Release | Special Issue | Moral communication. Observed with social systems theory

Special Issue 51(5) of Kybernetes: Moral communication. Observed with social systems theory

Guest Editors: Steffen Roth, Klaus Brønd Laursen, Gorm Harste

The majority of articles published in this special issue have first been presented at the eponymous Luhmann Conference 2020. See here for the Call for Papers to the Luhmann Conference 2022 on Scientific communication observed with social systems theory.

Table of contents

Klaus Brønd Laursen, Gorm Harste, Steffen Roth: Moral communication observed with social systems theory. An introduction

Abstract: The present article pertains to recent advances in social systems theoretical analyses of moral communication. An introduction to basic concepts and requirements for systems-theoretical approaches to morality and communication is provided, as is an introduction to 14 contributions to a pertinent special issue of Kybernetes. The review of these 14 cases suggests that social systems theory enables researchers to study moral communication without necessarily performing it. This article reappraises and challenges Niklas Luhmann’s occasionally distanced attitude to morality, which has occasionally been understood as a form of moral communication itself.

Jan Winczorek: Moral communication and legal uncertainty in small and medium enterprises

Abstract: The links between moral communication and legal communication have long been studied in sociology of law. Little has yet been said about moral communication invoking when communication in the legal system is impossible, ineffective or uncertain. The paper fills this gap to demonstrate that systems theory-based sociology of law can effectively recognise the role of moral communication in such situations. The paper presents an empirical study of moral communication in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It focused on situations when SMEs’ interactions with function systems, particularly the legal system, result in irremovable legal uncertainty. The data depict strategies of managing such uncertainty and were obtained in a paths-to-justice survey of 7,292 owners and managers of SMEs and 101 in-depth interviews. The findings are interpreted using the author’s concept of “uncertainty translation”, rooted in Luhmann’s systems theory. It suggests that business organisations such as SMEs deal with the ubiquitous uncertainty in their operations by translating it into a convenient type. The study distinguishes between formative and absorbing moral communication and finds that both types play a role in steering the uncertainty translation mechanism in SMEs. Six scenarios of invoking moral communication are identified in SMEs dealing with legal uncertainty. In such scenarios, moral communication facilitates the translation of business uncertainty “away from law”. Under some circumstances, this, in turn, leads to latent systematic results, reflexively affecting the legal system, the economic system and the SMEs. In its core argument, the study is based on qualitative material. While it identifies empirical scenarios of invoking moral communication, it does not report the prevalence of these scenarios due to methodological limitations. The study results pose questions related to the staple theoretical issue in post-Luhmannian social systems theory: functional differentiation. If moral communication–a type of communication not linked to any social system–can produce far-reaching, systematic results that affect function systems, then the functional differentiation thesis should be less pronounced than Luhmann typically stressed. This said, the paper argues that the contradiction between the findings and Luhmannian theory of morality is only apparent and may be reconciled.

Lars Clausen: Diabolical perspectives on healthy morality in times of COVID-19

Abstract: The paper combines the systems theoretical perspective on the evolution of societal differentiation and the emergence of codes in communication. By combining the approach by Niklas Luhmann with a historical theology on the development of Christian morality split between God and Devil, it recreates a sociological point of observation on contemporary moral forms by a temporary occupation of the retired Christian Devil. The article combines a Luhmannian systems theoretical perspective on the evolution of societal differentiation with a concept of emerging codes in communication. The latter is based on on the development of a Christian view of morality being split between God and Devil. It establishes a sociological point of observation on contemporary moral forms through the temporary invocation of the retired figure of the Christian Devil. The proposed perspective develops a healthy perspective on the exuberant distribution of a health(y) morality across the globe during the pandemic crisis of 2020–21. The temporary invocation of the retired Christian Devil as point of departure in this sociological analysis allows for a disturbing view on the unlimited growth of the morality of health and its inherent dangers of dedifferentiating the highly specialised forms of societal differentiation and organisation. By applying the diabolical perspective, the analytical framework creates a unique opportunity to observe the moral encodings of semantic forms in detail, while keeping the freedom of scientific enquiry to choose amongst available distinctions in the creation of sound empirical knowledge. This article adopts a neutral stance, for the good of sociological analysis. The applications of the term “evil” to observations of communication are indifferent to anything but itself and its qualities as scientific enquiry.

