Niklas Luhmann as Organization Theorist
David Seidl and Hannah Mormann
Chapter published in In: Adler, P., du Gay, P., Morgan, G., Reed, M. (eds.)
Oxford Handbook of Sociology, Social Theory and Organization Studies:
Contemporary Currents. Oxford: Oxford University Press., 125-157 (2015).
Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998), together with Jürgen Habermas, ranks as one of
the most important German social theorists of the twentieth century. His works
have been highly influential in sociology and other social sciences, including
organization studies (Meyer et al., 2010). Luhmann conceived of his sociological
approach as a general and universally applicable theory (Luhmann, 1995a;
Luhmann 2013). This is evident in the huge variety of topics that he covered in
more than 70 books and 500 articles (Schmidt, 2000) and which include trust and
power (1979), love (1986a, 2010), ecology (1989), risk (1993a), art (2000a), mass
media (2000b), politics (2000c), religion (2000d), and law (2004). Luhmann is
thus often portrayed as a general social theorist or even as a theorist of society.
First and foremost, however, Luhmann was an organization theorist.
The significance of organizations for Luhmann can be traced in his biography: at
the beginning of his career, he spent almost eight years as legal expert in public
administration, where he gained professional expertise in how organizations
function. This practice inspired much of his later theoretical work. A scholarship
from Harvard’s Graduate School for Public Administration allowed him to
embark on his academic career. To start with he worked as a researcher at the
University for Public Administration at Speyer. Later on he was appointed Head
of Department at the Center for Social Research in Dortmund and within a very
short time he wrote both his doctoral and post-doctoral [Habilitation] theses in the
area of organization studies (1964a, 1966). Even though in his later writings
Luhmann also turned to research topics beyond organization, his practical and
scholarly encounter with organizations continued to exert a strong influence on
his thinking. One of the last books Luhmann worked on, which can be regarded as
his conclusion of over 30 years of research on organized social systems (Nassehi,
2005, p. 179), was also on organization (Luhmann, 2000e).
Several authors influenced Luhmann, including Talcott Parsons and Jürgen
Habermas, on whom we shall focus here. The encounter with Parsons took place
at the beginning of Luhmann’s academic career, when he spent a year in
Parsons’s department at Harvard University. It was Parsons and his sociological
functionalism that initially triggered Luhmann’s interest in sociology. Luhmann
admired Parsons’s ambition to develop a general social theory but distanced
himself clearly from his structural-functionalist approach. Luhmann subscribed to
the widespread criticism that Parsons’s perspective was inherently conservative
and therefore did not account adequately for the possibility of structural changes.
For Luhmann, established social structures whose functionality is to be analysed
should not be the starting point of theorization. His view was that social reality
should be treated as a solution to specific social problems and that established
social structures should be compared with respect to their capability to contribute
to the resolution of these problems (Luhmann, 1962a, 1964b). Through this
proposition, Luhmann transformed Parsons’s functionalist approach into a method
for comparing structures.
The first contact with Habermas, one of the most prominent representatives of the
Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, occurred in 1968 when Luhmann filled in for
Theodor W. Adorno’s chair at the University of Frankfurt. The two men became
involved in a debate that received considerable attention from sociologists,
philosophers and the general academic public in Germany (Habermas &
Luhmann, 1971). The dispute centred on the political role of sociology in modern
society. Habermas believed that Luhmann’s system theory did not permit scholars
to examine society critically. Thus he was convinced that systems theory
represented an ideological defence of the existing societal structures (Habermas,
1971, p. 266). In support of his claim, Habermas cited a basic assumption in
Luhmann’s work – the notion that modern society is differentiated into multiple
functional systems, each of which follows its own rationality. Habermas argued
that ‘if modern societies have no possibilities whatsoever of shaping a rational
identity, then we are without any point of reference for a critique of modernity’
(Habermas, 1987, p. 374). Unlike Habermas, Luhmann did not support any
normative political programme. His interests were scientific and, more
particularly, theoretical. So it is not surprising that Luhmann’s counterattack on
Habermas was directed against the theoretical and epistemological foundations of
Critical Theory: from Luhmann’s perspective, its representatives pretended to
describe social reality in a way that was ‘truer’ than the way in which other people
or even other sociologists perceived it (cf. Borch, 2011, pp. 8–14). Luhmann
regarded this way of approaching social reality as ‘first-order observation’ and
argued that there should be a shift from that to ‘second-order observation’, which
refers to observing how other observers observe social reality (Luhmann, 2002a).
Luhmann’s concept of ‘second-order observation’, points to the need to describe
how societal problems are constructed, instead of criticizing specific social
structures as repressive, illegitimate, or unjust. In a nutshell, Luhmann denied that
sociology had any political role, rejecting Habermas’s critique of his systems
theory as inherently conservative (Luhmann, 1971a). In fact, Luhmann went even
further, claiming that systems theory provided ‘a sober, more impartial
assessment of reality and of the reasons why it is as it is’ (Luhmann, 1973, p. 277,
our translation). The debate between Luhmann and Habermas reached a climax in
the 1970s, after which it continued with varying intensity (e.g. Luhmann, 1991,
1995b, 2002a; Habermas, 1987) until Luhmann’s death in 1998.
During his entire academic career, Luhmann contributed to several different areas
of organization research. He often proposed radically novel perspectives on well
known organizational phenomena. In his theoretical approach, two different
phases can be distinguished: the first phase is characterized by Luhmann’s interest
in organizational structures. Applying his functional method, he compared
different organizational structures with regard to their capacity to reduce
organizational complexity and thus enable the organizational members to act (e.g.
Luhmann, 1964a, 1973). The second phase is marked by Luhmann’s ‘autopoietic
turn’ and his processual view of organizations. In contrast to his earlier work
which was directly focused on organizations, in this phase organizations were
merely treated as one particular type of system within his general systems theory.
In other words, his organization theory was developed in the context of and in
relation to his general systems-theoretical approach (Luhmann, 2000e). This
allowed him to address organizations and their relationship to other social systems
in their environment, i.e. the relationship between organization and interaction,
and between organization and society.
The rest of this chapter is structured into five sections. In the following section we
will describe the early phase of Luhmann’s organization research, in which he
developed his functional method and studied organizational structures as forms of
reducing complexity. We will then go on to describe Luhmann’s ‘autopoietic
turn’ and his general theory of autopoietic systems, which we will complement
with an analysis of how this theory is applied to organizations. After that we will
provide an overview of the reception of his theory. We will conclude with some
reflections on the potential and future development of Luhmann’s theoretical
approach in organization research.
Luhmann’s early work: Complexity reduction and organization theory
The central issue of Luhmann’s early work was to investigate the many ways in
which the complexity of the social world could be reduced in order to render
certain actions possible. For Luhmann, the function of social systems (and their
respective structures) lies in their ability to reduce complexity. Consequently, his
early works focus on comparing the capacity of different structural arrangements
to reduce complexity. Luhmann referred to his own approach as ‘functional
structuralism’ or ‘equivalence functionalism’ (Luhmann, 1967) in order to
differentiate it from Parsons’s ‘structural functionalism’. The inversion of
‘function’ and ‘structure’ emphasizes that Luhmann’s theorizing is not founded
on analysing the functionality of given social structures with relation to
maintaining a system (Parsons, 1951). In contrast to Parsons, Luhmann treated
social reality as a solution to the abstract problem of reducing complexity. He
applied the functional method in order to identify and specify the problem of
complexity that corresponds to each existing structural solution, which he
compared to alternative solutions. The functional method, which is particularly
prominent in Luhmann’s earlier work, also underlies much of his later work
(Stichweh, 2011, p. 293).
Transforming functionalism into method
In Luhmann’s theory, Parsons’s functionalist approach is transformed into a
comparative method that is used to examine possible relations between various
‘problems’ – that is, different types of complexity – and ‘solutions’ – that is,
different ways of reducing complexity (Luhmann, 1964b; Mingers, 2003, p. 114).
