Empirical Studies of Structural Couplings

11 – 15 April 2011   print this page

Conference organizers:

Gert Verschraegen, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium

Roar Hagen, UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Norway

Anna Henckel, University of Witten/Herdecke, Germany

Gorm Harste, Aarhus University, Denmark

Conference description:

The conference concerns applications of Niklas Luhmanns social theory of self-referential communication systems. The aim of the conference is to take a methodological stance on the theme of structural couplings since a broad range of researchers in various disciplines seem to be interested in this subject as well as methodological devices about what to do. The analysis of structural couplings is as fruitful meeting point for a wide range of scholars from various disciplines.


System theory has had a tremendous impact in social science since the 1950’ies. During the last decades, however, system theory has been completely transformed. Especially the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s system theory has transformed social theory and studies. Luhmann’s “Grand Theory” got its final form with his principal work Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft 1 – 2 in 1997, though additional books, articles and interviews have been published. Whatever one thinks about the exact form of his analysis, sociological theory has been transformed by the “Luhmann effect”.

Although Luhmann’s general theory is very abstract and distanced whenever he does not enter his own analyses of semantic differentiations, there is a strong drive towards analyses of empirical studies that use Luhmann’s insights. The very abstract character of the general theory apparently has a fruitful effect. What is often seen as normal and natural objects are observed as improbable, and new questions can be posed as to how they emerge, how they are codified, which forms their communication get etc. In fact, Luhmann’s theory about modern society and its emergence is quite a grounded theory based on extensive studies of social semantics in history as well as in an impressive scale of disciplines. All kinds of matters from pedagogic, art and religion to social research, organisation, law, politics and international conflicts are subjects for system research strategies.

As the theory is empirically open, new semantics, different codes, and changing forms turn out to change and develop structures at higher levels. The questions of the conference might be: Which forms do codes have if subjected to semantic change, and how do codes get resistant forms. Analyses of semantics, of forms, of codes, of systems of differentiations will be discussed at the conference. Above all, the central theme of the conference concerns the so called structural couplings between different subsystems.

The conference has been hold two times before in Dubrovnik, in 2007 and 2009 and will continue this ongoing work and gather scholars who work with methodological clarifications as well as empirical studies. Studies comparing system analysis with other forms of analysis are welcome (Foucauldian, Bourdieuian or analysis of discourse and discourse-ethics).

The language will be English.

The theme: Structural couplings

The aim of the conference is to take a methodological stance on the theme of structural couplings since a broad range of researchers in various disciplines seem to be interested in this subject as well as methodological devices about what to do. The analysis of structural couplings is as fruitful meeting point for a wide range of scholars from various disciplines.

Structural couplings concern two levels of analysis:

• First: functional systems, their relations to organisational systems and interaction systems – as well as movements and networks

• Second: couplings to psychic systems or living and mechanical systems

Hundreds of couplings could be discerned – and billions of cases. Nevertheless some are more famous:

• politics - law; organisations – individual psychic systems; structural couplings to organisational systems: economics, politics, art, religion, education etc.; art and money, or religion and law.

• Some themes are thematic to the point such as separation of powers, network analyses; others displays limits of steering etc.

• In general: Within a theory of differentiation the point is that structural couplings are not easy, are filled with crises or delimitations, risks, though also with division of labour.

• Some themes concern transformations as well as the historical evolution of differentiation and structural coupling.

Empirical research

• The contributions shall describe structural couplings, their forms, codes, semantics within a delimited field of research. The point is to establish an exposition that has a general interest for researchers outside your specific field; thus do not in lengthy ways go too much into the details.

• Do expose the methodological devices that have been most fruitful for the presented research; i.e. use a few pages not on system theory in general but on the methodological parts (semantics, distinctions, codes, differentiations, etc) used in the paper.

We will propose to publish a book with contributions from the conference. If you are interested to get more information on that proposal and its guidelines for articles, send a mail to the general course director Gorm Harste, gha@ps.au.dk


Abstracts for papers shall be submitted not later than February the 1st 2011. Abstracts for papers that could be used as articles in a book about structural couplings should be sent not later than December the 1st 2010 in order to get some substantial feed back before February the 1st.

