|公 法 评 论
Another sociology for IR?
An analysis of Niklas Luhmann's conceptualisation of power
Paper prepared for the 42nd Annual convention of the International Studies
Association in Chicago (21-25 February 2001)
Table of contents
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
I. Power as a medium of communication, or: how to eventually tie power to one
system . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
1. The interactionist-functionalist root of Luhmann's early concept of power 5
2. The purely communicative concept - and examples of its fruitful use in IR 8
The substitution of power (9) - Physical violence and power revisited (12)
3. Power in an autopoietic systems theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
II. Costly choices for power: was there no alternative? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
1. An external critique: contexts of power and the function of power in
political discourse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
2. An internal critique: decentralised subjects (Foucault) and diffused yet
hierarchical power (Bourdieu) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
A microsociology of power (Foucault) (22) - Field theory (Bourdieu) (23)
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
This is a revised version of a paper presented at the ECPR Joint Session of Workshops,
Copenhagen, April 2000. I am thankful to all participants of the workshop and
in particular Mathias Albert, Lothar Brock, Chris Brown, Thomas Diez, Anders Esmark,
Gorm Harste, Michael Merlingen, and Stefan Rossbach for their comments and
criticisms. After the workshop, Bernt Berger, Lene Hansen, Friedrich Kratochwil,
Anna Leander, and Ole W?ver provided valuable suggestions for improving this
earlier draft. Since nobody of them has yet seen this version, the usual disclaimers
apply even more forcefully.
Another sociology for IR?
An analysis of Niklas Luhmann's conceptualisation of power
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.
Given the recent sociological turn in International Relations (IR) theory,
usually labelled 'constructivism', it is hardly surprising, if also more
seemingly remote theories are joining the stage. And Niklas Luhmann's
system theory might seem far-fetched in many respects. The theory is
coming out of a functionalist tradition not exactly en vogue in the social
2 STEFANO GUZZINI
sciences or in IR in particular. Its radical anti-individualism is hardly
mainstream. At the same time, however, Luhmann's theory has attracted
an ever wider audience across sociological traditions - and not only in
Germany, where it is simply something no social theoretician can afford to
ignore. Hence, that it took so long for Luhmann to be discovered in IR has
perhaps more to do with the rather difficult language and the sheer
complexity of the theory than with a foregone judgment of its usefulness.
For there are good prima facie reasons for IR theoreticians to have a
closer look at Luhmann's theory. First, Luhmann's theory very consciously
and fundamentally deals with the question of reflexivity, crucial for
constructivists (Guzzini 2000), but not only. His theory is based on operationally
open, but self-referring social systems. As such, his theorising of
self-reference and 'reflexivity' cuts across nearly all his theory in an extent
unparalleled by another social theory. Second and relatedly, Luhmann
insists in a parallel treatment of psychic and social systems. Hence, when
analysing science, his theory will necessarily include a parallel treatment
of knowledge and knowledge production, a sociological epistemology
besides analysing how science has become, and functions as, a social
system. His theory is perhaps the most extreme version of a sociological
turn in social theory, there is.
Yet the enormous formalism of the theory hampers an easy access by
the outsider. That makes it difficult to devise a strategy for a dialogue
between Luhmann and IR. One way consists in looking at those passages
where Luhmann explicitly relates his work to the 'international'. Since this
has already been done elsewhere (Albert 1999), I will follow a different,
though complementary, strategy.
The paper proposes to look at Luhmann's social theory by concentrating
on one particular concept crucial for IR, namely power. Power has been
chosen, since it is a concept considered fundamental in IR or classical
political science - more so than for Luhmann - and yet still allows a
manageable access to some of the potentials and limits of his social theory
for IR theories. Hence, the following will try to unravel the content
Luhmann gives to 'power' in his theory by linking it up with some
conceptual discussions in IR. A caveat is due. Since the paper tries to read
Luhmann through the eyes of an IR audience, referring - whether explicitly
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 3
or implicitly - to the present debates in IR, it is necessarily different, and
perhaps inferior, to a purely hermeneutic re-reading of Luhmann in his own
terms. As said, the purpose of this paper is another. It is not yet more of a
starting point for establishing a theoretical dialogue.
The choice of Luhmann for analysing power is interesting insofar as he
is perhaps the one social theorist who most radically reacted against the
tautological use of power (in fact particularly frequent in IR!) and its
ubiquity, by tightly circumscribing its role in his theory. This strategy is
more common among individualist social theorists (Dowding 1991; 1996),
whereas holists tend to look for a more encompassing power concept, or
play with a series of related concepts like power and authority (see the
discussion in Lukes 1979). Luhmann is the one holist who cuts power done
Hence, the following analysis will be done in two steps. First, my
argument will be to demonstrate the way Luhmann's social theory
deliberately underplays the phenomenon of power. This will be shown by
analysing the shifts in Luhmann's general theory which do not leave the
concept of power untouched. Indeed, there are three concepts of power in
Luhmann. The last reserves a very limited place to power. This is a very
interesting theoretical choice, one which will meet the profound sympathy
of many who ever tried to get a grip on the concept of power, I am sure. It
is a choice that can, yet also needs to, be justified. A second part will try to
argue that the theoretical justifications in Luhmann's theory do not seem
so compelling. In a sketchy comparison with other social theories that share
many of Luhmann's general premises - I will mention Foucault's theory
of power and Bourdieu's field theory - in his final concept of power seems
less appealing to this reader than his own intermediate communicative one.
I. Power as a medium of communication, or: how to eventually
tie power to one system
It is not easy to summarise Luhmann's approach to power. For the major
book, Macht, which was (little) revised in its second edition in 1988 (no
preface, no new literature after 1975), is heir of a literature in social science
4 STEFANO GUZZINI
heavily influenced by approaches which are in tension to his functionalism
and his later autopoietic system theory. Whether or not this indicates a
radical shift in his theorising, reading the revised edition of 1988 seems to
show that starting from his earlier writings, Luhmann could have gone also
in a different direction than his Social Systems. It is on the basis of this
internal tension that the article wants to problematise theoretical choices
made by Luhmann in comparison with other social scientists who have
faced somewhat similar theoretical problems.
But how can I say that Luhmann's theory underplays the phenomenon
of power when he wrote a whole book, his first, about it (Luhmann 1975)?
