„ Bringing in structure: a systems-theoretical view on literary journalism“ – the title of my presentation may well raise a very fundamental question: Why systems? Of course, this is a legitimate question, and it has been asked by others before, quite recently by the German sociologist Dirk Baecker, for example (cf. Baecker 2001). If I wanted to provide a short answer to this question, I could say: in order to bring some structure into literary journalism studies. But, of course, this answer needs an explanation, and, in order to make it comprehensible, it even needs more fundamental questions:
How can a theory of society be useful in the study of literary journalism? And what actually is literary journalism from a sociological perspective? These questions were inspired by an examination of the theoretical works by the sociologist Niklas Luhmann which have been adopted both by the literary and the communication sciences in the German-speaking world and which, in my opinion, may well be utilised for the scientific analysis of literary journalism, too. So far, literary journalism studies have nourished a focus on persons and their works as key objects of interest. It is my hypothesis, however, that the origination of literary journalism not only depends on the authors that write it, but also – and to a considerable degree – on context factors promoting or preventing its creation. These context factors, such as influences from the societal as well as from the organisational level, have hitherto been neglected in the theoretical approaches used to discuss literary journalism. Consequently, it is my aim to demonstrate how Luhmann’s functional-structural systems theory may be applied in literary journalism studies, doing away with the highlighted shortcomings and, thus, providing answers to the above questions.
Luhmann’s systems theory (cf. primarily Luhmann 1984) is a branch of general differentiation theory which is rooted in the work of Émile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. It is based on the assumption that social order is only possible by forming and developing (social) systems. But these systems are by no means given objects; they constitute their identity by drawing a distinction between the system and its environment and by setting boundaries against their environments. To put it differently: The system is the difference between the system and its environment. It reduces environmental complexity by building complex internal structures in order to deal with this external complexity. Thus, a system can reproduce itself and keep the social order intact. Every social system has come into existence in order to solve specific problems within and for societies which cannot be solved by other systems. This is what may be called the function of a social system. For example, politics provide collectively binding decisions for society, while economy distributes scarce goods, law provides justice, and science provides knowledge of and for society. They do so by operating under a system-specific binary code, like government/opposition in the case of politics, or legal/illegal in the case of law, and by applying specialized internal programs, like investments in economy, or methods in science. In some of his works Luhmann also described arts (cf. Luhmann 1995) and mass media (cf. Luhmann 1996) as social systems, regarding journalism as an important domain of the media system, and literature as a part of the art system (cf. the introductions by Werber 2008; Görke/Scholl 2006).
This idea has gained considerable respect both by literary scientists and by communication scholars, at least in the German-speaking countries. In the literary sciences, there have been several attempts at enhancing and augmenting Luhmann’s theory during the 1980s and 1990s, trying to reformulate literary theory’s traditional concern of what literature is actually for (cf. e.g. Faulstich 1986; Meyer/Ort 1988; Schmidt 1989; Schwanitz 1990, 1993; Rusch 1991, 1993; Werber 1992; Plumpe/Werber 1993; Plumpe 1995; Reinfandt 1995; Fohrmann/Müller 1996). Although there have been fervent debates about the possible answers to this question and about the typical code of literary communication, it became clear that a systems-theoretical approach to literature may be of great value when it comes to explaining the status of literature in society as well as the specific conditions of literary production and reception. The first proposals to apply systems theory to the analysis of journalism were made from the 1960s to the 1980s, focusing on the newsroom as an organisational system, but throughout the 1990s the perspective switched to the macro level (cf. e.g. Rühl 1969, 1980; Marcinkowski 1993; Spangenberg 1993; Gerhards 1994; Blöbaum 1994; Kohring 1997; Scholl/Weischenberg 1998; Görke 1999; Weber 2000). While scholars like Siegfried Weischenberg and Bernd Blöbaum conceptualized journalism as an autonomous and self-determined social system, others defined journalism as a subsystem of the larger social system “public” (in German: “Öffentlichkeit”). Although there is still dissent about the exact description of journalism’s social function and its binary code, systems theory has become the mainstream theory in German journalism studies, as most researchers agree that journalism in a functionally differentiated society essentially contributes to the self-observation of society.
Interestingly, systems theorists within the distinct disciplines of literary and journalism studies do not seem to have taken any notion of each other so far. This is where I come in. Drawing on the foundations of Blöbaum’s and Weischenberg’s conception of journalism as an autopoietic social system, I propose to understand literary journalism as a subsystem of the journalism system. This entails that literary journalism may be assigned the same primary function as journalism in general, that is the “selection and dissemination of information on current and relevant topics for public communication” (Blöbaum 1994: 261), operating under the same binary code, which may be described as “topical/non-topical”. While journalism and literary journalism share these basic characteristics, they differ with regard to the internal structures, id est the programs that they apply in order to fulfil their social function. Whereas traditional news journalism, in the process of its professionalisation, has developed specific techniques for selecting, structuring and presenting the information it wants to convey to the public, literary journalism adapts its programs from the literature system, intermingling established journalistic routines with literary stylistics. Thus, it is able to create a type of journalism that, for example, “would … read like a novel”, as Tom Wolfe (1973: 21f.) once put it.
