For best experience please turn on javascript and use a modern browser!
You are using a browser that is no longer supported by Microsoft. Please upgrade your browser. The site may not present itself correctly if you continue browsing.

The capacity for the political system to steer a developed, pluralistic society is more limited than is commonly thought. Often people imagine the political system as steering society like a captain steering a ship. Developed, pluralistic societies are, however, too complex to be steered from any single point. Policies of course have a real influence, but that is not the same as controlled steering. Whenever the political system tries to cause an effect in another social system, be it education, the economy or science, the actual outcome of that attempt cannot be known in detail or with any certainty beforehand. Political intervention usually has unintended side effects, as players in society react to new policies in unanticipated ways.

Event details of Society Steers Society: Why it is Impossible for the Political System to Steer a Developed Society
Date 23 January 2018
Time 13:00 -14:30
Erik C Hendriks, Whos in Town

The fundamental reason why it is so difficult for the political system to anticipate those reactions is that players operate according to the logic of systems other than the political system. A pluralistic society consists of different social systems, each with its own code, logic and language, so that the influence of any social system upon another involves uncontrollable translation processes. Within a pluralistic society the political system cannot avoid such translation processes. Hence, some political systems fall prey to the totalitarian temptation of breaking away from such pluralistic conditions entirely by suppressing all other social systems. However, such attempts at totalising political control come at an enormous price to freedom and development.

This talk will draw on sociological differentiation theory and Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory in particular, and cite examples from the People’s Republic of China, a country where the longing for political control takes on extremes not seen in the Western world.


Dr. Eric C. Hendriks studied philosophy, history and sociology at University College Utrecht, the University of Göttingen, and the University of Chicago, earning his Ph.D. at the University of Mannheim. He subsequently worked as a researcher at Utrecht University and Peking University. His research focuses on the comparative study of the Chinese regime, and bridges historical sociology and political philosophy. In addition, Hendriks is a columnist for the Turkish-Dutch newspaper De Kanttekening, and regularly publishes op-eds on politics, education, and diversity in the NRC and other Dutch media.

Location: Room 1.01A
Amsterdam University College
Science Park 113, Amsterdam 1098XG
Convenor: Dr. Melvin Schut