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Lv Fuhua | Second order Observations and Their Limitations of Risk: An Analysis of Luhmann'sSociological Theory of Risk
2024-05-14 [author] Lv Fuhua preview:

[author]Lv Fuhua


Second order Observations and Their Limitations of Risk: An Analysis of Luhmann'sSociological Theory of Risk

Lv Fuhua

Lecturer at the School of Ethnology and Sociology, Yunnan University

Abstract: Niklas Luhmann's theory of risk is highly respected but obscure. Based on a historical review of risk research, this article interprets Luhmann's perspectives through systems theory which integrated temporal, factual and social dimensions. As a temporal semantic used to describe future uncertainty, risk is a neologism accompanying by modern transformation and that all social systems must make decisions with second order observations. Risk can be defined as the internal attribution of possible facts caused by system's decision, while a possible fact caused by the environment can be called danger. The perception and communication of risk are restricted by decision makers and those affected, and the risk of one system may be the danger of another. None of systems can be fully responsible for the risk, only the structural coupling and transparent observations could cope with the unknown. The analysis of Luhmann's perspectives and blind spots will address more reflections on risk.


"I see something you don't see", was the title of Luhmann's speech at a seminar. Luhmann asserted, "An adequate and appropriate understanding for modern society can be found neither in the Frankfurt School nor elsewhere. ...... My contribution undoubtedly lies in the alternative paths taken on this subject (understanding modern society). I think that the European habitus of thought should be experimented with in a more radical way' (Luhmann, 2002: 187). Such a statement is equally or more appropriate for evaluating Luhmann's sociological theory of risk.In 2007, a weighty article in the prestigious international journal Annals of Sociology declared that the sociological study of risk, which is at a crossroads, will only be able to achieve more substantial results in the future if it connects itself closely to the general theories of risk that have been developed by theorists such as Luhmann (Tierney. 2007). Subsequently, an influential work on risk theory also placed Luhmann's systems theory of risk alongside the social theory of risk represented by Beck and Giddens, as well as the cultural theory of risk centred on Douglas, thus confirming the exemplary status of Luhmann's theory of risk (Zinn, 2008).

However, many contemporary studies on Luhmann's risk theory are not convincing enough. The attention and discussion of some researchers on this theory only focuses on a certain viewpoint or fragment, such as the impact of risk events, the change of the meaning of risk (Lepton, 2016), and so on, and lacks a systematic and in-depth compilation and explanation. Although some researchers have borrowed heavily from Luhmann's theoretical perspectives and discussed them in greater depth, such as Rosa's elaboration of the meta-theoretical basis of risk definition (Rosa, 2010) and Giddens' research on trust in risk society (Giddens, 2011), they all also dealt with a certain part of Luhmann's theory of risk rather than the whole. In addition, Luhmann's colleagues and students, despite writing perhaps the best review of Luhmann's risk theory to date (Japp & Kusche, 2008), have not been effective in clearing up some of the biases about Luhmann's theory, such as the fact that Luhmann is merely applying concepts specific to systems theory to embellish the topic of risk without much value (Offe, 1990; Horlick-Jones 1996), or that Luhmann's risk research is merely an adaptation of systems theory to the field of risk (Zheng Zuoyu and Wu, 2021; Zhang Xufan, 2006), or that the concept of hazard is misunderstood as a loss attributable to the decisions of others or to previous decisions (Xiao Wenming, 2008; Huang Gentian, 2006), and so on.

How is it that Luhmann's theory of risk has not been fully understood while it has been highly acclaimed? It is easy to see why: on the one hand, Luhmann did see something that his predecessors in risk research did not. For example, Luhmann's sharp distinction between risk and danger is a departure from the previous mode of equating or overlapping risk and danger; and Luhmann's high regard for the self-referential issues behind the daily operation of risk societies has also enabled him to go beyond Beck and Giddens, to see not only how the systems of contemporary societies observe and cope with risk, but also their blind spots when observing and the limitations of their responses, and so on. In this sense, Luhmann's theory of risk does show the magic of 'paradigm shift' (Luhmann, 1995). On the other hand, Luhmann's observations and descriptions of risk are based on a systematic theory that is quite different from traditional sociological theories, especially because of Luhmann's quest for a grand theory that can encompass all kinds of risk findings, and his highly abstract and complex, extremely cryptic and jumpy writing, which has made his insights lost in the so-called theoretical "labyrinth" (Luhmann, 1995). "

So, what did Luhrmann actually see about risk that others didn't? How did he see these things? And what did he not see? This paper attempts to answer these questions. The following article begins by reviewing the progress made and the problems faced by risk research in the 1980s to set the stage for interpreting Luhmann. Next the paper will endeavour to overcome the difficulties that Luhmann's theoretical labyrinth poses for understanding his ideas on risk by focusing on systems theory's observation of risk in its three dimensions of time, fact, and society, and exploring what Luhmann saw and how he saw it. Finally, it will follow the consistent position of Luhmann's second-order observations and observe Luhmann's risk observations in terms of the three distinctions made by the author, so as to reflect on the contributions and limitations of Luhmann's risk theory.

Mosaic pictures of risk societies: from the perspective of social science research

Perhaps because of the increasing frequency and intensity of disasters and risks, such as floods, earthquakes, hazardous material spills or explosions, and the mass spread of disease, social science research on risk began to move from the periphery to the centre in the 1980s. At the same time, there was a growing call for the promotion of sociological research and theoretical construction on risk (Short, 1984), and the publication of Baker's classic book The Risk Society in 1986 and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident that followed it further pushed society's attention to risk and its related research to a climax. At the end of the 1980s, through the tireless efforts of the risk social science research community, there were clear advances in risk research in terms of risk analysis, perception, decision-making, communication management and socio-cultural analysis (Krimsky & Golding, 1992).

Firstly, in terms of risk analysis, researchers have not only objectively described the casualties and losses caused by accidents that have occurred in areas such as traffic, earthquakes, nuclear power plants, petrochemical plants, etc., but have also provided in-depth discussions and unique answers to the questions around why high-technology designed to help people ends up hurting them (Perrow, 1984).

Second, in terms of risk perception, the researchers quantitatively measured and statistically analysed the different estimates and judgements exhibited by different groups of people, such as ordinary women, university students and technologists, when faced with accidents caused by, for example, smoking, alcohol, pesticides, motor vehicles, atomic energy, and so on. This psychometric paradigm has found that, for the most part, ordinary people assess and judge the probability of occurrence and the magnitude of risk of an event primarily on the basis of convenient heuristic rules of whether the event is easy to imagine or easy to recall, in order to simplify difficult cerebral tasks. In this way, while they are effective in some contexts, they lead to false perceptions and judgements in others (Slovic, 1987).

