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The circular economy: rearranging structural couplings and the paradox of moral-based sustainability-enhancing feedback

Margit Neisig (Department Social Sciences and Business, Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 28 June 2021

Issue publication date: 29 March 2022




Circular Economy is a policy and practice-oriented concept drawing mainly on engineering and natural science. This paper aims to contribute a conceptual development based on social systems theory. Does the Circular Economy have the prospect to become a sustainability-enhancing feedback mechanism potentializing an evolutionary systemic rearrangement of structural couplings, and will it encounter limitations as a general approach for a sustainable development?


By using the Luhmannian theory as method, core concepts are semantics, structure and rearrangement of structural couplings. In acknowledging the social system’s operational closure, social-metabolism with nature is discussed. The research is in three stages. First, structural couplings of matter and social systems. Second, structural couplings of organizational networks closing the loop–eventually using digitalization. Third, the Circular Economy encountering multicontextuality.


The paper provides: (1) A four-stage structural coupling enacting metabolism with nature allowing measurement of circularity potentially useable for feedback “irritating” relevant social systems’ reflexion. (2) Identification of obstacles encountered in the proliferation due to paradoxes of strategic decisions in organizations, difficulties of structural couplings of organizational networks and the paradox of digitalization. (3) Help by future digitalization but simultaneously new side-effects. (4) The multicontextuality as the limitation for a broad sustainability approach.


The paper answers a call for more social science theoretical research on the Circular Economy. It develops core conceptualizations based on social systems theory. Also, advices for future research and practical implementation are suggested.



The author thanks the anonymous peer reviewers as well as the special issue editor Steffen Roth for their very useful comments.


Neisig, M. (2022), "The circular economy: rearranging structural couplings and the paradox of moral-based sustainability-enhancing feedback", Kybernetes, Vol. 51 No. 5, pp. 1896-1914.



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