Notes on Habermas: Lifeworld and System


Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action (published in two volumes, 1984, 1987) is self-consciously styled as a successor to Parsons’ 1937 classic, The Structure of Social Action.  Like Parsons, Habermas reviews a “canon” of classic theorists and presents his own theory of action, drawing together bits of their work.  The two significant differences are that Habermas draws on a far larger canon than Parsons’ four theorists.  Habermas includes sociologists (Weber, Durkheim, Mead, and Parsons), Marx and neo-Marxists (his teachers such as T.W. Adorno), and a variety of philosophers and philosophical psychologists.  The other difference is that for Habermas the core of any action is communication.  The central problem of contemporary societies is not how order is maintained (Parsons’ problem), but rather how to create conditions for what Habermas calls “communicative action”.  Understanding Habermas means understanding what he means by communication, and why he places such emphasis on it.


Habermas’s problem may be stated this way.  Like Parsons, he believes societies require integration, but like the neo-Marxists he believes societies are in crisis.  As advanced capitalist societies have developed, the core integrative function of communication has been increasingly disabled (Habermas would say “colonized”).  Thus the legitimation of social institutions, indeed of nation states, is in crisis.  By legitimation Habermas means citizens’ sense that the institutions within which they live are just, benevolent, in their best interest, and deserving of their support, loyalty, and adherence.  Legitimacy is clearly linked to social order, but there’s a shift of emphasis from Parsons’s problem of order.


Habermas’s theory is first about the conditions of legitimacy crisis (how communicative action has become colonized, and how that colonization undermines legitimacy).  The second part of his theory attempts to describe the conditions that would be adequate to the “ideal speech situation” that might restore legitimacy.  These notes are mostly concerned with the first issue of colonization.  In the discussion of the ideal speech situation Habermas is more philosophical than sociological, though his work constantly blurs the boundary between the two; for Habermas, each requires the other.


One biographical note.  Habermas was a teenager during World War II, just too young to fight in the German army but old enough to be appalled by Nazism and the revelations of what the Holocaust involved.  When he speaks in interviews about his theoretical development, the key experience seems to have been his teenage years during the post-war reconstruction, the so-called “economic miracle” of West German economic recovery.  What disturbed Habermas (who seems to have been even more idealistic and sensitive to adult hypocrisy than most teenagers) was how easily prominent Nazis gained their “de-Nazification” certificates, went into business, recreated a system of economic inequality, and, in brief, not a lot changed economically.  Though for all Habermas’s criticisms of German democracy, he has no illusions about how much changed politically. 


Despite his criticisms of capitalism, Habermas never seems to have taken Marxism seriously as a political-economic alternative to democratic capitalism.  Rather he views democratic capitalism as, in one of his famous phrases, an “unfinished project.”  Thus his work is misunderstood when commentators like George Ritzer put him in the “neo-Marxist” chapter.  Habermas is trying to use Marx’s insights (among many others) to bring about an ideal form of democratic capitalism.  He believes it is the role of social theorists to provide what he calls “regulatory ideals” for society: ideals of social forms to which society can aspire.  His work is not utopian in a classic sense, but seems close to what Anthony Giddens calls “utopian realism”.


A final introductory note.  Habermas has led a movement in social theory that defends the tradition of Enlightenment reason.  It is the Enlightenment project—liberal democracy in which the most reasonable argument holds sway—that Habermas calls an “unfinished project of modernity”.  He is vehement in his criticisms of other contemporary theorists whom he sees abandoning the project of Enlightened reason.  He shares with these theorists many criticisms of society.  Habermas is a close, careful observer of what’s happening and extremely critical; most recently, he’s critical of German attempts to deny, minimize, or justify the Holocaust.  BUT he still insists that holding to the course set by the American and French Revolutions, as these reflected the philosophies of Voltaire and Rousseau, Locke, and Kant, among others.  Participatory democracy based on the rights of individuals and guided by reasoned discourse remains the best hope for society.


