What accounts for the fascination of systematic-theoretical thought? One answer to this question is that it opens our eyes to complex, non-linear contexts that cannot be comprehended with simple cause-and-effect models and, consequently, makes a differentiated description of social reality possible. Furthermore, system theory examines established social structures as historical but in no case singularly valid responses to problems and, as such, seeks to open up innovative possibilities for thought and action. Thereby cannot be denied, as will be the subject of the following, that the formation of systems is often associated with the formation of structures and with closures which present significant obstacles to attempts at innovation.
Social systems are environmentally open systems, which, at the same time, are operatively closed systems. With this formulation Niklas Luhmann, the modern classicist of sociological system theory, points out a fact with far-reaching consequences: social systems such as friendships, intimate relationships, families, groups and organizations, as well as larger-scale functional systems (educational, legal, economic systems) are formed by distinguishing themselves from their environment. When it is no longer possible to define borders, a system dissolves or, formulated differently: systems are processes in which the distinction between system and environment are constantly redefined. Consequently, the formation of systems has to do with differentiation. Why is it, all the same, meaningful to speak of open systems? The most obvious argument is: systems are not self-sufficient entities; they must be in the position to draw upon energies and information from their environment. The formation of systems is the establishment of structures within and dependant upon a given environment. Openness and closure are, consequently, two sides of the same coin, not independent from one another. In the case of social systems, the contact with the environment takes place by means of the perception of individuals, for social systems have neither eyes nor ears and cannot speak. Without consciousness and the power of speech there can be no communication, without which no formation of a social system can be accomplished. Therefore it is easy to imagine that individuals can influence systems, that “we” have possibilities at our disposal to have an effect on systemic structures and processes. The experience, thought and actions of individuals are, however, according to the theoretical perspective of systematic-theoretical sociology, not localized in the social systems, rather in their environment. For, as obvious upon consideration, no one is contained within a system together with the totality of his feelings, thoughts and actions. And precisely this living in the environment of systems provides the individual the characteristic degree of freedom and the possible choices typical for a life style in modern society – there is no total social control imposed by a single institution. On the other hand, there is the homelessness and feeling of dislocation of the modern individual as lamented by many culturally critical sources: the individual finds no social context in which his entire life can be contained.
On the contrary: no social system is in the position to integrate everything that is meaningful for the individuals. Social systems are related in a highly selective way to the abilities and contributions of individuals. The demarcation between system and environment takes place through communication filters, which only allow that to pass through which is relevant for the respective system. Structures within the system itself determine, therefore, that to which the respective system is open and what it excludes. By way of clarification: Someone who, while buying bread in the morning at the baker’s, tries to engage the person behind the counter in a political discussion, can expect to arouse irritation and raise defenses, since the worker can at any point appeal to the fact that a purchase in a bakery is an economical context and, as such, conversation can be legitimately restricted to questions of supply and demand, products and prices, except for the usual polite pleasantries. If someone within a business or firm demands that colleagues and fellow-workers have time to engage in discussions of art, culture or sports, he can expect to hear the answer that these activities are for breaks or free time, and so forth. In this way, social systems relieve themselves of a flood of communication expectations - for individuals it is also a relief not to be expected to talk to just anyone about practically anything at whatever time. In general it is possible to orient oneself successfully in the course of one’s self-presentation and general communicational behavior to the routine communication framework characteristic of respective social contexts. The borders of the system are not experienced as hard impositions upon the individual possibilities. We are considered to be “normal”, psychologically intact and socially well-adjusted individuals to the extent that we have learned to orient ourselves effortlessly according to the established rules of communication – or at least to make the impression that we are capable of doing so. Those who are consistently incapable of this, who can only articulate their own individuality without restraint, can expect to be recommended for psychotherapeutic care or even to be institutionalized.
Social systems – and this is especially true of the most influential system type of modern societies: organizations – have at their disposal another possibility, especially determinate and far-reaching in terms of its effects upon individual life-design: the possibility of closure. Organizations are social systems with the “right of exclusion” – they can decide as to the participation of individuals according to criteria determined by the system itself. No one is excluded from participation in the economic system, but no one has the right to demand employment in a specific firm. Every child has a right to education and learning, but schools can exclude pupils from further participation in the learning environment, assuming that they can effectively document serious deficiencies in the willingness or ability to fulfill basic requirements. From these examples it becomes clear, that we live our lives within the environment of social systems and are dependant on them for the fulfillment of fundamental needs such as loving and caring communication in intimate relationships, treatments of sickness within the organization of the health system and, last but not least, the possibility of gainful employment within the economic system. But individual access to these benefits is not guaranteed, for these theoretically open systems operate with the possibility of making participation contingent on the fulfillment of certain requirements and limiting the number of legitimate participants. The cause of this can be seen in the fact that in modern society – in spite of the increase in affluence – poverty and neediness are growing significantly. Neediness results not “only” from economic poverty, but also from the failure to make it over the access thresholds of various social systems.
To deal with such poverty, welfare state societies have planned for a specialized institution: social work. Social workers and educators are specially trained to diagnose the consequences and results of failure to meet up to the demands of social systems, especially families, schools and working life, to train and motivate individuals to orient themselves to respective demands. This cannot, however, succeed if the system has no demand. In this case, social work is limited to softening the consequences of such social failure, since it cannot provide loving relationships, families or jobs. In the failure and suffering of those thus effected it becomes clear that these open systems operate with hard borders and limitations.