The term “autopoiesis” was coined by Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana as part of an attempt to develop a definition of the organisation of living organisms. Maturana states that a living system is characterized by the ability of its constituent elements to produce and re-produce themselves, and in so doing to define its Unity: every cell is the result of the network-internal operations [→Operation/Observation] of the system to which it belongs—it is not the result of any external intervention.

The theory of social systems adopts the term autopoiesis and broadens its frame of reference. While it is applied in a biological setting exclusively to living systems, Luhmann’s view is that we may speak of an autopoietic system in all cases in which it is possible to determine a specific mode of operation that is found only in that system. Thus two further references of the configuration of autopoietic systems are defined, each characterized by its specific operations: social systems and psychic systems. The operations of a →social system consist of communications that reproduce based on other communications and thus establish the unity of the system; outside social systems, communications do not exist. The operations of →psychic systems are thoughts, and no thoughts exist outside consciousness.

All autopoietic systems are therefore characterized by an operational closure. This term is used to indicate that the operations leading to the production of new elements in the system are reliant on earlier operations of the same system and are at the same time prerequisites for later operations [→Self-Reference]. This closure is the basis for the autonomy of the system and enables it to be differentiated from its environment. In the case of a living system, the transformations that lead to the production of a new cell are exclusively internal transformations: even though the reproduction of the organism’s elements uses material external to the cell (the organic molecules to be processed), no cell production takes place outside of a living organism. The same is true of the other autopoietic systems: the operations of a social system —communications — are the result of earlier communications and themselves trigger further communications. The unity of a social system is based entirely on the recursive interconnection of communications and not, for instance, on the psychic processes of either the systems of consciousness or the organisms involved. Only social systems can communicate. Likewise, the operations of a psychic system — thoughts — perpetually reproduce themselves as a result of other thoughts and are a direct reflection of neither organic nor communication processes. Only consciousness is capable of thought, as it cannot transfer its thoughts to another consciousness; for this, it must resort to communication. Life, consciousness and communication are separate levels of autopoiesis, each with its own distinct autonomy.

The term operative closure is the result of the assumption that no system can operate beyond its boundaries. It goes without saying that every system has an environment and is dependent on being compatible with it [→Interpenetration and Structural Coupling]: if, for instance, the systems of consciousness ceased to participate, a social system would no longer be able to reproduce itself. At the level of the constitution of its elements, however, the system operates exclusively in “self-contact” — it refers, therefore, exclusively to the network of its own operations and can only “survive” as long as it can maintain the condition of closure. The moment an external instance dictates the workings of the system operations and interferes in the constitution of its elements, the autonomy of the system is lost and its end is inevitable. In the case of a living system, such an end to the existence of the system means death: an organism can live only so long as it is able to reproduce cells by virtue of its own cells. A social system, too, that is incapable of generating new communications is, as a system, determined to disappear — even though the systems of consciousness still think of contents linked with past communications, without expressing them and thus without being understood by others. The existence of a system depends on its ability to maintain a boundary separating it from the environment. At the same time, the autopoietic reproduction of operations generates the unity of the elements, the unity of the system to which they belong, and the boundary between them and the environment. Against this background, the idea of a “relative autonomy” is ruled out: a system is either autopoietic or it is not (in which case one cannot refer to a “system” at all).

Within a social system, further autopoietic systems may develop, each reproducing a specific type of operation —i.e., mode of communication — that appears only in this system. Through this, a further boundary is drawn between the system and the environment, this time within the system itself. In modern society, there are, for instance, various functional systems [→Differentiation of Society] seen as distinct on account of their communications, being oriented towards their specific →codes.

With the exclusion of any direct contact with the exterior, the term “of the system” takes on a radical meaning. Entities are not imported or exported either from the inside to the outside or vice versa. Communications can, for instance, refer only indirectly to what is given in the environment if and when this is the subject of communication, and only in the system-specific forms. Further, the interests and motivations of the systems of consciousness participating in communication can appear only in the form of a topic of communication (if communication refers to interests and motivations). It follows, thus, that no system can connect to its environment through its operations, and neither can it use these operations to adapt to the environment. A system is — as far as it exists and operates — already adapted to the environment.

Emphasizing the closure of the system is not to deny the relevance of the environment for the system: the now classic comparison of open and closed systems is overcome with the premise that closure is the condition for the opening of the system. Only under the condition of autonomy is a system in the position to separate and differentiate itself from the environment. A system can only process external materials for the construction of its elements by demarcating an area in which specific conditions are valid and in which no direct adaption to the conditions of the world is needed; only in this way can it (in its own form) react to irritations from the environment [→System/Environment]. In this way, a system can introduce its own distinctions [→Identity/Difference] and deal with the states and events of the environment using these distinctions, which themselves generate →information.

