Sociology Index

Niklas Luhmann

Niklas Luhmann was a German sociologist, philosopher of social science, and a prominent thinker in systems theory, who is considered one of the most important social theorists of the 20th century. During a sabbatical in 1961, he went to Harvard, where he met and studied under Talcott Parsons, then the world's most influential social systems theorist. Niklas Luhmann dismissed Parsons' theory later on, developing a rival approach of his own.

In 1968/1969, Niklas Luhmann briefly served as a lecturer at Theodor Adorno's former chair at the University of Frankfurt and then was appointed full professor of sociology at the newly founded University of Bielefeld, Germany. Niklas Luhmann's magnum opus, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft ("The Society of Society") was published in 1997, and translated subsequently in English, under the title "Theory of Society." This work described segmented societies where territory is a dividing line.

Niklas Luhmann wrote 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 well known and popular in German sociology, and has also been rather intensively received in Japan and Eastern Europe, including Russia.

Niklas Luhmann's 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. (Social Systems 1995). Niklas 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.

Niklas Luhmann is best known to North Americans for his debate with the critical theorist Jürgen Habermas over the potential of social systems theory. Like his erstwhile 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.

Niklas 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 — as the diversity of subjects he wrote on indicates. Luhmann's theory is sometimes dismissed as highly abstract and complex, particularly within the Anglophone world, whereas his work has had a more lasting influence on scholars from German-speaking countries, Scandinavia and Italy.

Niklas Luhmann himself described his theory as "labyrinthine" 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. Luhmann's systems theory focuses on three topics, which are interconnected in his entire work. Systems theory as societal theory, Communication theory, and Evolution theory. Social systems are systems of communication, and society is the most encompassing social system.