then be used to explain social functioning.
The determination of function is . . . necessary for the complete explanation of the phenomena. . . .To explain a social fact it is not enough to show the cause on which it depends; we must also, at least in most cases, show its function in the establishment of social order. (1950, p. 97)
Durkheim’s functionalism measured social effects within the context of a larger social environment. Durkheim’s 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society focused on labor division in an attempt to describe and explain social order. He elaborated on the manner in which increasing labor division affects the evolution of societies.
Parsonian Social Systems
Talcott Parsons, who would become America’s preeminent social theorist throughout the mid-20th century, drew on Durkheim’s functionalism in the development of his theory of social action. He was also able to integrate concepts from the burgeoning fields of general systems theory (von Bertalanffy, 1950; 1976), information theory (Shannon & Weaver, 1949), and social cybernetics (Wiener, 1948; 1950). Whereas Durkheim was content to develop sociology as a discipline alongside the other social sciences, Parsons became the advocate of a “grand theory” that could subsume the other social sciences. Drawing heavily from Weber’s writings on action (which Parsons translated himself), Parsons’ functionalism was developed as a theory of action. Individuals were understood as acting of their own volition, influenced in their behavior by external forces. As a component of this larger theory, Parsons developed the theory of the social system. His “social system” is generally synonymous with the term “society” and emerges from the interaction of individuals (Parsons, 1951). For the purposes of this chapter only a few features of Parson’s theory can be discussed. These will include his conceptions of the functional imperatives of action and the notion of equilibrium.
Parsons’ social equilibrium is the orderly, smoothly functioning society. It is the result of individuals' acting according to the norms and values that have been provided in their social environment (Parsons, 1951). Parsonian social systems tended towards equilibrium, because “the actions of the members of a society are to a significant degree oriented to a single integrated system of ultimate ends common to these members” (Parsons qtd. in Heyl, 1968). The understanding of equilibrium within different societies was the primary goal of social systems theory, and (as Parsons would have it) sociology as a whole.
Functional imperatives of action
Parsons’ functional imperatives of action were developed as a way to classify the goals that “action systems” (be it individuals, institutions, or groups) would pursue to reach equilibrium. His AGIL model (adaptation, goal-attainment, integration, latent pattern maintenance) remains one of his most famous formulations.
- A - The function of adaptation addresses the fact that resources in the environment are scarce, and the system must secure and distribute these resources. For social systems, social institutions are employed to meet these needs. The economy is generally identified as the primary institution that meets this need.
- G - The function of goal-attainment deals with the system’s desire to use resources to achieve specific situational ends. Political institutions generally fulfill this role for social systems.
- I – Integration is the most complex and problematic of the functional imperatives. It addresses the need for a system to coordinate and regulate the various subunits within a system. Integration of social systems is often associated with laws and norms, and judicial institutions.
- L – Finally, the function of pattern maintenance refers to a system’s ability to maintain its own stability, and consists of two distinct components. For social systems, the first component deals with the ability of the system to motivate normative behavior of actors. The second component is involved with the transmission of social values. This imperative might be institutionally satisfied by education and religion (Wallace & Wolf, 1991).
The actions of an individual, for example, could then be compared to the actions of an institution within this framework. The social system, also subject to these imperatives, is in equilibrium because all of its constituent actors are morally impelled to perform socially-expected functions. As might be expected, Parsons’ early work was frequently criticized for failing to account for social change, the opposite of social equilibrium. Parsons eventually developed an evolutionary model of social change that described incremental adjustments occurring through slight disruptions of the social system’s equilibrium.
Luhmann and Social Systems
Sociology is stuck in a theory crisis. (Luhmann, 1995, p. xlv)
Luhmann criticized the sociology of his time as being irredeemably subjective and unable to usefully describe reality. “Action theory is reconstructed as structural theory, structural theory as linguistic theory, linguistic theory as textual theory, and textual theory as action theory” (Luhmann, 1995, p. xlvi). The acquisition of new knowledge, Luhmann argued, was derived from some recombination of the work of classical theorists. Social theory spiraled into higher and higher levels of complexity, each refocusing and realignment of classical theory laying the foundation for ever more complex theoretical iterations. Luhmann set his personal task as no less than the complete theoretical reconceptualization of the discipline within a wholly consistent framework.
