The paradox of differentiation : Niklas Luhmann's social systems theory and the impossibility of unilateral control - the case of apartheid

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann, proposed a social theory that could describe a society at a far more abstract level than is customary. Based on his study of general systems theory and drawing on the works of biologists and mathematicians, Luhmann formulated his theory of social systems which he hoped would move social theory away from the discourse of oppression. In developing his theory, one of the conclusions he arrived at was that unilateral control (or domination) was impossible as a permanent feature of a system. This paper demonstrates (a) how such unilateral control cannot be a defining structure of a society although it appears temporarily from time to time and (b) how Luhmann's social systems theory provides a theoretical framework to understand the impossibility of unilateral control. By using Luhmann's theory of differentiation, this paper will show how the unique evolution of the Apartheid subsystem led to the temporary success of its efforts at unilateral control. It will also be shown how the same unique differentiation could not allow for this kind of control to persist over time - hence the paradoxes of differentiation. The paper concludes by indicating the dangers of superficial abstractions based on temporary states of a system, and advocates a level of abstraction more concerned with action than experience.

Includes bibliographical references (leaves 63-65).