The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has provided one of the most elaborate theories of society available, as well as numerous works on specific aspects of society. Commonly labeled as “systems theory,” this is but a shorthand description of Luhmann’s theory. In fact, the theory rests on at least three main theoretical pillars. In addition to systems theory, a theory of social evolution and a theory of social differentiation play important roles. The present article introduces these three pillars and describes Luhmann’s theory of politics in this context. It outlines the crucial difference between a theory of politics as part of a theory of society on the one hand, and political theory as a reflective theory within the political system on the other hand. More specifically, it introduces Luhmann’s accounts of the notions of “political power,” “differentiation,” “the state,” “political steering,” and “the self-description of the political system.” The contribution concludes with some observations on the fact that Luhmann’s theory has tended to overlook the dimension of international politics, but that his theory provides opportunities to account for it in innovative ways.
Hajo G. Boomgaarden and Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck
Media are key for the functioning of democracy. It is the essential link between politics and citizens, providing critical information and interpretation of politics and room for debate. Given this central role of the media for democratic political processes, questions about how mediated political information would affect citizens’ perceptions of and attitudes toward politics, as well as ultimately political behavior, have been dominant in research in the field of political communication. While vast amounts of mid-range theories and empirical insights speak in favor of influences of media on citizens, there is little in terms of a universal theoretical framework guiding political media effects research, which makes it difficult to give a conclusive answer to the question: how and, in particular, how much do the media matter? It may matter for some people under some conditions in some contexts relating to some outcome variables. Technological changes in media systems pose additional challenges, both conceptually and methodologically, to come to comprehensive assessments of media influences on citizens’ political cognitions, attitudes, or behaviors. Research needs to be clearer as to which conceptualization of media is followed and how such conceptualization may interact with other dimensions of media attributes. Measurement of media use and reception needs to take into account the increasing complexities of how citizens encounter political information, and it requires alignment with the conceptualization of media. Political media effect theories should not continue developing side by side, but should attempt to find a place in a more comprehensive model and take into account how they relate to and possibly interact with other approaches. In sum, the field of political media effects, while vast and covering a range of aspects, would do well to consider its role and purpose in increasingly complex media environments and, accordingly, provide more integrative perspectives, conceptually, methodologically, and theoretically.
Sally Friedman and Richard K. Scotch
Persons with disabilities make up a large and significant segment of the American public; however, Americans with disabilities have rarely been considered an important political constituency or received public (or scholarly) attention in terms of their representation among political candidates or office holders. To the extent that people with disabilities have been addressed in American political discourse, they have been associated with the receipt of public benefits and services instead of being thought of as people with the potential to actively participate. Having a physical or mental impairment has typically carried with it a considerable degree of social stigma, and to be disabled is, in the minds of many, to be incapable and incompetent, dependent on others, and even morally questionable. Thus, for much of American history, the perception of an individual as disabled has been inconsistent with the personal qualities that the voting public and political gatekeepers view as desirable for public officials.
While there have always been politicians with disabilities in government, many of them have chosen to hide or minimize the visibility and extent of their impairments. However, cultural changes in part provoked by the disability rights movement have meant that many impairments have become less discrediting, and that people with disabilities are more likely to be seen as having the potential to be contributing citizens. The number of political candidates and officeholders with disabilities appears to be increasing, and some have chosen to include or even highlight their disabling condition as they present themselves to their constituents.