Again, in the context of risk communication management, studies have found that the public is no less knowledgeable about risk than experts and is not as irrational in the face of risk as experts claim; on the contrary, the public often appears to be intelligent and prudent, while experts often make mistakes (Freudenburg, 1992). Both public and expert knowledge are conditional, and both reflect constraints imposed on different actors by underlying social relations and modes of thinking (Wynne, 1992). Further, public responses to risk are affected both by the amplification of social amplifiers such as experts and news media that communicate risk information, and by the interaction of risk events with psychological, social and cultural processes, such that risks and risk events that are assessed by experts as being relatively minor nevertheless generate intense public concern and have significant impacts (Kasperson et al. , 1988). Consequently, more effective risk management policies can only be developed if the communication of risk information between the public, experts and policy makers is continuously improved and progressively enhanced (Otway, 1987).

In addition, research on risky decision-making has been fruitful, inspired by the propositions of Simon, March and others on finite rationality and postdecision surprise: decision-makers or stakeholders at the centre of a risk are finitely rational, they cannot prepare all alternatives for the risk, they cannot perfectly predict all the consequences of the alternatives, and they have not even have a clear system of preferences and therefore cannot make optimal decision choices, which explains why public choices in risk always deviate from the optimal decision options proposed by experts (Simon, 1956). Sometimes people's alternatives are better than positive alternatives, and sometimes alternatives are worse, depending on the difference between the pre-decision estimates and the consequences of the decision, i.e., post-decision surprise of the relevant alternatives; the smaller the difference, the fewer the disappointment and decision regrets in hindsight (Harrison & March, 1984). It is therefore necessary to strike a good balance between trusting experts and accommodating public choice.

In addition, research on risky decision-making has been fruitful, inspired by the propositions of Simon and March about limited rationality and postdecision surprise: decision-makers or stakeholders at the center of a risk are limitedly rational, they cannot prepare all alternatives for the risk, nor can they perfectly predict all the consequences of the alternatives in question, nor do they even have a clear preference system. They do not even have a clear system of preferences and therefore cannot make optimal decision choices, which explains why public choices in risk always deviate from the optimal decision options proposed by experts (Simon, 1956). Sometimes people's alternatives are better than positive alternatives, and sometimes alternatives are worse, depending on the difference between the pre-decision estimates of the relevant alternatives and the consequences of the decision, i.e., post-decision surprise; the smaller the difference, the less ex-post disappointment and decision regret (Harrison & March, 1984). So there is a need to strike a good balance between trusting experts and accommodating public choice.

Finally, and most influential research advances during this period came from the cultural theory of risk centered on Douglas and Wildavsky (Douglas, 1985, 1992; Douglas & Wildavsky, 1982) and the social theory of risk represented by Baker and Giddens (Baker, 2018; Giddens, 2011). As stated by Lepton, the cultural theory of risk explains what is the socio-cultural context in which risk is situated by exploring such elements as the importance of culture in the construction of risk, the different ways of coping with risk in a social group or organization, why certain situations are identified as risky while others are not, and what is the acceptable level of risk i.e., the question of "how safe is safe enough? " and other questions (Lepton, 2016). Risk society theory, on the other hand, looks at self-reflexive modernization processes such as individuation and globalization, and strikingly paints a picture of a "risk society" to the world (Baker, 2018). "The possibility of nuclear war, ecological catastrophe, an unstoppable population explosion, the collapse of global economic exchanges, and other potential global catastrophes paint an unsettling and dangerous outlook for each and every one of us" (Giddens, 2011: 110).

Luhmann is well aware of the advances in risk research described above. So what does he make of these advances? In general, Luhmann believes that although social science research on risk has produced considerable results on topics such as risk analysis, perception, and communication management and decision-making, they are discrete from each other, and in between they lack a comprehensive and unifying theory to bring the various results together (Luhmann, 1996). Luhmann is also dissatisfied with the relatively integrated theoretical progression offered by Douglas and Baker, among others. Luhmann argues that cultural theories of risk have lacked a clear definition of risk, so while it is right to understand risk perception, acceptance, and coping as a sociocultural rather than a psychological problem, it fails to answer the question of "how safe is safe enough" (Luhmann, 1996). With regard to the social theory of risk, Luhmann begins by pointing out that Beck's definition of risk is too narrow. "Baker introduced the concept of 'risk society', but it refers mainly to technological risks, such as the consequences of the disasters in Bhopal (India), Harrisburg (USA), and Chernobyl (USSR). But beyond that, capital investments and financial markets, decisions about career planning, unsafe sex, and even risky research that does not apply for funding despite careful preparation are equally fraught with risk" (Luhmann, 1996: 5). Second, Luhmann argues that Beck's theory is insufficient beyond warning to society, and in particular there is a lack of reflection on the issue of self-referentiality that limits how systems observe and respond to risk. "The classical traditions that still lead most sociological theorists offer little insight into topics such as economics, technology, and risk, and nothing at all about self-referentiality" (Luhmann, 1993a: 6).

The picture of risk as Luhmann sees it: a three-dimensional path to an integrated theory

Luhmann has used Marx's theory as an example of a modern social theory that deserves serious consideration, pointing out that Marx's theory has become one of the most influential social theories in modern times because it offers the most incisive analysis and explanation of capitalist society in all three dimensions, i.e. factual, social, and temporal.

Of the countless and still controversial attempts to theorize capitalist society, Karl Marx has had the most influence ...... In the factual dimension, the primacy of the economy was changed by Marx to the primacy of a metabolic system built on the needs... ...In the social dimension, Marx expressed the distinctively "bourgeois" character of this society in terms of class domination ...... In the temporal dimension, Marx conceived of evolution as a process of historical, dialectical regularity, in which each prior achievement is preserved and transcended in subsequent stages. (Luhmann, 1982a: 340-341)

Like Marx, Luhmann's theory of risk is ultimately an attempt to provide a new set of conceptual frameworks for depicting contemporary risk societies in three dimensions - temporal, factual, and social - through the creative transformation of systems theory.

1. Traceability of Risk

In tracing the etymology of "risks", Luhmann finds that "the term 'risk' is a neologism that came into use with the transition from traditional to modern societies" ( Luhmann, 1996: 3). In medieval Europe, people certainly had to deal with the uncertainty of the future contained in matters such as seafaring and trade, but it was the Roman goddess of fate, Fortuna, or the Christian God that was used to speak of this uncertainty of the future during this period. In other words, people thought about their potential future successes or losses in terms of the rhetoric of good luck or bad luck, which was left to the gods to decide. Accordingly, "prudence," i.e., doing the right thing at the right time and in the right way, was seen as a virtue and an ability of people, especially aristocrats, that helped them to react appropriately in the face of future uncertainty (Luhmann, 1996). The term "risk" began to be used in Italy during the Renaissance. With the invention of the printing press, the use of the word "risk" increased further around 1500, and in the second half of the 17th century, the word "risk" officially appeared in English (Luhmann, 2020).

Why was it necessary to invent a new word "risk" when there were already words in Europe that could convey the meaning of good luck, misfortune, disaster, loss, etc.? According to Luhmann, the answer to the above question must be found in the historical transition from traditional to modern societies and the time-bound semantic changes that accompanied this transition. The answer can only be found by clarifying the problem and content that the term risk implies in the dimension of time, which no other term can accurately express.