Gorm Harste and Klaus Brønd Laursen: Niklas Luhmann’s anti-totalitarian observation of systems

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the philosophical roots of Luhmann’s theory in relation to its anti-totalitarian elements. The paper offers a conceptual discussion of the critical and anti-totalitarian angle in Niklas Luhmann’s system theory. This paper finds that systems theory has a critical potential. To the best of the authors’ knowledge the anti-totalitarian element of Niklas Luhmann’s system theory has not be discussed before the present contribution.

Jesper Tække: Systems-theoretical observations of moral media panic debates

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to examine and analyse the fierce debate regarding children and young people’s use of digital social media, going on in Denmark (and in many other countries) in both mass media and social media. The overall question is what this panic is about and why the mass media and the public do not listen to the media sociologists than to self-appointed experts? Using a systems-theoretical angle, this paper analyses the debate and answers the following questions: Why are researchers not taken more seriously, and why are their views neglected and criticised? What part does morality play in such debates? How and why do the mass media act as they do, for instance, listening more to debaters than to the researchers? 4) What is the role of the so-called social media? And are these debates best understood as conflicts? The scientific code is only one among several other codes. The mass media also communicates about truth but only as a result of their own code and programs, which also counts for other functional systems such as the juridical and the political system. In the code and programmes of a given mass medium, it has information value that different actors has different truths, to which comes that conflicts between different opinions of truth is a direct selection criterium. This is the function of the mass media, and nobody would like to live in a society without (except for dictators and their henchmen). Finally, science is very programmatic and communicates only through its own code and programs why research results seldom reach the public in its own form (scientific books and articles) but through the lens of mass media organisations and the debaters. When science is observed from other systems, it happens through their codes and programs why science often does not count more than ordinary people’s meanings. The debate is polarised: on the one hand, there are debaters (self-appointed experts), whereas on the other hand, there are media researchers especially media sociologists. It turns out that the debaters have better communication possibilities than the researchers, as the scientific code does not trigger the news criteria as good as the often alarming statements from the debaters, who also use the moral code of communication that the researchers do not, as they are obligated to communicate solely in the scientific code. There is no other systems-theoretical analysis of the moral media panic debates. The application of Luhmann’s systems theory is well suited, as it is both a communication theory and a sociological theory, whereas it is including both the relevant functional systems, such as the mass media, and the relevant communication codes, such as the news criteria of the mass media.

Kristof van Assche, Vladislav Valentinov, and Gert Verschraegen: Adaptive governance: learning from what organizations do and managing the role they play

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to deepen the understanding of adaptive governance, which is advocated for as a manner to deal with dramatic changes in society and/or environment. To re-think the possible contributions of organizations and organization theory, to adaptive governance. Based on social systems theory this study makes a distinction between “governance organizations” and “governance communities.” Organizations are conceptualized as the decision machines which organize and (co-)steer governance. Communities are seen as the social environments against which the governance system orients its operations. This study considers the adaptive mechanisms of organizations and reflect on the roles of organizations to enhance adaptive governance in communities and societies. Diverse types of organizations can link or couple in different ways to communities in their social environment. Such links can enhance the coordinative capacity of the governance system and can also spur innovation to enable adaptation. Yet, linking with communities can also slow down responses to change and complexify the processes of deliberation in governance. Not all adaptive mechanisms available to organizations can be used in communicating with communities or can be institutionalized, but the continuous innovation in the field of organizations can inspire continuous testing of small-scale adaptive mechanisms at higher levels. Society can thus enhance its adaptive capacity by managing the role of organizations. The harnessing of insights in organization theory and systems theory for improving understanding of adaptive governance. The finding that both experiment and coordination at societal level are needed, toward adaptive governance, and that organizations can contribute to both.