Luhmann’s sociological systems theory makes only two fundamental assumptions: that reality exists, and that systems exist (Luhmann, 1995, p. 12). The theory contains a constructivist epistemology, as it claims that knowledge can only exist as a construction of human consciousness. Luhmann does not claim that there is no external reality, but that our knowledge of it will always be subject to the symbolic system we use to represent it.
From these simple assumptions, Luhmann attempts to build a universal social theory:
Theory… claims neither to reflect the complete reality of its object, nor to exhaust all the possibilities of knowing its object. Therefore it does not demand exclusivity for its truth claims in relation to other, competing endeavors. But it does claim universality for its grasp of its object in the sense that it deals with everything social and not just sections. (Luhmann, 1995, p. xlv)
The theory is universal because it seeks to describe and explain itself, along with all other social phenomena. The theory is self-referential.
Luhmann proceeds to clarify three fundamental differences between his theory and previous social theories. First, his theory is universal and can be applied to all social phenomena. Second, his theory is self-referential, and capable of examining itself in its own terms. Third, his theory is both complex and abstract enough to accomplish the previous two goals (Luhmann, 1995, xlviii).
There is no default entry point to Luhmann’s sociological systems theory. The structure of the theory is systemic. This means that the integration of its components is not linear and additive, but circular. The components of the theory do not build upon each other but produce each other. This introduction will attempt to show some of Luhmann’s most innovative developments, including his break from previous social systems theory.
A theory of communication
Luhmann found Parsons’ systems approach inspiring, but noticed several inconsistencies and problems. Stichweh (2000), a student of Luhmann’s, explains that there are two major strands of reasoning that led Luhmann to base his theory on communication rather than action. The first issue was that the actions of psychic systems (minds) and of social systems is difficult to distinguish using action theory. The interaction of the actor and his environment can only be described when the actor and environment are placed on the same analytic level. In Luhmann’s theory, the social system emerges from the communication between psychic systems (minds), and cannot be understood as a separate system “acting” on the individual. The second issue is that action theory cannot differentiate between action and experience. Selection (one of the components of Luhmann’s definition of communication, to be outlined below) can be viewed as either an action on the part of the selecting system, or as information about the state of the selecting system’s environment. The classification of information, Luhmann reasons, is not causally related to actors, and should be classified as experience, not action.
Individuals and the social system
One aspect of Luhmann’s theory that is significantly different from most social theories is that the human individual is not seen as focal to understanding society. In fact, Luhmann’s theory states unequivocally that the individual is not a constituent part of society. This counterintuitive claim begins to make sense if one recalls that Luhmann’s basic social element is communication. An individual is only relevant to society to the extent that they communicate. Whatever does not communicate within the society – such as biological and psychic systems – is not a part of the society. Psychic systems, or individual minds, can think but cannot communicate. In the social systems view, individuals are only loci for social communication.
We will return to the issue of the individual within the social system after further discussion of Luhmann’s notion of “system”. A system is emergent, in that it comes into existence as soon as a border can be drawn between a set of communications and the context of the communication, or the systems environment. A system is always less complex than its environment – if a system does not reduce the complexity in its environment, then it cannot perform any function. A system effectively defines itself by creating and maintaining a border between itself and the environment. In the case of biological systems, this concept of systemic self-generation was first identified and examined by Maturana and Varela (1980). They termed the self-generation of biological systems “autopoietic”. Luhmann believed that autopoiesis could be usefully applied to social systems as well. Luhmann’s autopoietic systems do more than just define their own borders. They also produce their own components and organizational structures. The major benefit of the autopoietic perspective on social systems is that it presents them without ambiguity, and not as something that can be reduced to anything other than itself, such as “consciousness” or a sum of actions (Anderson, 2003). Returning to the issue of the individual, it is again possible to see why individuals cannot be components of social systems – social systems are comprised of communications and therefore produce communications, not people (“Niklas Luhmann,” 2005).