In Luhmann's view, risk is essentially related to the uncertainty of future consequences as a result of a decision. Further, the future, as a temporal provision, must presuppose the existence of two temporal provisions, the past and the present. That is to say, the threefold structure of past, present and future together constitutes a basic pattern of observation and description of temporal relations in Europe, i.e. temporal semantics. Decision-making takes place in the present moment of this temporal semantics, and the future is imagined as a risk. If the temporal semantics of past, present, and future is the basic way in which time is conceived in Europe, why is it that the future was observed and described in terms of fortune or misfortune before the European Middle Ages, while in modern societies the future is imagined as a risk? In this regard, it is necessary to return to the historical transition of society as a whole from traditional to modern societies.

It is well known that Luhmann understood the historical evolution of human societies from the perspective of differentiation, and then theorized the evolutionary process that human societies undergo into three social stages with fragmentation, stratification, and functional differentiation as the main "law of finite possibilities" (Luhmann, 1982a). Among these, the most basic social structural characteristic of a fragmented society is that the society as a whole consists of essentially similar subsystems. Based on different environments, demographic conditions, and levels of evolution, these essentially similar subsystems manifest themselves either as families, clans, villages, tribes, or some combination thereof. But whatever the manifestation, the subsystems are highly approximate or largely identical to each other and contain only a few operational possibilities of lesser complexity. Luhmann argues that, in contrast to the simple state in which the entire structure and operation of society was in, only a limited number of self-descriptive semantics developed throughout society during this period. The most important of these was sorcery, for it provided a way for the primitive groups to deal with the uncertainty of the world by turning the strange into the familiar in the face of the unfamiliar outside the family, clan, village and tribe. On the basis of witchcraft, primitive societies gradually developed such primitive forms of religion as totem worship, sacrificial offerings, and myths and legends to explain the accidents, incidents, and so on, of the world in which they lived. At this point in time, although the time schema of the past, present, and future had not yet been developed, the semantics of describing and dealing with the uncertainty of the world had already emerged in the divided society. "For tribal societies in hostile environments and struggling for survival, pleasing the gods, finding scapegoats, and offering sacrifices for unexpected misfortunes represent a sizable semantic expenditure" (Luhmann, 1993a: VII).

Luhmann points out that by the time of stratified societies, a series of society-wide changes can be observed in the social structure on the one hand: (1) a significant increase in the size and density of distribution of the population; (2) the emergence of regular sedentary agricultural production; (3) the flourishing of foreign trade, especially long-distance trade, around luxury goods; (4) the differentiation of some affluent families from the clans and tribes, and their consequent attainment of a high status, decision-making and power; and (5) the emergence of some villages as a result of the differentiation of certain families from the clans and tribes. (5) some villages became the centers of a certain region due to contingent conditions such as favorable geographical location or fertile soil. By the late Ancient Greek period, city-states such as Athens had undoubtedly differentiated themselves and established their own centrality, and the class structure expressed in the slave-owner-slave relationship became the most dominant structure of the whole society. By the time of the Roman Empire, with the development of centralization and bureaucracy, certain political elites began to emerge from the upper echelons of society and to assume positions of absolute authority. After the invention of a world religion (Christianity), the two came together to form a basic structure that was both hierarchical and secular. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the regional regimes that followed were influenced by geography, language, culture, and political competition in the direction of a feudal order, but the basic structure was not significantly different from that of the empire, with the upper classes still occupying the center of society and representing all of society (Luhmann, 2013).

On the other hand, in terms of temporal semantics, the society as a whole developed a distinctive schema with a threefold division between past, present, and future. This schema is partly based on Aristotle's concept of movement, in which time is used as a distinction and measurement of the state of affairs before and after a movement, and partly on the invention of the timepiece, in which time is represented in the form of a calendar (Luhmann, 2013). As a result, any action or event can be observed and described through temporal differences between past, present, and future. Where the past is often seen as experience and the future as expectation, the present connects the two. Naturally, experience as the past is necessarily subject to actions and events that have already taken place, while expectation as the future is unknown and open, depending on present decisions based on past experience. That is, the uncertainty of the future is attributed to present decisions. Thus, stratified societies have developed a temporal semantics for dealing with uncertainty in the world that is different from that of divided societies. Not only that, but with the development of the myths of the first people into the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and especially with the invention of a world religion, Christianity, stratified societies also created an external observer, God, for the temporal semantics of the trichotomy of the past, the present, and the future, the "Time was seen as eternal, and an observer named God was able to observe it simultaneously from the whole of time" (Luhmann, 2020: 67). In this way, although uncertainty about people's expectations about the future remains, this uncertainty is imagined to have long been insightful by God, the external observer, and even the past, present and future have long been ordained by God. People, especially aristocrats, could simply be prudent in their decisions in the present, and attribute any future successes or losses to an external observer.

However, from the 16th century onwards, especially in the second half of the 18th century, as the social structure transformed from stratification to functional differentiation, the corresponding semantics of time also underwent epochal changes. In terms of social structure, at least the following changes occurred during this period: (1) As the empire fell apart and regional regimes moved toward feudal order, coupled with the rise of the Protestant Reformation movement, the religious system gradually differentiated itself. (2) A market economy centered on monetary payments took shape and increasingly operated independently according to a commercial logic driven by production and consumption. (3) Breakthroughs in mathematics, physics, astronomy, and other disciplines occurred, and by the 18th century, the scientific system gradually diverged. (4) The growth of knowledge brought about by the spread of science and the printing press, and the need to prepare for future careers, led to the rapid growth and increasing importance of school and university education. (5) By the late Middle Ages, the politics of stratified societies had become increasingly difficult to cope with the growing complexity, as they were continually affected by a series of profound changes in the subsystems of society as a whole: religious, economic, scientific, and educational, as well as by the growing impact of the struggles of the lower strata of society. Politics can only survive if it is separated from society as a whole and specialized. As a result, political subsystems are also differentiated (Luhmann, 2013).

Temporal semantic changes are much more complex. First, in the case of Europe, by the second half of the 18th century, the differentiation of political, economic, scientific, and religious subsystems was accompanied by an increase in the complexity of society as a whole and a geometrical increase in uncertainty. Correspondingly, the semantics of time developed during the age of stratification was under great pressure to change, "This whole society thus became more complex, so that the probe of certainty, namely time, had to be re-abstracted" (Ruhmann, 2021: 368). However, at this point in time, society as a whole no longer has either an external observer, like God, or an upper class, like the aristocracy, to observe the past, present and future of time and to take responsibility for doing the right thing at the right time and in the right way, i.e., for decision-making. Instead, in a functionally differentiated society, people must make their own observations, their own decisions, and take responsibility for the consequences in a three-way stream of past, present, and future time. "Only human beings can consider states of affairs on the basis of past and future, experience and expectations, and thereby deal with the present at some distance" (Luhmann, 1995: 312). However, one must take the present as a point of reference for both observation and decision-making. Paradoxically, one cannot observe one's own decision-making at the same time as it is being made, i.e. one cannot make a first-order observation of the decision, but can only observe how others make decisions in the present or reflect on one's own decision-making after the fact, i.e. one can only make a second-order observation of the decision. As a result, the present becomes a blind spot for observation and decision-making. "When one observes time with the help of the distinction between past and future, the present becomes a blind spot of observation, 'everywhere but nowhere' in the concept of time" (Luhmann, 2020: 70). It is not difficult to imagine the degree of future uncertainty that will emerge in modern society, and how difficult it will be to characterize this uncertainty in terms of fortune or misfortune, in a situation in which one has to observe and make decisions based on the present on the one hand, and in which the present is a blind spot for observation and decision-making on the other. It was at this point that the new term "risk" was coined.