Francisco X. Morales: Society and the moral semantics of the COVID-19 pandemic: a social systems approach

Abstract: In a context of critical transition such as the COVID-19 pandemic, moral semantics take a prominent role as a form of self-description of society. However, they are not usually observed, but rather assumed as self-evident and necessarily “good.” The purpose of the article is to summarize the theory of morality from the social systems’ perspective and illustrate with concrete examples the polemogenous nature of moral communication. This article presents an analysis of the role of morality in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, from the perspective of Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory. Applying the method of second-order observation, it describes three cases of moral semantics disseminated via mass media and social media, and it examines their connection with the structural situation of subsystems of society during the pandemic crisis (particularly healthcare, politics and science). Second-order observation of moral communication demonstrates to be fruitful to describe the conditions and consequences in which moralization of communication occurs, particularly in a situation of critical transition around the healthcare crisis. The three examples examined, namely, the hero semantics directed to healthcare workers, the semantics of indiscipline and the controversies around pseudo-sciences and conspiracy theories, show how they are based on social attribution of esteem and disesteem, how they try to answer to troublesome situations and contradictions that seem difficult to cope, and how they are close related to the emergence of conflicts, even when they seem positive oriented and well intentioned. This paper is an attempt to test the usefulness of Luhmann’s theory of society to understand the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and particularly the role of moral communication in concrete examples.

Jacob A. Miller: Demoralizing: integrating J.D. Peters’ communication “chasm” with Niklas Luhmann’s (1989) ecological communication to analyze climate change mitigation inaction

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to explain the US society’s insignificant mitigation of climate change using Niklas Luhmann’s (1989) autopoietic social systems theory in ecological communication. Specifically, the author’s analysis falls within the context of Luhmann re-moralized while focusing on particular function systems’ binary codes and their repellence of substantive US climate change mitigation policy across systems. The author achieves this purpose by resituating Luhmann’s conception of evolution to forgo systems teleology and better contextualize the spatial-temporal scale of climate change; reinforcing complexity reduction and differentiation by integrating communication and media scholar John D. Peters’s (1999) “communication chasm” concept as one mechanism through which codes sustain over time; and applying these integrated concepts to prominent the US climate change mitigation attempts. The author concludes that climate change mitigation efforts are the amalgamation of the systems’ moral communications. Mitigation efforts have relegated themselves to subsystems of the ten major systems given the polarizing nature of their predominant care/harm moral binary. Communication chasms persist because these moral communications cannot both adhere to the systems’ binary codes and communicate the climate crisis’s urgency. The more time that passes, the more codes force mitigation organizations, activist efforts and their moral communications to adapt and sacrifice their actions to align with the encircling systems’ code. In addition to the conceptual contribution, the social implication is that by identifying how and why climate change mitigation efforts are subsumed by the larger systems and their codes, climate change activists and practitioners can better tool their tactics to change the codes at the heart of the systems if serious and substantive climate change mitigation is to prevail. To the author’s knowledge, there has not been an integration of a historical communication concept into, and sociological application of, ecological communication in the context of climate change mitigation.

Nicholas Weaver: Escalating complexity and fragmentation of mental health service systems: the role of recovery as a form of moral communication

Abstract: Theoretical generalisation provides the basis for tackling problems of service complexity, fragmentation and disrupted care pathways. Recent mental health service transformation in Wales, United Kingdom, has been stimulated by a policy programme underpinned by person-centred recovery values. This paper offers analysis informed by the perspectives of Niklas Luhmann and other noted theorists to examine escalating service system complexity related to this transformation. Analysis builds upon the findings of a qualitative study employing thematic discourse analysis of talk of people with mental illness and associated workers. In total, three themes were constructed in participants’ talk: “Competing versions of recovery”, “Misaligned service expectations” and “Disrupted care pathways.” Recovery may be understood as a form of moral communication and autopoietic meaning-making activity, according to Luhmann’s radical constructionist epistemology. This has the potential to generate competing versions of recovery, a key contributor to escalating complexity. Findings could be developed further by continued investigation of the relationship between recovery implementation and service fragmentation. A more judicious, balanced policy-implementation may cultivate optimal conditions for recovery pluralism by avoiding polarisation towards either top-down, policy-based recovery implementation or a proliferation of approaches at the grassroots level. Findings have implications for healthcare settings beyond the scope of mental healthcare, given the prevalence of person-centred care internationally. A simplistic view of recovery implementation should be challenged. Recovery should not be considered a “magic bullet” for mental healthcare delivery. Haphazard recovery-implementation may have detrimental effects of escalating complexity, service fragmentation and disrupted care pathways.

