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Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 255–262

Niklas Luhmann: Contingency, risk, trust and reflection


Susanne Holmström ∗
Department of Social Sciences, Roskilde University, Denmark
Received 17 February 2007; received in revised form 7 May 2007; accepted 11 May 2007

Abstract
The hurdle of Niklas Luhmann’s extensive theories is their complexity and level of abstraction. These qualities are, however,
exactly what constitute their empirical sensitivity to the interrelation between organization and society in today’s hyper-complex
society. Luhmann never theorized on public relations; yet his theories enable identification of frames for understanding public
relations in interrelation to society’s overall coordination processes. Contemporary society apparently tries to solve problems
activated by the blind reflexivity of modernization by activating reflective forms of coordination. Correspondingly, practice ideals
of public relations can be reconstructed as reflection—the specific worldview which facilitates self-insight in relation to the social
context.
© 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Niklas Luhmann; Legitimization; Reflection; Reflective paradigm

1. Introduction

From being relatively simple and a question of legal and unambiguous market relations, the interrelations between
organization and society have grown decisively more complex and ambiguous during the latter half of the 20th
century, increasingly activating and diffusing new communicative structures such as public relations. Correspondingly,
a research agenda set to analyze these interrelations requires sufficient theoretical complexity and empirical sensitivity
to grasp contemporary society. These are qualities achieved by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s extensive theories
on society, communication, organization, semantics, knowledge, economy, politics, science, religion, trust, risk and
more.
From his first works in 1964 to his decease in 1998, Luhmann reformulates sociology by developing a comprehensive,
universal theory with flexible networks of interrelated concepts that can be combined in many different ways and can
be used to describe the most diverse social phenomena. His focus is the communicative filters – social systems –
through which the world is recognized. Every social contact is understood as a system, “up to and including society
as the inclusion of all possible contacts” (Luhmann, 1995a, p. 15). His approach, however, turns traditional notions of
systems upside down – in relation to machine metaphors as well as to teleological thinking, conservative, legitimizing
or functionalist ideologies. We are presented with a ‘recursive universe’ characterized by disorder and non-linear
complexity. Systems rationality is about establishing structures of expectation in an otherwise infinite, immense world
by reducing complexity and thus rendering probable communication. The focus is the social and temporal dimensions

∗ Tel.: +45 39635330; fax: +45 39639132.


E-mail address: susanho@ruc.dk.

0363-8111/$ – see front matter © 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2007.05.003
256 S. Holmström / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 255–262

which continuously change the fact dimension: How do perceptions of legitimacy, of what is seen as real, relevant
and right change in various interplays between different and continuously changing social perspectives? This makes
Luhmann’s theory and analyses central to public relations research and practice, given public relations as a social
practice embedded in conflicts of legitimacy.
Luhmann never theorized specifically on public relations. However, so far in particular in German-speaking and
Scandinavian countries, his theories are increasingly being applied in studies regarding public communication processes
(Ronneberger & Rühl, 1992) and the interrelation between state, society and organization (Andersen, 2003, 2004;
Bakken & Hernes, 2003; Holmström, 1997, 1998, 2005a, 2005b; Vallentin, 2002).
His extensive theories can be applied with a focus on numerous perspectives. In this article, to illustrate some of
the potential of Luhmann’s theories to the analysis of public relations a focus has been chosen on his general social
theory, his theory on modern society, and his theory on organization.

