In The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhmann extends his theory of social systems—applied in his earlier works to the economy, the political system, art, religion, the sciences, and law—to an examination of the role of mass media in the construction of social reality.
Luhmann argues that the system of mass media is a set of recursive, self-referential programs of communication, whose functions are not determined by the external values of truthfulness, objectivity, or knowledge, nor by specific social interests or political directives. Rather, he contends that the system of mass media is regulated by the internal code information/noninformation, which enables the system to select its information (news) from its own environment and to communicate this information in accordance with its own reflexive criteria.
Despite its self-referential quality, Luhmann describes the mass media as one of the key cognitive systems of modern society, by means of which society constructs the illusion of its own reality. The reality of mass media, he argues, allows societies to process information without destabilizing social roles or overburdening social actors. It forms a broad reservoir (memory) of options for the future coordination of action, and it provides parameters for the stabilization of political reproduction of society, as it produces a continuous self-description of the world around which modern society can orient itself.
In his discussion of mass media, Luhmann elaborates a theory of communication in which communication is seen not as the act of a particular consciousness, nor the medium of integrative social norms, but merely the technical codes through which systemic operations arrange and perpetuate themselves.
About the author
Niklas Luhmann was Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Bielefeld.