At this point, we have answered the question of why people began to speak of the future in terms of "risk" in the modern era. It is worth noting that although people began to speak of "risk" in the early modern period, the term "risk" did not gain the attention and enthusiasm in the 18th, 19th or even early 20th centuries that it did in the second half of the 20th century. Why is that? This leads us to another important semantic concept of time - time-binding. It is a Luhmannian identifying concept to express the way in which modern societies digest or absorb uncertainty by assigning a certain structure to events that are constantly occurring and quickly passing, unsustainable, yet capable of being repeated again and again, in a process of continuous renewal of self-reproduction (Luhmann, 1993a). Further, due to factual and social conditions, particular historical periods have their own major forms of time-specific constraints. For example, law, morality, and risk are all primary forms of temporal constraints, but in the 18th, 19th, and even early 20th centuries, law became the primary form of temporal constraint under certain conditions of facticity (the legal system was differentiated and operated autonomously) and sociality (recognized by society as a whole) through the continued operation of its function of providing people with stable expectations and solving problems such as unfulfilled expectations (Luhmann, 2013). At the same time, morality performed a more or less similar function during this period and thus became another major form of time constraint (Luhmann, 1987). However, in the second half of the twentieth century, as disasters such as ecological degradation and nuclear power plant accidents continued to occur, legal and moral forms of temporal constraints continued to be squeezed or discarded, and "risk" gained a high level of attention and a wave of popularity. The age of risk has arrived.

2Defining Risk

By tracing the term "risk" back to its origins, it can be seen that, unlike Beck's discussion of the risk society, Luhmann does not believe that risk is exclusive to post-industrial societies or self-referential modernization; on the contrary, as a temporal semantics for imagining the future, "risk" has been used in the transition from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period. Rather, "risk" as a temporal semantics for imagining the future was used in the transition from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period, and it was only because of the substitution of other functional equivalents, such as law and morality, in the 18th and 19th centuries, that risk came to be valued in the second half of the 20th century, when the systems and circumstances of the whole of society were undergoing drastic changes.

Similarly, Luhmann was dissatisfied with the definition of "risk" in the risk studies that developed in the 1980s, especially the approach that prescribed risk as the antithesis of security (Luhmann, 1996). In this regard, Luhmann astutely points out that since there is no such thing as absolute safety or absolute safety cannot be achieved, it can be argued to a certain extent that safety is an empty concept, and defining risk in an oppositional way naturally cannot escape the suspicion of being empty. "As the oppositional concept of risk, safety is an empty concept in this conceptual thicket, just as the concept of health is in the sick/healthy distinction" (Luhmann, 2020: 39). Luhmann also points out that defining risk in terms of the iconography of "safety/risk" also presupposes the possibility of a first-order observation of risk, i.e., it seems possible to find an objective world or fact that is sufficiently safe and certain, and that the so-called risk is nothing more than a deviation or accident due to asymmetry of information or the existence of certain impediments. But, as noted above, this definition ignores the fact that in the conditions of modernity there is no longer an external observer like God who can provide an omniscient and omnipotent picture for one's first-order observation; rather, one must rely on second-order observation to see what one cannot see in first-order observation.

Security experts and all those who blame themselves for not doing much for security are first-order observers. They believe in facts, and when they argue or negotiate, this is usually based on different interpretations or different claims of the same facts ...... To the first-order observer, these are the real world. But for second-order observers, the question is what makes different observers consider the same thing with completely different information. (Luhmann, 2020: 41-42)

Therefore, Luhmann argues that risk must be redefined in terms of second-order observation and decision-making. From this, Luhmann defines risk as an orientation of decision-making on the assumption that there is uncertainty related to future gains or losses, i.e. it is risk that is talked about when future gains or losses are considered as a consequence of the present decision, i.e. when they are attributed to the decision, and hazard is defined as any negative impact or future loss attributed to the outside, i.e. the environment (Luhmann, 2020; Luhmann. 1996). For example, a meteorite falling to earth or an earthquake hitting a house is a risk, while decisions such as whether to drive a car to avoid it, whether to know that the house is in a seismic zone and to build it in such a way that it is earthquake-proof, or even whether not to build it at all, imply a risk.

The intention of such a definition is obvious: First, no matter what kind of decision, the decision maker is either an individual, an organization, or a social system, that is, a system that broadly encompasses both psychological and social systems. Therefore, risk is attributed to the decision, i.e., risk is attributed to the system. In contrast, hazards are attributed to the environment. Thus, the systemic and environmental references, or self-references and hetero-references, inherent in the risk/hazard definition bring out the factual dimensions involved in speaking of risk. Second, the definition of the risk/hazard dichotomy can bring new perspectives to risk analysis and perception. Under this new definition, casualties and losses such as floods, earthquakes, environmental pollution, nuclear leakage, etc. can still be assessed from the perspective of hazard, i.e., attributed to the environment, while capital investments, career planning, unsafe behaviors, failed grant applications, etc., can be analyzed from the perspective of risk, i.e., attributed to systemic decision-making. Further, an important factor influencing people's perception of risk is whether the future is perceived in terms of risk or danger. For example, both asbestos and tobacco have the potential to cause cancer in the future, but people may perceive harm from asbestos in terms of danger, while perceiving harm from tobacco in terms of risk, such as exposure to secondhand smoke. In this way, we can better understand how people often misperceive certain disasters and risks. Third, defining risk in this way also takes into account temporal differences, i.e. it allows for different assessments before and after a loss or gain occurs. In layman's terms, it allows not only for post-decision reversal or hindsight disappointment, but also for post-decision surprise or hindsight. This definition thus fully draws on and integrates the insights of Simon, March, and others on the propositions of limited rationality and post-decision surprise. Fourth, once risk is attributed to a system's decisions, while systems cannot make first-order observations of their own decisions in the present moment, they can make second-order observations of other systems' decisions in the present moment. Of course, systems can make first-order observations of hazards attributable to the environment; "the first-order observer sees what he sees. The second-order observer can see how and what the first-order observer observes" (Luhmann, 2020: 105). Thus, observation risk is made possible.

3. Observation risk

As Luhmann puts it, "risk is an aspect of observation of decision-making" (Luhmann, 1993a: 104). The paradox is that not everyone can be involved in decision-making. Observation of decisions is therefore necessarily predicated on the condition that "there is always a decision maker and a ripple effect. Decisions have spillovers" (Luhmann, 1993a: 105). This leads us to the social dimension of risk observation - the decision-maker/collateralizer distinction, identification and the problem of double contingency.

