Obituary: Professor Niklas Luhmann

David Childs
Saturday 28 November 1998 01:02

NIKLAS LUHMANN was one of the most influential academics in the field of cybernetics and systems theory. This is remarkable when one considers his early life.

Born in northern Germany, in Luneburg, in 1927, he was the son of a brewery owner. His childhood and youth were spent in the schools of the Third Reich. At 15, in 1944, he was called up to serve as an auxiliary manning anti-aircraft guns. For him, the end of the war meant several months as an American prisoner of war - a dispiriting experience as he was beaten up and his watch was stolen. He then embarked upon what looked like an orthodox middle-class career the study of law.

He chose to do this in the old university town of Freiburg im Breisgau, from 1946 to 1949, in what was then the French Zone. He returned to Luneburg in 1954 having entered the public service. A year later he joined the Lower Saxony Ministry of Culture, where he remained until 1962. During this period he was formulating his ideas.

An important breakthrough for him was his chance to take a sabbatical year, in 1960, at Harvard with Talcott Parsons. This experience led to the publication of his first book, Funktionen und Folgen formaler Organisation ("Functions and Consequences of Formal Organisation") in 1964. Between 1962 and 1965 Luhmann served as Research Fellow at the School of Administrative Sciences, Speyer, where he wrote Grundrechte als Institution ("Basic Rights as an Institution").

His books brought him to the attention of Professor Helmut Schelsky, then perhaps the most respected German sociologist, who invited him to take over as departmental head at the Social Research Unit at Dortmund. In 1966 Luhmann was awarded his doctorate at the University of Munster by Professors Schelsky and Dieter Claessens, his books forming part of the dissertation.

At a time when German universities were facing student unrest and all structures and hierarchy were being called into question, Luhmann was appointed professor of sociology at the newly founded University of Bielefeld. More publications followed in rapid succession such as Funktion der Religion ("The Function of Religion", 1977), Trust and Power (in English, 1979), Politische Theorie im Wohlfahrtsstaat ("Political Theory in the Welfare State", 1981) and The Differentation of Society (in English, 1982).

In 1984 Luhmann published what is regarded as his main work, Soziale Systems ("Social Systems"). In this he summarised his theory that societies were living organisms defined by the way people communicated within them.

Luhmann had wide international contacts and his work was discussed in several languages. He was a visiting professor at a number of foreign universities including the New School of Social Research, New York, in 1975, and Northwestern University, Chicago. In the 1980s he became keenly aware of ecological problems, which is reflected in Okologische Kommunikation (1986).

In his final major work, Die Realitat der Massenmedien ("The Reality of the Mass Media", 1996), he returned to a key theme. He was a critic of the mass media in that he believed they had to attempt to gain and keep the attention of their audience. "This attention does not require truth but merely events or themes," that due to their value as sensation are able to gain attention. The mass media, as they become global, foster the decline of national broadcasting with a viewing public fixed geographically and politically, and this leads to the fragmentation of society.

For Luhmann reality is a rumour ("Die Wirklichkeit ist ein Gerucht"). Most of what we believe we know is that which we have been told by the media. It is based on trust in authorities, witnesses and experts. In a world of the growing division of labour we are less and less able to know reality through having seen it ourselves at first hand. We become more and more dependent on the mass media to inform us. Our picture of the world is made up increasingly of rumours that are presented to us by the mass media rather than from one person to another. This is true even though we are aware that the media do not deliver the unadulterated truth to us in our homes.

The same is true of advertising, which attempts to manipulate the viewer. The viewer is of course aware of this manipulation. But that alters nothing. More and more advertising is about "mobilising the attention" rather than selling a particular product. That is the reason why increasingly advertisements only reveal near the end who is advertising what.

Luhmann himself had a great need to communicate and he indulged himself in over 250 essays as well as 40 books.

Niklas Luhmann, born Luneburg, Germany 8 December 1927; Professor of Sociology, University of Bielefeld 1968-98; married 1960 Ursula von Walter (died 1971; two sons, one daughter); died Oerlinghausen, Germany 11 November 1998.

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