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How does society renew itself?

NOTE: This event has moved ahead by a month to May

Individuals are shaped by the societies they live in to a greater or lesser extent. But what shapes a society? Is a society something that is, in turn, something shaped by the collection of individuals it encompasses? Or is it better to see it as something that has a kind of life of its own, constituted by individuals but more than the sum of its parts?

Sociologists have tried to answer these types of questions in various ways. Niklas Luhmann (1927 – 1998) used a concept from biology to understand how a society might at least appear to have autonomous characteristics - autopoesis. An autopoietic system is one which reproduces itself from within itself; a plant, for example, reproduces its own cells using its own cells. Applying this to the study of society, Luhmann held that social systems have an identity which is constantly being reproduced. When that identity falls apart the social system ceases. Social systems are dependent on resources from their own closed environment though those resources are not a part of the operation of the system.

It's a fascinating topic and the text, ‘The Autopoiesis of Social Systems’ is dense but has the advantage this month of being one of our shorter reads.


Luhmann, N ‘The Autopoiesis of Social Systems’ (1986), in Sociocybernetic Paradoxes: Observation, Control and Evolution of Self-Steering Systems, eds. F. Geyer and J. Van d. Zeuwen. London: Sage, pp.172-92.


Physical: Out of print though available from the British Library - your local library might be able to arrange an inter-library loan.

As ever, you're strongly encouraged to read the text in advance so that you can make a full contribution to the discussion. 

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  • Juanjo

    Thanks for organising Nathan. Very interesting, as ever. At some point I waffled something about this:

    May 18, 2014

    • Juanjo

      Maybe you can get the hippies baby, but not us. Hahaha

      May 18, 2014

  • eliana m.

    Sadly, moving and schedule and tiredness are beyond my control, afraid to have to admit. I'd even done all my homework ...I just can't move my legs :(. Apologies all. I am sorry to miss it.

    May 14, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    A society is shaped by what its laws encourage and discourage. Old Chinese saying:

    "The people are the grass and the laws the wind. When the wind blows, the grass will bend."

    May 12, 2014

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