In modern societies, especially risk societies with the rapid development of high technology since World War II, individuals, organizations, and systems make decisions all the time, and with decisions come consequences, which may have ripple effects on others. However, those affected may not necessarily be the decision makers, but may simply be the victims of the dangerous consequences of the decision makers' risky decisions. "The analysis of decision makers and spillovers shows that the risk that the decision maker takes and has to take turns out to be a danger for the spillovers" (Luhmann, 1993a: 107).

Not only that, but in the risk society since World War II, in contrast to the industrial societies of the 19th or early 20th century, on the one hand, more and more individuals, organizations or systems are claiming to have been affected by ripples, and "more and more of the unaffected are now claiming to have been affected by ripples. ...... Ripples are becoming a socially defined problem. becoming a socially defined problem" (Luhmann, 2020: 159). On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly difficult to clearly identify who are the decision makers and who are the ripple effectors. For example, in industrial societies it is still possible to clearly identify those who are affected by accidents due to careless organization of production, but in ecological crises anyone can be both a producer and a victim of environmental pollution.

Further, the dichotomy of decision maker/reactor exacerbates the problem of double contingency that already exists. The so-called double contingency problem, which Luhmann borrowed from Parsons, is used to illustrate the dilemma that systems in interaction and communication inevitably face in which the functioning of one system is contingent on the functioning of the other, and at the same time, the functioning of the other is contingent on the functioning of this system. In the case of two people in an interaction, A and B, for example, A will act with expectations of how B will act, but these expectations are full of contingencies. Similarly, B will have expectations of A that are also contingent (Luhmann, 1995). Returning to the observation of risk, it can be found that the same risk or danger would have been assessed and accepted differently by different people, for example, in the case of nuclear energy utilization, it was found that ordinary women, college students, and technologists were measured to have different risk assessments (Slovic, 1987). In other words, when different people interact or communicate with each other in the face of the same risk or danger, there is already the problem of double contingency of expectations of each other between them. This problem of double contingency is bound to be further exacerbated when one further considers the decision-maker/wavier differences that may exist between people. For what is perceived as a risk by the decision maker may be a real danger to the rippers, while what is perceived as a great threat by the rippers may be seen by the decision maker as nothing more than a risky add-on essential to the decision. For example, the risk of a nuclear leak, which is perceived by a nuclear energy expert as having a probability of occurrence of almost one in a billion, may be perceived as the greatest danger by people living near a nuclear facility. Obviously, communicating about risks in such a situation would be extremely difficult.

The same logic applies to social subsystems such as politics, economics, and science. The difference is only that social subsystems are more complex than individuals and organizations, i.e., they are always self-referential and closed around their own dichotomous codes. For example, in the case of risk, observation and communication in the political subsystem always revolves around the power/no power symbols, while in the economic subsystem it revolves around the profit/no profit symbols. If this situation is further superimposed on the decision-maker/collateral differences, then the observation and communication of risk in both systems will be more doubly contingent. In the case of the 1980s controversy over the shutdown of nuclear power plants in Germany, for example, the ruling party was under pressure to shut down nuclear power plants in order to win the support of the electorate in view of the catastrophic consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear leakage. However, once the nuclear power plant is shut down, those companies involved in the construction and operation of nuclear power plants are bound to suffer huge financial losses. In this situation, the political subsystem and the economic subsystem are at odds over whether and how to shut down nuclear power plants (Japp & Kusche, 2008).

In this way, Luhmann's distinctive risk observation, enabled by the decision-maker/reactor distinction, can be seen: (1) Whether in the form of interactions, organizations, or societies, people's perception, assessment, communication, and management of risk or danger are deeply rooted in the socially structured conditions constituted by the decision-maker/reactor dichotomy. (2) The decision-maker/involver social distinction further allows for an understanding that expert and public perceptions and communications about risk are conditional, and that both are necessarily conditioned by the social structures and underlying social relations in which they are embedded. (3) In a risk society, while it is still possible to temporarily achieve communication and consensus between the public, experts and decision makers through rational calculation and search for optimal solutions on the one hand, and through participation, hearings or mediation on the other hand, as long as the decision maker/collaborator distinction persists, the role of risk communication is limited and even disappointing. "The rift between policy makers and stakeholders will eventually destroy the hope of learning and communication, or even the sociologically naive expectation that everything will get better rather than worse" (Luhmann, 1993a: 114).

4.Coping with risk

If risks and dangers are ubiquitous and inescapable in modern societies, especially risky societies, and if risky decision-making has only limited rationality and risk communication is limited, can society as a whole find a way to cope with risks? Luhmann's answer is complex and cautious, and is divided into three levels: at the first level, Luhmann acknowledges that modern societies have developed certain complexity-reducing mechanisms to cope with risk at the interactional, organizational, and societal levels; at the second level, Luhmann is doubtful about the effectiveness of these redress mechanisms; and, at the third level, Luhmann cautiously contemplates other options. These three levels are discussed below.

In terms of the first level, first Luhmann argues that trust is both an important complexity-reducing and risk-coping mechanism in interactive systems. "From now on we have the possibility of articulating the problem of trust as a risk-taking, a risky investment ...... Complexity dilemmas are apportioned in this way, and thus become fewer: that is, one party temporarily trusts that the other will successfully navigate ambiguity, in other words, will simplify complexity " (Luhmann, 2005: 30-33). Luhmann goes on to elaborate on the difference and connection between trust and familiarity and confidence: familiarity is a fact of life of some sort, trust is a way of solving a risky problem, and trust is more likely to be gained in a familiar world; if a person takes a certain action with no consideration of other alternatives then they are confident at that point, and if a person risks possible disappointment even after considering other alternatives If a person takes an action without considering alternatives, he is confident, and if he risks disappointment even after considering alternatives, he is in a state of trust; although there are subtle differences between familiarity, confidence, and trust, in general, trust is more likely to be achieved and more capable of defusing risk in a familiar world in which the actor is confident (Luhmann, 1988).

Second, at the organizational level, Luhmann argues that because organizational systems communicate and operate by defining their boundaries around membership, organizations are able to more consistently reproduce highly stable "artificial" patterns of behavior by defining membership, thereby entrenching normal behavior and rejecting abnormal behavior. This is why organizations are able to reproduce highly stable "artificial" patterns of behavior on a more consistent basis by regulating membership, thereby entrenching normal behavior and excluding abnormal behavior. As a result, the behavior of both members and non-members becomes estimable, and the organization solves the problems of reconciling individual motivations and dealing with "decision-making surprises" and "hindsight". Moreover, the power structures and hierarchical arrangements that characterize organizations, as well as their regular operations such as rule-based and routinized record-keeping, also serve a valuable uncertainty-absorbing function (Luhmann, 2018). In addition to this, in contemporary society, risk communication often takes the organizational form of protest movements. "Protests of all kinds are communication of all kinds, communication that addresses the Other and calls the Other to account" (Luhmann, 2020: 184). In other words, through the form of protest movements, organizations are not only communicating about risk, but they are also trying to counter it in this way: protesting to declare to the Other a refusal to become a victim of the risky behavior of the Other.

