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Ecological Communication | Niklas Luhmann

by Augusto Cuginotti

I read Luhmann’s Ecological Communication following my inquiry on the importance of building trust for a sustainable society. Searching the Web I had the impression that his work would rely on applying the biological concept of autopoiesis to social systems. This is really the case, but his ideas make this connection in a very different way than the one I had imagined.

“Only Communications Communicate”

Luhmann’s theory takes people and their relationships/structures from being the components of a system and puts communications in its place. From this approach, human communication is a closed system that continuously regenerates itself responding to changes in the environment. This self-creation is what makes it autopoietic in the same way living biological systems adapt their processes and structures to respond to their environment.

Because the environment cannot communicate with us, we interpret its change into our system of communications and adapt to it.

Luhmann is not talking about autopoietic organisations with the same eyes system theory looks at it. He is not looking at people or their relationships as components that are autopoietic, but rather communications are the autopoietic components of a system and both people and human consciousness are outside of the system boundaries.

This understanding impacts many theories of consciousness not only about ecological communications but also in the study of social systems in general. It means that human consciousness do not depend on human agency, but rather in a response (that he calls resonance) to events in the environment.

Theories that imply that people work towards becoming more conscious would be an illusion if we accept Luhmann’s theory. Society would be a system that reduces environmental complexity by structurally responding to its disturbances, meaning that the environment that provides us with what we will communicate about rather than humans as agents deciding what to communicate about the environment.

The acceptance of this view can come out as a very pessimistic way of looking at our ecological dangers such as climate change. Pessimistic because it states that it is the danger that will disturb the system (and the system can structurally change to adapt) rather than society purposefully acting on mitigating and preventing climate change.

Critical Comment

A high point on his theory relates to the proposition that human beings are one of the subsystems of society rather than a special agent that defines and controls:

Luhmann’s resolute emphasis on the systemic aspect of modernity diverges from the previous systems theorists’ continued belief in individual consciousness and their sympathetic lip service to the role and significance of the individual¹.

As much as Luhmann’s theory is an interesting alternative to frame how social systems could work, his attempt to bring his ideas to the practical realm are far from exciting. In Ecological Communication he analyses functional systems (Economy, Law, Science, Education, etc) as the given structures under evolution (development? progress?) and place them as responding to binary dialectical contradictions (Economy based on ‘pay or not pay’, Law as ‘legal or illegal’, etc).

It is understandable that his examples of human systems are confined to functional systems of a Western society and that other subsystems could be imagined in place. Nevertheless the necessity of defining a functional system excludes the non-functional parts of society, parts in which communications also communicate.

Community communication (which I assume relates to his “street communications”) and its adaptation to environmental disturbance is considered irrelevant for society in his theory. No functional differentiation, no right to be a valid communication in society.

Also the dialectical distinctions of system functionality could be a source of criticism per se, but even if accepted, the act of choosing a set of functional distinctions rather than others imply the use of a single voice, perhaps a voice of the sociologist, to provide a second-level system of differentiation, something that in my view would contradict his own theory.

In Conclusion

Luhmann’s work seems to show a solid theory of social systems and it is worth reading in order to invite us to another way of framing communication, the formation of systems and our theoretical dependancy in human agency and the questioning of teleological rationality.

On the other hand, Ecological Communication steps on more practical implications with less glamour in making arguable distinctions of human subsystems and defining these subsystems with a monologic voice towards an even more arguable evolutionary journey.

Read More

  • Ecological communication : Buy it on Amazon
  • ¹ Looking for a critique of Ecological Communication? Search for “Neither Cited nor Foundational: Niklas Luhmann’s Ecological Communication; A Critical Exegesis and Some Theoretical Suggestions for the Future of a Field” by Piyush Mathur in The Communication Review Vol. 8, Iss. 3, 2005