Jörg Räwel: An allergy of society: on the question of how a societal “lockdown” becomes possible

Abstract: Given the form of functional differentiation of modern society, a far-reaching coordination of functional systems as a dissolution of their heterarchical relationship to each other, as was apparently possible in the social “lockdown” during the corona pandemic, should have been extremely unlikely. The purpose of this study is to explain how this was nevertheless achieved. From the perspective of systems theory, social action in principle does not present itself as a problem but as a solution to (latent) social problems. In the sociological analysis presented here, it is therefore precisely a matter of uncovering or pointing out those (changed) social structures in which a social “lockdown” appears as a solution. The paper explains that with the emergence of social media through applications such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, a new force is establishing itself at the level of society as a system. It is one that is characterized by being highly vulnerable to moral communication. A susceptibility to morality manifests, on the one hand, through an individual differentiation of society made possible by social media – for example, in the emerging Chinese social credit system – and, on the other hand, through the specific communicative structures of the social media themselves. It is argued that social media, in the form of a moral authority with a lasting effect on society as a whole, make a significant contribution to realizing the social “lockdown.” The originality of the paper results from the fact that the emergence of a new social phenomenon (“lockdown”) is explained.

Kresimir Zazar: Fighting the virus, “hunting the witches” – moralizing in public discourses during the coronavirus pandemic in Croatia

Abstract: The purpose of the paper is to discuss particular features of the public debate around the COVID-19 pandemic and its mitigation strategies in Croatian media from the beginning of 2020 to mid-September of the same year. The discussion is theoretically grounded on Luhmann’s concept of moral communication combined with the key assumption of critical discourse analysis that language reflects a position of power of social actors. Based on these premises, the analysis of a sample of articles in a chosen online media was conducted to uncover the moral codes in the public debate concerning the corona outbreak and connect them with specific moral discourses of particular social actors. The findings clearly indicate that the communication about the pandemic is considerably imbued with moralization and that moral coding is profoundly used to generate preferred types of behaviour of citizens and their compliance with the imposed epidemiologic measures. In conclusion, Luhmann’s claim of moralization as a contentious form of communication is confirmed as the examined public discussion fosters confrontations and generates disruptions rather than contributing to a productive dialogue among diverse social actors. The novelty of the approach lies in the combination of Luhman’s conceiving of moral communication with critical discourse analysis that, taken together, entails a pertinent research tool for analysing relevant attributes of the ongoing vibrant debate on the coronavirus outbreak.

Kurt Rachlitz, Benjamin Grossmann-Hensel, and Ronja Friedl: The demoralization of society and the proliferation of organization

Abstract: In this paper, the authors aim to clarify the relationship between organization and society. They argue that the proliferation of organization in modernity has not yet been properly understood in light of the absence of organization in premodern times. The authors therefore ask: Why do organizations proliferate? Why do they proliferate in such manifold organizational forms? And how can these heterogeneous forms nevertheless be related to a common problem to which organizations provide a solution? A comparative historical analysis based on the theory of social systems reveals that organizations fill a gap which the decline of morality as an integrative success medium created. The paper develops a conceptual framework focusing on the theory of media within Luhmann’s theory of social systems as a point of departure. The authors discuss the concept of “interpenetration” to assess the relation between morality and organization. They raise several follow-up questions for future empirical research, most prominently pertaining to the relationship between organization and digitalization. The main finding is that morality can be conceptualized as a specific success medium (alongside religion and symbolically generalized communication media) which used to structure premodern societies by means of social and interhuman interpenetration at once. Modern society instead employs two differentiated forms of interpenetration: Social interpretation through organizations and interhuman interpenetration through love relationships. These centripetal counterforces help to mediate the centrifugal forces unleashed by the full development of modern success media. Modern society critically depends on the proliferation of organizations. This paper examines the relationship between morality and organization not from the perspective of interaction or organization, but from the perspective of society. This approach provides novel insights in that it opens up promising avenues of comparison between organization and other social forms. Understanding the distinctively modern “success story” of organization as a social form makes it possible to ask about corresponding potentials and limitations, but also alternative possibilities. In doing so, the authors depart from most studies of organizations grounded in social systems theory as the authors primarily focus on Luhmann’s theory of media (as opposed to the theory of differentiation).

