System Theory as Global Sociology-Japanese Ramifications of Parsonian and Luhmannian Thought

Ulrich Heinze

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This article explores various engagements of system theory with Germany and Japan, looking in particular at the theories of Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann. Talcott Parsons based his sociological theory on the idea of a system of the values of a given society. Niklas Luhmann’s extended version was based on the idea of self-reproduction (or “autopoiesis”) of social systems within all modernized societies. Two studies have recently re-examined system theory on basis of its engagement with Japan: Günther Distelrath has subjected Parsonian theory on Japanese modernity to a structural revisioning in Die japanische Produktionsweise (1996); and Peter Fuchs has reconciled what he calls the “dividualism” of the Japanese psyche with the Luhmannian theory of functional differentiation in Kommunikation — Japanisch (1995). Distelrath critiques the Parsonian school of thought for giving Japan the status of a backward “follower” of the West. Fuchs, in contrast, endorses the universalist premise of Luhmann’s concept of society and makes Japanese “dividualism” the paradigm of effective modernization. Following on from Fuchs, I argue that system theory has the potential to overcome cultural limitations and become a global sociology. Its theoretical agenda in the twenty-first century includes the refinement of its concepts of the psychical system, the revision of its notion of the public and the mass media, as well as a systematic contribution to environmental protection and ecological communication in a functionally differentiated world society.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)54-75
Number of pages22
JournalThe American Sociologist
Issue number1
Early online date13 Dec 2012
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2013


  • Parsons
  • Luhmann
  • System theory
  • Functional differentiation
  • Japan
  • Values
  • Autopoiesis

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