As I will argue, this move is the result of two theoretical decisions. First,
Luhmann defines power as a medium of communication which, in his
theoretical shift towards autopoiesis, is increasingly tied to one and only
one social system, namely politics. Second, he moves away from classical
stratification theories in sociology by levelling all social systems: the
political system is removed from its prior or superordinate place.
None of these moves alone w ould diminish the importance of power,
only both together. To the contrary, keeping only one of the two theoretical
decisions would potentially increase the role of power in (and for) social
theory. Hence, Luhmann's first move does not exclude a 'structural
coupling' (see below) which privileges the conversion of power into other
media (as actually discussed in Luhmann 1975: 101ff.). Also, his second
move, if done alone, would result in something similar to Foucault's diffuse
conceptualisation of power. Also this concept tries to capture the idea of
'power without the king' (Foucault 1977), but, as a result, tends to find
power ubiquitous and exactly not tied to one system.
The two moves are played out in the three stages of his theorising of
power which is throughout understood as a medium of communication -
just that the theory in which it is embedded changes, and hence also the
meaning of the concept. Such a conception is, of course, in the tradition of
Talcott Parson's functionalism. And indeed, in a first phase Luhmann
mixes functionalism with some ideas from the social exchange and
community power literature in the US. A second, somewhat intermediate,
phase then shifts to a purer communicative understanding of power, before
the turn to an autopoietic system theory revises it again.
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 5
1 The locus classicus is Blau 1964. For IR, see Baldwin (1978; 1989 ).
1. The interactionist-functionalist root of Luhmann's early concept of
Luhmann bases his understanding of power mainly on the social exchange
and community power literature, which was prominent then in the US (and
to which he gives a communicative twist, see below). This is interesting,
since this type of literature has an individualist understanding of social
interaction and is therefore meta-theoretically incompatible with Luhmann's
The basic inspiration of this literature is Max Weber's definition of
power as getting somebody else to do something against his or her will. As
a result, this literature defines power as a causal concept, but not of the
earlier mechanic version (as e.g. Russell 1960 ). Luhmann explicitly
follows Dahl (1968) in taking 'will' or preferences seriously and hence this
conceptualisation of power needs to refer to both individual and interactive
preference rankings and foregone alternatives, i.e. sanctions and cost
analysis. Moreover, power is also a multidimensional concept insofar as
resources in one domain might be of little use in another. Moreover, Dahl
would insist that power is a relational, not to be confused with a relative,
concept.1 In other words, power does not reside in capabilities or resources
- which are just this: re-sources - but in the effect those can have in the
relationship between actors. We can talk about power only if intention has
been affected - in the extreme case: will has been broken - in a relationship.
As such, power is, finally, a counterfactual concept, since it means
that action has been affected which would have been different otherwise.
Dahl's concept has been fundamental for the so-called community
power literature which is in many points at odds with functionalism à la
Luhmann. This literature had been written as an open attack against elitist
approaches, insisting on the empirical verificability of power claims (Dahl
1958), something a functionalist approach would have difficulties to meet.
Therefore, empirical studies had to be carried out in clearly delineating the
issue areas where power would obtain - analyses which took the form of
(empirically careful) decision-making studies (Dahl 1961; Polsby 1980).
6 STEFANO GUZZINI
Also, this literature is self-consciously methodologically individualist,
again something functionalism wants to break with.
But this is not the sole inspiration for Luhmann. So does he also accept
that power not only resides in those instances in w hich a visible 'will' has
been broken, something Peter Morriss (1987: 15) has called later the
empiricist 'exercise fallacy' of power , so typical for the Dahlian approach.
For him, it exists also where particular wills are never formed in the first
place, something which has become famous as the 'third dimension of
power' (Lukes 1974). And clearly, he seems more interested in the idea of
a social exchange underlying power relations.
Hence, the relational and causal concept of power, combined with a
stress on social exchange and a resistence to an empiricist understanding
of science, allows Luhmann to somewhat uneasily embed his early
functionalism. For he defines power as a medium of communication, which
is, of course, 'part and parsons' of structural functionalism.
Media of communication, like power or money, are seen to have
developed as a response to the rising complexity of modern societies. As
in his entire theorising, Luhmann is interested in the ways systems have
been able to cope with (and, in turn, generate) increasing complexity. With
the development of written communication and its accrued distance
between information, understanding and acceptance/refusal, symbolically
generated media of communication become necessary for their function of
reducing complexity. They create motivations for the acceptance of
communication, in order to avoid that this distance is perceived as making
communication too complicated, or even impossible (this view is constant
throughout, see Luhmann 1990: 179).
These media are hence a supplementary institution of language. They
represent a 'code of generalised symbols' that steer communication and,
through this, the transmission of 'selection impulses'. In our case, for
instance, does power affect alter's selection of alternatives through the
implicit or explicit threat of negative sanctions. For communication exists
only if ego or alter (Luhmann uses this still in 1975!) is affected in its
'selections' - what an individualist would perhaps call 'choices' or
'decisions' but which lack the conscious or explicit component of the latter
two concepts. Other media of communication, like money, truth and love,
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 7
2 Muddling theories again, Luhmann repeatedly refers to negative sanction as
sources of power. See Luhmann (1990 : 158).
3 Here, Luhmann explicitly refers to Baldwin's analysis (1971) sharing the
assessment of the difference, yet disagreeing with Baldwin's idea of keeping both
under a common heading.
also affect selections, but on the basis of something else.
In a neo-weberian vein, power is a symbolically generated medium of
communication which presupposes that both partners see alternatives
whose realisation they want to avoid. The initial Weberian formulation is,
however, recast into the conceptual framework of functionalism. The
realisation of power (Machtausübung) arises, when the relation of the communication
partners to their alternatives to be avoided (Vermeidungsalternativen)
is such that ego wants to avoid them relatively more
than alter. In a more individualist framework, that would sound very close
to Keohane and Nye's (1977) concept of power through asymmetrical
interdependence. Power as a medium links up one combination of
alternatives to be avoided with another, yet preferred one. It ensures that
this be visible to the communication partners. For Luhmann (1975: 22), the
code of power communicates an asymmetrical relation, a causal relationship,
and motivates the transmission of selections of action from the more
powerful to the less powerful one. It is based on the control of access to
negative sanctions (Luhmann 1990 : 157).2
Power is indeed inextricably connected to negative sanctions (Luhmann
1975: 23). Two further notes are, however, needed with regard to the
relationship between power and sanctions. Luhmann does not want to equal
negative and positive sanctions, the latter not being part of power. He can
see how a positive sanction can be turned into an instrument of power by
changing the preferences of another actor such that he/she perceives the
foregoing of the reward as a threat (something Thomas Schelling later
would call a 'throffer'). In all other cases, Luhmann thinks that the
inclusion of positive sanction (the offer of a reward) would make it impossible
to distinguish between power and other media of communication like
money - or love.3
Despite the prominent role of negative sanctions, it is also important to
stress that Luhmann follows Talcott Parsons' view that power and con-
8 STEFANO GUZZINI
4This is also similar to Hannah Arendt's (1969) position. The difference is that
Arendt's antinomy is based on the idea that power is inextricably linked to consensus
or legitimacy, whereas, according to her, violence is not. Luhmann does not want to
refer to legitimacy in this context (Luhmann 1975: 68f.).