Communication as selection
Another Luhmannian conception that might seem counterintuitive is his subjectless, actionless definition of communication. “Communication is coordinated selectivity. It comes about only if ego fixes his own state on the basis of uttered information” (Luhmann, 1995, p. 154). Luhmann criticizes the “transmission” metaphor of communication because “it implies too much ontology” and that “the entire metaphor of possessing, having, giving, and receiving” is unsuitable (1995, p. 139). For Luhmann, communication is not an “action” performed by an “actor” but a selection performed by a system. This "selection" that results in communication is more similar to Darwin’s “natural selection” than to the everyday usage of the term. A social system generates communication much as a natural environment generates biological traits.
The selection process that Luhmann terms communication is actually a synthesis of three separate selections: the selection of information, the selection of a form, and the selection of an understanding (Anderson, 2003). Following Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) theory of information, Luhmann identifies information as a selection from a “repertoire of possibilities” (1995, p. 140). The form of a communication is how the message is communicated. The selection of understanding refers to what should be understood about the message. A critical note here is that understanding does not refer to the message’s reception by a psychic system, but rather the linkage of the message to subsequent communications (Anderson, 2003). The result of this selection process is the creation of meaning, which is the medium of communication in social systems (Luhmann, 1995, p. 140).
Social (and psychic) systems construct and sustain themselves in this way through communication. Communications can only exist as a product of social (and psychic) systems. Society is then a self-descriptive system that contains its own description. Luhmann recognizes that this definition is recursive and antithetical to classical scientific theory (“Soziologische Systemtheorie”, 2005).
A variety of scholars today employ sociological systems analysis in fields ranging from law to literary theory. The theory is one of the most popular in German sociology, and has a significant following in continental Europe, Japan, and elsewhere (“Soziologische Systemtheorie,” 2005). Many of Luhmann’s former students and colleagues, such as Dirk Baecker, Peter Fuchs, Armin Nassehi, and Rudolf Stichweh, continue to develop the theory.
The preceding can only serve as the briefest of introductions to an enormous body of original thought. A lifetime’s work of thousands of pages of published text cannot be condensed into a few thousand words. This chapter has attempted to trace some of the major theoretical threads which led to the development of Luhmann’s universal theory of sociological systems. It presents some of Luhmann’s most engaging and innovative conceptual formulations. Because Luhmann’s theory represents a major break from the classical social sciences in structure and content, its comprehension requires a significant investment of intellectual effort. This effort is worthwhile, as Luhmann’s meticulous theoretical paradigm provides a useful alternative to other social science traditions.
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- Luhmann, N. (1997). Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
- Maturana, H. & Varela, F. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Dordecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co.
- Müller, M. (2005). Biographie Niklas Luhmann. 50 Klassiker der Soziologie. Retrieved 27 October 2005, from http://www.kfunigraz.ac.at/sozwww/agsoe/lexikon/klassiker/luhmann/26bio.htm.
- Niklas Luhmann. (2005, 26 October). Wikipedia: Die freie Enzyklopädie. Retrieved 27 October 2005, from http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niklas_Luhmann.
- Parsons, T. (1951). The social system. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.
- Shannon, C.E. & Weaver, W. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana, I.L.: University of Illinois Press.
- Soziologische Systemtheorie. (2005, 15 October). Wikipedia: Die freie Enzyklopädie. Retrieved 27 October 2005, from http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soziologische_Systemtheorie.
- Stichweh, R. (2000). Systems theory as an alternative to action theory? The rise of 'communication' as a theoretical option. Acta Sociologica, 43(1), 5-14.
- Trevino, A. J. (Ed.). Talcott Parsons today. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.
- von Bertalanffy, L. (1950). An outline of general systems theory. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1, 139-164.
- von Bertalanffy, L. (1976). General system theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York: Braziller.
- Wallace, R. A. & Wolf, A, (1999). Contemporary sociological theory: Expanding the classical tradition, fifth edition, Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice-Hall.
- Radio Bremen:Radio programs related to Luhmann, including an interview (in German).
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