Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) was a German sociologist and systems theorist. Luhmann is renowned for his attempt to develop a sociological model capable of accounting for every aspect of contemporary society. His work is enormously influential, particularly in Germany, where it rivals Jurgen Habermas’ dominance of the social sciences.
Luhmann was born in Luneberg in northern Germany. In 1943, when he was only 16, he was conscripted to serve in the Luftwaffenhelfer, also known as Flakhelfer since the principal task of those who served in the Luftwaffenhelfer was to assist the anti-aircraft gunners. Günter Grass, Pope Benedict XVI, and Habermas also served in the Luftwaffenhelfer. He was captured by the Americans in 1945. After the war, he moved to Freiburg to study law. He took a job in the civil service following graduation. In 1961, he was granted a sabbatical leave, which he used to go to Harvard, where he met and studied with the great American sociologist Talcott Parsons. He then completed postgraduate qualifications in the School for Administration in Speyer, after which he moved to the University of Munster to complete his habilitation.
In 1970 he was appointed professor of sociology at the University of Bielefeld, where he spent the remainder of his career, retiring in 1993. As the title of his best-known work, the monumental Soziale Systeme: Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie (1984), translated as Social Systems (1995), makes apparent, Luhmann was primarily interested in the way society functions. Very far from being a rigid structuralist, as the notion of systems theory might seem to imply, Luhmann was particularly concerned to understand the way society adapts, the way it deals with risk, and cataclysm. Luhmann was, in part, inspired by the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, particularly their groundbreaking book, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (1972), which introduces the idea of autopoiesis, or the self creating system.