Finally, at the level of the social system, composed of political, economic, and scientific subsystems, the subsystems, on the one hand, faced with complexities and risks far beyond those of the interacting and organizing systems, on the other hand, have evolved the most successful mechanism of contraction, the general symbolic medium of communication. Among them, power corresponds to the political subsystem, money corresponds to the economic subsystem, and truth corresponds to the scientific subsystem, constituting their respective general symbolic communication media. Luhmann further points out that, in practice, general symbolic communication media such as power, money and truth have developed binary symbols such as right/no right, pay/no pay, and true/false as a risk-operating mechanism to stabilize and institutionalize the expectations of the parties involved in risk communication in order to solve the problem of double contingency. For example, through the power/no power (or governing/incumbent) symbol, the two communicating parties in the political subsystem can know exactly who holds power and who does not; the governing party can then plan for the future and achieve its goals based on the fact that it holds power; and the incumbent party can plan its platform for the next election based on the fact that it does not hold power. In sum, "one can see this binary code as the most successful and influential evolutionary achievement, one that has been developed over a long period of time to reach its present level of abstraction and communicative technological efficacy" (Ruhmann, 2001: 61).

However, despite the fact that risk societies have developed a number of mechanisms to cope with risk at the interactional, organizational, and social system levels, Luhmann continues to argue that the effectiveness of these mechanisms in coping is unsatisfactory. This takes us to the first of Luhmann's risk coping reflections.

Let us start with the mechanism of trust in interactive systems. Luhmann argues that, on the one hand, the mechanisms of trust entrusted in simple societies have become increasingly weakened in risky societies, as the personalization and atomization of close-knit relationships in modern societies have grown, the familiar world has become increasingly alienated, and confidence has been increasingly eroded by skepticism. "These (stratified social) foundations of social trust have disappeared. Modern life is (more) dependent on contingent structures and changing conditions" (Luhmann, 1988: 103). On the other hand, due to the reality of the decision-maker/collaborator gap in a risk society, what may be a mere future risk for the decision-maker may be a future danger or even catastrophe for the collateral. As such, it is difficult for the rippers to trust the decision maker without hesitation, and it is difficult for the decision maker to convince the rippers to trust him/herself. "The urgent and practical problems now being affected by the decision of the Other lie entirely outside this field of trust and cannot therefore be absorbed by the corresponding organizational or individual preparations. For this type of situation, which is particularly compelling today, there is no need to consider traditional forms of trust/distrust" (Luhmann, 2020: 182).

And again, the limitations of organizational systematic contractual mechanisms. According to Luhmann, organizational systems have the advantage of marking their boundaries and thus stabilizing members' expectations by distinguishing between members and non-members, and of absorbing uncertainty through power structures, hierarchical arrangements, and standing operations. However, this inevitably leads to a hierarchical bureaucratization of the organization, which in turn leads to either routine functioning without effectively eliminating oversights; an inertia or even inertia that relies too heavily on decisions once they have been made and neglects to come up with new approaches in response to new situations and problems; or the splitting up of a decision into a series of decisions and sequencing them in such a way as to foster the illusion that the risks have already been mastered, so that "decisions are postponed and each part of the decision claims no responsibility" (Luhmann, 2020: 274). Further, in the case of the protest movement, it is easy to see that due to the multitude of protest themes, the short duration in which protests take place, and the rapid shifts in protest scenarios, it is difficult for the protest movement to establish an organization that is accountable for a particular issue of risk, and in turn, form a stable institution to keep the protests going on an ongoing basis. If the protest movement is further infiltrated by disagreements and conflicts between policymakers and rippers, it becomes even more difficult to establish organizations and sustain protests, and eventually they are abandoned. For example, in the same protest movement against the use of nuclear energy, there is a clear divide between those who are far away from the nuclear power plant and strongly demand the abolition of nuclear energy, and those who are close to the nuclear power plant and therefore have access to certain jobs, but only ask for safety measures, and it is difficult for the common protest movement to be sustained for a long period of time (Luhmann, 2020).

Finally, we look at the limitations of the systematic social contracting mechanisms. Luhmann argues, first, that social subsystems in modern functionally differentiated societies are self-referential in the production and reproduction of communicative operations in the contraction of complexity in the world, and are thus somewhat closed. As a result, there is no possibility of a comprehensive perception of the environment by the social subsystems and their environment, but only a structural coupling, i.e., "the system simply does not have enough diversity to be able to achieve a point-to-point coincidence with all the possibilities in the environment. The environment is more complex and choice is necessary" (Luhmann, 1993b: 530). Further, social subsystems are still coupled to the environment by their own specific operational logics, e.g., political subsystems always follow the logic of power, economic subsystems always follow the logic of profit to perceive the environment and to select part of the information in the environment in order to carry out their own "communicative" operations of "self-reproduction". self-reproduction". Therefore, there is an unavoidable structural limitation of social systems in perceiving and communicating risks. Second, under modernity, since there is no longer an omniscient external observer like God, social subsystems are unable to both make and observe their own decisions at the present moment of decision-making, but can only reflect on themselves through second-order observation of other subsystems. For example, the economic system, when deciding whether or not to fund scientific research, cannot consider all the consequences of its decision at the same time as it makes the decision; it can only reflect on itself by observing the response of the scientific system after the decision has been made. However, the scientific system operates and observes itself according to the symbols of truth/falsehood, and the economic system is not able to see the facts that the scientific system sees, but only the facts that it can see according to the symbols of profitability/non-profitability. Therefore, there are also limitations in the observation of risk by social subsystems. Third, under contemporary trends of time constraints and self-referentiality, social systems are under increasing pressure to address the complexity of the world, with increasingly unpredictable results. Taking the most trusted political subsystem as a prime example, Luhmann points out, first, that contemporary politics is increasingly governed by the electoral cycle, making it easy to ignore risky issues that are not on the electoral radar. Second, under high-tech conditions, it has become increasingly difficult for the political subsystem to deal, by its own logic, with the perturbations and problems posed by, for example, economic and scientific subsystems, such as those posed by financial crises or the application of artificial intelligence. Finally, any decision made by the political subsystem is likely to produce more and more unintended and perverse effects or side effects, especially when risky decisions originating from the political subsystem become a real threat that other subsystems have to face and endure, so that trust in the political subsystem has to end in disappointment (Luhmann, 1990).

We have completed above a cursory examination of Luhmann's first and second level thinking about how modern societies respond to risk. It is easy to see that Luhmann's attitude towards the contractualization mechanisms that have been developed so far in the evolution of society as a whole is ambivalent: they are both useful to a certain extent and limited to a certain extent. So, does Luhmann have anything else in mind?

We return once again to Luhmann's idiosyncratic binary definition of risk/hazard. It can be seen that for dangers attributable to the external environment, such as ecological crises, while there is as yet no perfect solution, there is still the possibility that, as society as a whole evolves, some kind of structural coupling may be formed between social subsystems that operate in their own closed way, and thus gain more resonance capacity to agitations or problems from the environment. "It is in this view that all the simultaneous observations of political, economic, and scientific operations going on next to each other still have the potential to cause yet another society-changing 'explosion of effects'" (Ruman, 2001: 36). And for the risks attributed to systemic decision-making, although society as a whole has to rely on second-order observation, and "the world of second-order observation is opaque," with the help of "texts (for those who know what readers there are), understandings (for those who know what observers there are), artifacts (for those who know what observers there are), artifacts (for those who know what patients there are), and prescriptions (for those who know what patients there are)" and other "methods that can be used to allow first-order observations to use second-order observations" to make at least some of the interacting structures in a giant black box like the world transparent. "'Make this black box white,' which may be appropriate" (Luhmann, 2020: 325-326).