straint (Zwang), which in the last resort means physical violence, are
antithetic.4 Let's mention again that a medium of communication has the
role to ensure that alter and ego are not asked every single time to negotiate
their relation, to play out all the alternatives they might have. Hence, communication
ensures that some alternatives do not arise, as it were, in order
to stabilise expectations about the relationship. Communication must
ensure an affect on alter's action without ego acting itself. By substituting
ego's action for the communicated threat of it, physical violence replaces
communication itself. Therefore, it cannot be power as such. Yet, according
to Luhmann, it represents the extreme form of a power-constitutive
alternative that actors would prefer to avoid (Luhmann 1975: 64).
Hence, in his book on power from 1975 we have a hybrid approach
where power is (1) merely seen as a reduction of contingency (indeed
double contingency since we have to think of both alter and ego) which
sounds straightforward interactionist, and (2) its very character as medium
of communication is embedded in a functionalist (small) theory of history
(or at least of modernisation). Moreover, Luhmann (1975: 11) explicitly
accepts Dahl's theory-driving analogy to causality ('die theorieleitende
Kausalvorstellung'), even though he wants to use it in a more abstract way.
This somewhat mixed solution is inherently unstable. It is hardly surprising
that Luhmann looked for w ays to fix it.
2. The purely communicative concept - and examples of its fruitful use
It is probably exaggerated to talk about a second phase in Luhmann's
theory before the autopoietic shift. Yet, in his writings well after the initial
Macht, Luhmann did tease out the communicative potential that remained
more buried earlier. Hence, themes became more visible, and indeed his
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 9
5 This has been an important theme in the move to more structural/impersonal
power debates in IR. See, for instance Friedrich Kratochwil (1988, in particular 272)
and Richard Little (1989). For a discussion, see Guzzini (1993).
6 Whether it makes sense to talk about power relations when power is a medium
of communication is another point.
earlier writings retrospectively more coherent. I call this, in lack of a better
word, his purely communicative phase. I would argue that this is the one
closest to social constructivism in IR today.
The communicative twist occurs through a small, but heuristically very
consequential move: power does not (only) ensure asymmetrical coordination
of action, but (also) regulates the communicatively generated
attribution of causality. 'Thus power is present only when the participants
define their behaviour in correspondence to a corresponding medium of
communication' (Luhmann 1990 : 157, my translation). Power is not
only permitting a certain type of communication, but is itself in fact
socially constructed through communication.5 Still more constructivist,
Luhmann (1990 : 163) argues that the process of the causal
attribution of power, in turn, has an effect on the actual relationships of
power.6 In other words, despite the apparently technical functionalism,
Luhmann's interest in communicative theory leads him to develop a strong
vision of the social construction of reality, at least for a while. Only that the
'social' referent here is not an individualist mind, but intersubjective
communication systems and media.
Such a resolute 're-entry' of power into power-steered communication,
produces very interesting research avenues which I would like to exemplify
with two examples in IR. First, I would like to demonstrate how Luhmann's
discussion of 'power substitutes' seems to make obvious sense to
IR scholars. Moreover, I would like to use Luhmann's resolutely communicative
turn as a critique of Luhmann's own conception of physcial violence
as the ultimate power-constituting negative sanction - exemplified through
a discussion of the Copenhagen School of security.
The substitution of power
If power is simply an attribution of causality in the communication, then it
becomes ex post very plausibly to look at symbols which become a
10 STEFANO GUZZINI
7 It is an interestign question whether or not also the battlefield is no more than
a substitute. It is certainly a bordercase for a constructivist, since the battlefield has
an effect for two reasons: because it is accepted to have such an effect (war as an
institution of international society), and because it physically constrains.
shorthand for the symbol power, itself a shorthand to allow interaction.
Since the exact weighing of alternatives in a relational concept of power is
hardly possible for the problem of double contingency, communication
develops substitutes for the medium (with the same function of stabilising
expectations) which, in turn, become a symbolically generated code of
power. There are substitutes in the form of reductions like hierarchies
(presupposing already a ranking); history (attributing power through past
events), related to this: prestige/status and the example of previous
significant events; finally, rules deriving from contracts. In all these cases
the direct communicative recourse to power is replaced by a reference to
symbols, that oblige normatively all parties and take account of the
presupposed power ranking.
In IR, this idea of substitutes for power has been the daily bread of
much good IR theorising. So did Hedley Bull (1977) refer to the 'great
powers' (that is to hierarchy) as an institution for ordering the anarchical
society. Vertzberger (1986) has made much work on the role of history in
decision-making including its substitute for actual power realisations. More
constructivist inclined scholars refer to the discursive construction of power
through the mobilisation of collective memory. Reputation has been an
important ingredient of deterrence theories and has been revisited more
recently (Mercer 1996). Indeed the Cold War obsession of domino theories
and 'keeping commitments' so visible in the difficult U S disengagement in
Vietnam (Kissinger 1979; 1983) makes only sense with the concern about
power substitutes which actually cannot be divorced from power as such.