At the level of autopoiesis, the system confines itself to the reproduction of its operations. The differentiation of system and environment requires an observer to link the internal processes with the outside world [→Operation/Observation]. Thus, only the observer can attest to the existence of causal relationships between environment and system. Everything that can be said about an autopoietic system — including ideas of time, function, adaptation, evolution — is voiced by an observer and does not concern the workings of the operations. At a certain level of complexity, the system itself can be the observer of its own autopoiesis.

The theoretical decision for the concept of autopoiesis leads to substantial revisions in terms of the theory of cognition and epistemology in general [→Constructivism]. The introduction of the concept of “autopoiesis” constitutes an important advance with regard to the concept of self-organization. While the concept of self-organization regards the ability of the system to construct and modify its own structures, the concept of autopoiesis stresses that the system also operates autonomously in the constitution of its own elements; therefore, everything in the system (elements, processes, structures and the system itself) is generated internally.

In the social sciences, and especially in Luhmann’s theory, the introduction of the term autopoiesis is not simply a direct transfer of a biological concept. The fact that that it has proved useful in research on living organisms tells us nothing about its explanatory power in the domain of sociology. The precondition for the relevance of autopoiesis in this domain is that the observation of analogies with living systems is of sociological interest, and this implies the revision and extension of the original term. The most important innovation in Luhmann’s version of autopoiesis is the emphasis on the “→event character” of the final elements of the social and psychic systems. Communications and thoughts are events, i.e. they have no duration and disappear in the same moment in which they appear. Social and psychic systems exist only moment-to-moment, and every prolongation of →time is the result of an observation based on the distinction between before and after, which is itself a system operation. [E.E.] –– Unlocking Luhmann

The Autopoiesis of Social Systems (1986); Autopoiesis als soziologischer Begriff (1987); Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft (1990: 28 ff., 128 ff.); Theory of Society (2012: 32-35).

Autopoiesis is the process of self-production which maintains the identity of an organism or an organization as itself.

The process was first described by biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela who observed that most activity engaged in by living organisms was not directed toward reproduction but to self production. In complex organisms, autopoiesis is not a single process but a concatenation of processes linked together by homeostats or joined in a symbiotic relationship.. In biological organisms, there are external limits to autopoiesis at the individual level (an animal will eat until satisfied, and then rest) and at the evolutionary level (skeletal structure, food supply, lung capacity and other factors limit the growth of members of a species). In organizations, such controls are not so well established at either the individual or the evolutionary level. It is noticeable, however, when an organization's autopoietic activities have gone out of control and become pathological at the extreme, such as when an agency's budget exceeds tire assets of the industry or activity it administers. Detection of excesses of autopoietic activity at the organization level are sometimes difficult to discern because the particular activities may be performed with great skill and efficiency. The key is to look for the right balance between an organization's producing itself, and producing something else such as its supposed or intended product The production of something external to the organization or organism is called allopoiesis. Preoccupation with organizational roles, rituals and procedures, internal emphasis on questions of turf and a decline in the adaptability of the organization to changing circumstances are signals that autopoiesis is out of control. This has been called pathological autopoiesis (by Stafford Beer), and its symptomatology has been defined. # SOURCE Maturana, H., & Varela, F. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition. Boston: D. Reidel. Maturana, H., & Varela, F. (1992). The Tree of Knowledge (Revised edition ed.): Shambhala. # EXAMPLES: **Of Normal Autopoiesis** • eating to maintain life • maintaining a reserve to ride through anticipated market oscillations • attention to house style, code of ethics and other factors that reinforce organizational identity **Of Pathological Autopoiesis** • overeating to the point of obesity (except where climatic conditions give a substantial survival advantage to organisms who have stored a great deal of fat to last through the winter) • preoccupation w ith internal coordination to the detriment of providing products and services to customers • maintaining such a high level of reserves that the organization bypasses . new opportunities and does not undertake needed adaptation • a charity that spends most of its energy on fundraising '• hanging on to a constraining or rigid identity which blinds the organization to opportunity • a cancer # Non-examples • reproduction and raising the young in animal societies • manufacturing goods • adaptive behavior such as exploring a new market • providing services to clients; curing the sick, training technicians, transporting goods • long term planning, when not misconceived (as sometimes happens) as an activity in its own right PROBABLE ERROR • Drawing the line between necessary and excessive autopoiesis in the wrong place. • Underestimating the resistance of a system to having its excess autopoiesis pruned (its basis is the instinct for survival, and perceptions of survival criteria may expand ad infinitum) # REFERENCE Preface to Autopoiesis and Cognition, Heart of Enterprise Chapter 15, Brain of the Firm Chapter 19 # SEE Adaptation; Homeostasis; SelfReference