2. A general social theory

In his general social theory, Luhmann describes the dynamics of the social filters through which our perceptions
of reality are constructed. These filters are seen as constituted by continuous self-referential selection processes,
communication (Baecker, 2001; Luhmann, 1995a, chapter 4). They are guided solely by their own horizon of meaning,
not the intentions and hermeneutic capacities of a communicating subject (Luhmann, 1990d). This does not mean that
you refer nothing to the psychical, and only to the social: but it means that you can do both, and in any case have
to make a decision (Baecker, 2006; Luhmann, 1995b). Systems that operate on the basis of consciousness (psychic
systems) and communication (social systems) respectively both require meaning for their reproduction and couple
structurally. No social system could exist without the environment of psychic systems, and correspondingly, as Knodt
observes, “a consciousness deprived of society would be incapable of developing beyond the more rudimentary level
of perception” (1995, p. xxvii).
The communicative processes select only from the system-specific horizon of meaning. In this respect, social sys-
tems are closed systems. However, they open up to the environment in their observations.1 Yet, a system can observe
and realize only from within the specific meaning boundaries of the system (Luhmann, 1986, p. 40ff). An exam-
ple: the economic system cannot observe its environmental or human strains before they affect market conditions
(consumption, labor, investment, and supply) and consequently can be seen with economic distinctions. Moreover,
what is observed is reconstructed by systems-specific distinctions. For instance, boycotts for political or religious
reasons are transformed into information by the mass media system, into knowledge by science, and into a ques-
tion of profits by the economic system. So, in systems theory we can never talk of a linear causality and direct
adjustment to the environment, only of a social system’s – whether society or an organization – adjustment to
itself:
When put under a pressure of selection, the system principally synchronizes itself with itself, however can do
this in forms that are more or less sensitive to the environment (. . .). As environment counts only what can be
constructed within the organization. (Luhmann, 2000a, p. 162)
Consequently, the conditionality of an observation and the difference between the first-order observation charac-
terized as reflexivity and the second-order observation of reflection become decisive (Luhmann, 1993a, chapter 12;
Luhmann, 1995a, chapter 11). Luhmann’s distinction between reflexivity and reflection is the basis for analyses of
contemporary ideals of organizational legitimization (Holmström, 1997, 2004, 2005b). Reflexivity implies a mono-
contextual, narcissistic perspective from within, from where the organization takes its own worldview for given, takes
what it sees to be the one reality, the only truth – and consequently conflicts blindly with different worldviews. In
reflection, the perspective rises to a higher level which facilitates a poly-contextual worldview. A system can observe
that other systems perceive the world from quite different perspectives, and that its own worldview is contingent, i.e.
not natural or necessary, but could be different (Luhmann, 1995a, p. 106).

1 Observations are operations applying distinctions to observe something as distinct from something else. Luhmann’s distinction theory is a

significant part of his later works, however to give this complex aspect sufficient credit goes beyond this brief introduction to Luhmann. For more,
cf. Andersen, 2003; Luhmann, 1993b.
S. Holmström / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 255–262 257

3. Modern society’s differentiation

Based on the general theory on social systems which can be applied in any society and to any organization at any
time, as unfolded in particular in his major work Social Systems in 1984, Luhmann develops his theory on modern
society, culminating in another major work, The Society of Society in 1997.
Communication compulsively flows where connection is most probable. According to Luhmann, this has led to a
new form of primary differentiation of Western society since the 1600s. Communication is conditioned by specific
symbolic media such as money, truth, information, love, power, law (Luhmann, 1997) in self-referential functional
systems which produce different realities, different criteria of success and relevance and consequently different per-
ceptions of legitimacy. To build up specific complexity, they are incompatible and indifferent to each other (Luhmann,
1998b, p. 35). Function does not – as for instance with Parsons (1951) – imply any legitimation. A systems’ func-
tion is seen as an offer of meaning which is achieved by its specific reduction of the complexity of the world. In
several analyses Luhmann deals with some of the empirically more prominent functional systems: politics (2000c),
law (1993c), science (1990b), economics (1999), art (2002c), mass media (2000b), religion (2002a), and education
(2002b).
Unlike the mono-centric ideas of state, public sphere, or civil society as in former stages of modernity, Luhmann
describes a contemporary society with no top, centre, privileged position or commonly shared reasoning. Society
is poly-centred and “descriptions can no longer converge, but you have to observe the observer when you want to
determine what is reality to whom” (Luhmann, 2000a, p. 449).
We can basically distinguish between the dominating, functionally differentiated perspectives on the one hand and
on the other hand perspectives which provoke the functionally differentiated society to continuously adjust itself.
When a matter is observed as being of common interest, the public perspective questions the contingency of otherwise
taken-for-granted social filters as contingent (Baecker, 1996; Luhmann, 2000b, 2000c). However, when social filters
are questioned as contingent, social irritation and insecurity are aroused, and defense and relief mechanisms are
activated. Among these we may understand public relations structures. The public perspective produces an immense
communicative complexity, which is reduced into public opinion, stereotyped ‘scripts’ which organize opaque matters
(Luhmann, 1995c). The position of victim versus decision-maker finds its legitimacy in the perspective of fear, “which
resists any criticism based in pure reason” (Luhmann, 1986, p. 240). In ways reminiscent of former societal forms,
morals postulate universal values, and consequently, in today’s poly-centred society, spur conflict rather than consensus
(Luhmann, 1990a). In opposition to the functionally differentiated society, protests are communications addressed to
others, calling on their sense of responsibility without offering solutions or taking on responsibility (Luhmann, 1986,
1996). Empirically, we can observe how these alternative perspectives are increasingly activated during the latter
half of the 20th century. The functionally differentiated society reaches its full development with firmly stabilized
functional systems, and society threatens itself with “rigidifying into repeated, but no longer . . . adequate patterns
of behaviour” (Luhmann, 1995a, p. 372). ‘Adequate’ relates to the main problem of society: the continuation of the
communication processes which constitute society. Inspired by Luhmann’s diagnosis and based on his theories, society’s
way of dealing with the increasing strain of modernization has been analyzed with a focus on changing perceptions
of organizational legitimacy and social responsibility (Holmström, 2003, 2005b). Three interconnected frames for
understanding new interrelations between organization and society are identified: the general petrifaction of modernity,
the increasing conflict between independence and interdependence of functional systems, and the poly-centralization of
society.