In the very classical understanding of the role of diplomacy, realpolitik
diplomats, i.e. those who orient their action according to the balance of
power, need substitutes that account for power, such as to avoid that its
measurement be each time found out, and fought out, on the battlefield.7
Many of the classical realists have been concerned about the very absence
of such a consensus on the practical level. Kissinger, for instance, deplores
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 11
that with the advent of nuclear weapons the relationship between power
and politics has been loosened, and that power has become both more
awesome and more 'abstract, intangible, elusive' (Kissinger 1969: 61). In
his eyes, it was crucial that diplomats came to a shared understanding of
power, independent of its actual use. To make the traditional balance-ofpower
politics and diplomacy work, the central coordinates, references and
symbols, such as national interest or power, must have a translatable
meaning. For compensations cannot be used to ease tensions if their value
is deeply contested; nor can balancing diplomacy have its effect of
moderating conflict, if there is no common understanding of the point of
equilibrium (for a longer discussion, see Guzzini 1998: chapter 7 and
Therefore, during the Cold War, some IR scholars have understood
their responsibility in contributing to find commonly acceptable substitutes
for power. Daniel Frei (1969) urged his peers in his inaugural lecture to
help politicians to come up with a generally (i.e. socially or communicatively)
accepted measure of power. Such a measure, which implicitly
acknowledges a constructed nature of power, would help to stabilise
diplomacy in the Cold War.
Spinning the argument further, Luhmann (1975: 10-11) claims that,
would science ever become able not only to propose substitutes but actually
measure power, this would destroy these substitutes and hence affect reality
itself. He feels confident, however, that whatever scientists would come up
with, it would be just another set of substitutes and not a real measure of
power - and that politics would blissfully ignore it anyway.
Physical violence and power revisited
Another part which would be of interest here is that this somewhat metacommunicational
move undermines Luhmann's very idea of the relationship
between power and violence. As mentioned above, Luhmann argues
that violence is the ultimate power constituting action alternative, although
not power itself. This assumes that violence is always that action, which
power-inferior actors (or systems) would most prefer to avoid. This is,
however, rather implausible since it presupposes a militaristic vision of
negative sanctions in which the organised form of physical violence is
12 STEFANO GUZZINI
necessarily the most threatening action across all domains.
Let me explain why I disagree with the idea that physical violence is
necessarily to be seen as the ultimate threat with reference to the understanding
of détente policy in the Copenhagen School of security studies
(Buzan, W?ver et al. 1998). Basic for this school are two ideas: security is
to some extent sectored (military, economic, etc.), and security is neither
to be found in objective indicators, nor only in subjective perception: it is
discursively constructed. Hence, security analysis focuses on the way
issues are discursively 'elevated' into concerns of national security, on the
way they are 'securitised' (W?ver 1995) - or its opposite. The basic idea
is that when issues are 'securitised', that is, turned into concerns of national
security, certain extraordinary measures become legitimate (hence, 'securitisation'
is also about power, in fact). Ole W?ver has used this approach
to show that the Western détente policy was conceived as 'desecurtising'
certain types of East-West relations, such as economic exchange, free
movement of people, classically conceived as 'high politics' by communist
The implication of this argument is that for some actors, it might be
preferable to keep power mainly defined in terms of physical violence, but
it does not need to be the more powerful one. Indeed, as wary Soviet
governments have shown with regard to the ouvertures (considered offensives)
of the Carter administration, they preferred to keep a military
definition of their relationship. They resisted the attempt that 'the attribution
of causality' be done in economic terms, a field in which it would look
less well. The more the US was the military threat it used to be, the more
it stabilised expectations. Inversely, for the West, the threat of physical
violence was not the ultimate power-constituting factor.
One could reply that the role of other factors than physical violence was
parasitic on the existence of mutually assured destruction. But this simply
reinforces the argument. If MAD had indeed the effect of ruling the ultimate
use of force out, then physical violence is only an ultimate threat
under certain conditions, namely a primarily military communication. It is
not all that difficult to imagine several power relations, in which the
ultimate threat of physical violence would simply be inefficient: nuclear
warheads might not be the right means to influence interest rates. This is
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 13
8 The classical statement on the power- money analogy in IR can be found in
Arnold Wolfers (1962). For a critique of the fungibility assumption, see Raymond
Aron (1962: 97-102), and then in particular David Baldwin (1985; 1989).
what the literature calls the lacking fungibility of power (as compared to
money).8 Since Luhmann uses the analogy of power and money, he is
forced to overstress the homogeneity of negative sanctions in which, at
least in principle, physical violence can substitute any other form.
3. Power in an autopoietic system theory
In his mature phase, Luhmann bases his system theory on the idea of
autopoiesis. This is usually considered a very consequent and also consequential
move in his theory. Hence, before I will explore the implications
for the concept of power, I need first to give a rather brief introduction into
the basic idea of Luhmann's late system theory.
Luhmann social theory is a theory of systems. He distinguishes
physical, psychic and social systems. Systems have an internal side and an
environment, made up mainly by other systems. Between some social
systems there can be special relationships, which Luhmann's theory calls
'structural coupling', such as for instance between the systems of politics
and of law. For all their differences, psychic and social systems are
conceptualised in an isomorphic way. Systems come to exist when (1) they
reproduce themselves, by (2) following an internal logic driven by a
system-specific binary code. For instance, the social system science which
has become autonomous in well differentiated societies, functions
according to the code 'true/untrue'. The system builds up certain expectations
about its environment which it then sees confirmed or not, in a binary
way. This quite ingenious conceptualisation allows Luhmann to have the
cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, it permits an inner logic through an
operational closure, since there is one binary code which steers 'understanding'
from inside the system. On the other hand, the system is open and not
deterministic, since the feedback from the environment, deciphered in the
binary way of the code, influences its reproduction.
14 STEFANO GUZZINI
It is perhaps important to add, that Luhmann proposes a rather unique
and very radical constructivist epistemology here which still allows a
minimal realist ontology. The environment is not a neutral ground upon
which different visions are tested. It is an amorphous thing of whom we
only 'know' what the system in its reproduction expects from it. The
feedback cannot be likened to a correspondence theory of truth, but corresponds
simply as an external check which tells the system science whether
its expectations were confirmed or not. Hence, Luhmann claims to have a
constructivist position which differs both from a realist version of a correspondence
theory of truth and from an idealist position whose epistemology
gives up any reference to reality (see respectively Luhmann 1990: 260ff.