Course directors:

Gorm Harste (Aarhus University) [gha@ps.au.dk]

Roar Hagen (Tromsö University) [roarh@sv.uit.no];

Anna Henkel (Universität Witten/Herdecke) [anna.a.henkel@web.de]

Gert Verschraegen (Leuven University [Gert.Verschraegen@ua.ac.be]

Organisational background

Every year international conferences about the use of Luhmann’s system theory have been held in Munich, Copenhagen, Tromsö, Stuttgart, Berlin, Montreal. Here, especially links between Bielefeld-Berlin-Copenhagen has strengthened the network. The Scandinavian and British internetwork has developed fruitful discussions, in which German and Dutch scholars have also contributed and French, US, Italian and Canadian researchers begin to participate as well. Translations of Luhmann’s books are still more numerous; introductions and theoretical contributions are flourishing. The same seems to be the case with empirical studies applying system theory in comparative studies, case-studies, historical studies or in concrete practice. Increasing groups of scholars in France, Italy and United States have participated. Some of the current debates take place at the following web-sites:

(http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/luhmann_danish/) (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sociocybernetics/ ).

In the 1980s, Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht and Ludwig Pfeiffer organised a number of great conferences at the Inter-University Centre of post-graduate studies (IUC) in Dubrovnik in the former Yugoslavia, now Croatia. Since 1981 Luhmann attended these conferences. Unfortunately, the Centre was bombarded in 1991 and for some years the conferences could not take place. The contributions from those conferences were published in a series of five rather big volumes at the important Suhrkamp Verlag (Der Diskurs der Literatur- und Sprachhistorie, 1983; Epochenschwellen und Epochenstrukturen im Diskurs der Literatur- und Sprachhistorie, 1985; Stil, 1986; Materialität der Kommunikation, 1988, Paradoxien, Dissonanzen, Zusammenbrüche, 1991). Quite a number of those studies were dedicated semantic history and contributions to a system theory of art.

Today, the Centre has been completely restored as well as its spirit. The centre has nice internet facilities and a number of rooms for study and possibilities for a accommodation. See www.iuc.hr . The centre only demands a fee of 35 Euro (2006) from each participant.

The Centre is located very close to the famous late medieval city of Dubrovnik, i.e. about 300 meters in the direction North-West to the central medieval gate. You can find accommodation in one of the many hotels in Dubrovnik (Hotel Imperial is the closest to the centre, but expensive, Hotel Lero is cheaper, and about 1½ kilometre from the Centre) or in one of the extremely many private accommodations (Room or “Sobe”) which are very cheep and can be found everywhere. When the airport bus stops, people will come and offer you private accommodation. The IUC also provides cheap accommodation in the building itself. Restaurants and cafés are everywhere. The weather in April: normally sunny and 15-25 C° though rain is not impossible.

The Dubrovnik airport is situated about 20 kilometres South of Dubrovnik. Travel by car and ferryboat is somewhat more complicated, though beautiful.

Practical Information:

The InterUniversity Centre is situated about 300 meters North-West to the main gate of the Old city in a yellow three floor building.

Meeting place: Sunday 13 September at 7 pm at Restaurant Orhan in the little harbour just outside the main gate west to the Old Town (http://www.restaurant-orhan.com/index.php?dubrovnik=restaurant_dubrovnik&lan=en)

All official meetings take place at the InterUniversity Centre, Frana Bulica 4 (the room number is announced at the entrance of the Building); iuc@iuc.hr; http://www.iuc.hr/

Coffee, tea etc is served in the café in the IUC (in the court) and in the café at the entrance. Meals will be taken in town.

Fee: 40 Euros per participant for the whole week.

Programme Coordinator: Gorm Harste, Department of Political Science

Aarhus University; Denmark;

Phone ++45 89 42 12 93

Fax: ++45 86 13 98 39

Mobil phone: ++ 45 60 89 46 68

E-mail: gha@ps.au.dk

Most presenters have 60 minutes at their disposal including discussion, i.e. for example a 30 minutes presentation and a 30 minutes discussion.

There are 20 presentations and about 25 persons at the conference.

A few remarks about your presentation shall be made here.

• Preferably, you should send your paper by e-mail some days before the conference. If not, please bring some copies with you. There are only very few copy facilities at the IUC.

• Overhead and power-point facilities are available at the IUC

• Be aware that most participants do not have time to read 26 long papers before the conference

• Prepare your presentation so that it is neither too long nor too short in order to get to the central points. Mark eventually central points in a short draft, hand out, overhead or power point.

• Take notice that the conference does not so much concern the empirical substance of your presentation, but more the way you use system analysis to open up the empirical problems you deal with; use your time on the problem of structural coupling. Below are a few hints you could choose to include in your discussion:

- i.e. do discuss what structural coupling does mean in your case and your analysis.

- How does your analysis construct its object of analysis: how is it delimited? Is there already an ongoing debate about it outside system theory? Or inside system theory? Does the object already contain descriptions that invite concepts about structural coupling?

- Do you or could you compare with other analyses using system theory?

- Is it general theory applied or grounded theory that leads to general propositions in your analysis?

- What is the distinctive system theoretical approach in your analysis? And the added value of system theory in your analysis of structural coupling?