What Luhmann sees and does not see: reflections based on second-order observations

Luhmann has claimed on more than one occasion that his theory of risk aims to construct a unified theory that encompasses and explains facts (Luhmann, 1993a, 1996). Does Luhmann, then, see as much as he claims? And does he have to accept his own inevitable limitations as an observational system, as his adherence to a second-order observational stance suggests, and "lose access to those 'unlabeled states'" (Luhmann, 1990: 227)? The following section will take the same stance with regard to Luhmann's observations of risk.

The first distinction to be made between Luhmann's observations of risk is whether risk researchers embrace or avoid Luhmann's theory. Currently, the acceptance of Luhmann's risk theory is mainly reflected in the following aspects: (1) Luhmann's view of trust as one of the mechanisms for the social complexity of risk is widely adopted. For example, Giddens's discussion of "trust", "ontological security", "risk" and other topics is very much borrowed from Luhmann, "Luhmann's approach is "Luhmann's approach is important in directing our attention to some of the conceptual organizing that must be done in order to understand trust" (Giddens, 2011: 28). (2) Luhmann's approach to defining risk by distinguishing between 'risk/danger' is increasingly recognized. In Rosa's assessment, for example, "in order to avoid the logical pitfalls of tautology and circular arguments, or the abyss of infinite regress, it is necessary to define risk and danger by criteria independent of their own semantic complements. A striking attempt to define risk and danger in this way is embodied in the work of systems sociologist Niklas Luhmann" (Rosa, 2010: 57). (3) Luhmann's emphasis on the attribution of risk to decision-making has led to the growing importance of decision-making in risk research. In Baker's 1986 book The Risk Society, the discussion of decision-making was still marginal, but after the new century, Baker has increasingly recognized the strong link between risk and decision-making: 'Nor are global risks subjects or actors. These risks are side effects of industrial decisions and actions" (Baker et al. 2010: 210).

Paradoxically, as Yapp notes: except for those scholars with a clear preference for systems theory, risk researchers in general rarely fully adopt Luhmann's theoretical path. "Occasionally, systems theory perspectives are used ...... but they merely provide some interesting ideas on one aspect of an issue and do not form part of a consistent systems theoretical reflection on an issue" (Japp & Kusche, 2008: 102). Why is this? Japp's explanation is that because systems theory's emphasis on second-order observations has led it to prefer dispassionate observations of the workings of social systems to timely solutions for how to actually mitigate risks, this theoretical approach has often been accused of being strongly conservative in its defense of established social structures (Japp & Kusche, 2008). Of course, in addition to these external factors described by Japp, Luhmann's theory has its own constraints. For one, unlike Giddens' consistent placement of trust at its core, the importance of trust changes dramatically and is even antithetical in the first and second periods of Luhmann's theory: from an early view of trust as an important mechanism for the contraction of complexity (Luhmann, 2005) to a later view of trust's function that is highly suspicious and even marginalized (Luhmann, 2020). Second, although Luhmann creatively defined risk and danger in terms of attribution, and then offered the insight that the risk of one system could be transformed into the danger of another system in terms of the social differences of decision makers/involved parties, Luhmann never clearly articulated exactly how and by what mechanism this transformation occurs. Third, while Luhmann's attribution of risk to future gains or losses as a result of systemic decisions is novel, he does not go further to explore the conditions under which systems might make what kinds of decisions. However, as Knight and Bunce point out, systems making decisions under conditions of deterministic knowledge are clearly different from making decisions under conditions of uncertain knowledge (Knight, 2010; Bonβ, 2013). So what is the difference between the two, and how should they be treated? Again, Luhmann does not have a clear answer.

The second distinction to be made between Luhmann's observations on risk is between the gains that a systems theory of risk can bring and the losses that it has to face. As noted above, Luhmann's criticisms of risk research in the 1980s are both positive and critical, the most important of which is that although the social sciences had gained a lot of empirical results in the areas of risk analysis, perception, communication, and management, these results were scattered across different disciplines, such as psychology, economics, and anthropology, and that there was no unifying theory to bring the various results together, in particular The lack of a social theory with a sufficiently clear understanding of the problem of self-referentiality.

Now it seems that Luhmann did to some extent construct a coherent social systems theory of risk and encompassed as much of the relevant research as possible. For example, by dating the emergence of the semantics of risk to the transition from stratification to functional differentiation, Luhmann not only departs from Beck's view of the risk society as a product of post-World War II self-referential modernization, but also manages to encapsulate, without contradiction, those pre-World War II insights on risk, such as Knight's economic analysis of risk. Luhmann, for example, constructs a "risk/hazard" distinction by re-entry of the systems theory's primary difference of "system/environment" into the topic of risk. The definition of risk can accommodate the facts of environmental pollution and ecological hazards, and also take into account the statistical findings of risk analysis, such as mortality and economic losses; while the definition of risk can accommodate the facts of capital investment and career planning, and also effectively integrate the insights of Simon and March about limited rationality and post-decision surprise propositions through the introduction of decision attribution. For example, by constructing the "decision maker/involved person" difference and introducing the idea of second-order observation, Luhmann is able not only to effectively incorporate Kaspersen et al.'s insights on the difference between public and expert knowledge in risk perception, communication, and management, but also to reflect on the reasons for the difference in relation to the social structure.

More strikingly, Luhmann's risk systems theory is probably the most soberly aware and thoroughly reflective of the problem of self-referentiality, compared to the reticence of Beck's, Giddens', and others' risk society theories to address the problem of self-referentiality. Self-referentiality, in systems theory, refers to the fact that systems in modern societies always communicate and operate according to their own logic, and it refers to the fact that systems in modern societies can only engage in second-order observational reflection on their own operations (Luhmann, 1984). Looking back at Luhmann's discussion of how interacting, organizational, and social subsystems respond to risk, it is clear to what extent Luhmann emphasizes second-order observational reflection on the self-referential functioning of modern social systems and their limitations. In contrast to Beck's discussion of political subsystems, Beck, while recognizing that political fragmentation, stagnation, and dysfunction in risky societies pose many dangers to society as a whole, continues to place his hope in the political system to form sub-political coalitions with rational reforms and to reach a consensus in the "roundtable" model (Beck, 2018; Beck et al. 2001). In Luhmann's view, on the other hand, not only is the political subsystem in risky societies, which operates according to its own logic, no longer able to bring about a consensus for the whole of society, but also the hope in the political subsystem will have to end in disappointment. "The political system is but one of many functional subsystems in modern society with a limited and specific mode of (communicative) operation; it cannot do what it is not capable of doing" (Luhmann, 1990: 229).