Luhmann argued that all instances of system formation are to be regarded as
solutions to (variants of) one and the same problem; namely, the problem of
complexity. Organizations are conceived as systems that constitute themselves
through selectivity: by restricting their own possibilities they render reality less
This function of reducing complexity is fulfilled essentially by the formation of
structures, i.e., by generalizing behavioural expectations. [...] Structures, which
themselves are selective in relation to the complexity of the environment, guide the
selective behaviour of the system. In this way they make possible a doubled
selectivity and thus lead to a considerable increase in the system’s capabilities.
(Luhmann, 1983, p. 42; our translation).
Luhmann’s key question was: how can the structures of social systems carry out
the function of reducing complexity? Taking this question as a starting point,
Luhmann applied his functional method to a wide range of organizational
phenomena, among them goal-setting, trust and deadlines in organizations, which
we will discuss in the following. From Luhmann’s functionalist point of view,
goal-setting is seen as a form of reducing complexity that allows organizations to
focus on a few select issues and screen out the rest (Luhmann, 1973, 1982), which
in turn helps focus organizational forces to tackle those issues (Luhmann, 1973, p.
162). Organizations, Luhmann argued, are seldom oriented to only one goal. On
the contrary, they tend to shift between various goals, which are often not clearly
defined. What’s more, means and ends are often mixed up and sometimes goals
are formulated only to legitimate existing behaviour retrospectively. When
formulating that view, Luhmann took into account important modifications that
had been made in the meantime to the classical approach of ‘goal-oriented’
organizations and its underlying concept of instrumental rationality. Nevertheless,
he did not regard organizational behaviour that did not fit the goal-oriented model
as pathological. To Luhmann, such deviations expressed the ability of
organizations to absorb complexity, as well as the variability of their
environment; in other words, to constitute the ‘system rationality’ of
organizations. As Luhmann pointed out, organizations are always confronted with
many different environments (1973, p. 164), so, if they attempted to pursue
always one and the same goal, they would lose the elasticity that is indispensable
for organizational day-to-day matters. However, on the organization’s facade
goals fulfil important functions; namely, they help the organization cope with the
conflicting expectations that arise from environmental requirements and their
effective implementation in the organization (Luhmann, 1964a, p. 110).
In his early work on trust as a social mechanism, Luhmann concentrated on the
social function of complexity reduction and of action control in present and future
situations (Luhmann, 1979). Trust is considered a social mechanism that bridges
knowledge gaps and information gaps, allowing organizations to speed up
processes and establish more complex structures.
Where there is trust there are increased possibilities for experience and action,
there is an increase in the complexity of the social system and also in the number
of possibilities which can be reconciled with its structure, because trust constitutes
a more effective form of complexity reduction,
Luhmann argued (1979, p. 8). From this functional point of view, trust and formal
organizations could be seen as two comparable, functionally equivalent social
mechanisms of complexity reduction. However, the organization doesn’t make
‘trust and distrust superfluous but […] depersonalizes these mechanisms. The
person who trusts no longer does so at his own risk but at the risk of the system’
(Luhmann, 1979, p. 93). In other words, it is possible to differentiate between
personal trust and system trust. In the context of organizations, this implies that
people can work together every day without necessarily establishing private
contacts and getting to know each other. However, as Luhmann emphasized, trust
in organizations is not based on familiarity with people and personal trust, but on
official channels, job descriptions or working procedures and so on. Luhmann
treated these structural aspects of organizations as different strategies for making
Deadlines are another structural means of reducing complexity. Organizational
life is largely characterized by the ‘priority of time-limited issues’ (Luhmann,
1971b, p. 143). Luhmann examined how schedules and deadlines reduce the
complexity of organizational life by determining work rhythms and the choice of
topics. Such strategies are considered typical of organizations that attempt to cope
with the complexity of the environment without either being overwhelmed by it or
oversimplifying it. As a means of reducing complexity, deadlines filter facts and
social coordination and make them manageable. However, setting deadlines limits
the time available for decision-making. As a result, organizations prefer dealing
with well-known issues and existing information over searching for new
information, as they prefer communication partners with whom it is easy to reach
an agreement, instead of partners with whom time-consuming negotiations are
required. Thus, schedules determine the choice of topics and communication
partners. In organizations such as universities one consequence of reducing
complexity in such a manner may be that ‘long-term, individual research projects
that require much thinking and little cooperation’ may be ‘continually postponed,
given that they do not have to be carried out within set deadlines, as lectures,
exams, and other administrative tasks do’ (Luhmann, 1971b, p. 148; our
Complexity reduction in organizations
Luhmann’s early conceptualization of organizations (Luhmann, 1964a) is based
on the conceptual distinction (a) between system and environment and (b)
between formal and informal structures. The first distinction reflected fittingly the
idea that organizations demarcate themselves from their environment through
explicit activities, such as deciding who belongs to the organization and who does
not, what is produced within the organization and what is outsourced, what kind
of behaviour is allowed in the organization and what is not, and so on. According
to this view, organizational boundaries constitute boundaries of expectations; that
is, expectations about what is supposed to happen within in contrast to outside the
organization. In other words, within the boundaries of the organization there is a
network of formal structures that define appropriate behaviour (Luhmann, 1964a,
p. 35). This boundary of expectations is closely linked to the concept of
organizational membership: members accept to meet behavioural expectations as
a condition for their membership. It is through membership that the boundary of
behavioural expectations is sustained. As a consequence of the institution of
membership, organizations do not have to be concerned about the individual
motives of their members. Drawing on Chester Barnard’s classical concept of the
‘zone of indifference’ (1938), Luhmann emphasized that individual actions do not
have to be motivated because membership implies that employees generally
consent to follow the organization’s rules. ‘Motives are generalized through
membership: soldiers march, secretaries type, professors publish, and political
leaders govern – whether it happens, in this situation, to please them or not’
(Luhmann, 1982, p. 75). Membership as such is remunerated; that is, the
willingness to continue to be a member is purchased by the organization, even if
goals are reinterpreted or changed (Luhmann, 1964a, p. 101), or even if the
superior is replaced by another individual (Luhmann, 1962b). In other words,
consenting to be a member is considered synonymous with an explicit willingness
to conform to formalized expectations. On the one hand, establishing formal
structures reduces the complexity of the social world, as organizational structures
reduce the range of possible activities; on the other hand, limiting the range of
permitted behaviours allows the organization to coordinate the activities of its
members in a highly complex manner and thus attain highly complex
achievements, such as the production of products or services. Formal structures,
however, are only one type of structure in organizations, next to informal
In addition to the central position of membership, the distinction between formal
and informal structures also characterizes Luhmann’s early conceptualization of
organization (Luhmann, 1964a). His views on the latter were inspired by
contemporary organizational research in the US. Since the famous ‘Hawthorne
studies’ in the early 1930s (Mayo, 1933; Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939) the
distinction between formal and informal organization had been well established in
organizational works (see Gouldner, 1959). This distinction put forward that,
besides the prescribed formal order, there is also an informal social order in
organizations that has its own norms. Luhmann stresses that, from that point of
view, informality was mostly understood as a rather socio-psychological concept.
Furthermore, he criticizes the fact that, up to that point, organizational studies
identified and investigated primarily groups ‘as carriers of informal organization’
(Luhmann, 1994, p. 399; our translation). For Luhmann, however, informal
structures belong to the same social system as formal structures. He emphasizes
that an organization as a social system functions at all because informal structures
compensate and balance the formalized social order counteracting its negative
consequences, not because they fill gaps created by formal structures. Informal
structures help the organization to adapt rigidly defined expectations to
environmental changes, overcome problems that arise from shifting and
conflicting roles, as well as problems of motivation (Luhmann, 1964a, p. 61).
