From Space to Boundary: An “Atopic” Pathway of Social Theory from Simmel to Luhmann

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 17:50
Oral Presentation
Tomoko WATARAI, Yokohama City University, Japan
Niklas Luhmann would not apparently be counted among the increasing number of sociologists interested in spatial reconfiguration. Rather, space appears to be lacking or sidelined within his construction of systems theory.

This paper neither critiques Luhmann’s inattention to space; nor does it attempt to incorporate the concept of space into his theoretical design. Instead, it explores the meaning of his spatial indifference, seeking to answer the following question: What epistemological insights can be derived from a serious consideration of Luhmann’s dismissal of the space concept as a premise of theorization?

The application of Luhmann’s social theory to the empirical field of migration studies, as distinguished from the prevailing tradition of methodological nationalism, has undeniable appeal. Luhmann declared that contemporary society should no longer be conceptualized as an entity divided by territorial boundaries, but rather as one comprising functionally differentiated forms of communication.

To investigate the theoretical potential of this line of inquiry, this paper also draws on the work of another sociologist, Georg Simmel. Both of these sociologists held that increasingly abstract forms of socialization (law and money) lead to the emancipation of space. However, this phenomenon does not challenge the actual existence of functionally differentiated communication under certain spatial conditions. The application of Simmel’s concept of “fixation” opens up a theoretical perspective that envisages various forms of fixation of functionally differentiated systems, rather than presupposing that a certain space exists and attempting to describe its internal differentiation.

The paper concludes by questioning the adequacy of the space concept itself as a tool for understanding hypercomplexity of contemporary urban settings and the very diverse experiences of transnational daily life. Thus, it contributes to reinvigorating sociological imagination and enhancing reflective engagement with contemporary society.