An expanded functional-structural systems theory offers new insights to literary journalism studies: It obliges any scholar with an interest in literary journalism to be more precise in defining his or her object of analysis and to make a clear distinction with regards to similar forms of social communication, such as non-journalistic entertainment, arts, or advertising. It may also help to clarify the specific social function of literary journalism, thus suggesting a new approach at defining a phenomenon of journalistic communication not yet adequately theoreticised. Moreover, it can also be instrumental in pointing out which structures within a journalism system are necessary for the cultivation and dissemination of literary journalism, demonstrating that this type of journalistic communication is usually more than the product of individual creative power. After all, a view on the co- and contexts of literary journalism facilitates the empirisation of literary journalism studies and, thus, makes it connectable to other journalism research in the tradition of quantitative social sciences. Despite all this, it must not be overlooked that systems-theoretical journalism research has provoked criticism from different directions: Its high level of abstraction may result in a lack of practical relevance, critics argue. Furthermore, systems theory’s focus on macro-structural influences on journalism is believed to marginalise the individual human being, that is in this case the writer of literary journalism whose share in the production of journalistic communication must, of course, not be negated (cf. e.g. Haller 2004; Raabe 2005). Nonetheless, I am convinced that systems theory may be of great value to literary journalism studies. Promising areas of application are, for example, analyses of the differentiation history of literary journalism or cross-cultural comparisons. In these instances, a functional-structural approach can develop an inspiring heuristic potential. This is why bringing in structure into literary journalism studies definitely deserves a try.
Literature cited: Baecker, Dirk (2001): Why Systems? In: Theory, Culture & Society 18, 1/2001, pp. 59-74. Blöbaum, Bernd (1994): Journalismus als soziales System. Geschichte, Ausdifferenzierung und Verselbständigung. Opladen. Faulstich, Werner (1986): Systemtheorie des Literaturbetriebs: Ansätze. In: Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik 16, 62, pp. 125-133. Fohrmann, Jürgen/Müller, Harro (Hrsg.) (1996): Systemtheorie der Literatur. München. Gerhards, Jürgen (1994): Politische Öffentlichkeit. Ein system- und akteurtheoretischer Bestimmungsversuch. In: Neidhardt, Friedrich (ed.): Öffentlichkeit, öffentliche Meinung, soziale Bewegungen. Opladen, pp. 77-105. Görke, Alexander (1999): Risikojournalismus und Risikogesellschaft. Sondierung und Theorieentwurf. Opladen, Wiesbaden. Görke, Alexander/Scholl, Armin (2006): Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Social Systems and Journalism Research. In: Journalism Studies 7, 4/2006, pp. 644-655. Haller, Michael (2004): Die zwei Kulturen. Journalismustheorie und journalistische Praxis. In: Löffelholz, Martin (ed.): Theorien des Journalismus. Ein diskursives Handbuch. 2., vollständig überarbeitete und erweiterte Auflage. Wiesbaden, pp. 129-150. Kohring, Matthias (1997): Die Funktion des Wissenschaftsjournalismus. Ein systemtheoretischer Entwurf. Opladen. Luhmann, Niklas (1984): Soziale Systeme. Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie. Frankfurt am Main. Luhmann, Niklas (1995): Die Kunst der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main. Luhmann, Niklas (1996): Die Realität der Massenmedien. Frankfurt am Main. Marcinkowski, Frank (1993): Publizistik als autopoietisches System. Politik und Massenmedien. Eine systemtheoretische Analyse. Opladen. Meyer, Friederike/Ort, Claus-Michael (1988): Konzept eines struktural-funktionalen Theoriemodells für eine Sozialgeschichte der Literatur. In: Heydebrand, Renate/Pfau, Dieter/Schönert, Jörg (eds.): Zur theoretischen Grundlegung einer Sozialgeschichte der Literatur. Ein struktural-funktionaler Entwurf. Tübingen, pp. 85-171. Plumpe, Gerhard/Werber, Niels (1993): Literatur ist codierbar. Aspekte einer systemtheoretischen Literaturwissenschaft. In: Schmidt, Siegfried J. (ed.): Literaturwissenschaft und Systemtheorie. Positionen, Kontroversen, Perspektiven. Opladen, pp. 9-43. Plumpe, Gerhard (1995): Epochen moderner Literatur. Ein systemtheoretischer Entwurf. Opladen. Raabe, Johannes (2005): Die Beobachtung journalistischer Akteure. Optionen einer empirisch-kritischen Journalismusforschung. Wiesbaden. Reinfandt, Christoph (1995): Integrating Literary Theory: Systems-theoretical Perspectives of Literature and Literary Theory. In: Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 28, 1/1995, pp. 55-64. Rühl, Manfred (1969): Die Zeitungsredaktion als organisiertes soziales System. Bielefeld. Rühl, Manfred (1980): Journalismus und Gesellschaft. Bestandsaufnahme und Theorieentwurf. Mainz. Rusch, Gebhard (1991): Zur Systemtheorie und Phänomenologie von Literatur. In: SPIEL 10, 2/1991, pp. 305-339. Rusch, Gebhard (1993): Literatur in der Gesellschaft. In: Schmidt, Siegfried J. (ed.): Literaturwissenschaft und Systemtheorie. Positionen, Kontroversen, Perspektiven. Opladen, pp. 170-193. Schmidt, Siegfried J. (1989): Die Selbstorganisation des Sozialsystems Literatur im 18. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt am Main. Scholl, Armin/Weischenberg, Siegfried (1998): Journalismus in der Gesellschaft. Theorie, Methodologie und Empirie. Opladen, Wiesbaden. Schwanitz, Dietrich (1990): Systemtheorie und Literatur. Ein neues Paradigma. Opladen. Schwanitz, Dietrich (1993): Systemtheoretischer Handlungsbegriff und literarische Kommunikation. In: SPIEL 12, 1/1993, pp. 72-80. Spangenberg, Peter M. (1993): Stabilität und Entgrenzung von Wirklichkeiten. Systemtheoretische Überlegungen zu Funktion und Leistung der Massenmedien. In: Schmidt, Siegfried J. (ed.): Literaturwissenschaft und Systemtheorie. Positionen, Kontroversen, Perspektiven. Opladen, pp. 66-100 Weber, Stefan (2000): Was steuert Journalismus? Ein System zwischen Selbstreferenz und Fremdsteuerung. Konstanz. Werber, Niels (1992): Literatur als System. Zur Ausdifferenzierung literarischer Kommunikation. Opladen. Werber, Niels (2008): Niklas Luhmanns Kunst der Gesellschaft – Ein einführender Überblick. In: Luhmann, Niklas: Schriften zu Kunst und Literatur. Hrsg. v. Niels Werber. Frankfurt am Main, pp. 438-476. Wolfe, Tom (1973): The new journalism. In: Wolfe, Tom: The new journalism. With an anthology edited by Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson. New York, pp. 11-68.
Bringing in structure
technische universität Fakultät Kulturwissenschaften
dortmund Institut für Journalistik
Bringing in structure
A systems-theoretical view on literary journalism
Dipl.-Journ. Tobias Eberwein | London, 20th May 2010
A systems-theoretical view on literary journalism…
How can a theory of society
be useful in the study of
literary journalism? What is
literary journalism from a
The origination of literary
journalism not only depends on
the authors that write it, but
also – to a considerable degree
– on context factors promoting
or preventing its creation.
Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998)
Dipl.-Journ. Tobias Eberwein | London, 20th May 2010 2
Arts and mass media in a functionally differentiated society
Economy Politics Science Law Arts Mass media
Distribution of Collectively Order despite Self-observation
Function scarce goods binding decisions
contingency of society
Code Have/have not
True/false Legal/illegal Beautiful/ugly
Medium Money Power Truth Lawsuit Beauty ---
Coalition Styles, Professional
Organisation Companies States, parties Universities Courts Museums Newsrooms
(cf. Werber 2008: 448)
Dipl.-Journ. Tobias Eberwein | London, 20th May 2010 3
Literature and journalism as social systems
Literature as social system:
What is literature for? What are the social conditions of literary communication?
(cf. e.g. Faulstich 1986; Meyer/Ort 1988; Schmidt 1989; Schwanitz 1990, 1993; Rusch 1991, 1993; Werber 1992;
Plumpe/Werber 1993; Plumpe 1995; Reinfandt 1995; Fohrmann/Müller 1996)
Journalism as social system:
What is journalism for? What are the social conditions of journalistic communication?
(cf. e.g. Rühl 1969, 1980; Marcinkowski 1993; Spangenberg 1993; Gerhards 1994; Blöbaum 1994; Kohring
1997; Scholl/Weischenberg 1998; Görke 1999; Weber 2000)
Dipl.-Journ. Tobias Eberwein | London, 20th May 2010 4
Literary journalism as subsystem of the journalism system
Selection and dissemination of information for public communication
Professional journalistic techniques for selecting, structuring and presenting
information intermingle with literary stylistics!
Mass media, newsrooms
Dipl.-Journ. Tobias Eberwein | London, 20th May 2010 5
Potentials and problems
Necessary precision in defining literary journalism
Clarification of the specific social function of literary journalism
Consideration of the structures of literary journalism
Connectivity to other journalism research
But: criticism from different directions
Nonetheless: possible application, e.g., in analyses of the differentiation history of literary
journalism or cross-cultural comparisons
Dipl.-Journ. Tobias Eberwein | London, 20th May 2010 6
Bringing in structure
A systems-theoretical view on literary journalism
Dipl.-Journ. Tobias Eberwein
Institut für Journalistik
Technische Universität Dortmund
Tel.: +49 (0)231 755-4195
Fax: +49 (0)231 755-5583
Picture credits: Kunstart.net, Romana Schaile/pixelio.de; Sonntag/Wikimedia Commons
Dipl.-Journ. Tobias Eberwein | London, 20th May 2010 7