Luhmann stresses that organizations are dependent on informality and on ‘the
possibility of switching between formal and informal situations’ (Luhmann,
1964a, p. 205; our translation). The effects of informal structures may violate the
precepts of the formal structures, particularly where there are conflicts between
the latter. The concept of ‘useful illegality’ (1964a, p. 305), which Luhmann
developed, refers to informal behaviours that are illegal to the extent that they
violate the formal rules but that at the same time are useful to and thus tolerated
by the organization. By acknowledging the possibility of switching between
formality and informality, Luhmann grants formal structures a very particular
ontological status: rather than conceiving of them as something that determines
organizational activities, formal rules are regarded as something that can be
flexibly and often even strategically employed by organizational members. For
instance, rules that support a particular member’s position might be used as
‘weapons’, when they are cited in an argument, or as ‘bargaining chips’, when
used at a timely point in negotiations. Luhmann refers to formal structures in this
sense as ‘tendency expectations’ (Luhmann, 1964a, pp. 310–311), meaning that
they are associated with a tendency to perform certain actions, rather than with
To summarize, in his early works, Luhmann regards organizations as ‘entangled
structures’ (Luhmann, 1964a, p. 20) and he applies the functional method to
reveal how the different formal and informal structures help reduce and re-
introduce complexity in organizations.
Luhmann’s later works: The shift from structures to operations
Around the start of the 1980s two shifts in Luhmann’s theorizing about
organizations occurred. The extent to which these shifts merely modified or led to
a break with his earlier lines of theorizing is the subject of an ongoing debate
among scholars (e.g. Martens & Ortmann, 2006; Schwinn, 1995). The first shift
concerned his views on the role of organizations. In the earlier phase of
Luhmann’s work the organization was treated as an important social phenomenon
worth studying in its own right; later on, however, it came to be regarded
basically as a subtype of social systems. The second shift concerned his
conceptualization of organizations. While in his earlier work Luhmann focused on
the structural aspects of organizations, in his later work the focus shifted onto
temporary operations as the central building blocks of organizations. Inspired by
developments in biology and cybernetics, Luhmann concluded that social systems
consist of temporary events that are linked in a self-referential way to form a
unified system. This view was captured in the concept of autopoiesis, that is, the
self-reproduction of a system through its elements. In the following we will
describe the central conceptual elements of this approach to social systems (for
details, see also Seidl, 2005c).
Social systems as autopoietic systems
The concept of autopoiesis was originally developed by the two Chilean cognitive
biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to describe living systems.
Maturana and Varela argued that living systems differed from non-living systems
in that the former reproduce their own elements through their own elements – for
example, the cells of a plant are produced by cells of the plant. They used the term
‘autopoiesis’ to describe this process of selfreproduction and referred to systems
that are based on self-reproduction as ‘autopoietic’ (Maturana & Varela, 1980).
As autopoietic systems reproduce their own elements through their own elements,
they are operatively closed; that is, their operations come from within the system
and not from outside. Operative closure, however, does not imply that the system
is generally closed off from its environment – a frequent misunderstanding. More
specifically, operative closure does not mean that ‘the system itself has at its
disposal all of the causes that are necessary for selfproduction’ (Luhmann, 2005a,
p. 57). A biological system, for example, depends on the inflow of energy and
matter for its reproduction, however, it is the system itself that uses energy and
matter from external sources to reproduce its elements. Furthermore, operative
closure is the precondition for interactional openness (Luhmann 1995a, p. 9).
Only because there is a clear differentiation between the system’s own operations
and events in the environment is the system able to react to its environment (von
Foerster, 1981). If this clear differentiation were absent, the system would lack the
autonomy that is necessary for it to react (Luhmann, 2005a, p. 58). To put it
differently, in the absence of differentiation, it would not be possible to treat
reactions to events in the environment as reactions of the system, i.e. as operations
of the system, as opposed to operations of the environment. Accordingly, the
concept of environmental ‘input’ was replaced with the concept of environmental
‘perturbation’. This term is meant to denote that the environment cannot provide
any direct input to the system but can merely cause perturbations that the system
processes according to its own logic of reproduction (Mingers, 1995, pp. 33–34;
Varela, 1984). Luhmann suggested that Maturana and Varela’s concept of
autopoiesis should be abstracted from its physical-biological roots and turned into
a general concept on the level of a transdisciplinary systems theory (Seidl, 2005a,
pp. 7–11). In the latter context, autopoiesis can be understood as a general form of
system-building that uses self-referential closure and whose specific form depends
on the system in which it takes place. In biological systems, autopoiesis
materializes as life, in psychological systems (i.e. minds) it materializes as
thoughts (or consciousness), while in social systems it materializes as
communication (Luhmann, 1986b, p. 172). That is to say, while a psychic system
reproduces itself as a network of thoughts, a social system does so as a network of
Luhmann’s conceptualization of social systems as autopoietic systems of
communication is based on a specific concept of the latter. Luhmann understood
communication as the synthesis of three selective components which form an
insoluble unit: information, utterance and understanding (Luhmann, 1995).
Information refers to the ‘what’ of communication: every instance of
communication selects what is communicated from everything that could have
been communicated. Utterance refers to the form of and reason for a
communication; i.e. how and why something is said. The utterance represents the
selection of a particular form and reason from all possible forms and reasons.
Finally, understanding is conceptualized as the distinction between information
and utterance. For a communication to be understood, the information has to be
distinguished from the utterance; that is, what is communicated must be
distinguished from how and why it is communicated. The crucial point in this
conceptualization is the pivotal role of understanding. In contrast to other
theorists, Luhmann emphasizes the role of understanding in determining the
meaning of individual communications. He argues that what is paramount in
individual communications is not the ‘intended meaning’ but the understood
meaning, which affects the communications that will follow. As he writes
‘communication is made possible, so to speak, from behind, contrary to the
temporal course of the process’ (Luhmann, 1995a, p. 143).
Communication as a purely social category
From Luhmann’s perspective, communication is regarded as a purely social
category: he argues that an individual communication, as a unity composed of
three selections, cannot be attributed to a single individual (i.e. a psychic system),
in the sense that the selection termed ‘understanding’ cannot be attributed to the
same individual as the selection termed ‘utterance’. By contrast, an instance of
communication seen as a unity composed of three selections is regarded as an
emergent property of the interaction of several individuals and, as such, as a
social rather than a psychic phenomenon. Thus, even though psychic systems are
necessarily involved in bringing about communication, instances (i.e. units) of
communication are not the product of any particular psychic system. As Luhmann
writes, communication ‘is a genuinely social operation (and the only genuinely
social one). It is genuinely social in that, although it presupposes a multiplicity of
participating consciousness systems, it cannot (for this very reason) be attributed
to any individual consciousness [i.e. psychic system].’ (Luhmann, 2012, p. 42).
Taking this a step further, Luhmann argues that what matters is not how a
communication is understood by a particular psychic system but by ensuing
communications; that is to say, what matters is the understanding that is implied
by ensuing communications. Thus, the meaning of a communication, i.e. what
difference a communication makes to communications that follow it, is only
retrospectively defined through the latter. For example, whether a question is
understood as a provocation or as an attempt to get a serious answer is only
inferred from the communication that follows; nevertheless, the meaning of that
communication can only be inferred in its turn from the next communication
down the line and so on. Hence, understanding is only realized within the
communication and not by the involved psychic systems. Each of the psychic
systems involved in the communication might derive a very different meaning,
which might also differ from the meaning that is derived at every step in the
stream of communications. In effect, the thoughts that accompany the
communication process are treated as separate processes that might influence but
do not produce or determine ensuing communications.
The idea that each communication is determined retrospectively through ensuing
communications is connected with a fourth type of selection (Luhmann, 1995a,
pp. 147–150). If a social system is not discontinued, following a communicative
event (which consists of three selections, as explained above) a fourth type of
selection will take place: acceptance or rejection of the meaning of that
communication. This fourth selection is already part of the next communication.
