Personal Relationships in Luhmann's Theory of Social Systems: A Critical Appraisal
Center for Sociological Research K.U.Leuven Leuven, Belgium
Personal relationships were never really among the core concerns of sociological research. Following Friedrich Tenbruck, this reluctance could be explained by persistent theoretical assumptions regarding both the sociological relevance and the sociological researchability of all matters personal. In this paper we will argue that the problem could be said to lie even deeper, namely in assumptions regarding the nature of sociological theory itself. The social systems approach of Niklas Luhmann will be presented as conceptually well equipped to deal with this threefold challenge. More in particular, Luhmann reconnects personal relationships to the problem of social order via the distinction between psychic systems and persons on the one hand and the theory of symbolically generalized media on the other hand. The latter route, however, we will argue, entails the danger of relapsing into the assumption that the personal is not conducive to sociological research. We will specifically try to tackle the question whether the problem of Nahweltbedarf, out of which modern day´s intimate systems emerge according to Luhmann, should be considered a historically specific semantic construction or a problem identified by functionalist sociology. Both options are present in Luhmann´s work, but both have very different implications for sociological thinking about personal relationships.