With this general background in mind, I would like to demonstrate how
the concept, and indeed what he would have referred to as the phenomenon
of power, increasingly disappears from the picture. Luhmann's concept of
power was to be heavily reduced in its reach by combining two theoretical
decisions. Luhmann ties power increasingly to one system, politics, which,
in turn, is no longer given prominence among the subsystems of society. I
cannot judge what move came first, but the turn to his biology-inspired
autopoiesis, and not a kind of hermeneutic reproduction, might require
In 1975, Luhmann started with a very wide concept of power, which,
as all symbolically generated media of communication, is 'omnipresent' in
society. Since this is far less the case in his later writings, it might warrant
a central (and lengthy) quote. Opening a chapter on the 'social relevance
of power', Luhmann writes
Like language, symbolically generated media of communication have one
necessary systemic reference: society. They pertain to problems of the whole
society, and regulate constellations, which are possible at any time and
anywhere in society. They cannot be restrained and isolated into sub-systems,
in the sense, for instance, that truth would play a role only in science, or
power only in politics. There are constellations in connection with doubly
contingent selectivity, which cannot be eliminated out of the 'horizon of
possibilities' (M?glichkeitshorizont) of human interaction. Wherever humans
communicate with each other, there exists the probability of a transfer of
selection patterns in one form or another. (A different assumption would be
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 15
9 This might sound strange, for many IR scholars use agency and individuals or
persons interchangeably. But this confuses a level of analysis and the origins of
action. In purely structuralist theories, there is, of course, a link to the individual level
of analysis; agency, however, is to be located at the systemic level of analysis:
structures act through people.
a good sociological definition of entropy.) Wherever human communicate
with each other, there is the probability that they orientate themselves by
taking the possibility of a mutual harming into account, thereby having
influence on each other. Power is a life-world based universal of social
existence (Luhmann 1975: 90, my translation).
The move to autopoiesis as a central concept of systems implied for
Luhmann, that every reference to humans had to be replaced by physical,
psychic or social systems. That move which is perfectly coherent within his
theory has, however, rather profound consequences for the conceptualisation
of the media of communication. In particular, it does exactly what
Luhmann admonishes in this early quote: it ties specific media closer to
'their' sub-systems. This results, first, from the need to have a code-steered
autopoiesis which occurs in operative closure. This code, in turn, is a
binary expression of the media of communication. The two concepts have
been inextricably connected (Luhmann 1990 : 196). Second,
dissolving the human behind systems means that the link from one
subsystem to another can no longer be made by communicative interactions
which might carry several media of communication at the same time
(power and money, for instance). It must be done through a new concept,
'structural coupling', which is again a system-internal representation of a
certain part of the environment. This reinforces the 'inner logic' of the
code. All agency is transferred to the systems.9
The central place of autopoiesis also undermines any way of understanding
communication as a hermeneutic process for which language is
crucial - and which might have resolved some of the apparent paradoxes
with which Luhmann justifies his approach. Let me give as an example his
argument with regard to pluralism in his chapter on world society (Luhmann
1997). He argues that different culturally defined systems in the
world cannot be understood by observers who accept this pluralism. Since
the observer cannot have a view from somewhere, no Archimedian point,
16 STEFANO GUZZINI
10 Since Luhmann criticises the ethics of pluralism (refraining from proposing his
own vision), also this conception of translation might make the latter more
11 For a recent discussion, see Pizzorno (1994 ). This is, roughly, where
some post-structuralists tend to put their own position, since strangers are at the
border, the 'margins', both in and out of a community/society.
independent of any of these cultures, pluralism must accept an 'in-theworld'
observation which is at the same time 'out-of-the world' and hence
becomes self-contradictory. But this argument only follows when
understanding is conceived in a non-hermeneutic manner. In this, the
argument recalls the classical rebuttal by Bernstein (1983) that Kuhn's
(1970 ) incommensurability thesis (and its related holistic theory of
meaning) is not, or less of, a problem for those who conceive of the
observer as translator, both in and out of the language (see also Kuhn
1970).10 Similarly, German sociology in the tradition of Schutz (1962) has
tried to conceptualise the observer as stranger, as opposed to a foreigner,
defined by being both in and outside of the community.11 There is no a
priori to believe that the paradox is better resolved though time (observation
of observation...), as Luhmann repeatedly proposes.
In any way, once power is tied to the political system and the latter is
given an equal, but mutually autonomous place in Luhmann's social
theory, little is left of power's omnipresence in practice. This produces a
series of debatable implications for his social theory, and indeed our
general understanding of politics, as the next section will try to show.
II. Costly choices for power: was there no alternative?
There is something to be said in favour of avoiding omnipresent concepts.
The risk is great that this presence comes at the expense of any positive
heuristic. Hence, Luhmann is probably right to insist in differentiating
power from truth, money, love or other media which can be connected to
causal asymmetries. So does, for instance, the 'capacity to effect' (Morriss
1987), or 'to bring about significant consequences' (Lukes 1974), not much
to distinguish 'power' from 'love'. Nor are other concepts more compelling
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 17
12One interesting path which I am not following here is Barnes', a constructivist
thinker usually quoted by Luhmann, who reminded us, that this tautology might be
all there is to the concept of power (Barnes 1988).
13 This is not necessarily a universal, but it seems to work at least in some
contexts, like the European or North American.
such as, for instance, that '[power's] widest meaning is', looking from the
power bidder's view, 'that of a potential for change' (Boulding 1989: 10)
or, from the recipient's one, the 'ability not to have to change, to adjust to
change or to tolerate change' (Burton 1965: 8). It is all the greater as the
underlying power concept was meant to be causal. Omnipresent causes
produce tautologies. Also, simply deducing power backwards from effects
will necessarily produce explanatory circles.12 As this section will argue,
however, there are some peculiarities about the concept of power which
need to be taken into account when making theoretical choices - or at least,
its implications be spelled out.
The following will be a conceptual critique, more precisely both an
internal and external critique. Especially the latter is no obvious enterprise.
For conceptual analysis allows the critique of concepts mainly in terms of
internal coherence. Since analytical concepts are basically theory-dependent,
i.e. their meaning derives from the way they are embedded in a theory,
it makes only limited sense to criticise theoreticians for using the 'wrong'
concept, except if it can be shown to be incoherent within the theory.
Hence, in principle, conceptual critique is internal.
Besides the internal concept-theory coherence check, there is, however,
also another external critique. This derives from the idea that the meaning
of concepts is in their use. Put more strongly, conceptual analysis is not
only interested in w hat concepts mean, but what they do.
This section will first show that the choice of certain power concepts is
not innocent, in that power is a concept which fulfills certain purposes in
our political language.13 This amounts to an external critique of Luhmann.
This is followed by a more internal critique which, in a comparison with
some ideas of Foucault's theory of power and Bourdieu's field theory, tries
to see whether on the basis of similar meta-theoretical assumptions,
alternative theories would have been possible that would reserve a different
place to power.
