Thursday, 17 February 2011

Luhmann and the Analysis of Form

I've just completed two papers which make use of Luhmann's theory of communication, and as often is the case, I learn new things as I look deeper into Luhmann's work. What's really hit me is the extent to which Luhmann thought about social form and how he made distinctions about it. For whilst his theory is really a theory about communication, he sees social forms as particular  bounded communication systems. What holds each system together is what he calls a 'contingency formula': a central paradox which acts as a sort of 'strange attractor' (I think) around which the communications of a system revolve.

His analysis of social form therefore involves identifying the various contingency formulae of different social systems: he does this for law, art, love and intimacy, education, religion, economics, science.. all with the intent on pursuing his main goal which is to understand the constraints of modernity. The method is quite simple:
1. look at a network of communication - sometimes Luhmann focusses on what might be considered a 'community of practice' (Law, for example)
2. ask yourself "what is the paradox here?" - identify the contingency formula
3. analyse how the communications are reproduced against the background of that contingency formula: what Luhmann would call the 'code' of communication. (at least, this is my understanding...)

So, for example, the contingency formula of education is "cultivation". Luhmann explains his thinking around education as:

“Speaking about education (upbringing/education, LQ), one primarily thinks about intentional activities that try to develop a person’s abilities and foster his/her ability for social communion”

Qvortrup has commented that "[Cultivation] is a concept for something that cannot be generally defined, but for which a word is needed that signals a mutual understanding and agreement." (see

The "word that cannot be generally defined, but for which a word is needed that signals a mutual understanding and agreement" is the essence of a contingency formula. For Law, it is "Justice". For religion, it is "God", for science, it is "limitationality" - i.e. the idea that our knowledge always requires further research.

I like this method, and it is similar to my thinking around the difficulties that  learners have with things like computer programming. Obviously, their attempt to program computers isn't a 'social' system at all, but nevertheless, there's some pattern of communication there centring around a contradiction. Similarly, I'm currently working with diabetic teenagers who are struggling to control their blood glucose: again, there are communication patterns centring around a contradiction. With the computer students, I set about trying to identify the contradiction. Learning for those students was a process of becoming aware of the contradiction and how the code of their communicative actions (practices, ways of thinking) was leading to these contradictions. This led to a redefinition of the 'code of communication' that surrounded the contingency formula: new practices, new ways of thinking. It may be that the contingency formula in these examples is still "cultivation", but there's certainly something to be gained from looking at small-scale patterns of communication which are contradictory.

Luhmann's analysis of the development of love and intimacy (which is one of his best books) over the last 500 years charts a similar development of the 'code' of love. His work on art is similar.

A lot of people find Luhmann very dense and difficult. Although he is difficult, I think he's also the most scholarly of all cybernetic writers: his reading and erudition are as fine as many literary and art historians and this coupled with his combination of very tight definitions and high sensitivity to the human condition have made him a figure of great interest to me.

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