3.1. From reflexivity to contingency and risk

First frame is that with full functional differentiation society seems to rigidify into taken-for-granted reflexivity.
Cumulatively and latently, the stabilized functional dynamics produce a critical mass of unintended side-effects –
such as pollution, destruction of the rain forest, stress and oppression of human rights – which call into question the
foundations of modern society. During the latter half of the 1900s protests are increasingly activated, and gradually
provoke communication on communication and a second-order perspective which sees social filters as results of
contingent choice between more options (Luhmann, 1998a, p. 35). Ideas of universality and univocality are replaced
by diversity and ambiguity. The legitimacy of so far more or less taken-for-granted norms and worldviews is questioned.
Reflexive reasons based in necessity, nature, authority, convention no longer count as valid justification. Interpreting
258 S. Holmström / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 255–262

Luhmann, two main consequences of the recognition of contingency growing a general feature of full modernity are
the pervading feeling of fear, and trust as support of increasingly insecure social relations. Both aspects constitute
focal challenges to contemporary public relations practice.
More and more dangerous situations are regarded not, as in older societal forms, as the result of nature, god,
or destiny, but as the result of decisions (Luhmann, 1993a). Everything from tsunamis to infertility is increasingly
attributed to decisions. From the fear position of potential victims the risk involved in any decision is continuously
questioned (Holmström, 2005a). Consequently, Luhmann suggests that the risk problem lies not in the fact dimension
as supposed in most observations on ‘the risk society’ (Beck, 1992). Risk cannot be transformed into security, but is
a question of attribution. The dichotomy of risk versus danger, of decision taker versus victim constitutes an inherent
and irresolvable conflict of contemporary society. We cannot explain fear in the dangers we ‘really’ face—but partly in
the temporal dimension in regard to the principally unknown future (cue word: sustainability), and partly in the social
dimension: that one person’s or organization’s risky behavior becomes a danger to the other has grown a fundamental
problem of society (cue word: responsibility).
As to trust, the whole social order is based on structures of expectations. In the normative society of yesterday, control
and socialization guaranteed stability. With the recognition of contingency, norms and values grow unstable (Jalava,
2003). This is where trust assumes an important role in mediating social relations (Luhmann, 1982, 1988, 1995a). Trust
makes it possible to interact on uncertain premises, without firm knowledge, knowing only that it is possible to predict
future actions with a certain amount of probability. We do not need trust in certain and constant situations, where
confidence prevails and alternatives are unconsidered. However, in unfamiliar, unpredictable and deviant situations we
need trust, which implies the acknowledgment of contingent choice, and the responsibility involved in choice.

3.2. Between independence and interdependence

Second interrelated frame for understanding the social processes which provoke new interrelations between orga-
nization and environment is the increasing conflict between independence and interdependence as the functional
differentiation stabilizes (Luhmann, 1997, 1999). The higher the independence and specialization of a functional sys-
tem, the higher is the interdependence. On the one hand, tight shutters are needed between, for instance, the rationale
of economics and of science for the individual dynamics to function adequately. Verdicts of illegitimacy lurk in case
of suspicion of economically biased scientific research results. On the other hand, the development of new medicine
involves science, which is dependent on the educational system for qualified scientists and the health system for clinical
tests, which are again dependent on economy, which is dependent on law for intellectual property rights, which is again
dependent on the political system, and so forth.
Gradually, we see how the blind reflexivity and negligence of functional systems is questioned during the latter half
of the 20th century. A prominent example is the challenge of economic ideals of social responsibility as fulfilled by
increasing profits. Decades of numerous legitimacy conflicts seem to activate a general reprogramming of functional
systems into reflection. In reflection, on the one hand systems recognize the justification of their independent dynamics;
on the other hand they acknowledge that to develop their independence, their specialization and growth—then they
are interdependent on mutual resources. In the economic system, previously extra-economic matters and ideals of
multiple bottom lines are integrated. A notable illustration is World Economic Forum’s declaration (2002) stating that
issues such as corporate responsibility, sustainable development and triple-bottom-line are no longer “add-ons but
fundamental to core business operations.”