18 STEFANO GUZZINI
1. An external critique: contexts of power and the political function of
Peter Morriss did the first systematic study of the question: why do we
need 'power'? He distinguishes the practical, the moral, and the evaluative
contexts (Morriss 1987: 37-42). In the practical context, we are interested
in power because we want to know what things we can bring about. Agents
want to know their pow ers in order to realise their opportunities. Knowing
their abilities, they might also decide which to enhance. People are also
interested in power, because they want to know what other agents can bring
about. If we want to reach an outcome, and it is not in ours but in some
other agent's reach, this knowledge could be the beginning of getting a deal
done. The most important interest might perhaps be to avoid being harmed
by the effect of powers. We are interested in power, secondly, because
through its assessment, moral responsibility can be attached or avoided.
'Ought' implies 'can'. Accused persons need to show that they could not
bring about an action, or that they could not prevent it. Finally, Morriss
finds a third context, the evaluative one. Here people are interested in
concepts of power in order to judge not individuals, but social systems.
In other words, Morriss' practical context refers to the 'art of the
possible', to the realm of possible action, whereas the moral and the
evaluative contexts refer to the assignment of blame and/or responsibility
for action. In exactly this way, William Connolly had earlier argued that
there is an irremediable connection between power and responsibility
When we see the conceptual connection between the idea of power and the
idea of responsibility we can see more clearly why those who exercise power
are not eager to acknowledge the fact, while those who take a critical
perspective of existing social relationships are eager to attribute power to
those in privileged positions. For to acknowledge power over others is to
implicate oneself in responsibility for certain events and to put oneself in a
position where justification for the limits placed on others is expected. To
attribute power to another, then, is not simply to describe his role in some
perfectly neutral sense, but is more like accusing him of something, which
is then to be denied or justified (Connolly 1974: 97, original emphasis).
Whereas Morriss distinguishes between three different contexts, Con-
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 19
nolly's position seems to imply that the moral context, albeit not always the
primary one, is necessarily implied when we use an idea of power. Morriss
refuses this argument because we often do not refer to 'power' for blaming
individuals, but for evaluating societies. Furthermore, he says that often we
want to know power to be prepared for what others can do to us. I think
that this is right. But the argument to be discussed here is not about why we
look for power, as Morriss does, but why we call something a phenomenon
of power, as Connolly and Lukes do. This shifts the question: does it mean
that assigning power asks for justifications, be they individual or collective?
Is justification necessarily linked to responsibility?
Here, I think Lukes and Connolly made a very important point. As we
have already seen, 'power' usually implies an idea of counterfactuals. The
act of attributing power redefines the borders of the 'politics' in the sense
of the 'art of the possible'. Accepting an attribution of power might result
in particular actions. Lukes (1974) rightly noticed that Bacharach's and
Baratz' (1970) conceptualisation of power sought to redefine what counts
as a political issue. To be 'political' means to be potentially changeable, i.e.
not something 'natural', 'God-given', but something on which agency
could potentially have an influence. (Operational) power analysis, as all
other assignments of power, is therefore a power exercise or 'political'
itself (For a similar point, see John Hoffmann (1988: 7-8). This does not
mean that this political potential is always taken up. Political acts can be
without any significant effect.
To refer to power, hence, opens up a debate. In this debate, the claim
that power was involved must be justified. Justification implies an
assessment about feasibility and thus responsibility. When 'power' is
analysed through its attribution, it is 'framed less from the point of view of
predicting the future behaviour of recipients than form a perspective that
enables participants and investigators to locate responsibility for the
imposition of limiting conditions by linking those conditions to the
decisions people make, or could make and don't' (Connolly 1974: 101).
In a sense, verbalising 'power' is hence redefining 'political space' in
all the three different contexts established by Morriss. In the practical
context, seeing power from the recipient side tends to look for effects
whose origins might have been unknown before. We attribute power in the
20 STEFANO GUZZINI
14 In a similar vein, Daniel Frei (1969: 647) notes that the concept of power is
fundamentally identical with the concept of 'the political'; to include something as
a factor of power in one's calculus, means to 'politicise' it. This is also one of the
main purposes of Susan Strange's concept of 'structural power' (see, for instance,
practical context to show that some harmful effects, to which we are
exposed, could be avoided. This could mean that nonintended or unforeseen
effects must now be justified as being unavoidable (or as being too
costly to change, and so forth).14 Here the issue of moral responsibility is
only potentially present. The moral and evaluative context is evoked when
the power wielders keep on exercising power and/or preventing the better
social arrangement from being realised. Thus, Lukes and Connolly are not
necessarily tying all critique to a question of individual blame. Their
attempt to find an empirical referent for power structures in some elites
implies blame only, exactly as within Morriss' approach, if the latter are
preventing change. Yet, one should be careful to note that nothing of the
just said implies that attributing 'power' is necessarily 'radical' or 'progressive'.
Redefining the boundaries of political issues, the 'art of the possible',
just means this. The only implication is a questioning of the status quo.
This discussion has a double implication for Luhmann's narrow concept
of power. Let us, for the sake of the argument, assume that Luhmann is
right, that is, power is a medium which is tied in developed societies to the
system of politics only. Moreover, the functional differentiation does not
necessarily hierarchise between systems. The result is twofold. On the one
hand, Luhmann's evolutionary theory of history cements the division of
subsystems as functionally necessary and basically reinforces the view of
the status quo as a necessary one. Second, the theory itself, having a
looping effect on the environment it observes (a re-entry into itself),
disempowers any attempt to question the necessity, or even the borders of
systems which have already been differentiated.
Consequently, Luhmann has a rather negative view on attempts to mix
up codes and media, as, most prominently perhaps, the link between the
political and economic system in present approaches in International
Political Economy. Moreover, any attempt to do so, i.e. any attempt to
politicise, is excluded since his concept of power does not cover it: political
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 21
process is reduced to technological adaptation. The problem is hence not
only that power is tied to politics, but also that the range of the 'art of the
possible' has concomitantly be reduced to exclude as dysfunctional
basically all questions which pertain to the re-definition of the borders of
the public space. This is really not far from Thatcher's 'there is no
alternative' principle. For this, we get no other reason, that it has been born
out by the differentiation of society - something itself established by
Luhmann's theory in the first place. The circle is necessary.
