|Another source of confusion in Luhmann's writing was his tendency to reify social systems. For
example he used the term Self Reflexivity as the action of social systems of analyzing and
subsequently optimizing their own actions. However, social systems do not have the power of
self-reflection; these kinds of activities can only be accomplished by people. Whether people act
to optimize the social system or not depends on how each individual member visualizes the
system, Its needs, and Its function. The forces that lead to emergence and change are derived
from the Judgments people make of the manner In which they believe the system accomplishes
Its function as well as the means by which It meets Is own needs. This is a better description of
what Luhmann calls reflexivity, or self-thematlzatlon, the reflection by the members of a social
system on the structure of the system and the changes that occur In the system as a result of that
Let us ponder the implications of this situation. As I see it, a social system emerges from the patterns of interactions among individuals. The effect of the organization is to constrain the available activities to those which are most amenable to the goals of the social system. However, action by individuals is determined by their own interpretation of the system. This is developed from personal self-reflection and therefore will result in relative descriptions which include some error. For example, people recognize as good those activities preferred by the system only if they Identify them with aspects of the system which they feel augment its success. In this way, error can be derived both from the use of relative descriptions and from the Influence of one social system on another. This can cause strange Incommensurabilities to arise, for example, when a culture's ideology determines that one choice should be made while at the same time members of the society see, through reflection, that another choice is preferable. Of course, Individuals are anarchistic to a great extent and have differing ideas about what is to be considered successful. They apply different sets of criteria to the same systems. The more consistent the perceived goals of a system are to the various members, the smaller will be the variety of activities that will be available for the system in its interaction with its environment. The nature of complexity is such that it restricts the amount of variety In the environment that a given system will encounter. It should be obvious, therefore, that there is a great deal of variety existing in the environment that, in the case of environmental change, the system might unexpectedly be forced to overcome that it is not aware of. As a result, the greater the variety of activities within the system, the greater chance It has for ultimate survival.
While that may be true, if the assessments of the environment, and by Implication those activities chosen by the members of the system, are consistent, then there will be very little variety in the activities of the members. As long as the chosen sets of activities result in outcomes that the members identify with success, then the system will grow stronger and the variety will decrease. As long as the environment does not challenge that variety, the system can remain In a kind of apparent equilibrium, as have many aboriginal societies, for very long times. This, on the other hand, more often leads the system into real problems when environmental change forces the members to encounter new and novel problems because there will not be sufficient variety, meaning there will not be Included In the variety within the system a set of activities which will can successfully confront new and unforeseen events.
This is the nature of social reflexivity described without recourse to Luhmann's functional reification. We can speak of an ideal system, one which would constrain the activities of the Individuals to those which result in outcomes that are successful in terms the individuals recognize but at the same time would allow sufficient variety that, In the case of environmental change, there would be available activities that could successfully overcome unexpected problems. But we cannot instill Into this system, as Luhmann appeared to, the ability to reflect on and modify its own structure. This is a condition that is only possible when individual members of a social system reflect on and evaluate their own conceptions of the system, their roles In It, and the role the system plays in the life of each individual. Then, using these reflections, choose those activities out of the available variety that augment their own personal evaluation. It is a threshold property that involves people as individuals but does not occur until we reach that level of complexity which includes social systems. This means, for example, that both ideologies and value structures are developed out of the interactions of the individuals who make up the society. Such members may reject responsibility for them and thus be at the mercy of indiscriminate complex forces. Or, they may build into their Ideologies escape clauses such as Marx's view of history, or Smith's theory of an invisible hand, but ultimately, whether through action or inaction, they cannot evade that responsibility or they will reap the consequences of their action.