The theoretical core of The Theory of Communicative Action is Habermas’ revision of Parsons’s AGIL functional prerequisites in order to describe the legitimation crisis of society, which Habermas calls the “colonization of lifeworld by systems”.  Recall that for Parsons, AGIL explains societal stability; the four functions work together to achieve social equilibrium.  Thus while Habermas has read Parsons as carefully as any contemporary theorist, from Parsons’s perspective he turns the theory on its head.  Before Parsons’s death he and Habermas had some legendary controversies at European sociology meetings, mostly over what Weber believed about power.  Parsons would consider Habermas’ revision of his categories to be against his intentions, but theory is often created by later theorists using earlier work against the intentions of the original theorist.


Draw an AGIL diagram, with A in the upper right, progressing counterclockwise.  For Habermas, what is generated is the “action context” for communication.  The four cells divide on horizontal and vertical axes.  A & L represent the “private sphere”, and G & I the “public sphere”.  Society requires certain boundaries between these spheres, but also mutual interchange between them.  Horizontally, G & A represent what Habermas calls systems of material reproduction, or the reproduction context of society.  I & L represent what he calls the lifeworld, or the symbolic reproduction context of society.  Now what does all this mean?


Habermas’ reinterpretation of AGIL contains a couple of fundamental criticisms of Parsons.  First, Parsons never takes as seriously as he should how the “societal community” performs its own integration function.  Habermas believes that Parsons’s discussion of integration, which should be central to his theory, is underdeveloped theoretically.  The reason for this is Parsons’s unwillingness to recognize that integration is not proceeding as it should and that society has a deepening legitimation crisis.  Again, people’s sense of the legitimacy of fundamental institutions (government, business) is in doubt.  Habermas is employing the idea of legitimacy much the same way Parsons talks about motivated compliance, as prerequisite to social order.


Habermas’s second criticism is that Parsons failed to understand the nature of the generalized media that he identified with each AGIL function.  Fill in these generalized media, as Parsons specified them:

·        Adaptation depends on the generalized medium of money,

·        Goal attainment depends on power (specified in votes),

·        I is influence, and

·        L is value-commitments. 

Habermas makes a key observation about these media, and his the whole theory depends on this: there is a fundamental difference between two types of media. 

·        The A & G media, money and power (votes) are quantitative: both money and votes can be counted, and whoever has the most wins. 

·        The I & L media, by contrast, are qualitative: you can’t quantify influence or value-commitments, since these are only enacted in communication between persons.


With this difference in mind, you can understand what colonization means.  In social settings that formerly operated by communicative media (I & L), the quantitative media (A & G) now dominate.  Rather than communicative action—people talking about their differences and coming to a common understanding—one (person, party, or interest) dominates the other by having more money or votes.  Colonization reduces the sphere in which communcative, qualitative media operate, and more of social life depends on non-communicative, quantitative media.  However—and this is key—the legitimacy of the quantative media ultimately depends on the qualitative media: the value of money and votes requires constant acts of influence and value-commitment, or the A & G media become worthless.  Money and votes are, after all, only worth as much as shared understandings assert them to be worth.  Money depends on mutual understandings that we will treat these pieces of paper a certain way for purposes of exchange, and at times in history that understanding has been withdrawn.  Votes are only worth as much as a common understanding that we will abide by the final count; as they say in Canada on election night, “the people have spoken”.  Again that understanding can be withdrawn, as in military coups.  Crisis in Habermas’ specialized sense occurs when those qualitative media (influence and value-commitments) are too weak to generate the legitimacy of the quantitative media.  (I develop this idea below, but read it over; it’s dense and important.)


Remember the key concern is legitimacy.  Habermas agrees with Parsons about which institutions are essential to the A & G functions.  A is what Habermas calls the “official economy”, and G is the “administrative state”.  Both require legitimacy or else society falls into crisis.  If people believe either that the economy affords them no opportunity to compete and succeed, or that the state works against their interest, crisis results.  Habermas believes we have such a crisis, and it is deepening.  The reason is that the quantitative media (money and power) are non-communicative.  What he means is that when money and votes are invoked, whoever has the most wins and that’s it, end of process.  There is no possibility of reaching a common understanding through these media.  And that’s what Habermas means by communicative action: the process of reaching a common understanding.  This process is on-going; understanding will never be final.  So legitimacy requires that citizens understand each other as committed to continuing the process of seeking common understanding, and acting with respect for that on-going process.  With money and votes you never seek to reach understanding, you only invoke how much (quantitative) you’ve got, and thus overpower or be overpowered.  Money and votes can be useful ways of getting things done, but only so long as their legitimacy is assured by the common understandings of influence and value-commitments.