3.3. From law to legitimization

The third interrelated frame is that with full differentiation new political forms emerge. They constitute new chal-
lenges to organizational legitimization. Analyses show how the intervening law of the welfare state gradually grows
overburdened and inadequate for flexibly containing the accelerated speed and complexity of social processes, and for
simultaneously securing the interdependence and the independence of functional dynamics (Luhmann, 1990c). Part
of this picture is national legislation’s impotence in the wake of globalization. Based on Luhmann’s theories, these
emerging forms of regulation are conceptualized as context regulation (Willke, 1994), supervision state (Andersen,
2004; Willke, 1997), poly-contexturality (Sand, 2004), and poly-contextualism (Holmström, 2006).
S. Holmström / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 255–262 259

The analyses share the observation that these new political forms rely on the regulating force of a complex interplay
between a diversity of perspectives and positions. Correspondingly, sanctions take new forms such as mass mediated
legitimacy crises and failing support from stakeholders: e.g. consumer boycotts, recruiting and motivation problems
and failing investments. A new poly-contextual sensitivity is activated throughout society together with a pronounced
increase of legitimizing structures such as public relations.
In all three frames – acknowledgment of contingency, functional reprogramming, and poly-contextualism – the
core problem can be identified as modernization having reached a stage where the side-effects of its blind reflexivity
constitute a critical mass. Considering these premises, how can we more specifically identify contemporary ideals of
public relations practice?

4. Organization as decision processes

In his organization theory, Luhmann (2000a) offers a sensitive optic on the conditions and constraints of orga-
nizations’ interrelations to society. Organizations are constituted not by employees, factory buildings, products or
services, but “of nothing but communication of decisions” and related communication (Luhmann, 1997, p. 833). The
decision processes of any organization refer to several functional systems. Yet, they predominantly identify themselves
with reference to one of society’s functional systems: a research institution to science, a court of justice to law, a
state to politics, and so forth. It facilitates decision processes and strengthens expectations when you know whether
you deal with a hospital, a business company, a humanitarian organization, a law court, a newspaper or a political
party.
The late 1900s see an evolution in the perception of legitimacy and in the legitimizing practice of organizations
which we may relate to the three interrelated frames introduced above. First, when decisions are no longer seen as
based in necessity and natural norms, organizations are continuously pressured in particular by the public perspective
and fear positions to legitimize decisions and their underlying rationales. Relations are no longer mediated by passive
confidence, but by active trust which partly relies on random ‘trust checks’ by the mass media. Second, the growing
interdependence motivates organizations to intensify their sensitivity to a multiplicity of functional rationales. The
relevant environment evolves from the inner, inherent environment – which to business is market – to include an
increasing range of stakeholders. The fundamental functional rationale of the organization is no longer undisputed
trump in the decision processes. Third, poly-contextualism relies on continuous legitimization in public communication
processes and within networks and partnerships involving conflicting perspectives. From the regulating reference being
state, it evolves to include a broad interplay between the public perspective (increasingly of global reach), news media,
and various NGOs.
Contemporary ideals such as social responsibility, dialogue and symmetrical communication can be seen as response
to these challenges of modernization. In a Luhmannian reconstruction, these ideals are identified as the raise of
observation from first-order to second-order perspectives—from reflexivity to reflection, an evolutionary learning
process in specific stages during the latter half of the 20th century (Holmström, 2002, 2003, 2005b). First, as to
petrifaction of modernity, we may see reflection as a reaction to the blind side-effects of reflexivity. An organization
applying the narrow perspective of reflexivity is insensitive to the broader context and consequently to the unintended,
however often far reaching side-effects of its decisions. In contrast, reflection exposes the contingent nature of social
processes: the reflective organization acknowledges the responsibility of decision-taking. Second, as to the conflict
between independence and interdependence of functional systems, reflection implies a poly-contextual perception of
the environment. This entails self-restriction of an organization out of consideration for other relevant systems in order
to secure its own existence in the long term. Third, as to political regulation, reflection means that usual conceptions
of autonomy and regulation as opposites are turned upside down. The higher the degree of autonomy, the higher is the
ability of sensitive self-regulation which characterizes poly-contextualism.
Based on Luhmann’s theory on organizations as observing communication systems, the implications of reflective
as opposed to reflexive practice are identified in three closely interrelated operations in organizations (Holmström,
2004).
First focus relates to the organization’s way of observing its environment, sensitivity. The reflexive organization
sees itself from within, and sees only its inherent environment. In reflection, in contrast, the organization sees itself as
if from outside, and sees a larger and more complex environment as relevant. Linear stakeholder models are replaced
by increasingly dynamic and fluid models seeing own organization no longer as the centre, but as one of several poly-
260 S. Holmström / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 255–262

