Extracts from Giulia Bryson’s Review of ‘Systems not People...’

Law in Context vol.6 no.4 (2010)

Michael King’s Systems, not People, make Society Happen aims at dismantling non-Luhmannian approaches to society without as much as mentioning either them or Luhmann, simply by unfolding, step by step, a deliberately simplified version of autopoietic system-theory. King succeeds in this exploit, however, at the price of a massive de-theorisation of the theory of autopoiesis.

This book will thus be most successful with those law and sociology undergraduates who notoriously complain about the difficulty of understanding autopoiesis. The importance of this book is directly related to the influential status of this constituency.

As the title suggests, King pulls out the idea, the ‘eternal truth’, purportedly indispensable and in any case shared by mediatised common sense as much as by politicised social theory, that society is correctly conceived of as a collection of co-existing individuals.

The first chapter redefines modern society in terms of systems and events, by challenging the assumption that dealing with an event supposes finding a ‘cause’. Some space is also invested in emancipating the effort of sociological sense-making from any suggestions based on human nature, religious beliefs or secular ideologies. On the other hand, King suspects that the study of human behaviour is less helpful than is often assumed. The book makes a convincing case that considering systems rather than people as constitutive elements of society increases sociological insight.

Since this book is intended for a general audience, the author prefers the reader to concentrate on the ideas rather than the identity of their inventor. The source of these ideas is, of course, Niklas Luhmann’s work. Remarkably, King’s tender effort to spare the boredom-allergic reader any information that is not directly cognition-related goes to such lengths as to withhold Luhmann’s name until the very last pages of the book – indeed, the afterword. Yet, while giving in to every formal or presentational compromise, King remains utterly uncompromising with regard to the content. The book is brimming with virtuoso achievements in the art of translating theoretical concepts into down-to-earth language while maintaining their bite. ‘Contingency’ is out, but ‘unforeseen events’ are in. Equally in are scenarios from daily life, through the clever introduction of a certain moot case or problem case methodology. ‘Bob’s business plan’ provides a very clear illustration of risk and other aspects of time-bound uncontrollability, and indeed of the system/environment distinction itself. The common mistakes of the traditional, obstinate, but impossible vow (or duty) of the social sciences to deliver predictions of society’s future, and the Luhmannian ways of escaping them, are equally carefully outlined.

At this point the reader is ready to be hit by autopoiesis’s intimate excess, the counter-intuitive statement which has traumatised so many Luhmannbeginners at first exposure: not enough that people are not in control of society; people are not even part of society! Notice that pre-Luhmannian sociology has always, unwaveringly, rested its case on society’s members as the substance of the social. Through this gate, the entire traffic of ideologies and beliefs about the nature and potential to be attributed to mankind and individuality had entered right inside sociology, precluding more ambitious – if less social – ways of understanding society. A distinction between ‘people as conscious systems and society as communicating systems’, where conscious systems constitute the environment of communicating systems, now replaces their earlier identification.

While the formal indulgence and mooting methodology result in occasional drawbacks – such as a certain condescension present in examples like ‘Bob, Jane and their unexpectedly ill child’, on the whole, the simplistic approach turns out to be worthwhile. Moreover, after a purposefully extremely easy first part, the more complex remainder of the book (ch. 5 et seq.) demands more attention. Here King introduces the embattled concept of structural coupling in order to explain the relations between systems, in terms of codependence and impact upon each other, but not before a very illuminating and necessary chapter on the issue of ‘reality’. Here, once again, basic concepts starting from the system/environment distinction are re-examined and compared to the idea of various ‘truths’ and ‘realities’ that come not only from mediasponsored, if mythical, beliefs, but also from various scientific disciplines and that prima facie contrast with each other, but are commonly accepted as valid by modern society.

An insightful parallel between conscious systems and social systems and the way they construct their ‘reality’ follows, showing the advantages of conceiving society in terms of the differentiation of system/environment, and leading ultimately to the complex and problematic concept of the re-entry of the distinguished into the distinction. The author explains ‘re-entry’, once again with an example from daily life (but technical Luhmannian terms are no longer proscribed). He has recourse to concepts that have been previously introduced and progressively explained; even a tricky concept like ‘re-entry’ becomes understandable this way. Always alternating between argumentative and ‘problem question’ style, King, after supplying his reader with all the necessary elements, starts presenting – by means of a fictional anecdote – the operations of the various social systems (using the legal system as a prime example), careful to distinguish their level from that of organisations and interactions.

The penultimate chapter includes a much-needed historical overview of how pre-modern stratified societies, based on a hierarchical model, were organised, and how this has changed in modern society where a stiffly hierarchical social order and its institutional guarantees have been abandoned, giving rise to a functional differentiation, alone capable of sustaining a global society. This extremely brief historical clarification is also quite successful, as it avoids any compromises at the theoretical level. The last chapter pulls the threads together of all the discourses in the book, leading to some reflections on what social system theory can do better than a humanistic perspective on society, in order to avoid any intellectual capitulation when faced with current signs of failure, disappointment, and decreasing control over one’s life and projects.

Niklas Luhmann and social system theory are known for their complexity and for the controversy to which they increasingly give rise. In some parts of the world, as soon as the German sociologist’s name is mentioned, a distinction is drawn that cuts right through academia, from scholars who, while not missing any other fashion, never had the temerity to open a book by Luhmann, to undergraduates who find refuge only in the mantra ‘I am lost’. This book springs from the decision to deprive these self-protective measures of any semblance of a rational basis. The task of explaining a complex theory in easily accessible terms to a wide audience is in many ways even more complex than the theory itself, and King succeeds in doing so with flair and resourcefulness, keeping his wager of simplicity alive throughout. This makes this little book an invaluable introduction to Luhmann’s theory; it is certain to prove an effective aid to struggling students and other beginners.

Systems, Not People, Make Society Happen - by Michael King

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Published June 2009

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