Luhmann wrote prolifically, with more than 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles published on a variety of subjects, including law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love. While his theories have yet to make a major mark in American sociology, his theory is currently dominant in German sociology, and has also been rather intensively received in Japan and Eastern Europe, including Russia. His relatively low profile elsewhere is partly due to the fact that translating his work is a difficult task, since his writing presents a challenge even to readers of German, including many sociologists. (p. xxvii Social System 1995)
Much of Luhmann's work directly deals with the operations of the legal system and his autopoietic theory of law is regarded as one of the more influential contributions to the sociology of law and socio-legal studies.
Luhmann is probably best-known to North Americans for his debate with the critical theorist Jürgen Habermas over the potential of social systems theory. Like his one-time mentor Talcott Parsons, Luhmann is an advocate of "grand theory," although neither in the sense of philosophical foundationalism nor in the sense of "meta-narrative" as often invoked in the critical works of post-modernist writers. Rather, Luhmann's work tracks closer to complexity theory broadly speaking, in that it aims to address any aspect of social life within a universal theoretical framework - of which the diversity of subjects he wrote about is an indication. Luhmann's theory is generally considered highly abstract, and his publications are difficult to read. This fact, along with the somewhat elitist behaviour of some of his disciples and the supposed political conservatism implicit in his theory, has made Luhmann a controversial figure in sociology.
A major critique of Luhmann is found in Piyush Mathur's detailed exegesis (2006) of one of Luhmann's treatises in an American journal. Luhmann himself described his theory as "labyrinth-like" or "non-linear" and claimed he was deliberately keeping his prose enigmatic to prevent it from being understood "too quickly", which would only produce simplistic misunderstandings. The influence of Gregory Bateson and Jurgen Ruesch on Luhmann has been discussed by Piyush Mathur in an April 2008 article titled Gregory Bateson, Niklas Luhmann, and Ecological Communication.
Luhmann's systems theory focuses on three topics, which are interconnected in his entire work.
The core element of Luhmann's theory is communication. Social systems are systems of communication, and society is the most encompassing social system. Being the social system that comprises all (and only) communication, today's society is a world society. A system is defined by a boundary between itself and its environment, dividing it from an infinitely complex, or (colloquially) chaotic, exterior. The interior of the system is thus a zone of reduced complexity: Communication within a system operates by selecting only a limited amount of all information available outside. This process is also called "reduction of complexity." The criterion according to which information is selected and processed is meaning (in German, Sinn). Both social systems and psychical or personal systems (see below for an explanation of this distinction) operate by processing meaning.
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