Self-observation, self-reference and operational coupling in social systems: steps towards a coherent epistemology of mass media | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 1, Issue 1
  • ISSN: 1757-1952
  • E-ISSN: 1757-1960


This paper is concerned with the role of self-observation in managing complexity in meaning systems. Revising Niklas Luhmann's theory of mass media, we approach the mass media system as a social sub-system functionally specialized in the coupling of psychic systems' (individuals) self-observation and social systems' self-observation (including, respectively, themselves as each other's internalized environment).

According to Autopoietic Systems Theory and von Foerster's second order cybernetics, self-observation presupposes a capability for meta-observation (to observe the observation) that demands a specific distinction between observer and actor. This distinction seems especially relevant in those social contexts where a separation between the action of observation and other social actions is required (in politics, for instance). However, in those social contexts (such as mass-media meaning production) where the defining action is precisely observation (in terms of the differentiation that constitutes the system), the border between observer and actor is blurred.

We shall consider the significant divergence between the implicit and the explicit epistemologies of the mass media system, which appears to be characterized by the explicit assumption of a classic objectivist epistemology, on one side, and a relativist epistemology on the other, posing a hybrid epistemic status somewhere in between science and arts.


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