Ethical Perspectives

June 1998

Will a Sociological Communication Ever Be Able to Influence Social Communication?

Rudi Laermans  

Gert Verschraegen  


In his earlier work Robert Bellah coined the concept of ‘civil religion’ for that ‘unique American combination of secularization, individualism and pluralism’. Such a civil religion is supposed to work as an integrative factor on the level of societies and as a motivational factor on the level of individuals. At both levels, it supplies the meaning of meaning, a meaningful ‘ultimate reality’ which draws people together and delivers them with a personal idea of vocation or ‘calling’.

Unfortunately, as Bellah and his research team state in books such as Habits of the Heart and The Good Society, this balanced normative pattern is waning. Societal self-descriptions in the U.S. are confined to a vocabulary of ‘Lockean individualism’. They are no longer balanced by biblical and republican traditions, which provided ‘the language needed to make moral sense of one’s life’. At the same time, however these field studies observed that many urged “for a renewal of commitment and community.” Bellah and his research team conclude: “such a renewal is indeed a world waiting to be born if we only had the courage to see it.” Because of the erosion of the shared symbolic system that provided some ‘ultimate social meaning’, Bellah conceives society to be disintegrating. Group solidarity cannot be mobilized any more, individuals feel atomized and lack trust and belief. Well-versed in the Durkheimian tradition, Bellah can only observe society in terms of normative integration. If shared values and beliefs are being hollowed out, social order can only be plunged into a crisis.

The following analysis will not proceed along this Durkheimian path. We see no compelling reason to conceive of society in terms of normative integration alone. Instead we plug into the vocabulary of Luhmann’s systems theory and observe society as synonymous with all ongoing communications. Society only consists of communications and nothing else. This implies for example that human beings (or in systems theoretical discourse: psychic systems) do not belong to society, (but communications about human beings of course do belong to society). For psychic systems can only process thoughts, feelings, desires, but no communications!

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To  Ethical Perspectives 2/1998