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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2014

XI - Niklas Luhmann's radicalization of functionalism


Niklas Luhmann was the other major figure within German sociology who, like Jürgen Habermas, was unwilling to accept the theoretical diversity apparent from the 1960s on, which we have described in the previous lectures, and strove instead to achieve a new synthesis of his own. Admittedly, we cannot take the word ‘synthesis’ too literally in Luhmann's case. Habermas, in an enormous hermeneutic effort, did in fact attempt to comprehend the various theoretical schools and preserve those insights he considered valid while developing his own theoretical construct in such a way that certain elements of these ‘source theories’ remained quite apparent in its architecture. Luhmann, meanwhile, took a far more direct approach. He lacked the grasp of hermeneutics that is such a major feature of Habermas' work. Rather, he endeavoured to evade or reformulate the key concerns of the competing theoretical schools within sociology – with the help of a functionalism markedly more radical than that of Parsons. From the very beginning Luhmann made use of the functionalist method of analysis, which he gradually turned into a kind of ‘super theory’ as his work developed over time and with which he attempted to assert his claim to synthesis or, we might better say, comprehensiveness. Thus, in comparison to that of Habermas, Luhmann's oeuvre developed in amazingly straightforward fashion. Though Luhmann himself and his supporters have been talking about a theoretical reconstruction (the ‘autopoietic turn’, which we shall look at later) since the early 1980s, the foundations of his theory have remained unchanged.

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