2001 Conference (May 27-29)

Vancouver, B.C. Canada

Janet D. Fiero

Surviving and Thriving Ecologically:
Exploring Luhmann's social autopoiesis




My dissertation research study was an exploration into the complex social, political, legal and ecological context in which individuals and organizations work to change the patterns which sustain current ecological trends. It was a double 'double description' which enabled a quadruple comparison of structure and communication across and within two diverse environmental organizations. The first organization, the Grand Canyon Trust (GCT) as a conservationist group, protects natural 'goods' such as forests and wilderness areas. The second, Don't Waste Arizona (DWA) as a grassroots group, works to reduce the toxic 'bads' of industrial society. The first double description allows two comparisons: first, the structures of the GCT and DWA are compared and second, the communication of each is compared. The second double description highlights the recursive nature of institutional structures and relational communication within each organization. In these two cases, each organization uses various strategies and tactics to attempt to change the reified patterns, procedures and rules (structures) of different 'function systems' - economics, law, politics, science, religion, and education - in response to an ecological danger.

My central research focus was to study how citizens and their environmental organizations are engaged in the restoration of the ecosystem. By contrasting two, very different, environmental groups, I investigated how communication (not individual agency) enabled changes in the structures of the 'function systems' of society for the betterment of the ecosystem. At the same time I studied how the structures of these 'function systems' constrained or enabled communication.

My thesis is that citizens and their regional environmental organizations are changing the structures of some 'function systems' of society - law, politics, science, economics, education, and religion - through their communication (and subsequent action). By changing the structures, perhaps resonance among 'function systems' is improved, and actions can be taken to stop and even reverse ecosystem damage. My central research question is: How is it that two such different regional environmental organizations are both able to bring about change in the structures of 'function systems'? Three conceptual frameworks anchor this research. First, structuration theory of Anthony Giddens addresses the recursive nature of agency and structure. People through their actions reproduce and create structures that shape them. Second, social construction theory addresses how individuals construct the worlds in which they live through communication. I situate both structuration and social construction concepts within the third framework, open systems theory - specifically social autopoietic theory as Niklas Luhmann describes it. I integrated these three research traditions and synthesized them to create my social con-structuration theory: Within the context of current function systems, people relationally communicate, become aware, and take action to change structures of the function systems that recursively shaped them in the first place.


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