However, just as Luhmann seems to have succeeded in "developing a general theory that can describe all social phenomena in the 'world society'" (Zinn, 2008: 169), he has also paid a series of prices. For one thing, there are two shifts in Luhmann's systems theory: in the early period, 'action' is taken as the most basic constituent of social systems, while in the later period 'communication' replaces 'action' ( Zheng Zuoyu, 2022); at the same time, the 1984 book Social Systems still retained the idea that social systems can "interpenetrate" (Luhmann, 1995), but by the early 1990s Luhmann had firmly shifted to self-referentiality By the early 1990s, however, Luhmann had shifted firmly to the self-referential position that social systems can only 'operate closure' (Luhmann 1992). The cost of this shift is reflected in his theory of risk, which, on the one hand, has led Luhmann to be ambiguous about whether the 'decision maker/reactor' distinction refers to actors or communication systems, and, on the other hand, has led Luhmann to abandon the pursuit of affective factors in risk perception and the exploration of actor agency in risk response (Zinn, 2008). ). On the other hand, it gives credence to critics who question Luhmann's claim that social systems "operate in a closed world". For example, Münch, who claims to be an heir to Parsons' systems theory, doubts the "closed functioning" of social systems and insists that social systems can interpenetrate and thus form overlapping zones where representatives of actors from different systems may reach consensus through communication and negotiation (Münch, 1996). Another German sociologist, Mayntz, draws on empirical research on the relationship between political and economic systems to argue that the cross-border development of the contemporary German economic system does not stem from its self-reproducing closed communication functioning, but is rather a product of the economic globalization decisions made by the political system (Mayntz & Scharpf, 2005). Second, Luhmann's set of fundamental assumptions about modern society made from systems theory also blinds his risk observations. For example, because Luhmann insisted that the primary feature of modern society, which evolved from a stratified society, was functional differentiation, and that class differentiation and inequality were nothing more than residuals of the evolutionary process (Luhmann, 1982a); therefore, the problem of inequality virtually disappeared from Luhmann's observation and diagnosis of the risks of modern society. For example, Luhmann conceives of modern society as a world society (Luhmann, 1982b), in which facts such as national boundaries, local areas and ethnic boundaries are unimportant compared to functionally differentiated social systems, and therefore they are also ignored and forgotten by risk systems theory, consciously or unconsciously.

The final distinction to be made between Luhmann's observations on risk is between Luhmann's creative analysis of the temporal semantics of risk and the shortcomings that remain. This paper does not subscribe to the view that Luhmann's risk research is nothing more than yet another application of his systems theory to the topic of risk; on the contrary, this paper asserts that it is precisely because of the presence of a semantic analysis of risk time that Luhmann's risk research in turn enriches his social systems theoretical constructs. Why is this so? There are two reasons for this: firstly, an important part of Luhmann's social theoretical edifice is the specialization he called "social structure and semantics", for which he compiled a four-volume anthology and for which he had high expectations (Luhmann, 2022). However, there are not many cases where this has been carried out in a fruitful way. The exception is risk semantic analysis. It can be said to be a fascinating case study that Luhmann has not elaborated upon in subsystem studies such as politics and economics, or in discussions of topics such as love and ecology, and is therefore extremely rare. Second, as some scholars have pointed out, although Luhmann's social systems theory is one of the few theories that puts time at its center, "his studies of time are scattered throughout his various collections of essays and monographs with different themes and foci" (Zheng Zuoyu, 2022: 70). In contrast, the analysis of the semantics of risk time is an anomaly, in which one can see both the historical transformation of social structure from fragmentation to stratification to functional differentiation, and the formal change of the semantics of risk from the myth of sorcery to the destiny of God to the risk society. In a word, when the study of "social structure and semantics" represented by the semantic analysis of risk is integrated into the theory of social system, Luhmann has shown the world a picture of risk in the modern world in a more magnificent and far-reaching way.

Unfortunately, while Luhmann believes that the functionally differentiated modern society no longer has an observer named God to observe the past, present and future of time and to be responsible for the uncertainty of the future, he, through the elaborate theoretical construction of "system", intentionally or unintentionally recreates a God-like modern society, the "observer" to observe everything and to describe everything. He has created, consciously or unconsciously, a God-like observer of modern society who observes everything, describes everything, and even masters everything. As Beck puts it, "the concept of system, purged of all intentionality by Niklas Luhmann, places itself in the position of 'the heaven of this world', above humanity and below God" (Beck, 1995: 74). Is such an approach not ironic for Luhmann, who spent his life polemically battling Habermas's dream of recreating a normative subject?


Because of Luhmann's highly abstract theories, all-encompassing scope, vast and deep knowledge, and extremely difficult writing style, his ideas have not been sufficiently well understood or discussed to date, and his most important monograph on the sociology of risk was even considered at one point to be, "A book driven by Luhmann's serious and elegant scrupulousness in adhering to his systematic theories, and almost needlessly staged in its abstraction. Despite its extreme erudition and fascination, it offers only meager new insights" (Horlick-Jones, 1996: 115).

However, our research shows that critics who argue that Luhmann's sociological theory of risk offers only trivial new insights are not taking Luhmann seriously. For, Luhmann did construct a theory of risk systems that was able to meld the various results of risk social science research into one. On this basis, Luhmann not only defined risk clearly from the "risk/danger" distinction, but also gave the concept of risk a broader connotation and extension: all possible facts intrinsically attributable to systemic decision-making are risks, and all possible facts extrinsically attributable to the environment are dangers. As a result, any observation and discussion of risk perception, communication, and management must be premised on the social composition of "decision makers/involved parties". This is why risk societies rely on complex contractual mechanisms such as trust, membership, and generalized symbolic media of communication, but cannot fully rely on them to cope with the omnipresence of risk. In the final analysis, after the social transformation from stratified to functionally differentiated societies, risk has inescapably become a synonym for describing one's own modern encounters and destinies.

Like the doctrines of Marx, which caused an earthquake in social theory, is systems theory of risk, which combines factual, social, and temporal dimensions, really nothing more than an embellishment of well-known views in the field of risk by applying concepts specific to systems theory, as some critics have argued? Undoubtedly, Luhmann sees something that risk theorists do not see, and this paper sees something that Luhmann's critics do not see: that Luhmann sees a picture of risk that is more far-reaching and grandiose than Douglas's cultural analyses of risk, or Beck's and Giddens's theories of the risk society, and that is more self-referential and reflexive; and contrary to criticisms of Luhmann's pretense of abstraction, this paper argues that the only way to make a systematic theory of risk is to make it abstract, complex, and insightful, and that it is not possible to make a systematic theory of risk that is abstract and complex. Contrary to the criticism of Luhmann's abstraction, this paper argues that only a sufficiently abstract, complex and insightful theory can fully capture and thoroughly understand the risk orientation of modernity.

Of course, what we have seen about Luhmann's sociological theory of risk is but the tip of the iceberg. Much more, especially the development of risk systems theory in the wake of Luhmann, remains to be explored further in the future. For now, we hope that while the epidemic of the century brings us danger, Luhmann's theory can bring us wisdom in observing and coping with risk.