To the extent that every communication calls for selecting either acceptance or
rejection, it triggers another communication and in this sense adds a dynamic
element that bridges the gap between successive communicative events.
This brings us back to the notion of self-reproduction: as we explained above,
communications only ‘exist’ as such through their relation to other
communications. To put it differently, mere words and sounds do not have the
status of communication. In that sense, it is the network of communications that
‘produces’ communications; it is the context of other communications that assigns
to a communication its status as such. As Luhmann famously said, ‘humans
cannot communicate; not even their brains can communicate; not even their
conscious minds can communicate. Only communications can communicate’
(Luhmann, 2002b, p. 169).
With regard to autopoiesis, the question of what communications are produced by
earlier communications – so that the social system is reproduced – is left open. As
long as communications are produced, the social system is reproduced. However,
social systems, like all autopoietic systems, develop structures that guide the
production of communications so that certain communications are more likely to
be produced than others. These structures are conceptualized as ‘expectations’
(Luhmann, 1995a) that are implicit in individual communications. This means
that in every situation certain communications are expected while others are not.
For example, a question about the time is expected to be followed by an answer
about the time and not by a description of last night’s dinner. In line with the
concept of autopoiesis these structures are themselves the product of
communications; that is, expectations are recursively produced and reproduced
through communications. One example of social structures are topics of
communication in the sense that they pre-select the possible communications that
are expected to follow, given that certain communications fit a specific topic but
others do not (Luhmann, 1995a, pp. 278–356).
It is on the level of such structures that the interplay between the social system
and the environment is regulated. The structures determine the domain of
potential environmental perturbations, i.e. what environmental events have an
impact at all on the organization, and how these perturbations are processed; more
specifically, what particular processes they trigger. Social structures are produced
by the system; however, over time they evolve and become adjusted to
environmental conditions. In that respect, Varela writes:
the continued interactions of a structurally plastic system in an environment with
recurrent perturbations will produce a continual selection of the system’s structure.
This structure will determine, on the one hand, the state of the system and its
domain of allowable perturbations, and on the other hand, will allow the system to
operate in an environment without disintegration. (Varela, 1979, p. 33)
As a result of structural adjustments, autopoietic systems become ‘structurally
coupled’ to their environment, or rather to other systems in their environment.
Social and psychic systems exhibit a particularly strong form of structural
coupling. Luhmann refers to this form of structural coupling as ‘interpenetration’,
indicating that the structures of two or more systems are so adjusted to each other
that each system can predict to some extent the reactions to the perturbations it
causes to any of the systems to which it is coupled (Luhmann, 1995a). Thus,
social systems can count on the fact that, after each communication, the psychic
systems involved will react to the communication through utterances that the
social system can use to produce new communications. This indicates that one
important means of structural coupling between social and psychic systems is
language (Luhmann 1995a, p. 272), as both social and psychic systems build
certain of their structures by means of language. Thus, while in his earlier phase
Luhmann used the concept of (membership) role in order to link individuals and
social systems, he now uses the concept of interpenetration.
A typology of social systems: Society, interaction and organization
Luhmann distinguishes three types of social systems according to the kind of
communication that they process. The first type is society, which is
conceptualized as the social system that encompasses all communications; all
communications that are produced are part of society and as such reproduce it:
[S]ociety is the all-encompassing social system that includes everything that is
social and therefore does not admit a social environment. If something social
emerges, if new kinds of communicative partners or themes appear, society grows
along with them. They enrich society. They cannot be externalized or treated as
environment, for everything that is communication is society. (Luhmann 1995a, p.
To the extent that society includes all communication, it also includes all other
social systems. That is to say, all social systems are formed within society.
In the course of its evolution, society has undergone three major structural
changes (Luhmann, 1997). Segmentary differentiation (i.e. into different tribes,
clans or families), was succeeded by differentiation into centre and periphery (i.e.
city versus countryside), stratificatory differentiation (i.e. into different social
strata or classes) and finally by the contemporary form of functional
differentiation. The functionally differentiated society consists of distinct
functional subsystems that are specialized in serving specific societal functions;
for example, law, science, economy, art, religion.
All of these functional subsystems are communication systems that are
themselves operatively closed on the basis of a specific binary coding (Luhmann,
2012). That is to say, all communications involved in the reproduction of a
particular functional subsystem ‘carry’ a specific code. For example, the code of
the legal system is ‘legal/illegal’; the code of the economic system is
‘payment/nonpayment’; the code of the system of science is ‘truth/untruth’; the
code of the political system is ‘power/non-power’. Each of these systems
communicates about itself and its environment on the basis of its specific code:
for example, for the legal system something is either legal or illegal, or has no
relevance at all; for the economic system something is either a payment or a non-
payment, or is irrelevant, in the sense that whether something is e.g. legal or
illegal is irrelevant to the economic system. Each communication of a functional
system relates to other communications of the same system on the basis of its
specific code. For example, in the legal system, communications relate to each
other on the basis that these are either legal or illegal. A legal ruling refers to
another legal ruling in order to substantiate itself – it cannot, however, refer to
payments (which are part of the economic system). These functional systems are
operatively closed in the sense that only communications carrying the function-
specific code can take part in the reproduction of that system. Thus, only legal
communications can reproduce the legal system, while economic, scientific,
political etc. communications cannot; only scientific communications can
reproduce science, and so on.
The second type of social system is that of (face-to-face) interaction. In contrast to
society, interaction systems are composed of communications that reflect the
physical presence of the participating individuals. Nevertheless, what is relevant
here is not physical presence as such but its reflection in communications. At a
bar, for example, not everybody who is physically present will be treated as such
in the interactional communication: some people will be treated as part of the
interaction while others, although they might be standing next to the participants
of the interaction, will be treated as absent and their utterances regarded as noise.
Thus, it is the communication itself that constructs physical presence. As
Luhmann writes in that respect, interaction systems ‘include everything that can
be treated as present and are able, if need be, to decide who among those who
happen to be present, is to be treated as present and who not’ (Luhmann, 1995a, p.
The third type of social system is the organization. They reproduce themselves on
the basis of what Luhmann characterizes as ‘decision communications’.
Accordingly, organizations are described as ‘systems that consist of decisions and
that produce the decisions of which they consist, through the decisions of which
they consist’ (Luhmann, 1992, p. 166; our translation). Luhmann’s later
conceptualization of the organization as a self-reproducing system of decisions,
on which we will elaborate in the section below, differs markedly from its earlier
conceptualization in terms of formal and informal structures.
Organizations relate to the other two types of systems, i.e. society and interaction,
in various ways. To the extent that decision communications, as the elements of
which organizations consist, are also communications, they are part of society
(Luhmann, 2000e). That is to say, in reproducing themselves, organizations
inevitably also reproduce society. However, for the organization (decision)
communications have a more specific information value, which results from the
integration of a decision communication into the network of other decision
communications. Or, to put it differently, the decision communications make a
different difference to the organization than to society at large.
The relation between organizations and the functional subsystems of society is
somewhat ambiguous in Luhmann’s theory: organizations are typically located
within specific functional systems (Luhmann, 1997; for other interpretations, see
Drepper, 2005; Seidl, 2005a); for example, courts within the legal system,
business firms in the economic system, political parties in the political system,
schools in the educational system and churches in the system of religion. The
decision communications of those organizations are typically imprinted with the
codes that are specific to the respective function systems; e.g. decisions in courts
typically carry the code ‘legal/illegal’ and decisions in business firms the code
On the relation between organization and interaction we find hardly anything in
Luhmann’s writings, apart from some remarks and footnotes (Luhmann, 2000e;
see also Kieserling, 1999, ch. 11). Seidl (2005b) suggests that, in the case of
organizational interactions such as organizational meetings, this relation might be
conceptualized as a kind of interpenetration (analogous to that between social and
psychic systems). In that view, organizations can use meetings to produce
decision communications, while preserving the operative closure of both systems.