Habermas does not want to give up money and power, but the legitimacy of their use depends on the qualitative media of influence and value-commitments.  Unless money and power are understood as expressions of shared value-commitments and interpersonal influence, they will not be legitimate and neither will society.  I & L, and they alone, can generate the legitimacy of A & G.


A & G are examples of what Habermas calls systems, his usage probably following Weber more than any other theorist.  Systems are fully rationalized; George Ritzer’s McDonaldization book is an excellent desciption of a fully rationalized system.  The principles of rationalization—evident in McDonalds—are efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control.  The point of such rationalization is to reduce the person to part of the “machinery” by which the system does what it does; individual scope of action and decision are minimized: “choices” are strictly limited.  Ritzer points out how McDonalds “works” as a system by putting customers to work: the customer becomes part of the assembly line, picking up food, taking it to tables, clearing off the tables, etc.  There is minimal possibility for customer and staff to talk to each other, much less to reach any common understandings; no place for “communicative action”.  Staff have no possibility of making decisions about how the restaurant will be run, and customers are expected to move on at regular intervals (Ritzer points out that seats are built so that people won’t sit too long).  Everyone involved has to act as the system directs them.  The quantitative system (so many “served daily”, as quickly as possible, and what they are served is advertised for size, not quality) colonizes any lifeworld communication.


I & L represent the lifeworld, a term that Habermas adapts from Alfred Schutz.  By the lifeworld Habermas means the shared common understandings, including values, that develop through face to face contacts over time in various social groups, from families to communities.  The lifeworld carries all sorts of assumptions about who we are as people and what we value about ourselves: what we believe, what shocks and offends us, what we aspire to, what we desire, what we are willing to sacrifice to which ends, and so forth.  Most of these assumptions are latent in Parsons’s sense of latency.  Habermas writes that to make lifeworld assumptions fully reflective—to speak of them explicitly—is already to destroy them.  Their power is their “of course” or “taken for granted” quality.  Questions about the lifeworld—why do you believe such-and-such? —can only be answered (if at all) by some version of “because that’s who I am and who we are”. 


To participate in a lifeworld (and the lifeworld is nothing but mutual participation) is to share a common sense of who “we” are.  Why do we have elections?  To bring in new leaders, certainly, but also because who we are, as Canadians, includes participating in democracy.  If we returned exactly the same parliament, member for member, the ritual of the election would still have value as an expression of who we are as citizens.  And the exercise of that “redundant” election could only be explained (to the proverbial person from Mars) by reference to “who we are”.  If you press people as to why they do the things most central to their lives—enter and stay in marriages, become parents, support family and friends during crises, engage in community service, work to protect the environment, take offense at wrongs, laugh at jokes—their last, best response usually comes down to “that’s who I am/we are”.


For Habermas the lifeworld has to be just there, furnishing this sense of who we are and who we value being, but it also requires constant reaffirmation (note a slight influence of Garfinkel’s idea of practical accomplishment).  When we perform the parenthood, service, and so forth, we reaffirm to ourselves and each other who we are and what we value.  Value-commitments are reaffirmed, and the basis of influence is reestablished.  What crucial for Habermas is that because the lifeworld consists of communicative action—people reaching common understandings on everything from car pools to community action to foreign policy.  Communicative action and it alone has the ability to regenerate influence and value-commitments.  The quantitative systems media, money and votes, can express influence and value-commitments, but they cannot generate these qualities—only the communicative action in the life can do that.  Thus—crucial point—the legitimacy of the system depends on the lifeworld; it’s a one-way direction of the lifeworld making possible the legitimacy of the system.