To put it shortly: Luhmann's concept of power has a doubly limiting
effect on 'politics' by tacitly legitimating the limits posed to politics by the
status quo (and hence preempt issues to be politicised) and by defining the
subject matter of that system very narrowly. Luhmann might have a
concept of the political system which is potentially global and hence
attractive to IR. But at the same time, he defines it so narrowly that it
exactly excludes the very questions the globalisation literature sees as most
challenging, like, for instance, the very subject matter of International
Political Economy or, in political theory, the question about the future of
(which) politics in a 'post-national constellation' - to use the words of
Luhmann's long-standing German counterpart Jürgen Habermas (1998).
For him, these would be technocratic questions of a successful reduction
2. An internal critique: decentralised subjects and diffused, yet
As we have seen, Luhmann decided to abandon the idea that media of
communication are trans-systemic and locked them into one system. I w ill
not discuss whether system theory needs to make such a move. Since his
earlier work could do without, there are at least some doubts allowed.
Instead, this last section will simply look at other social theories who faced
similar problems, yet did not go as far in abandoning the role of power both
on the level of action and of observation. For this, one has to choose
theories which have a certain family resemblance. They are not many and
hence the comparison is not only limited in number but also in scope. Still,
22 STEFANO GUZZINI
I think it allows to highlight some important points.
I have chosen Foucault's treatment of power which is quite well known
now in IR and Pierre Bourdieu's social theory of fields. None of them is
methodologically individualist. They do, or could be made to, espouse
constructivist meta-theoretical principles.In contrast to Luhmann, however,
they deconstruct the classical vision of the subject in a way that it does not
disappear. Bourdieu's approach, in particular, offers a perhaps more coherent
conceptualisation of power - and, for sure, a conceptual apparatus
which is empirically more accessible. Via a demonstration of these
conceptualisations of power, I hope to indicate where one does not need to
follow the Luhmannian path.
A micro-sociology of power (Foucault)
One of the basic intuitions of Luhmann's theory is its extreme anti-
'humanist' vision of the way social theory has to be conceived. The
individual is openly exposed as the reification it is in our common understanding.
Luhmann dissolves the individual behind the different systems
there are, including psychic and social systems. This implies that agency
is done only within those systems, not by what we usually refer to as
individual 'agents'. In radically constructivist manner, it is ascribed to
persons constructed in communication.
Such an understanding bears some similarities with another poststructuralist
theoretician who became famous for having declared (at some
point) the 'death of the subject'. Yet, whereas Luhmann disposes of the
individual behind system communications, Foucault starts a radical move
to a micro-sociology of the body. In Foucault the subject disappears under
the weight of its conditioning. Hence, it is, paradoxically, forcefully
restated: l'assujettissement focuses on the subject as (empirical) locus
where empowering and disempowering relations meet. As such, it is not
necessarily an anti-humanist concept, although it questions the autonomy
of modern (wo)man. In Luhmann, the subject is a pure ascription and hence
disappears behind the social system of communication, being cut into a
cognitive, physical, and social system. In other words, whereas Foucault
tends to (perhaps: over)socialise the subject, looking at the way the identity
and even the very body are assujetti, Luhmann systematically defines it
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 23
15 It is true that in principle Luhmann's theory, being intrinsically reflexive, can
make this 'blind spot' visible by a higher order observation.
Luhmann would certainly not have debated that there are other w ays to
deal with the difficult topic of subjectivity in contemporary social theory.
The question is, rather, whether there is anything won through having a
Foucauldian conception. Here, it seems to me, that a discursive understanding
has the additional advantage to open up studies in the sedimentation of
language which are less important for Luhmann (here the debate with his
Bielefeld colleague Koselleck comes to mind) and which comes under the
label of genealogy in Foucaultian inspired studies. Now, whereas
Luhmann seems to reify the historical development of functional differentiation,
this de-constructing approach would try to unveil the power relations
inherent in the fixed meanings of some central concepts and issues (see, for
instance, Jens Bartelson 1995).15
Field theory (Bourdieu)
Similarly, there is no logical deduction from the idea that subsystems have
become more equal to the idea that hierarchy, or social stratification, is a
concept to be heaped on the dustbin of history. The basic intuition of
Luhmann (1997: 157) is that functional differentiation has turned the world
'acentrical' and 'heterarchic'. But this still leaves many possibilities to
conceive of power and functional differentiation without a circular reification
of the status quo.
Luhmann seems to assume that if the political system is no longer
hierarchically superposed over the others, hierarchy itself diminishes (I
might be wrong here. I proceed as if I were not). Luhmann explicitly says
that principles of inclusion/exclusion have become more important than
classical stratification principles. This is in line with his evolutionary vision
moving from stratified to functionally differentiated societies. But I
wonder, whether this critique is not simply based on naming things
Recent power research specifically in IPE is trying to come to grips
with an international society which is increasingly stratified, exactly
24 STEFANO GUZZINI
because of the principles of inclusion/ exclusion. Similarly to Luhmann,
there is much literature on the diffusion, if not evaporation of power
(Strange 1996), if by that is meant a control or steering capacity, an
assessment akin to, among others, Luhmann's vision.
Although it is somewhat far-fetched to compare the conceptual
intuitions of Susan Strange with Luhmann's thorough social theory, it gives
me a foil to indicate some of the peculiarities of Luhmann's theory when
applied to IR. In a somewhat more old-fashioned functionalist manner, here
similar to Ernst-Otto Czempiel (1981), Strange argues that classical state
functions are taken over by others than the political system, by mafias and
multinational enterprises. In other words, she depicts a world in which
power has been 'privatised'.
There are two conceptual tensions with Luhmann's approach which
might be worthwhile highlighting. On the one hand, Susan Strange would
de-link the analysis of particular functions from the sub-systems to which
there might have been attached before: political (and not only those)
functions can be taken over by economic and societal networks, and, why
not, transsocietal epistemic communities. As a result, even on the classical
political functions, territoriality plays less of a role. Using an older terminology,
one could say, that on the input functions, national institutions are
the main part of what there is - democratic representation being a pure, but
special case - but on the output functions, this is no longer the case. This
means, that whereas functional differentiation still applies, the organisational
or institutional setting can no longer be taken for granted. In times
of change, this becomes actually an empirical question.
The second tension concerns the fact that for Strange, there is individual
agency and that hence she can conceive of some actors or networks to be
perfectly present and influential in many of the heterarchic systems. This
would be achieved, not through the convertibility of media of communication
(or the fungibility of power resources), but because some actors
control different types of capital which, in the now more fluent boundaries,
they can 'cash in'. But this would, again, mean that we need some concept
at hand with which we can link different sources of power to different
systems. Then, we would be able to see that the very existence of such a
heterarchy could be analysed as part of a hierarchical system since it
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 25
systematically reproduces inclusion and exclusion.