Meetings, that is, produce communications which, apart from their specific
information value within the meeting, can be used by the organization as decision
communications. In that process, the meaning of the same communication will be
different for the organization (and will thus become a different communication)
and different for the meeting itself.
There is no doubt that conceptualizing the interrelation between different types of
systems in terms of a relation between operatively closed systems is relatively
complicated. Nevertheless, it allows researchers to examine the logics and
dynamics of those systems in their own right, which in turn makes it necessary to
spell out how and in what way the different systems can contribute to each other
Organizations as systems of decisions
Luhmann’s conceptualization of organizations as systems of decisions draws
heavily on classical organization theory, especially the works of James March and
Herbert Simon (March & Simon, 1958; Simon, 1947). Many of his concepts are
taken directly from that body of works, but are ‘subject to considerable
qualifications’ (Luhmann, 2005b, p. 96). Luhmann adjusted and to some extent
revised those concepts on the basis of the key idea of autopoiesis (Luhmann,
2005a, p. 58). More specifically, he recast decisions as ‘decision
communications’, which he treated – like all communications – no longer as the
product of individual human beings but as an emergent social product. Similarly,
Luhmann assigned to the notion of uncertainty absorption, which occupies only a
minor place in the study of March and Simon, a central role in his organization
theory, using it to describe the autopoietic process of decisions connecting to
other decisions. Finally, in his work, March and Simon’s fairly broad concept of
‘decision premises’ was narrowed down and somewhat radicalized to capture the
structures of organizations. Having made these modifications to key concepts of
classical organization theory and re-arranged them according to his own general
theory of social systems, Luhmann presented a very innovative view on
organizations that – despite its conceptual borrowings – has few similarities with
earlier organization theories. In the following we will describe the central
elements of Luhmann’s conceptualization of organizations as autopoietic systems:
decision communications, decision premises, uncertainty absorption, and
evolutionary change (for details, see also Seidl, 2005c).
The elements of organizations: Decisions
In line with the central view of his general theory that social systems consist of
communications, Luhmann conceptualizes decisions as a specific form of
communication. It is not the case that decisions are first made and then
communicated; decisions are communications, which, in contrast to ‘ordinary’
communications, are described as ‘compact communications’ (Luhmann, 2000e,
p. 185) that consist of two parts. While the ordinary variant communicates only
the selected content, a decision communicates also that a selection has been made;
i.e., that there were alternatives to the selected content that could have been – but
were not – selected. For example: ‘we will invest in machine A and not in
machine B or any other machine’ or ‘we will invest our money rather than not
As communications that communicate their own contingency, decisions are
paradoxical (Luhmann, 2005b): the more the decision communicates that there are
real alternatives to the selected one, the more the chosen alternative will be
challenged (‘why have you not selected another alternative?’). Conversely, the
less the non-selected alternatives are communicated as real alternatives, the less
the decision will be understood as such, i.e. without alternatives there is nothing
to select. To put it differently, a decision must give information about the
alternative that has been selected, as well as about the alternative that was not
selected. In doing so, however, it communicates at the same time that, on the one
hand, the alternative is a real alternative (given that, in the absence of choice the
decision would not be a decision) and, on the other hand, that this is no longer an
alternative (given that, if choices are still pending a decision cannot be regarded
as such), which creates a paradox (Luhmann, 2000e, p. 142; 2003).
While this paradoxical property makes decision communications precarious
operations, their selectivity enables organizations to handle particularly high
levels of complexity. Prior to a decision, the organization faces a situation of open
contingency, where many different selections are possible, whereas after the
decision (if it is accepted as a decision) the selection is fixed and the alternatives
are explicitly ruled out (Luhmann, 2005b, p. 89). Unless the decision is
questioned as a decision, the previously potential alternatives are no longer
regarded as possibilities, which allows the organization to concentrate on the
possibilities that the decision has singled out as such and the new possibilities that
it has opened up. This aspect of decisions is also referred to as ‘uncertainty
absorption,’ as we will explain in more detail below. Luhmann argues that using
decisions as a mode of operation grants organizations the capacity to fulfil highly
complex tasks, such as the mass production of goods in the case of firms, the
large-scale provision of education in the case of schools, or the provision of
complex health-care services in the case of hospitals (Luhmann, 2000e; Seidl &
The paradoxical form described above renders decision communications highly
fragile, in that they invite their own deconstruction by ensuing communications.
Because of that, if decision communications are to be successfully completed,
particular communicative provisions are required. Luhmann, in this regard, speaks
of the necessity of ‘deparadoxification’ of the decision paradox, which involves
concealing the decision’s paradoxical form (Åkerstrøm Andersen, 2003; Knudsen,
2005; Luhmann, 2005b; Schoeneborn, 2011). The organization has several
mechanisms of deparadoxification in place: the first one is operative closure on
the basis of decisions; that is to say, the organization totalizes decisions as the
only legitimate form of communication. In other words, even the deconstruction
(i.e. the rejection) of a decision in an organization has to be communicated as a
decision, otherwise it cannot be a part of the organizational autopoiesis
(Luhmann, 2000e, p. 145).
The second form of deparadoxification is the attribution of decisions to human
beings as ‘decision makers’. This idea, however, i.e. that decisions are the product
of the decision maker rather than of the organization, is an ‘organizational fiction’
according to Luhmann (2000e, 1995a). This fiction usually rests on the idea that a
decision stems from specific motives. Thus, why certain decisions are made is
explained with reference to the motives of the decision maker; for example
‘rational’ considerations on behalf of the organization or personal career motives
(Becker & Haunschild, 2003). Attributing motives to the decision maker distracts
attention from the arbitrariness of the decision and redirects it to the question of
what made the decision maker decide in a particular way. This shifts the original
paradox of the decision from the decision itself to the (fictional) decision maker
and thus out of the realm of decisions, because the motives of the decision maker
are not part of the decision. In this scenario, whether or not a decision is accepted
as a decision premise by later decisions depends on whether it is assumed that the
(fictional) decision maker had good (‘rational’) motives or not.
The third and most important form of deparadoxification is the recourse to the
organizational structures, i.e. the decision premises, on which we will elaborate
below. Decision premises regulate which decisions have to be accepted under
what conditions, including who can make what kind of decisions that are binding
for certain other decisions. Again, referring to decision premises does not remove
the paradox of decision-making but merely conceals it (Luhmann, 2000e, p. 142).
The structures of organizations: Decision premises
Drawing on the work of Herbert Simon (Simon, 1957, p. 201), Luhmann
conceived the structural aspect of organizations as ‘decision premises’ (Luhmann,
2003, 2005b). While Simon himself used the term in a broad sense, referring to all
the structural preconditions that define a decision situation, Luhmann narrowed
the concept down to capture only those structural preconditions that are
themselves the result of earlier decisions. In this sense, every decision can serve
as a decision premise for following decisions. For example:
Whenever a committee nominates [better: decides to nominate] a candidate for a
position, it constitutes a momentarily relevant structure. In turn, the candidate may
or may not be installed in the given position, but it will always be a decision in
favour or against this candidate, another candidate cannot be installed without a
decision against the nominee being made. (Luhmann, 2003, p. 40)
From Luhmann’s perspective, decision premises might both restrict as well as
create the decision situation (Luhmann 2005b, p. 95). Decision premises create
the decision situation in the first place in that they define it as such. Without
decision premises there is no occasion for decision-making. At the same time,
decision premises restrict the decision situation by creating a particular decision
situation and not a different one. Luhmann (2000e) stresses that the idea that the
decision premises both limit and enable decisions and are both a medium and the
outcome of decisions is in line with Giddens’s concept (1984) of the ‘duality of
Luhmann suggested that the term ‘decision premise’ should be restricted even
further by using it only in relation to those decision premises that explicitly refer
to a multitude of later decisions (Luhmann, 2005b). Thus, beyond the fact that
every decision has some structuring effect on ensuing decisions, there are some
decision premises that are explicitly assigned this role for a number of later
decisions. Luhmann distinguishes three types of decision premises. The first type
is the decision programme. Decision programmes define conditions for correct
decision-making: goal programmes define certain goals that are to be reached (i.e.
