Interaction (Interaktion)

Interaction is a social system that requires the physical presence of the participants. Interactions form when communication is based on the perception of presence, which ensues from →double contingency.

Reflexive perception (the perception of perception) is the pre-social requirement of interaction. Communication demands the mutual perception of perception: the participants perceive that they themselves are perceived. If they perceive that they are perceived, and that their own perception is also perceived, the participants in communication can observe that their behavior is understood as information. This makes communication unavoidable, since even non-communication is observed as communication, i.e. as rejection of communication. Therefore, it is impossible not to communicate in interaction systems.

The selection principle and the only prerequisite for establishing the interaction system is presence based on perception. Since no absent person can contribute to interactive communication, the foundational distinction for observing interaction is the distinction between those present and those absent, although not everyone who is present must necessarily take part in communication (the bar tender does not necessarily participate in communication between customers at the bar). The distinction present/absent allows the formulation of a relatively simple definition of the boundary of communication: **interaction is the simplest social system**. Interaction is, however, still a complex social system because the number of possible communications makes a selection necessary [→Complexity].

The complexity of the interaction is processed by means of binary schemata [→Code]. Options for communication are pre-structured according to these schemata, which are thus the premises of communication. The schemata, which are the structures of interactions, correspond to the three →meaning dimensions: ego/alter (social dimension), constant/variable (temporal dimension), and internal/external (fact dimension). In every interaction, all three schemata operate simultaneously.

Attribution of selections to ego or alter in the social dimension organizes interaction in terms of attributing responsibility and intentionality; we can know who said what and act accordingly. In the temporal dimension, the difference between constant characteristics and variable achievements allows the distinction between the conditions determined by what is constant, and the selection of what is variable. There is, on the one hand, structural conditioning and, on the other hand, there are contingent selection processes. In the fact dimension, the attribution to ego and alter can be internal or external; the internal attribution allows the understanding of intentions behind ego and alter’s actions, while the external attribution allows the understanding of their experiences.

Interaction constitutes the minimum level of communication production: without interaction, a social system would not be possible. Interaction is, however, not equal to →society: interactions are episodes that contribute to the realization of society, whilst at the same time differentiating themselves within society. Society is simultaneously the condition for and the environment of interaction.

The difference between society and interaction is already present in the oldest segmentary societies, in which all communication is interactive and oral: no single interaction can include all communications, and not all partners can always be present at the same time. Later, the relationship between society and interaction evolves and varies in connection with the change in the structure of society [→Differentiation of Society] and new possibilities of reaching the addressee of the communication [→Dissemination Media].

In stratified societies, interaction is dependent on the hierarchical structure of society. At the same time, due to the invention of writing, it becomes possible to communicate regardless of whether the participants are present or not. Interaction upholds an important function within social strata and remains essential for the reproduction of society. For instance, interactions at court are particularly relevant for the upper stratum, and thus for society.

With functional differentiation, the invention of printing and, later, the new dissemination media, non-interactive communication becomes more and more frequent and continues to grow in importance in society. A significant share of the most improbable and societally relevant communication (e.g., payment, scientific discussion, political debates) no longer requires the physical presence of the participants and also includes people who are absent (through printing, TV and computers).

This situation reveals many structural limitations of interaction. It is reliant on physical presence; it necessitates the discussion of only one topic at a time; it dissolves easily when faced with conflict, unpleasant communication or attempts to impose hierarchies. Participants can easily withdraw. Overcoming these structural limitations becomes possible with the invention of media that increase the chance of success of non-interactive communication [→Symbolically Generalized Media].

Society determines globally the conditions for realizing specific interactions and creates (in the subsystems and in the organizations) a structured social environment to which interactions must adapt. Interactions themselves often concern problems that lie beyond their boundaries (e.g., parliamentary debates, office discussions, romantic rendezvous). In these cases, the interaction can take on a new meaning and importance. For instance, an interaction can ignore the role-based expectations of participants that are valid outside of the interaction (e.g. medical interactions ignore the political or economic roles of patients); or it can realize an intimacy that includes the participant as a whole person (in families). The interaction can be observed both within the functional systems (e.g., economic system, political system, scientific system, education system, system of families, medical system) and in function-free contexts (standing in line to buy theatre tickets, on the bus, in a bar).

Understood in this way, the distinction between society and interaction is incompatible with the traditional distinction between micro-sociology (analysis of interaction) and macro-sociology (analysis of complex social systems). This is because society and interaction are not different levels of the social, but are system references that are differentiated according to the type of boundary demarcation, to the structural rules of communication, and to the limit of admitted complexity. [C.B.] – (Unlocking Luhmann, p 111–113)

Social Systems (1995: Ch. 10.III); Schematismen der Interaktion (1979); The Evolutionary Differentiation of Interaction and Society (1987); Theory of Society (2013: Ch. 4.13).