Now we return to two key terms: colonization and de-coupling.  The crisis of contemporary modernity (what remains unfinished about modernity as a project) is that the systems media (A & G) have become de-coupled from the lifeworld and its media (I & L).  The “societal community” of I & L are increasingly colonized, in the sense that members of the community have less sphere for communicative action.  Their relationships are increasingly mediated, locally, by money and power.  McDonalds is one example; the contemporary university is another.  In the university, department meetings could, ideally, be a place where communicative action takes place and influence and value-commitments are regenerated.  We could, in those meetings, attempt to reach common understandings.  In one meeting we were discussing a proposed change to the curriculum.  I was trying to ask a colleague why s/he wanted this change; my “communicative action” involved asking what s/he was trying to teach, how that teaching was going, and so forth.  The colleague’s response was: “If you don’t like the change, vote against it.”  In other words, s/he didn’t want to talk, explain, or reach a common understanding.  Instead we would each gather votes and whoever had the most votes would win.  Systems media (power, votes) had pushed out lifeworld media (appeals to common value commitments as a basis of influencing colleagues to believe one option or the other best represented who we want to be, as a departmental community).  It’s important to understand that this colleague acted in a milieu that the university as a system creates: money and power dominate, and local understands don’t count for much.  The colleague was part of this colonization process, but s/he was only reflecting a larger process. 


Habermas observes this same colonization process throughout society.  His primary example is “juridification”.  Communicative justice depends on a shared sense of what’s right, given who we are and what we believe.  Within a lifeworld, judicial decisions remind us of our value commitments.  But this justice has become “colonized” by abstract principles of formal law, and the judicial decision rests on appeal to these principles that did not arise in the lifeworld.  Thus in court, law and legal procedure become de-coupled from any common sense (lifeworld) conception of what’s just, fair, and right.  Justice becomes juridification.  Law as juridification becomes a system that colonizes the lifeworld.


Habermas’s other central example, evident in any newspaper, is the transformation of the “citizen” into a “client” of the state.  A citizen is one who, in John F. Kennedy’s famous words, asks not what his/her country can do for him/her, but what s/he can do for the country.  Citizenship depends as much on responsibilities as on rights.  But in Canada and other capitalist democracies, politicians refer to people less as citizens than as taxpayers.  The taxpayer is a client of the state: s/he pays for services on a quasi-contractual basis.  When the citizen becomes a taxpayer, responsibility drops out of the equation.  The state becomes a more or less efficient service provider, not a source of shared identity.  To see this process at work, read any newspaper article about health or education, or about national trade.  Thus the Prime Minister styles himself as our top salesman, leading “Team Canada” (in an interview in Poland, I heard Cretien say he was there only to “sell Canada”).  There’s nothing wrong with Team Canada, we need sales (the A function), but when the value commitments that make people Canadian citizens are not being regenerated at the same time, then sales colonize citizenship and crisis results.


Habermas believes this colonization of lifeworld by system is a crisis, because the system media (money and power) have no legitimacy except that which the lifeworld furnishes.  I can’t repeat too often Habermas’s central premise: only at the lifeworld level, in its media, can legitimacy be regenerated.  The systems media are always parasitic on the lifeworld.  The crisis is that the parasites are destroying their host: that’s what colonization is.  The more the systems media colonize the lifeworld, the more they lose legitimacy and crisis ensues.  Material reproduction (system level) is crucial for society, but when it destroys symbolic reproduction (lifeworld level); it undercuts itself.


A final note.  Notice how Habermas is updating Durkheim’s notion of anomie, employing Weber’s rationalization, redefining the conditions of Marx’s alienation, and invoking Mead’s community of generalized others.  It’s an incredible work of theoretical synthesis.  I also find Habermas’s theory empirically compelling.  In my own study of medicine, the lifeworld relationships of patients and those who care for them—doctors and nurses—are increasingly colonized by the demands of third-party payers, whether these are insurance companies in the U.S. or government in the Commonwealth countries I live in and visit.  The legitimacy of medicine is in crisis: the popularity of “complementary” practitioners is one indication of this, and the prevalence of malpractice suits in the U.S. is another.  The discontent I hear constantly in medical groups and illness support groups is loud and clear—and yet medicine becomes more exclusively a “system” that excludes lifeworld communicative action.  Such action would mean patients and their families spending time talking to professionals in order to reach a common understanding of what’s best given available resources and present circumstances.  When such talk is excluded and patients are simply told what medicine will offer, take it or leave it, medicine creates the conditions for its legitimacy crisis to deepen.


Habermas’s theory has been criticized on several basis, but for now let me leave you thinking about how much it is able to explain.  I believe the basic idea of colonization is one of the singular contributions of contemporary theory.