Volume 8 · Number 1 · Pages 63-75
Making Sense and Meaning: On the Role of Communication and Culture in the Reproduction of Social Systems

Raivo Palmaru

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Context: Although the relationship between communication and culture has received significant attention among communication scholars over the past thirty or more years, there is still no satisfactory explanation as to how these two are related and how culture evolves in communication. It forces the author to turn to Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory, which is one of the main hypotheses of how social systems emerge. Problem: Unfortunately, Luhmann’s concept of meaning is too weak to explain the autopoiesis of communication. In looking for a solution, the author suggests that it is necessary to distinguish between personal sense structures and socio-cultural meanings and to introduce the concept of shared meaning to the systems-theoretical approach. The paper conceptualises “meaning” as a phenomenon that evolves in communication and defines “culture” as a pattern of structurally related meanings. Findings: (1) According to Luhmann, social systems do not consist of static objects, but of dynamic operations, and for a social system to emerge, its elements – communications – must be connected to one another. The author argues that culture equips the momentary elements of the social system – communications – with the capacity for connection, and makes the social system operationally closed, self-referential, and autopoietic. (2) The problem of adaptation does not lose its importance if we understand cognition as a “self-founding activity” of operationally closed systems but transforms into a question of whether the “reality” construed by the media favours or restricts the coping of the system in the ever changing environment. (3) From the perspective of adaptation of the social system to its internal and external environments, an important condition of the continuous process of creation of shared knowledge to which individuals orientate themselves in their activities is the existence of variations.

Key words: Communication, meaning, culture, social system, self-organisation.


Palmaru R. (2012) Making sense and meaning: On the role of communication and culture in the reproduction of social systems. Constructivist Foundations 8(1): 63-75. http://constructivist.info/8/1/063

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