CONTINGENCY AND COMPLEXITY IN THE SOCIAL THEORY OF NIKLAS LUHMANN
Wallace H. Provost Jr.
Out of sociologist Niklas Luhmann's approach toward social theory we can extract two extremely important concepts, contingency, and self reflexivity. From these we can suggest a theory of development and change in social structures which is unique to the level of complexity where social activities are found. This theory depicts the emergence and development of a self-reflexive contingent structure as a threshold condition which produces a set of properties not available to systems of lower complexity and which increases the variety available to the system through structural reformulation in the face of environmental change. This structure can be shown to be an emergent property of the interactions of human beings with the capability of individual self-reflection. These individuals, unwittingly or not. are its architects and therefore are those ultimately responsible for its success or failure. Any criticism of Niklas Luhmann's work must begin with two major sources of confusion in his explanations. To begin with, he has provided a view of social theory from the perspective of contemporary systems theory which highlights a large number of social mechanisms that tend to be overlooked in the more traditional approaches but without considerable background in the systems sciences some of the most important of his insights lie hidden behind a confusing array of redundancies inherent in the information theoretic approach to complexity. The second is his functionalism, which he fails too often to rise above
Considering first, Luhmann's version of complexity, as it was influenced by Ashby's theory of "Requisite Variety," it is probably best demonstrated by Herbert Simon in his parable of the ant on the beach in Sciences of the Artificial. In this sense Luhmann's use of the term complexity is essentially the same as the use of the term "Variety" in Ashby's article and is therefore the source of many of the ambiguities in Luhmann's explanations. Modern systems theories, operations research, cybernetics, information theory, etc have been developed to solve problems in the control of directed, deterministic, man-made systems. The purport of Ashby's law of requisite variety is simply that the variety in a controlling system must be at least as great as that in the system under control. Natural systems and this is particularly true for social systems are awash in a sea of excess variety. The question as to how they exist other than at the whim of their environment is not very readily apparent under mechanisms developed for simpler deterministic systems in particular, processes for reducing variety generally used to maintain control of cybernetic systems are not valid when the variety exceeds some minimal amount
Complexity, as seen by most system theorists and Luhmann is no exception, is an expression of the interconnections among the systems variety. The richer the pattern of interconnections, the higher the level of complexity. However, dealing with complexity on these terms, that is ignoring the properties that delineate complex interconnections from those of systems of simple variety, results in an approach which treats complexity and variety as essentially redundant terms.
Herbert Simon, in his parable of the ant maintained that the complexity evident in the trail of the ant is a complexity in the beach, that in fact the ant as a behaving system is quite simple. But, if we look at the beach, we do not see complexity, what we do see is a great amount of variety. For example, the ant comes upon a pebble he must go around. it might be that going clockwise is a better choice because it leads to a smoother path. However the ant cannot know this. His knowledge consists simply of an unerring sense of direction toward home. Thus he is not aware of any relationship that might exist between the route around the pebble and further impediments. His choice is not complex at all, it is a simple choice between two arbitrary directions. Of course there are interconnections between the various obstacles that lie on the beach between the ant and his destination, but these being beyond the scope of knowledge of the ant, are irrelevant to the problem of meaningful choice. If we want to learn how complexity plays an important role in this scenario we must have a different description; one that recognizes the unique patterns of interconnections that exist in complex systems.
We find this description of complexity in Simon's parable of two watch- makers in The Architecture of Complexity which was published prior to The Sciences of the Artificial and, incidentally was reprinted as in addendum to the later work. This supplies the basis for clearing many of the ambiguities caused by Luhmann's use of both "Complexity" and "Variety" in terms which portray them in redundant roles. The parable of the watchmakers presents a special hierarchical structure in which the elements of each level are systems in their own right which are interconnected such as to emerge into a higher level, which becomes one element in a level above that. This, then, though it is an extremely simple picture of a complex system, illustrates some of the properties inherent in complexity that make it an effective mechanism for the development of self-controlling systems under conditions of excess variety
The hierarchical structure which made Hora successful is a fundamental property of the universe and everything in it for the very same reasons evident in Hora's business. That is, it is the most efficient way to organize any system above the simplest. But what is not quite as evident, is that hierarchical structure is a natural mechanism for increasing variety. There are many more possible compounds for example, than there are elements from which the compounds are derived. In the case of the beach the complex systems involved include those from the materials on the beach to the ecological system that ultimately determines their distribution.
In addition to increasing variety the hierarchical structure of complex systems allows individual levels of the system to interact as though they were simple systems The ant, for example, is a highly complex organism. But as Simon explains. seen as behaving organism wending its way across the beach it is quite simple. When we are considering the problem of finding his way home the ant can be considered as a machine with one predominant property, an instinct for knowing the direction to its nest. Each obstacle, then becomes a single isolated event, a simple choice between often arbitrary outcomes The property which allows us to consider the ant in this manner is what Simon called "near-decomposability," which simply means that each level of a complex system has a limited amount of autonomy and within those limits can be considered a simple system with only that variety faced by this level to contend with. Luhmann frequently used the term "reduction of complexity" in his works. If we see that the mechanism he is referring to is this property of complexity of reducing the amount of variety a system is forced to contend with through hierarchical structure, we can overcome the redundancy in Luhmann's descriptions and at the same time open the door to more and deeper insights into social structure.
