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CIAO DATE: 03/02

Another Sociology for IR? An Analysis of Niklas Luhmann's Conceptualisation of Power

Stefano Guzzini

Copenhagen Peace Research Institute
August 2001


In the context of the present sociological turn in International Relations, this paper aims at relating theoretical discussions in International Relations to Niklas Luhmann's social theory. It proposes a dialogue through the analysis of power in Luhmann's theory, a concept which is often considered central in IR theorising. Given the frequently tautological use of power in social theory (and in particular in IR), many social theorists have tried to circumscribe the role of power in their theories. But Niklas Luhmann is one of the few non-individualist theoreticians who ends up having a very reduced role for power in his social theory.

This marginalisation of power in Luhmann's theory, so the argument of the paper, is the result of two theoretical decisions made together in his move to autopoiesis. First, Luhmann links power to one and only one social system, politics. Second, the political systems is considered equal to others, and hence the theory allows for a very different conceptualisation of hierarchy or stratification, one in which power as such plays little role.

Such a marginalisation is, however, not innocent. Whereas there are ample examples in IR of how one can fruitfully use his communicative concept, his autopoietic theory displays a perhaps unnecessarily technocratic and conservative bias. For the concept of power functions as an indicator of 'the art of the possible' and of responsibility. By defining power and politics as narrowly as he does, by its radical anti-'humanism', Luhmann's theory defines issues out of the reach of agency and politics and, by the same token, de-legitimates many attempts to question the status quo. A sketchy comparison with other post-structuralist social theories (Foucault and Bourdieu) sketches alternatives to such an approach.