Luhmann's theory of psychic systems and communication in social work practice

John J. Rodger*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
50 Downloads (Pure)


The aim of the article is to increase interest in the social systems theory of Niklas Luhmann among practicing social workers. The enigmatic statement from Luhmann that only ‘communication can communicate’ is explained with reference to his autopoietic systems theory which identifies three distinct types of systems: systems of communication, systems of life and systems of consciousness. The article proceeds to describe the meaning and nature of autopoietic systems before discussing the place of the individual in Luhmann’s theory and how it is relevant for practicing social workers. The concepts of psychic systems, structural coupling and communicative codes are described and discussed.

The conceptual framework derived from Luhmann’s systems theory is applied to a description of the social worker/client encounter. Communication in social work practice is polyphonic: it is structured by a hybrid of communicative codes which the practitioner must draw on depending on the auspices of the communicative context. The key conclusion of the article is that Luhmann retains a conception of the individual as an active agent in systems theory aiming ‘noise’ at the function systems with which the individual interacts.

The article suggests that the systems perspective presented provides social workers with a useful and nuanced framework for reflective practice because it makes the components of the practice system explicit and visible.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)637-654
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Social Work
Issue number3
Early online date5 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2022


  • social work
  • Luhmann
  • communication
  • psychic systems
  • autopoietic
  • reflective practice
  • systems theory
  • social theory
  • decision making


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