There are social theories around which have handled these matters. I do
not dwell on one social theory which seems an obvious candidate, namely
Manuel Castell's massive approach to the information society (Castells
1996). It offers a theory of society which focuses, as Luhmann does, on
communication/culture and economy as globalising sub-systems in a
wealth of conceptual innovation and empirical analysis. One might like this
or not, but there is a strong, both theoretically and empirically based
competitor, already out there. The final view is both a diffusion of power
which, however, is not horizontally organised.
Another possible inspiration is Bourdieu's field theory. For the present
argument, Bourdieu is perhaps the best comparison since his theory comes
in many regards closest to Luhmann's. This applies in particular to his
theory of fields which have a similar role as social systems have in
A field stands both for a patterned set of practices which suggests
competent action in conformity with rules and roles, and for the playing (or
battle) field in which agents, endowed with certain field-relevant or
irrelevant capital, try to advance their position. This social subsystem is,
however, not mainly defined by its functionality as compared to the entire
system, but relies intrinsically on a historically derived system of shared
meanings which define agency and make action intelligible. Its boundaries
are an empirical question. Being historical, fields are open and change over
time. But their inertia, their habitus (field-specific shared disposition), their
internal (open) logic, what Bourdieu calls the sens referring both to
meaning and direction, produces an inward looking reproduction which can
take over many of the features of Luhmann's autopoiesis.
The practices of agents in these fields are inspired by taken for granted
beliefs, the so-called doxa, which Bourdieu defines also as the very
presuppositions of the field. Doxa refers to the quasi-perfect correspondence
of a socially constructed, yet objectified order (structure and fields)
and the subjective principles of its organizations that agents share. It is in
this spontaneous sharing of the common-sense in which the natural, but
also the social w orld appears as self-evident (Bourdieu 1977: 164). This
concept is his empirically narrower translation of the German Lebenswelt.
26 STEFANO GUZZINI
16 For a more detailed discussion in IR, see Guzzini (2000), and in IPE, see
Such an analysis relies heavily on the study of field-specific sets of
dispositions, called the habitus. Bourdieu defines the habitus as a product
of history which in itself (through effecting certain practices) produces
history. It guarantees the active presence of past experiences through
providing schemes of perception, thought and action which tend to
reproduce practices in conformity with the field throughout time (Bourdieu
1980: 91) The habitus functions like the materialisation of collective
memory. It is the obvious link to a more constructivist theory both at the
level of action, and, since the scientific field works in a similar way, at the
level of observation.
The logic of the field also implies that the dispositions are not themselves
perceived as the result of a particular history; they are, as Bourdieu
says, the 'forgetting of history that history produces', or, in other words,
collective memory that appears as the 'natural' way of doing, perceiving
and thinking things. Dispositions lead to the smooth reproduction of
exactly those assumptions that define the autonomy of the field. This is
Bourdieu's sens pratique which means both meaning/sense (of action and
practices) and drive/direction (of the open reproduction of fields). It is
important to note that this 'reproduction' is neither closed nor
Whereas the theory of fields is not dissimilar to Luhmann's vision of
social systems, this is is less the case for Bourdieu's theory of stratification
based on his theory of capital. Here is perhaps the biggest difference with
Luhmann, because these forms of capital both link up different fields, and
set them apart, since their role and efficacy are different from one to
another. Bourdieu distinguishes between economic, social, and cultural
capital (symbolic capital being a fourth but slightly different notion).
Agents are endowed with different amounts of these capitals. Conversely,
their capital has not always the same efficacy depending on the context in
which it is used. Having lots of economic capital might not be of much use
in being well positioned as an artist, although it certainly influences the
way the artistic field is structured. Indeed, to some extent the very identity
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 27
of these fields/subsystems is closely connected to the particular mix of the
there relevant capital.
Such a theoretical framework has several advantages. First, the nonstrictly
materialist definition of capital allows for field-specific analysis and
for linking up fields. For this, however, Bourdieu still keeps a concept of
an agent, even if individualists might find it over-socialised. Moreover, it
also allows for an understanding of hierarchy within and across fields
which can coexist with a diffusion of centers of power. Heterarchy is no
contradiction to hierarchy. For the effective control over outcomes might
diminish unequally among different fields and respective agents. Related
to this, it allows to see power relations in every singly field, without,
however, reducing all relations to them. Finally, this allows to have a more
contingent theory of fields/subsystems which is not deduced from a
teleology of complexity.
Let me conclude this section with a further advantage illustrated by an
example. In his earlier book on power, reputation is seen as a substitute for
the medium power. In his study of science, reputation is used as a substitute
of truth. Whereas Luhmann tries to keep the implications of that similarity
at bay (coming to sometimes rather naive statements about the working of
science), Bourdieu would spell them out. On the international level,
Bourdieu's approach would make it obvious to study the fields of nonterritorially
bound communities, such as for instance, Susan Strange's
'international business civilisation' (Strange 1989).In other words, his
approach has been used in extensive, and empirically very detailed studies
of different fields. It offers a conceptual apparatus which is perhaps
empirically more fruitful than Luhmann's which might be a tick too high
on the 'ladder of abstraction' (Sartori, ).
This paper has tried to initiate a dialogue between IR theory and Niklas
Luhmann's system theory, on the basis of a conceptual analysis of power.
It attempted to show that Luhmann's concept has been detrimentally affected
by his last move to autopoiesis, although it is not clear whether these
28 STEFANO GUZZINI
theoretical choices were necessary. Instead of developing on his rich
communicative understanding of power, Luhmann ties power to one
system, politics, and ends up having a very limited of politics, itself. For the
theory tends to reify the status quo in terms of a functional necessity. In a
comparison with theories who bear a family resemblance, Foucault and
Bourdieu, the paper tried to show that there are alternative ways to have a
non-individualist social theory which do not theorise political agency away.
The paper wants to show that some parts of Luhmann's theorising
warrant a much more thorough attention than hitherto paid in IR. By using
examples from IR literature, I hope to have shown that this is not at all as
difficult as it is generally believed to be.
An analysis of Luhmann's conceptualisation of power for IR 29
Albert, Mathias (1999) 'Observing World Politics: Luhmann's Systems
Theory of Society and International Relations', Millennium: Journal of
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