Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Problems with Theory-Construction of Grand Theories

Since the appearance of Sociology - first as a research program offered by Auguste Comte, lateron developed by Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Pareto, Cooley, Mead, Dewey, Parsons and others - the problem of constructing a grand theory has in my opinion always been present. (1)

Unquestionably it is the American Talcott Parsons (2), who offers the sociological community - for the first time - a very complex grand theory, perhaps the greatest grand theory ever proposed in the field of sociology.

Since then we are confronted with a second grand theory which is comparable to Parsons’ proposal: Niklas Luhmann’s Social Systems Theory (3) . And it is - by the way - not a coincidence that without Parsons’ work, Luhmann’s work would not have been possible, as Luhmann himself states. (4)
As such, grand theories have to deal with some inherent, central problems. In my opinion there are at least four main problems that every grand theory has to solve in order to satisfy the multiple demands of its users. These are: 1) the problem of a simplifying generalism, which may have some times totalitarian aspects. From this generalism derives the difficulty to connect it with some sort of specific concrete situation; 2) the problem of the ‘emptiness’ of its central concepts; 3) the problem of the lack of empirical connection, and 4) the problem of the lack of internal changes. Let us now observe these problems in the light of Luhmann’s Grand Theory.

First of all the problem of the supposed simplifying generalism, which in the long run has to do with the capability of integrating the general aspects of the theory with the capability of the theory on resolving very concrete problems. As some of you will know, Luhmann’s Grand Theory is constructed around one main distinction: the system/environment-distinction. The problem lies in the distinction itself: most sociologists do not work with this distinction. But for Luhmann it reflects the very core of his theory. In this sense, his theory has some kind of inherent ‘all or nothing’-rule: if you want to work with it or with some aspects of it, you must also use the system / environment - distinction. Otherwise you have to disregard his proposal. In this context it is worth mentioning that one weakness of the above distinction lies in the fact that it discriminates everything too sharply (5). Most social aspects of society, however, can not be separated as sharply as the distinction presupposes (6). In this context, please, take Luhmann’s exclusion of the human being (‘der Mensch’) from Society as an example (7).

As I already said above, every Grand Theory has - up to a certain degree - to solve the problem of having on the one side a general approach, but on the other side trying to give answers to very specific questions. To put it in another way: how can a Grand Theory hold its generality and be at the same time able to organize specific research programms? If we observe with the help of a systems theory like that proposed by Luhmann, we have the problem that we must observe every thing through the glasses of the system/environment-distinction. But as I said likewise above - not every Sociologist wants to work with this distinction because he may be of the opinion that not everything is a system or, worse, he sees no system at all. Now, of course this is not a specific problem of the theoretical proposal of Luhmann. The same problem occurs also with such general Theory-Proposals like Parsons’ with the main distinction of system and action, or with Habermas’ main distinction of life-world and system<, or - to take some classics - with Tönnis’ main distinction of Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, or with Durkheim’s main distinction of organical and mechanical Societies, or with Marx’s main distinction of production power and production relationsships (Produktivkräfte/Produktionsverhältnisse), or, in a more philosophical sense, take his being and consciousness distinction (Sein und Bewußtsein), or Max Weber’s main distinction of end-rationality and value-rationality (Zweckrationalität/Wertrationalität). Second we have the problem of a possible emptiness of central concepts of a Grand Theory . Also as some of you know, Luhmann constructs his theory with the help of one main concept, namely that of communication. Now, I am of the opinion, that Luhmann is understanding communication primarily as 'written communication'. There is no doubt, that the transition from the oral to the written culture of communication was a most important step for the development of world society, because from that time on it became possible to communicate without taking into account the real presence of the 'communicator'. Now social communication flows not only as written, but also and maybe in the first instance as nonverbal communication. Luhmann interprets most of his conceptions - so his conception of action for example - as a sort of communication. In the end, in Luhmann’s concept of communication we have an all embracing concept that is semantically overloaded and therefore up to a certain point ‘empty’. In this context we have developed two concepts that can explain that there is a ‘consensus’ prior to any discourse and to any explicit taken social action: the pre-discourse and the pre-action (8).

The third problem consists in the supposed lack of empirical connection . There is indeed a problem of lack of empirical connection in Luhmann’s proposal. This has in my opinion to do with the fact that he incorporates the theory of Autopoiesis - as put forward by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. For Luhmann, to observe society, means to observe autopoietical closed social systems. From this point of view there is no possibility to observe semi-closed or even open social systems. When Luhmann observes a social system, it can only be a closed one, or else it is no system at all. This ‘hard’ point of view of his makes it impossible for him to observe how a social system is generating and evolving step by step until it gets ‘closed’. And this is an essential empirical question (9).

A fourth problem of every Grand Theory can be seen in its supposed lack of internal change. Which aspect of Luhmann’s theory produces this internal disability, so that he can not react in a critical way? To my opinion it is his use of paradoxical argumentation that produces the above problem. As you may know Luhmann bases any observation of a system upon a paradoxical observation: the system is a system because it is not a system (but an environment). At this level of argumentation it is not possible to criticize Luhmann’s position in an efficient way. This has to do with the paradoxical figure which is immune against any logical argumentation which includes the principle of contradiction (Aristoteles): it is not possible that something can be and can not be at the same time. In order to come along with this problem we have introduced the concept of complementarity as worked out by the Danish physician Niels Bohr (10).


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