the respective decisions are expected to contribute to achieving the goal), while
conditional programmes describe what decisions to take in what situations
(Luhmann, 2003, p. 45). The second type of decision premises are communication
channels. These concern the organization of the organization: they regulate who
can communicate with whom in the organization as not everybody can
communicate with everybody else at any one time; communication is restricted to
certain channels. The classic case of communication channels is the hierarchical
structure, in which communication channels only run vertically. The third type of
structures is personnel. This concerns the recruitment and organization of
personnel. Organizations decide, on the one hand, on the commencement and
termination of membership and, on the other hand, on the transfer of members to
different positions within the organization, both with relation to and in the
absence of promotion. These three types of decision premises are coordinated
through the creation of positions: every position executes a particular programme,
is filled by a particular person, and is located within the communication network
In his latest writings Luhmann (2000e) introduced another type of decision
premise: the so called ‘undecidable’ decision premise. In contrast to the decidable
decision premises described above, these are premises that have not been
explicitly decided but are merely some sort of ‘by-product’ of the decision
process. They are undecidable also in the sense that the organization takes them
for granted and is no longer aware of their contingency. The first category of
undecidable premises concerns the organizational culture; that is, the way in
which an organization deals with its own processes of decision-making. The
second category concerns the cognitive routines; i.e. the way in which the
environment is conceptualized by the organization. Cognitive routines, for
example, provide information about the identity, characteristics and expectations
of customers, as well as ways of accessing customers.
The process of connecting decisions to decisions: Uncertainty absorption
The third central concept in Luhmann’s organization theory is that of uncertainty
absorption. Like the other two concepts, it derives from classical organization
theory, where it is defined as the process where ‘inferences are drawn from a body
of evidence and the inferences, instead of the evidence itself, are then
communicated’ (March & Simon 1958, p. 165). Luhmann argues that this concept
captures the essence of the process during which decisions connect to each other:
every decision situation is marked by uncertainty as to the consequences of
alternative courses of action – or rather, alternative decisions. For a decision to be
reached, an often considerable amount of varied information has to be processed,
for example on potential market developments, the consequences of a particular
choice on the organization and so on. All these factors might affect in some way
which alternative is finally selected, i.e. what decision is taken. In line with the
original definition by March and Simon, it could be said that the decision is
‘inferred’ from the given information.
Once the decision has been taken, the original uncertainty is absorbed to the
extent that all the decisions that follow it can take that decision as given and no
longer have to consider the original uncertainty: ‘Because once something has
been decided, it need not normally be decided again’ (Luhmann 2005c, p. 95). For
ensuing decisions it is normally irrelevant what uncertainties were involved in
making the earlier decision. It is what has been decided – not why it has been
decided – that matters, as this determines what one can take as given when further
decisions have to be made. As Luhmann explains: ‘Uncertainty absorption takes
place, we can therefore say, when decisions are accepted as decision premises and
taken as the basis for subsequent decisions. In the style of Max Weber’s definition
of power we can also add: no matter what this acceptance is grounded in’
(Luhmann, 2005b, p. 96). To the extent that uncertainty absorption takes place in
the connection between decisions, it describes the processual aspect of the
Organizational change as evolutionary process
One of the areas that Luhmann took a particular interest in were the mechanisms
of organizational change. In contrast to a frequent misunderstanding, autopoiesis
does not imply that a system is stable and does not change. On the contrary,
autopoietic systems are extremely dynamic as they consist of elements that
constantly need to be replaced by new elements. Hence, in some sense
organizations are in a process of permanent change. Yet, Luhmann suggests
speaking of organizational change only with regard to the structures of the
organization, not its operations. As he writes:
The concept of organizational change always and exclusively refers to the
structures of the system, and not to its operations, hence, not to the level on which
the dynamics of the system is realized. Operations (here: decisions) always take the
form of events, which cannot change, but which disappear with their appearance.
(Luhmann, 2000e, p. 331; our translation)
In his theory of organizational change, Luhmann combined his own approach to
systems theory with evolutionary theory, from which he borrowed core concepts
that he adapted to his theory (Baecker, 2003a, pp. 195–200; Luhmann, 2000e, pp.
330–360; Seidl, 2005a, pp. 139–143). As he argues,
structural changes can be explained on the basis of the interaction between three
evolutionary functions that are not coordinated by the system itself. There have to
be large numbers of variations that pass through a positive/negative selection
process whose results need to be stabilized in the system. (Luhmann, 2000e, pp.
351–352; our translation)
Focusing on random variations as the motor of organizational change, Luhmann
emphasizes the emergent character of change, which cannot be controlled by the
organization. This is not to deny that organizations also try purposefully to change
their structures by deciding on new decision premises. However, these attempts
are embedded in an uncontrollable evolutionary process: ‘planning is itself a
component of the system’s evolution’ (Luhmann, 2000e, p. 356; our translation).
Luhmann assigns the three evolutionary functions – variation, selection, retention
(or restabilization) – to the three different levels of the system – element,
structure, system. Variations develop on the level of the system’s elements, i.e. on
the level of individual decisions and a variant is defined as an element that
deviates from the given structures. In the case of the organization, variation refers
to a deviation of a decision from the given decision premises. For example, a
particular decision to reorder stock might deviate from the decision programme
that specifies the conditions under which new stock can be ordered. In the day-
today operation of organizations, deviating decisions are extremely common. The
deviating decisions serve as ‘candidates’ or ‘proposals’ for structural change; in
our example, the deviating decision might initiate a change to the programme for
ordering new stock (Luhmann, 2012, p. 272). These candidates or proposals for
structural change can be (positively or negatively) selected. That is, they might
either be deselected, in which case the existing programme is retained, or (in very
rare cases) result in changing the programme.
In Luhmann’s theory, retention, the third evolutionary function, was slightly
modified into the concept of re-stabilization. This refers to mechanisms that
ensure the perpetuation of the evolving system’s autopoiesis after a (positive or
negative) selection has taken place. Restabilization is necessary because the
consequences of (positive or negative) selection on the system as a whole do not
constitute criteria for the selection. That is to say, selection does not automatically
lead to stability (Luhmann, 2012, pp. 292–300). After a positive selection the new
structures have to be integrated into the network of given structures; after a
negative selection – that is, after the rejection of variation – the established
structures have to be stabilized. In both the case of positive and negative selection,
the complexity of the system as a whole increases, and the system has to react to
this with re-stabilization. In the case of social systems, changed expectations have
to be integrated within the existing expectations or, if the unexpected
communication is rejected, the system has to be stabilized with regard to the
knowledge that a possibility has not been realized. In the case of organizations in
particular, re-stabilization after a positive selection refers to the integration of
changed decision premises into the context of the existing decision premises; or,
after a negative selection, to the stabilization of the existing decision premises
despite the rejection of a possibly ‘better’ alternative (Luhmann, 2000e, pp. 351–
The crucial point in this evolutionary explanation of change – as in evolutionary
theory in general – is the differentiation between the three evolutionary functions.
