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The demoralization of society and the proliferation of organization

Kurt Rachlitz (ISF Munich, Munich, Germany)
Benjamin Grossmann-Hensel (University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland)
Ronja Friedl (University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 21 July 2021

Issue publication date: 29 March 2022




In this paper, the authors aim to clarify the relationship between organization and society. They argue that the proliferation of organization in modernity has not yet been properly understood in light of the absence of organization in premodern times. The authors therefore ask: Why do organizations proliferate? Why do they proliferate in such manifold organizational forms? And how can these heterogeneous forms nevertheless be related to a common problem to which organizations provide a solution? A comparative historical analysis based on the theory of social systems reveals that organizations fill a gap which the decline of morality as an integrative success medium created.


The paper develops a conceptual framework focusing on the theory of media within Luhmann’s theory of social systems as a point of departure. The authors discuss the concept of “interpenetration” to assess the relation between morality and organization. They raise several follow-up questions for future empirical research, most prominently pertaining to the relationship between organization and digitalization.


The main finding is that morality can be conceptualized as a specific success medium (alongside religion and symbolically generalized communication media) which used to structure premodern societies by means of social and interhuman interpenetration at once. Modern society instead employs two differentiated forms of interpenetration: Social interpretation through organizations and interhuman interpenetration through love relationships. These centripetal counterforces help to mediate the centrifugal forces unleashed by the full development of modern success media. Modern society critically depends on the proliferation of organizations.


This paper examines the relationship between morality and organization not from the perspective of interaction or organization, but from the perspective of society. This approach provides novel insights in that it opens up promising avenues of comparison between organization and other social forms. Understanding the distinctively modern “success story” of organization as a social form makes it possible to ask about corresponding potentials and limitations, but also alternative possibilities. In doing so, the authors depart from most studies of organizations grounded in social systems theory as the authors primarily focus on Luhmann’s theory of media (as opposed to the theory of differentiation).



The authors would like to thank Guest Editors Steffen Roth, Gorm Harste, and Klaus Brønd Laursen, three anonymous reviewers, Cornelia Bohn, Jan Gehrmann, Angelika Schwarz, and all fellow participants of the Luhmann Conference 2020 at ICU Dubrovnik (Croatia) for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.


Rachlitz, K., Grossmann-Hensel, B. and Friedl, R. (2022), "The demoralization of society and the proliferation of organization", Kybernetes, Vol. 51 No. 5, pp. 1849-1867.



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