The second source of confusion in Luhmann's descriptions lies in the functionalist fallacy, that is, that the nature of a system can be adequately described by its function. Either such a system is identified with its function in which case the description becomes a tautology or it has an existence apart horn its function, which the functionalist approach cannot recognize. Luhmann used the concept of self-thematization to explain the emergence of social structures. He described the concept in these words
Implicit in this statement is that the system must exist prior to the process of thematization. But, the purpose of the statement is to describe the emergence of the system therefore it could not have existed prior to the thematization. One alternative is to reject the concept of self-thematization as an artifact of the functionalist systems approach. However, as a form of self-reflexivity that is peculiar to social systems, it is too important to cast aside simply for a lack of a clear and unambiguous description. Social systems do not self-thematize Only the individuals that make up a society have the capacity for self-reflection. Social systems do not have functions. They are simply tools which the individuals of the society apply to accomplish functions which they recognize as desirable. Processes do not experience, only people experience. Therefore, if the process that Luhmann calls self-thematization is as important as I maintain it is, then we must understand it in terms of the actions of people, not of the actions of social systems.
Each person is an independent actor and must make all his social judgments from the viewpoint of his own personal picture of his society and the world it exists in. Since he is in communication with many of his contemporaries he is aware of what has worked for others as well as for himself. He is also a product of his past and of the assumptions generally held by those he considers his family and peers. These elements make up the lowest level of the complex system we call society. Every person develops a model of the world around him in the mental processes of his brain and it is in this world that the individual interacts with the forces of reality even though he is experiencing them hi the real world outside. The outcome of these forces and the communication he has with those he identifies with combine to create a pattern which emerges as his vision of the social world he is immersed in. Included in this vision is a model of himself as an actor in the world outside, a model developed through self-reflection concerning the communications he receives from others about the nature of himself This model, whether accurate or not becomes the protagonist in a scenario which takes place within his inner model of the social world. In order to have a stable social life, each person requires a unified vision of the social world around him. Where such unity is lacking people tend to idealize, a matter of filling in the gaps with imaginative or ideological patterns.
Those group and social activities which enhance those aspects of that vision that are held by many of the members of the group emerge into stable activities. We must be careful however, to avoid the functionalist trap of giving this level the ability to move and to create its own change. The point is that the role of this level is one of constraint. The activities of the individual members of the society tend to be restricted to those which enhance the stability of common social visions. Change or movement can only occur among individuals, for it is within them that the dynamic forces originate.
These activities, however, are quite anarchistic. For example, different members of the same family, the same social club, or the same ethnic group will have quite different approaches to life in spite of the obvious similarities. Most individuals, too, belong to several different structures at the same social level. Thus one might be Polish, Catholic and a baseball fan, and another Irish, Catholic, and a football fan and yet be quite good friends because they work together, or have in the same neighborhoods and thus enjoy a number of common social visions. It is normal in this manner for a social system to contain more variety than would be possible with pure anarchy because each person in the course of a day may play a number of roles and it is because of the existence of social structures which emerge through this kind of self-thematization that others recognize those roles and interact with each other as role models rather than as individuals playing roles. Also, the creation of such clearly demarcated subsystems means that in the activities where these play a part, the variety in the environment that the members of the subsystem must contend with is less than if each individual were facing the world alone. It is obviously simpler, at least for many people, to face the unknown problems of the world as a member of an organized religion, for example, than it would be to attempt to answer every metaphysical question alone. In fact, to be an atheist more often than not means ignoring such questions, or assuming some simplistic solutions, which then puts them into another kind of religion.
Another way of putting this is to show that a social system is a mechanism the individual uses to control the variety he must contend with. For example, the existence of a viable legal system means that when an individual has a social problem that involves a transgression of his individual rights, he has a relatively clear set of rules to judge his reaction against. In fact there is a quite restricted set of problems that the legal system is organized to control and it can only be judged by how well it accomplishes that singular goal. This means that the system of jurisprudence, or the set of guide-lines by which the legal system is established and maintained is part of the legal system. However, it is a level higher than the legal system itself because it is made up of the idealizations of the rules that make up the system. Just as the legal system constrains the individuals who are involved in those activities it is developed to deal with, the system of justice constrains the kinds of rules the legal system is to accept as part of its repertoire. Now, this is what Luhmann calls self-thematization, the act by the system of choosing its own contours However, in this case it is people and not the system which determine the content of the system of justice which in turn does not constrain the legal system, it constrains the individuals who are responsible for making the laws.