Ayumi Higuchi: Double symmetry in Niklas Luhmann’s moral communication

Abstract: This study aims to review Luhmann’s theory of moral communication while focusing on symmetry conditions, in light of Armin Nassehi’s criticism, to clarify issues regarding this concept. Then, Luhmann’s symmetry condition is reconstructed as a concept containing double meaning via a case study in Japan. Correspondingly, interesting situations and characteristics of moral communication, such as “inflation,” the “polemogene” and ubiquity of moral communication, are interpreted more consistently. In today’s society, moral communication may spiral out of control and even be fatal. By examining Niklas Luhmann’s theory, in this paper, the author elaborates on why and how this mechanism occurs. The author emphasizes that the suspicion pertaining to the asymmetry of communication is stressed in the case of anonymity. When an individual communicates using a moral code, it is impossible to discern whether the implications of self-bindingness are undermined or not through observations or consequences of communication and can only be questioned or confirmed through communication. However, criticizing the outburst of the masses and exchanging blame by isolating only one aspect of such a phenomenon will only be superficial. This study reveals that the very condition that makes moral communication possible enables people to communicate respectfully or contemptuously with others without any special qualification. Such an analysis can serve as a theoretical underpinning for the analysis of today’s phenomena.

Leon Conrad: Roots, shoots, fruits: William Blake and J M Robertson: two key influences on George Spencer-Brown’s work and the latter’s relationship to Niklas Luhmann’s work

Abstract: Blake is relatively well-known, but who was J M Robertson? What’s his connection with George Spencer-Brown? And how exactly did J M Robertson influence George Spencer-Brown? George Spencer-Brown (1923–2016) is the author (among other works) of the undeservedly little-known book, Laws of Form (1969/2011), which was a key inspiration for Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998). But what inspired George Spencer-Brown? This paper explores two key influences on George Spencer-Brown and his work: the English poet and artist, William Blake (1757–1827) and the Scottish rationalist, politician and author, J M Robertson (1856–1933). The paper points to a broken link between George Spencer-Brown’s work and Niklas Luhmann’s. These questions are explored from two perspectives: first, George Spencer-Brown’s works and their debt to (1) Blake’s work, from which he quotes in a number of instances and to (2) J M Robertson’s (in particular, the latter’s Letters on Reasoning (1905) and Rationalism (1912)); second, my personal connection to Spencer-Brown, who mentored me through Laws of Form and with whom I developed a close friendship involving regular weekly telephone conversations for the greater part of the last four years of Spencer-Brown’s life. I share anecdotes and stories that connect George Spencer-Brown and J M Robertson that span George Spencer-Brown’s lifetime – from his school days to his dying days. Both Blake’s and Robertson’s influences are relevant to Spencer-Brown’s view of morality. The paper looks at specific connections between Blake’s work and J M Robertson’s on the one hand and George Spencer-Brown’s on the other.

Margit Neisig: The circular economy: rearranging structural couplings and the paradox of moral-based sustainability-enhancing feedback

Abstract: Circular Economy is a policy and practice-oriented concept drawing mainly on engineering and natural science. This paper aims to contribute a conceptual development based on social systems theory. Does the Circular Economy have the prospect to become a sustainability-enhancing feedback mechanism potentializing an evolutionary systemic rearrangement of structural couplings, and will it encounter limitations as a general approach for a sustainable development? By using the Luhmannian theory as method, core concepts are semantics, structure and rearrangement of structural couplings. In acknowledging the social system’s operational closure, social-metabolism with nature is discussed. The research is in three stages. First, structural couplings of matter and social systems. Second, structural couplings of organizational networks closing the loop–eventually using digitalization. Third, the Circular Economy encountering multicontextuality. The paper provides: (1) A four-stage structural coupling enacting metabolism with nature allowing measurement of circularity potentially useable for feedback “irritating” relevant social systems’ reflexion. (2) Identification of obstacles encountered in the proliferation due to paradoxes of strategic decisions in organizations, difficulties of structural couplings of organizational networks and the paradox of digitalization. (3) Help by future digitalization but simultaneously new side-effects. (4) The multicontextuality as the limitation for a broad sustainability approach. The paper answers a call for more social science theoretical research on the Circular Economy. It develops core conceptualizations based on social systems theory. Also, advices for future research and practical implementation are suggested.

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