- Can you present such an analysis to people who do not know much about recent system theory (here the public knows about it, but are your analyses forever closed for say Foucauldians, Bourdieuians or main stream political scientists, lawyers, psychologists, historians, sociologists?)

- How does it differ from other well-known important but different analyses (Weberian, Foucauldian, Bourdieuian or what ever)?

- Thus, put some of such problems up for discussion and at least: deal a bit with them in your presentation (if not also in a paper)

Conference lecturers:

Gorm Harste, Aarhus University, Denmark

Work Schedule:

  • Monday April 11th.
  • Moderator: Gorm Harste (Aarhus)

    The basics

    9.00: Introductory Remarks: Theme and Practical Information

    Presentation of participants

    10.15 –11.15:

    Klaus Dammann (Bielefeld)

    Structural coupling to Niklas Luhmann: How to do a personographie?

    Media and Structural Couplings: In-between, Behind or New Systems

    11.30 – 12.30:

    Jesper Tække (Aarhus)

    Media as the mechanism behind structural couplings



    Arlena Jung (Bielefeld)

    Public relations as structural coupling


    Florian Süsseguth (München)

    The (Re)shaping of Structural Couplings by Digital Technologies.

    The importance of digital media on existing and future forms of structural coupling


    Pernille Almlund (Roskilde)

    A new system or a structural coupling? The Mass Media

  • Tuesday 12th
  • Macro-developments in structural couplings:

    Markets, Neo-functionalism, constitutionalism

    9.00 – 10.00

    Steffen Roth (Yerevan/Genève):

    Markets as structural couplings of the functional systems of society

    10.15 – 11.15

    Julien Broquet (Amiens)

    Bypassing multiple views on a single currency. The Stability and Growth Pact from a structural coupling perspective

    11.30 – 12.45

    Lasha Bregvadze (Tblisi)

    Constituting Europe: Systems-theoretical Reconstruction of European Constitutionalism between Organizational and Functional Systems


    Functional systems and Structural Couplings

    15.30 – 16.30

    Gladstone Vienna (Bresil)

    On the structural couplings between economy and law

    16.45 – 17.45

    Katayoun Baghai (Montreal)

    Racial Discrimination and Functional Differentiation: "State-Action" Doctrine as Structural Coupling

    18.00 – 19.00

    Olga Boiko (Exeter)

    In the pursuit of collaboration: evolution of the health systems and structural coupling in health care/ research

  • Wednesday 13th
  • Emerging Systems and Structural Couplings

    9.00 – 10.15

    Manfred Füllsack (Vienna)

    Communication emerging. On simulating structural coupling in multiple contingency

    10.30 – 11.45

    Ignacias Farias (London/Berlin):

    Tourism intertwined: structural couplings, public collisions, and contextual guidance


    Hugo Alrøe; Egon Noe (Aarhus/Foulum)

    Observing Farming Systems

    Lunch, Excursions etc.

    One proposal is to make a common boat trip to the small island of Lokrum. Meeting time 14.00 at the old harbour (normal price is about 35 kn or 5 euros), return at about 18.00

  • Thursday 14th
  • Moderator: Jan-Inge Jönhill (Örebro)

    Health systems, Organisation analyses and persons

    9.00 – 10.00

    Olaf Kranz (Chemnitz), Thomas Erdmenger (Halle)

    Interpenetration and structural coupling during ward rounds in a hospital. An empirical illustration of an involute relationship

    10.15 – 11.15

    Edmundo Balsemão Pires (Coimbra)

    Semantics of Love and modern Family: the mechanism of projective identification in the Family

    11.30 – 12.30

    Nikolaj Kure (Aarhus)

    The relationship between employee and organization: Love or religion?


    15.30 – 16.30

    Vibeke Klitgaard (Copenhagen/Lund)

    The ”Observer Effect” Revisited: Methodological Reflections on Participant Observation and Interviews from a System Theory Perspective

    Structural coupling as steering

    16.45 – 17.45

    Lippuner, Roland (Jena)

    Thoughts on the Ecology of Social Systems

    18.00 – 19.00

    Stefan Walter (Rovaniemmi)

    Climate change and energy efficiency:

    observing structural couplings of the climate regime

  • Friday 15th
  • 9.00 – 10.00

    Kaveh Shamshiri-Petersen (Aalborg)

    Dehumanization as an unintended consequence of the heavy complexity in military missions

    10.15 – 11.15

    Gorm Harste (Aarhus)

    ‘War is a Continuation of Politics, but is Mixed into Another Medium’

    – A Famous Phrase observed by System Theory

    11.30 – 12.30

    Petteri Hansen (Helsinki)

    Policy program based teacher education development projects and the problem of educational steering