The relation between the different functions is described as chance: this ‘means
that from the point of view of the system, it is by chance that variations lead to
positive or negative selection, and that it is also a matter of chance whether and
how these selections, which apply their own criteria, can be stabilized in the
system.’ (Luhmann, 2012, p. 301). In particular, this means that decisions and
decision premises are only ‘loosely coupled’ (Luhmann, 2000e, p. 354): neither
can decision premises prevent the emergence of deviating decisions nor do
deviating decisions automatically lead to changes in the decision premises. This
holds true also in the case of planned change:
Planned changes are always embedded into an evolutionary process, which
accommodates them and, one might say, deforms them. Decisions about decision
premises are themselves decisions that are observed within the system and are
either accepted with modifications or forgotten. (Luhmann, 2000e, p. 353; our
Reception, application and further development of Luhmann’s organization
Luhmann’s social theory in general and organization theory in particular have
attracted a lot of attention by fellow scholars over the years. While this attention
initially came from scholars mainly in the German-speaking countries, his ideas
are now increasingly taken up and developed by organization scholars also in
other parts of the world. In the following we will briefly comment on the
international reception of Luhmann’s work, before we present the central debates
and criticisms and the successive application and further development of its
theory by other organization scholars.
The international reception of Luhmann’s works
While Luhmann’s theory has been a central part of the curriculum of even
undergraduate courses in organization theory within German-speaking countries
for more than two decades, his works have received comparatively little serious
attention within the international field of organization studies. Although this
seems surprising, there are certainly many reasons for this lack of attention. The
most obvious reason is the language barrier, given that Luhmann’s main works on
organization theory are still not available in English. A second reason might be
the frequent misperception that Luhmann’s work is in line with Parsons’s
approach to systems theory, which is largely considered outdated (Mingers, 2003;
Stichweh, 2011). The fact that Luhmann’s approach is of a very different nature
from and explicitly opposes Parsons’s structural-functionalism is often ignored or
misinterpreted. A third reason might lie in the theory itself. The architecture of
Luhmann’s theory is highly complex, which makes it very difficult for first-time
readers to access his works unaided by commentaries (Seidl & Becker, 2005).
Moreover, Luhmann developed a very distinctive terminology to express his
concepts, which presents an additional hurdle. Nevertheless, in the last few years
there have been several initiatives to translate some of his (shorter) works in
organization theory and provide introductions and overviews in English (such as
Arnoldi, 2001; Bakken & Hernes, 2003a, 2003b; Nassehi, 2005; Seidl & Becker,
2005; Seidl & Becker, 2006); this has contributed to a rising interest in
Luhmann’s work among organization theorists also outside Germanspeaking
countries. In addition, Luhmann’s approach was recently linked to some
important intellectual trends in organization studies, which is likely to help
disseminate his work among organization theorists internationally. In this context,
it has been suggested that Luhmann’s conceptualization of organizations as
communication systems could be treated as one of the three pillars of the
emerging communication-as-constitutive-of-organizations (CCO) approach
(Cooren et al., 2011; Schoeneborn, 2011; Brummans et al., forthcoming). What’s
more, Luhmann’s work was recently recognized as an important source of
inspiration for studying organization as process (Hernes, 2007; Hernes & Weik,
Conceptual debates and criticisms of Luhmann’s approach
Given that Luhmann suggested a conceptualization of organizations that breaks
with a lot of widely held assumptions, it is not surprising that he also attracted a
lot of criticism. One strand of – fierce – criticism concerned Luhmann’s
application of the concept of autopoiesis to the social domain. Many researchers
(e.g. Fuchs & Hofkirchner, 2009; Mingers, 2002, 2003) have argued that this
application is incompatible with the concept ‘as originally defined’ (Mingers,
2002, p. 278) by Maturana and Varela. In particular, Luhmann was criticized for
not describing the specific processes through which a system’s elements are
produced, and thus of not specifying the causal mechanisms involved in the
process of production. As Mingers (2002, p. 290) writes: ‘One communication
may stimulate another but surely it does not produce or generate it [in a causal
sense].’ It has also been pointed out that, in contrast to the original concept,
Luhmann does not identify any specific boundary elements that separate the
components of a social system from the components of its environment; such as
the membrane separates the elements of a cell from components of the
environment. Instead of boundary elements, it is every single operation that
differentiates the autopoietic system from its environment. This criticism is
certainly justified; Luhmann himself explicitly acknowledged his deviation from
the original concept (Luhmann, 2000e). Nevertheless, he argued that he had not
intended to apply that concept directly. Instead, he had developed the concept
further in order to abstract it from its biological roots and to turn it into a general
concept applicable to any kind of system.
Luhmann’s perspective on the sociological status of human beings has been the
focus of a second main criticism (and also partial misunderstanding). His
treatment of human beings within the organization’s environment, and even
outside society, contradicts everyday experience and this has led several authors
to respond with considerable criticism and scepticism (e.g. Habermas, 1985;
Mingers, 2002). For example, as regards management in organizations, Thyssen
(2003) argues, that the exclusion of human agency from social theory makes it
difficult to account for the role of managers. Luhmann’s ‘radically anti-
humanistic’ (Luhmann, 2012, p. 12) position is derived from his theoretical claim
that the social is constituted by communication. Such a perspective is strongly in
opposition with management theories that take the manager as individual human
being as their point of departure. Admittedly, systems theory does not intend to
explain why some managers are successful and others are not but it renders the
genuinely social dynamics of organizations more visible (Becker, 2003, pp. 223-
A third major criticism of Luhmann’s organization theory concerned the limited
possibilities of intentional control implied by the concept of autopoiesis (e.g.
Martens & Ortmann, 2006; Mayntz & Scharpf, 1995). It has been argued that
Luhmann overemphasized the self-referential mode of operation, as a
consequence of which the possibility of intervening in the organization appeared
to be severely restricted. In his writings, external interventions are limited to
‘perturbations’ while internal interventions e.g. by the management, have to be
treated as part – and thus as the perpetuation of – of the self-referential mode of
operation (Martens & Ortmann, 2006, p. 460). This restriction is particularly
problematic for disciplines such as management studies, where researchers are
interested in identifying and developing levers of control. At the same time, this
criticism might need to be relativized. The limited possibilities of control, which
are regarded by many as a limitation of the theory, might also be interpreted as a
strength, in the sense that they reveal the fundamental problems of control. It is
possible that the self-referential mode of operation might provide an explanation
for the high failure rate of intentional interventions (see Mohe & Seidl, 2011).
Another point is that the critics seem to underestimate the role of perturbations.
By referring to external influences as ‘perturbations’ Luhmann, like Maturana and
Varela, merely pointed to the fact that all external influences are processed
according to the self-referential logic of the system; this does not imply that these
influences are unimportant or negligible. Against this background, some
researchers such as Willke (1987) have suggested the concept of ‘contextual
guidance’ as a form of intervention that explicitly acknowledges the self-
referential mode of operation. As he writes: ‘Contextual guidance as an
intervention strategy seems to be possible, if it works with contextual
interventions instead of direct, decree-type regulations’ (Willke, 1987, p. 30).
A final major criticism expressed by several scholars is that Luhmann’s
organization theory lacks a normative position (e.g. Martens & Ortmann, 2006;
Scherer, 1995): Luhmann merely analyses organizational structures and
operations but does not provide any point of reference that would allow their
evaluation in terms of whether they are desirable or good. As long as further
decisions are produced, the organization is perpetuated – independently of the
specific content of each decision. This lack of normativity is seen as particularly
problematic for more design-oriented researchers and brings us back to the long-
standing debate between Luhmann and Habermas, which we discussed in the
introduction: even though Luhmann wrote several pieces on morality and ethics
(e.g. Luhmann, 1993b; Luhmann 2012, pp. 239–244), he explicitly avoided
providing any moral point of view, arguing that he considered this to be
Application and further development of Luhmann’s approach in organization
When we come to appraise Luhmann’s influence on contemporary organization
studies, we can distinguish roughly between three groups of studies that draw on
his work. The first group consists of works that remain faithful to Luhmann’s
theoretical approach, elaborating on and extending specific aspects or elements
within his theory. Within this first group, one can distinguish between five
streams of literature. The first stream comprises sociological studies on the
relation between organizations and functional subsystems (e.g. Lieckweg &
Wehrsig, 2001; Tacke, 2001). For instance, different types of organizations (e.g.
hospitals, universities, companies, political, religious or criminal organizations)
are scrutinized and compared with regard to their specific structural patterns,
which have evolved in relation to specific structural conditions in each
organization’s societal environment (Apelt & Tacke, 2012). Some studies have
focussed particularly on the function of organizations (as compared to other social
forms, such as networks) in the globalization process of the functionally
differentiated society (e.g. Hilliard, 2005; Stichweh, 1999, 2000).