centred interacting social systems. As opposed to the self-centred perspective of reflexivity and an environment to be
to be managed, then reflection involves an attempt to see the world through the eyes of others and sees an environment
to be respected.
Second focus deals with the way in which an organization mediates its decision processes—i.e. its identity or self-
description. How is the environment reconstructed within an organization? Which resonance is possible? In reflexivity,
the organization’s decision processes blindly and mono-contextually are mediated by a functional primate. In reflection,
the interdependence of other functional logics is acknowledged as a precondition of independence, and the organization
learns to filter its functional primate through other functional logics. A business enterprise reflects upon how basically
economic decisions are observed from e.g. the mass medial, health, educational, political, or family perspectives. In
reflexivity, the organization takes its worldview for given and sees itself as naturally socially responsible. In reflection,
the organization questions its own identity, role and responsibility. When decision premises are no longer given, then
they are continuously regenerated along with the decision processes. Further, the organization sees that risky decisions
are inevitable, and that a precondition of trust is to relate reflectively to own responsibility.
Third focus is on the self-presentation. When legitimacy cannot be justified in naturalness or necessity, then consistent
but sensitive and consequently constantly changing self-presentation is apparently required. It serves the purpose of
generating trust. Trust relies on opportunities for learning and testing one’s trust. If they are few, then resort into distrust
is more likely than to trust (Luhmann, 1995a). Reflexivity is characterized by blind self-presentation from within, relies
on confidence and does not generate trust. Furthermore, reflexivity does not see conflicts, or tries to silence them or
dissolve them by information. Reflection, on the contrary, sees the potential of conflicts, exposes their background and
facilitates exchange of views. Moreover, the reflective organization sees that what different observers consider to be
the same thing generates quite different information for each of these positions (Luhmann, 1993a) and that ‘objective’
information and transparency produce dissent rather than consent. As Luhmann remarks:
Among the remedies proposed are the hopes set in communication, in dialogue, in comprehension, and in the
willingness to compromise. (. . .) But can communication help where mistrust prevails and where the participants
(. . .) observe on the basis of different distinctions? Or will the gap between decision-makers and those affected
finally destroy the (still widespread) hopes in learning and communication? (1993a, p. 114)
Instead, the reflective organization openly acknowledges responsibility as decision taker, and commits itself in
relation to society.

5. Potential for perceptive practice

Luhmann’s universal approach implies that analyses can be undertaken at all social dimensions, and furthermore
of interrelations between these dimensions. Based on his theories, analyses show how organizations’ legitimizing
processes interrelate to society’s overall coordination processes. This enables identification not only of specific situa-
tional legitimacy conflicts, but identification of general legitimacy conflicts within which organizations are embedded.
Moreover, variations in ideals as well as practices can be related to society’s overall coordination processes in respect
to different times, cultures, political and socio-economic forms. Late modern Western society apparently tries to solve
problems activated by the blind reflexivity of modernization by gradually activating reflective forms of coordination.
Correspondingly, empirical practice ideals of public relations can be identified as reflection – the specific worldview
which facilitates self-insight in relation to the social context. We can identify different categories of public relations
practice based on the difference between reflexivity and reflection.
In the immediate analysis, reflection may seem a wonder treatment. However, a prominent quality of Luhmann’s
theories is the unrelenting and unsentimental sensitivity to any new problems resulting from solutions to previous
problems. On the one hand reflection copes with contingency, however on the other also increases the perception of
contingency and flux. Reflection may lead to hyper-irritation, feelings of powerlessness and indifference, to paralysation
of decision processes or to distorted resonance, or to exaggerated resources spent on for instance social reporting, media
contact and stakeholder departments. Also, we see indications of a reduction of the complexity produced by reflection
into a new reflexivity.
So far, based on Luhmann mainly basic research has been conducted related to public relations. This line of research
is increasingly beginning to serve as a platform for applied research (Kingo, 2006) which may hold a considerable
potential for perceptive, enlightened practice.
S. Holmström / Public Relations Review 33 (2007) 255–262 261

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