Another stream of research in this first group elaborates on Luhmann’s concept of
organizational identity. This concept refers to self-descriptive texts with which
and through which the organization identifies itself. These texts are produced
through the condensation of the organization’s communicative reflections on its
unity (Romesch, 2008; Seidl, 2003). Studies in this group have examined
particularly the forms and mechanisms of identity change (Seidl, 2005a; Van
Rekom & Rometsch, 2008). Another stream is concerned with the development of
a theory of management. There are a number of studies by Dirk Baecker (1993,
2003b, 2009, 2011), who proposes that the function of management should be
conceptualized as a disruption in the reproduction of decision communications,
countervailing the natural tendency of organizations to stick to established
decision premises. Yet another stream of research examines the relation between
consultants and client organizations (Kieser 2002; Kieser & Wellstein, 2007;
Mohe & Seidl, 2011). Building on an earlier paper by Luhmann (2005c), these
works argue that the relation between consultant and client has to be
conceptualized as a relation between three operatively closed systems: the client
organization, the consulting firm and a temporary interaction system, in which
members of the client and consulting organizations participate. Because the three
systems are operatively closed, no transfer of meaning between them is possible.
The systems can only cause perturbations in each other, which are processed
according to each system’s own logic of reproduction. A somewhat related stream
of research studies the relation between management science and business
organizations (Kieser & Leiner, 2009, 2012; Kieser & Nicolai, 2005; Nicolai,
2003; Seidl, 2009). Here too, these interrelated systems are conceptualized as
operatively closed and it is argued that management science cannot produce
knowledge that is of direct relevance to business organizations. Scientific results
are considered to be part of the scientific communication process and to be
confined in their meaning to this particular context. Hence, what may appear as a
transfer of knowledge between these systems has to be interpreted as a
misunderstanding that is productive to some extent.
In contrast to the first group of studies, the second group uses Luhmann’s
theoretical approach more flexibly, often combining it with other theoretical
streams. Here we find a great variety of works, both conceptual and empirical, on
different topics, of which we will provide some examples. One very influential
stream of research that draws on Luhmann’s earlier approach is concerned with
strategic control (Schreyögg & Steinmann, 1989). The main argument is that the
process of strategic planning reduces the complexity of the situation that the
organization faces by selectively focusing on certain options of activity and
excluding others. Against this background, strategic control is conceptualized as a
process of compensating for the selectivity of strategic planning by bringing
selectivity and the risk it entails to the attention of the organizational members.
Another stream of research, which relates particularly to Luhmann’s later work,
applies his theory to the management of public sector organizations. The
primarily empirical studies of this subgroup describe, among other things, the
emergence of new forms of health care organizations as a result of an attempt to
deal with paradoxical decisions in health care management (Knudsen, 2005; la
Cour & Højlund, 2008); other studies use his theory to explain the problems that
arise when new payment schemes are introduced in public management because
of the clash between different societal codes that apply in the communication
about the payment schemes (Rennison, 2007). Another stream of research draws
on Luhmann’s theory in order to study the organization of open-source software
development projects. The respective studies view such projects as autopoietic
communication processes that must fulfil specific structural requirements to avoid
breaking down (Morner, 2003; Morner & von Krogh, 2009).
Finally, the third group comprises studies that extract individual concepts from
Luhmann’s theory and integrate them into other theoretical contexts. A large
stream of research in that group draws on the concept of trust from Luhmann’s
earlier work (Luhmann, 1979) as a means of reducing uncertainty and risk in
relationships between organizations. These studies examine relations between
customer and supplier and other forms of collaboration and knowledge sharing, as
well as trust-building processes among organizations (e.g. Bachmann, 2001;
Bachmann & Inkpen, 2011; Janowicz-Panjaitan & Noorderhaven, 2009). For
example, some of these studies use Luhmann’s early ideas on trust and familiarity
to analyse the decisions of purchasers in the context of e-commerce (Gefen, 2000)
or various ways of ‘managing’ trust (Knights et al., 2001). Luhmann’s concept of
episodes (Luhmann, 1990, 1995a), defined as a series of operations marked by a
beginning and a pre-defined ending, features in another stream of works in this
second group. In these studies, the concept of episodes serves as a framework for
studying organizational meetings and workshops (Hendry & Seidl, 2003;
Jarzabkowski & Seidl, 2008; Johnson et al., 2010; MacIntosh et al., 2010). Their
authors argue that meetings and workshops, due to their episodic structure, allow
for the temporary suspension of organizational structures and routines, which
provides an opportunity for novelty to emerge.
In contrast to his international image, Luhmann belongs without doubt to the most
innovative and radical thinkers in the field of organization theory. Both his more
recent and his older works offer novel perspectives on organizational phenomena.
Nevertheless, despite their potential, so far Luhmann’s ideas have had relatively
little impact on organization studies. Several scholars (Becker & Seidl, 2007; la
Cour et al., 2007; Nassehi, 2008) have argued that, in order to unleash the
potential of Luhmann’s approach, it is necessary to open his works to a much
broader readership. As mentioned earlier, until recently Luhmann’s approach was
almost unknown amongst organization researchers outside the German-speaking
world. This is slowly changing as more of his works become translated and as
German organization scholars increasingly publish in English.
To access a broader public, it is also necessary to counter the view that
Luhmann’s systems approach is a closed theoretical system that cannot be linked
to other streams of research. This view is somewhat surprising if one considers
that the broad and general framework of systems theory has always been a toolset
for analysis rather than a closed theory. As Becker and Seidl (2007) point out, this
aspect of Luhmann’s systems theory is sometimes forgotten because he worked
mostly on his own to develop a full, mature theory as a unified and coherent body
of work. Nevertheless, Luhmann often emphasized that his theory is only one
possible approach among several others. More specifically, he talked about his
theory as one specific type of ‘prejudice’ among other possible types of
‘prejudice’. In his eyes, to produce a ‘good’ theory only one thing is essential: to
deliver a piece of good ‘craftsmanship’, rather than achieve any kind of ‘objective
truth’. On the basis of that general attitude, Luhmann often experimented
playfully with different theoretical options and did not scruple to make significant
changes to his theory during his lifetime without worrying about preserving a
‘pure theoretical tradition’ (cf. Luhmann, 2002b). Thus, there is no reason (at least
no systemstheoretical reason) why those who apply Luhmann’s ideas should not
be as playful with his theory as he was, and experiment, as he did, with all those
other approaches that he included in his theoretical works, such as
phenomenology, cybernetics, post-structuralism, and network theory, just to name
a few (e.g. Baecker, 2006; Bommes & Tacke, 2005; Cooper, 2006).
Lastly, Luhmann’s works should be introduced to empirical research. Luhmann
quickly abandoned his own empirical research in order to concentrate on the
theoretical-conceptual side of his work, which in turn tends to attract researchers
working conceptually rather than empirically. Moreover, Luhmann’s later work in
particular has been criticized for not lending itself to empirical investigation,
because the assumption that social systems are operatively closed tends to
undermine the researcher’s position. So far, the little empirical research that
incorporates Luhmann’s work (e.g. Knudson, 2005; Rennison, 2007) has largely
ignored, rather than tackled, these problems. It is only more recently that
researchers have started to reflect more systematically on the methodological
implications of Luhmann’s theory (e.g. Wolf et al., 2010; Besio & Pronzini,
2010). Not least also due to the general trend in organization studies towards
empirical research, it is very likely that the future ‘success’ of Luhmann’s theory
will depend on the development of appropriate empirical methods (Nassehi,
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